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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?


Anna Karenina and Levin’s Quest for Meaning

13 Aug

anna karenina

I finished Anna Karenina a few weeks ago. I didn’t write about it right away because, honestly, I didn’t know where to begin. It was one of those books, similar to Middlemarch, that had been on my list for a while – one of those books I knew I should read, but kept putting off for more accessible, contemporary options. Even though it took me about two months to finally work my way through, to my pleasant surprise, I loved it! Tolstoy writes with such…I don’t know…humanity. There are so many passages about life and love and insecurity that I felt I could relate to–like I had felt the same feelings –even though Tolstoy wrote from such a different time and place.

For example, even though Anna’s situation is so far from anything I have experienced, there’s a universal sense of paranoia or insecurity that comes from being being in love and vulnerable. Tolstoy has an amazing ability to place universal themes in plain, beautiful language, and apply them to a very concrete place and story while developing specific, dynamic characters.

I guess that’s the goal of most novelists; Tolstoy’s just really good at it.

Levin’s Obsession with Death

Aside from Anna, who’s a fascinating character with much more depth than I’m going to get into here, I found Levin intriguing, especially his philosophical search for the meaning of life and faith, and his obsession with death.

As I read, I like to underline passages and annotate pages. When I’m finished, I go back and review the scrawlings in the margins and revisit the underlined passages. As I combed through the pages looking for useful marginalia, I noticed many passages about death: reflections about death, the afterlife, the purpose of life. Each of these passages, I noticed, came from the chapters about Levin. (I’ll ignore what it says about me that I’m drawn to the death passages…).

You can tell right away that Levin is not a content man. When he fantasizes about having a wife and reflects on what he must do to achieve his goals, he thinks:

“I must struggle to live a better, a far better, life.”

At the same time he’s worrying about how he can live a better life while he’s alive, he’s wondering if it’s all for nothing since it all ends in death:

 “‘I am working, I want to do something, and I had forgotten that it will all end in Death!”

For Levin, death is the ultimate problem that cannot be solved by living:

“Just when the question of how to live had become a little clearer to him, a new insoluble problem presented itself – Death.”

And so, he wonders during a conversation with Oblonsky:

“And so one passes one’s life finding distraction in hunting or in work, merely not to think of death.'”

In other words, is everything we do in life for the sole purpose of distracting us from death?

Oblonsky (I love Oblonsky’s character) responds matter of factly to Levin’s nihilistic question:

“Well, of course! So now you have come round to my notion. Do you remember how you used to fly at me for seeking enjoyment in life? Do not be so severe, O moralist!…”

In other words, of course we’re just distracting ourselves in life so we don’t have to think about death! Might as well do a good job distracting yourself and really enjoy life rather than waste time thinking about death.

While I don’t completely agree, I love Oblonsky’s confidence, vigor, and determination to enjoy life and live in the present.

Levin Finds Faith 

As Levin struggles to enjoy life with the reality of death always lurking, he also questions faith and religion. He’s not a believer, but he wants to be. Wouldn’t that be comforting? Not always having to wonder, but just knowing or believing: “What is it all for?” (718)

In his Commentary Magazine article, “The Moral Urgency of Anna Karenina,” Gary Saul Morson suggests that when Levin finds faith and contentment in the everyday at the end of the novel, Tolstoy expresses his own belief that the everyday act of living a good life is more important than philosophizing about abstract intellectual topics or politics: “In his daily work, Levin comes to appreciate the importance of the ordinary and prosaic. If one lives rightly moment by moment, and trusts that daily practice has its own wisdom, then the questions troubling Levin are not exactly answered, but they disappear.”

I’m not a Tolstoyan scholar, but I generally agree with Morson’s point about Levin. He’s continually in a state of discontent – when he’s working on his book, when he’s engaging in politics, when he’s philosophizing about the state of the peasants on his farm – it’s exhausting! But he finally finds a sense of “spiritual tranquility” when he appreciates the magic in simply existing:

“I was looking for miracles, regretting that I had not seen a miracle that might convince me. But here is a miracle, the sole miracle possible, existing continuously, surrounding me on all sides, and I didn’t notice it!…I have discovered nothing. I have only recognized what I already knew….I have been freed from falsity, I have found the Master.”

Can faith really be so simple? Maybe it can, suggests Tolstoy.

Final Thoughts 

I didn’t get to touch on some of my favorite characters–Dolly and Kitty–and I didn’t even scratch the surface of Anna’s complicated relationships: to Vronsky, to Karenin…to her daughter who she seems unable to love. But, that’s why this book is so rich and why you should read it, not because you should read it, but because it’s deeply moving, surprisingly personal, and just flat out enjoyable.

Photo credit: Stefan Kunze via Unsplash

Harry Potter & The Power of Stories

15 May


I was driving into work the other day, listening to NPR like I always do on my morning commute, when a segment came on about two of my favorite topics: the power of stories and Harry Potter!

I didn’t think it was possible for me to fall more in love with Harry Potter. I mean, I was 11 when Harry turned 11 in Harry Potter and the Sorcerers Stone. I grew up with Harry, Ron, and Hermoine (and I’m still a little bitter I never got my owl invite to Hogwarts). But hearing this NPR segment just made me love the series that much more.

In the segment, Steve Inskeep speaks with social science expert, Shankar Vedantam, who reports that: “New research suggests that school kids who read and identify with Harry Potter display more positive attitudes toward people from disadvantaged groups.”

NPR pulled this research from a study called “The Greatest Magic of Harry Potter,” conducted by Loris Vezzali. The study measures the attitudes of elementary, high school, and college students in Italy and Britain before and after they read Harry Potter books or watched Harry Potter movies.

According to the results, exposure to Harry Potter stories changes the attitudes of children toward people from disadvantaged backgrounds. Because Harry and his gang are often portrayed as outsiders, children identify with them and, as a result, form a more positive attitude toward “outsiders” in their own communities, specifically refugees, immigrants, and gay people:

“So it turns out “Harry Potter” may be an effective tool against prejudice,” said Vedantam.

Stories and the Power to Change Minds

This idea – that storytelling has the power to change minds and hearts – is echoed in a recent This American Life episode: “The Incredible Rarity of Changing Your Mind” (what can I say?…I really like NPR). The episode is split into three parts, each chronicling a group that successfully changes someone’s mind on a polarizing issue.

In part I, gay-rights canvassers in Los Angeles take to the streets of communities that voted against gay marriage in a recent election. The canvassers’  goal is to change the residents’ minds on the issue. The amazing thing about this story is that, in large part, the canvassers achieved their goal. Many of the communities that voted against gay marriage in the initial election swung for gay marriage in the next election.

The study found that the canvassers who were successful did two main things that contributed to their success:

  • 1. connected to the voter through a personal story, and
  • 2. listened

They found that the canvassers who used rational rhetoric like statistics or grand moral arguments had lower success in changing people’s minds. However, those who listened to the residents  with no conversation agenda – and asked questions to lead the residents to change their minds on their own had higher conversion rates, not just in the moment, but even a year later.

In addition to listening and drawing out voters’ own stories, the study found that canvassers who told their own personal stories changed voters’ minds at much higher rates than those who didn’t tell personal stories. Canvassers who told stories about their own struggles and relationships were much more likely to change voters’ minds long term, especially when the canvassers themselves were gay.

What Living Literarily Means to Me 

What I love about these real-world studies is they reveal the power stories have, not just to entertain us, but to affect our brains, and our decisions, and our ability to empathize with people.

These studies affirm why I started this blog in the first place. Living Literarily, to me, means letting stories and art and creativity seep into our everyday lives. Letting it change us.

What many see as a silly children’s book series has the power to change real peoples’ minds about real issues. That’s real power. And that’s what I love about stories.

Photo cred: Jordan McQueen 

A Recommendation for Middlemarch (from a Brit Lit Amateur)

31 Jan

MiddlemarchI have a confession to make.

I’ve struggled admitting this truth as I trudged through literature class after literature class in undergrad and grad school. But I’m ready to admit…here it goes…I don’t love classic Brit Lit.  (?!*!?!) I know…

Let me clarify. I say I don’t love it because I also don’t hate it. I recognize the value and artful social critique in A Tale of Two Cities and I understand why some people love it. Learning about a time and place so different from contemporary U.S., getting sucked in by the subtle mockery of traditional British decorum found in so many novels from 18th and 19th century British writers, can be funny and heartbreaking and beautiful.

For a while, when I was in high school, I tried to convince myself and others that Jane Eyre was my favorite book. I so wanted to “get it” and be part of the Anglophile club so many of my lit loving friends were part of.

Well everyone, the ruse is up. I’ll even admit, I’ve never made it through an entire Jane Austen novel because every time I start, I fall asleep within five pages. I don’t know if it’s the style I can’t get into, or that I don’t always understand the references, but whatever it is, I’ve never found the classic British novelists (Dickens, Austen, the Bronte’s, etc.) quite as entertaining or powerful as 20th-21st century texts.

Whew…Now that I’ve got that off my chest, I will say I was moved in a unique sort of way by the final pages of George Eliot’s classic novel, Middlemarch, which I forced myself to read this year from start to finish.

Though it took me two months to finish, Eliot’s Finale tied it all together and made the weeks plodding through each page totally worth it. Here are the lines that sealed the deal for me loving this book:

“For the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”

The significance of every character in her long, winding novel about the connectedness of life in small-town England, is highlighted in this passage. Casaubon’s anxiety that he will be forgotten and his life’s work meaningless is especially punctuated. The irony is, Casaubon’s work was useless and the impressions he made on those around him were mostly negative. He wasted his life trying to make sure he didn’t waste his life.

Most of us will not be famous or find the cure for a major disease or found the next Apple or write the next Great American Novel. Heck, we probably won’t even be remembered beyond our children or grandchildren. But that doesn’t mean our lives are meaningless. We shape the good and the future of the world in whatever small way we can.

Maybe that’s the point. I’m starting to think, for the first time in my life, maybe that’s enough.

Whatever Eliot’s trying to say, now that I’ve experienced the masterfully spun web that is Middlemarch, I can honestly say it’s well worth the investment.

Photo cred: Gerard Moonen via Unsplash

Accepting Our Connectedness: Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

22 Dec

Lake Michigan

Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius is striking for its direct address to the audience and Eggers’ stream-of-consciousness, reflective style.

I’ve never read a book in which the author directly states the reader probably shouldn’t read the appendix.

For example, Eggers says the #1 point to keep in mind about the appendix: “This appendix need not be read to understand or enjoy the book proper. It is only for: 1) the author; 2) those with extra time; 3) those with interest disproportionate to what is warranted.

It’s this sort of self-deprecating humor that cracks me up throughout the winding memoirish book.

What I Mean by Memoirish

A.H.W.O.S.G (as Eggers abbreviates the title) fits in the shell of a memoir, but reads almost like a long-winded diary. The details he includes aren’t always what you’d consider “memoir material.” The anecdotes aren’t necessarily linear and seem more like whatever Eggers felt like writing about that day, not carefully chosen details that illustrate a person’s life like a traditional memoir would.

Of course, Eggers writes about the big, life changing stuff, like the death of his parents and friends (I can see where the “heartbreaking” in the title comes from), but he also fills pages with frisbee moves he and Toph come up with, or a 50 page interview with MTV’s Real World.

Both Beautiful and Gruesome

Part of what’s so unique about the book is Eggers’ technique of using stream-of-consciousness to make even the most serious scenes humorous. He’s able to illustrate pain, but in such a real way; it’s funny, but all the more human because of it. According to The Guardian book review, “When he drops the gimmicks, he can be hilarious and devastating – sometimes both at once.”

Eggers’ ability to portray both the tragedy and the hilarity of life is the book’s most distinctive and moving characteristic.   One of the most touching and heartbreaking, yet undeniably funny examples of this style of writing is when Dave goes back to Chicago years after his parents’ deaths on a mission to find their remains. He locates his mother’s ashes at his hometown funeral home and decides to scatter them in Lake Michigan.

The scene starts when he opens the box:

“Fuck. Someone switched the ashes with this fucking kitty litter. This is not it. Where is the ash, the ash like dust? This is not ash.”

His circular thoughts continue:

“This is stupid, this throwing the cremains into Lake Michigan. Lake Michigan? Ridiculous, small, tacky. Why just a lake? A Great Lake, sure, but–I should be at the Atlantic. I should be on Cape Cod…”

Finally, after several pages of questioning whether he’s in the right place, interspersed with sincere reflections about his relationship with his mother, his Catholic upbringing, and whether he should jump into the freezing lake, he admits the polarity of what he’s doing:

“I know what I am doing now, that I am doing something both beautiful and gruesome because I am destroying its beauty by knowing that it might be beautiful, know that if I know I am doing something beautiful, that it’s no longer beautiful.”

This depiction of doing something both beautiful and gruesome seems to be the books’ statement about life. There’s so much reflection, so many circling of ideas. Perhaps it’s implying that we destroy the beauty of life by reflecting too much and knowing in the moment that it might be beautiful. But we can’t help ourselves

Separateness and Connectedness

With his ability to portray some of his life’s most serious and painful events through the humor of his stream-of-consciousness, questioning, often crude thought, Eggers reveals both the individuality and the connectedness of human experience. There were times when I felt I couldn’t relate at all to Eggers’ character–his messy house and microwave dinners, for example. But, even so, his reflections and thoughts often reflected my own emotions during painful or uncomfortable times.

Eggers acknowledges this dichotomy of being both the same and different from the people around us. He says once he arrives in Chicago: “They know I am not them. I am something else. I am deformed, am a hundred years old. I will spend the next day looking for the remains of my parents” (367).

He believes he is unique; he is special because he is about to embark on something painful that others can’t relate to.

But by the end, he comes to realize he’s not so different. Life is painful. To assume that you’re other, that you’re separate because you’re suffering, is simply not true.

  • “There is nowhere I stop and you begin.”

  • “I am there. I was there. Don’t you know that I am connected to you?”

But he seems angry about this realization, like it’s something he’s discovered and everyone else is still unaware of.

Maybe we are unaware.  Maybe we don’t want to admit that our pain isn’t unique to us. But maybe there’s comfort, too, in knowing that we’re all connected in our pain. Maybe Eggers is saying it can be both.

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