Reading is my passion – it has the power to change the way we think and feel, and can open our minds to imagining different possibilities for ourselves. I keep a physical, and an on-line list of novels or biographies that I would like to read, a pile of books in the house, and no sooner is one book started, than I’m planning what the next read is to be. I dearly love talking to my friends about what books we are reading – so many of which seem to relate to psychological issues and ways of being in the world.
I’ve heard people say that reading novels – made up stories – is a waste of time. This is nonsense, as Jane Austen tells us through the voice of Henry Tilney in Northanger Abbey: ‘There is nothing that tells us more about the world than a novel’. If only I could demonstrate to them how so many of the novels I read provoke me into pondering on the nature of our lives, how to negotiate them successfully and fulfillingly, and about relationships – with others, and ourselves. How we cope with trauma, disappointment, the roll of the dice that fate throws at us.
GPs have subscribed to the business of bibliotherapy for some time now – prescribing non-fiction self-help books when patients present with psychological issues such as anxiety or depression. But I have recently come across a book that echoes my long-held belief in the restorative power of the novel. This has been summed up succinctly in ‘The Novel Cure – An A – Z of Literary Remedies’ by Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin. They note that ‘lovers of literature have been using novels as salves – either consciously or unconsciously – for centuries’, and are supported by a wealth of anecdotal evidence that being transported through the pages of a novel is good for us, stimulating or calming the mind, offering another viewpoint or attitude. The French writer and Nobel Prize for literature winner Andre Gide attests to the power of reading to take us to another place: ‘To read a writer is for me not merely to get an idea of what he says, but to go off with him and travel in his company’.
Therapeutically, literature can carry us off to an alternative world, distracting us from whatever is ailing us in the present. The characters of a novel have the ability to ‘offer solace, showing you that you are not alone’, says The Novel Cure. The book acts as a dictionary, with particular novels recommended for every complaint – from broken friendships to fear of flying; from obesity to feeling stuck in a rut. And I will leave you to find out for yourself what is recommended for too much sex….
Other useful advice found in its pages include the ten best books to read for each decade of life, what to read for insomnia – and an intermittent anxiety of mine – how to cope with a panicky feeling that there are too many good novels to read in the world in the course of a life-time!