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IDEAS

Bibliotherapy is a novel approach to healing

A community book box in Takoma Park, Md.
A community book box in Takoma Park, Md.Nora Krug/The Washington Post/The Washington Post

Bibliotherapy, or reading for therapeutic effect, dates back to the ancient Greeks, who inscribed over the entrance of the library in Thebes a phrase that means “healing place for the soul.”

In the early 1800s, reading was one of the most common therapeutic interventions in the United States. In the mid-19th century, bibliotherapy made its way into prominent hospitals, several of which established patient libraries overseen by trained librarians, who used books to distract and focus patients' minds. After World War I, such patient libraries were expanded to help soldiers recover from physical and mental trauma.

Nowadays, perhaps we all could use some bibliotherapy. Counselors at the School of Life in London prescribe books to clients around the world for everything from fear of commitment to a broken heart, from single parenthood to the loss of a loved one. Recent research has shown that reading therapy may benefit adults with depression, victims of sexual abuse, and traumatized refugee students.

Dr. David Elpern, a dermatologist in Williamstown, Mass., has recommended books to his patients for 20 years, in combination with conventional treatments such as medications and physical therapies. Many of his patients who find relief from a book have skin conditions that are linked to stressful or traumatic events in their lives.

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“The Greek tragedies speak well to traumatized patients,” says Elpern. For people with PTSD, for example, he often recommends “The Theater of War: What Ancient Greek Tragedies Can Teach Us Today,” which describes how PTSD was known to the Greeks long before it was known by that name. Patients with a history of sexual abuse have found Hanya Yanagihara’s “A Little Life” therapeutic.

What mechanisms allow books to get into our subconscious and change our minds?

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For one thing, bibliotherapy can show people how characters in similar circumstances overcome difficult situations. Books can also provide readers with the vocabulary to articulate what they’re feeling. Giving names to experiences that seem haphazard, confusing, or inexplicable can boost a reader’s sense of security and mastery.

Finally, fictional narratives can transport us, providing a break from reality and helping us create mental simulations of events as if we experienced them ourselves. Engaging our minds with complex language might also be part of the benefit. A study from the Centre for Research into Reading, Literature and Society at the University of Liverpool asked people to read Dickens, Shakespeare, and other classic authors while their brains were being scanned. The subjects' moods lifted.

Elpern doesn’t mind if the power of bibliotherapy remains mysterious. “So much of what we prescribe in medicine works by the placebo effect,” he says. “There are certain books, poems, and pieces of music that just resonate with you. How reading a book can help us heal defies a simple answer.”

Dustin Grinnell is an essayist and fiction writer based in Boston. Find more of his work at dustingrinnell.com.