Do You Need a Bibliotherapist?

30 Sep


I love reading. I guess, that’s apparent from the fact that this blog exists. But, as much as I love reading, I’m rarely asked “why?” Well, here goes!

I love reading for so many different reasons. I love it because it teaches me  something new or transports me to a different time or place. I love it because it helps me relate to someone else’s experience, and the fact that that person is fictional doesn’t make it any less real. Fiction takes the experience of a made up character and makes it real to the reader. And that’s amazing to me. Reading brings to life, through words (my favorite tool to convey meaning), the intricate, and often hard to explain realities of the human experience.

Here’s one of my favorite explanations of why everyone should read from a teacher, Randall Silvas, to his university students: Why I Read.

“I do not tell them [his students] that being a human is a lonely, lonely business and that only a couple of things can assuage that loneliness. Loving someone is the best remedy, I do not tell them. Making music is good medicine too. And so is reading, another form of love—an act of faith and trust and desire, an act of reaching out and of coming together.”

Now – getting to the point – what if you could find just the right  book depending on what you were going through or feeling at a given moment in your life? What if you could hire someone to learn your ins and outs well enough, and who knew books well enough, to actually prescribe the right book to challenge your thinking in just the right way, or help you cope with a sick family member, or jealousy towards a coworker? Well, apparently (and this was news to me!), you can. You could hire a bibliotherapist.

I had never heard of a bibliotherapist until I read the June New Yorker article, “Can Reading Make You Happier?” But, I find the idea ingenious albeit a little elitist sounding.


(source: New Yorker, “Can Reading Make You Happier?” – illustration by Sarah Mazzetti)

Reading changes the brain

Turns out, reading’s been getting support beyond just people like Randall Silvas and me saying how great it is:

“For all avid readers who have been self-medicating with great books their entire lives, it comes as no surprise that reading books can be good for your mental health and your relationships with others, but exactly why and how is now becoming clearer, thanks to new research on reading’s effects on the brain.” 

If someone’s seeking help from a psychotherapist or counselor or even if they’re just struggling through a tough time one their own, it makes sense that reading could emotionally – and physically – help them through. By changing the brain chemistry, does reading actually have the power to alleviate signs of depression or anxiety or grief?

Bibliotherapy could turn non-readers on to reading

Another added benefit of bibliotherapy is that, in addition to finding the right books for avid readers who might just be poor decision makers when it comes to choosing the right books, bibliotherapy, the author points out, might also be a tool to turn people on to reading who aren’t regular readers.

Research supports what ardent readers have know since their childhood selves stayed up into the middle of the night finishing a book under the covers by flashlight; books have been, in my life, therapeutic and, I’d even go as far as to say, life altering. And while I believe reading fiction builds empathy and connections across people and cultures, the author makes the case for why that’s not the only benefit:

“Even if you don’t agree that reading fiction makes us treat others better, it is a way of treating ourselves better. Reading has been shown to put our brains into a pleasurable trance-like state, similar to meditation, and it brings the same health benefits of deep relaxation and inner calm.”

Even if books don’t help you relate to others, it has personal benefits that, put simply, just make you feel good.

The question remains, do you need a bibliotherapist?

One of the best cases for hiring a bibliotherapist the article makes is when it points out the depressingly low number of books (relative to the total number of books) one will be able to read in a lifetime. Just calculate how many books you read in a year, multiplied by the approximate number of years you have left to live and that’s maybe how many books you’ll get to read. With that sad number in mind, choosing the right book seems like a dire decision. You don’t want to waste your short lifetime supply of books on something that won’t enrich your life!

But, while I’m sure it’d be great to have someone recommend the perfect book for experiences and feelings specific to my life, I think it might take away from the adventure of choosing my own books. Sometimes I find exactly what I’m looking for when I’m not really looking for anything in particular. I love perusing the library shelves and choosing a book that stands out for its catchy title. Or finding a book I’d heard of before and forgotten about but always wanted to read. I like dropping whatever I’m reading to pick up a recommended book from a respected friend – even if it’s just a book that they’re enjoying and not hand selected for me. Lately, I’ve been enjoying sifting through my own bookshelves and picking up something I’d read long ago. Rereading brings its own form of pleasure.

A Case for Reading 

The article, while focused on introducing the concept of a bibliotherapist, I think, seems more like a case for reading. As you shuffle through the books that sound most meaningful or interesting to you, you’re bound to stumble across some that hit your heart and wake you up like blowhorn in your face.

“The insights themselves are still nebulous, as learning gained through reading fiction often is—but therein lies its power. In a secular age, I suspect that reading fiction is one of the few remaining paths to transcendence, that elusive state in which the distance between the self and the universe shrinks. Reading fiction makes me lose all sense of self, but at the same time makes me feel most uniquely myself. As Woolf, the most fervent of readers, wrote, a book ‘splits us into two parts as we read,’ for ‘the state of reading consists in the complete elimination of the ego,’ while promising ‘perpetual union’ with another mind.”

What better way to spend an afternoon?


2 Responses to “Do You Need a Bibliotherapist?”

  1. cricketmuse September 30, 2015 at 3:25 am #

    I absolutely turn to a book when I need to escape or decompress or relax. Movies are so demanding, they don’t fill the ticket at all. I’m a Book Booster and recommending books is tough because everyone’s taste is so subjective, but I do recommend books.

  2. Joanna Rotter September 30, 2015 at 4:24 am #

    Thanks for your comment. I love getting a good book recommendation! Keep book boosting 🙂 (nice descriptor)

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