Those who use therapy and medication to get them through life often wonder what people did before counsellors and anti-depressants. The answer is that, among other things, they read. As the great 18th century author Montesquieu once put it, "I have never known any distress that an hours reading did not relieve." And many argue for a return to this view of literature as therapy, even using the word "bibliotherapy" to describe it.
Before looking at the subject in more detail, a few objections ought to be considered. First, and most obviously, different books affect people in different ways. For example, the actor Stephen Fry once said that when he feels low he re-reads Philip Larkin's poem Aubade. The philosopher Bryan Magee, on the other hand, remarked that the same poem disturbed him when he first encountered it and haunted him for years. Certainly, the reader should never persevere with a book that is making no difference to his mood (or is even making him feel worse). And in any case, few things are quite so irritating to a book-lover as having a friend press a 500 page novel into your hand with the words "you must read this. I just know you'll love it. Let me know what you think." And for some, having a therapist do the same would also be annoying.
Of course, our opinion of the same work can also change. Charles Darwin, for example, found that the poems and novels he had enjoyed in youth literally nauseated him when he became a bereaved and depressed old man. Not only do tastes change, the effect a work has on you also changes (just as someone you passionately loved in your 20s may seem dull and repellent when you meet them again in your 40s). For example, a novel like Kerouac's On the Road may have thrilled and inspired a man in his teens, but mean nothing to him as a middle-aged divorcee weighed down with responsibilities (indeed, it may even be a painful reminder of lost youth).
Finally, some will object to the very idea of lists or "prescriptions." For many readers, part of the joy is discovering something for yourself. The poet John Betjeman, for example, once said that his greatest pleasure was browsing through London's bookshops and stumbling upon the work of a long-dead, long-forgotten poet mouldering at the back of the store. Indeed, being prescribed a book can also seem dull and unromantic, spoiling the magic of reading and reducing books to the level of a Prozac tablet!
People have always read for comfort as well as entertainment. Indeed, bibliotherapy began with the very first poem or song. The actual word first appeared in an article published in The Atlantic Monthly in 1916, titled "A Literary Clinic." And such "clinics" now exist, such as the one set up in London in 2007 by two Cambridge University graduates, Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin. Unlike the majority of bibliotherapists, Berthoud and Elderkin recommend great or classic literature rather than self-help books, however.
On her website, Berthoud neatly defines bibliotherapy as follows, "The idea behind bibliotherapy is that reading is a healing experience." In other words, great books can heal you as a course of therapy or medication aims to heal you. Berthoud sends clients a questionnaire, asking them to describe their reading habits, to provide a few details about their life, and then to explain what problems they face and what concerns and fears they have. When this is done, a list of recommendations is provided. Of course, bibliotherapy needn't be restricted to novels. Memoirs, autobiographies, plays, poetry collections, even essays can all comfort and console the reader.
So what does literature provide, beyond entertainment? First, it can act as a guide. Those intimidated by names like Shakespeare, Milton, Dostoyevsky and Proust should keep in mind that even the most brilliant, profound and complex author was still a human being. They still felt hunger, suffered constipation, developed irrational fears (James Joyce was terrified of thunderstorms), and made fools of themselves over a pretty face (Dickens became obsessed with a young actress). In other words, great writers have been through the same things as you. Like you, they found themselves in this strange world, with its beauty and horror, its agonies and ecstasies, and they tried to make sense of it. And this is what most literature consists of: people trying to make sense of the world.
No matter what your fears or concerns may be, the chances are some great writer has also grappled with, and written about, them. Before seeking recommendations, either from a professional or a well-read friend, be clear what is troubling you. For example, let's say you were raised in a religious family but now, in later life, have lost your faith. This is painful to you and you feel empty and alone. Countless writers have trod this path before you and found a way out – the German poet and novelist Hermann Hesse, for example, wrote the wonderful little novel Siddartha about this search for spiritual peace.
It would also help to consider your particular life stage. Someone from a sheltered, provincial background about to set off for a smart, intimidating college will want a different set of reading to a 40-something man on the edge of a midlife crisis, or a retired woman whose husband has died. To take another hypothetical example, let's imagine you endured a childhood of abuse and neglect. For years you have been plagued by depression and low self-esteem and have used alcohol and drugs to escape your demons. In that case, you could try Edward St Aubyn's Patrick Melrose novels. St Aubyn was the son of an English aristocrat and an American mother. His father sexually and physically abused him, while his mother escaped into drink. After years of heroin addiction, Aubyn wrote a series of superb novels based upon his life, charting a man's journey through the hell of abuse and addiction and out the other end.
Literature also provides a sense of connection. And this is no illusion. When you read a book you really are engaging with another mind, another personality. As someone once observed, discovering a new writer is like embarking on a new love affair. Carl Sagan put it like this, "what an astonishing thing a book is...one glance at it and you're inside the mind of another person, maybe somebody dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, an author is speaking clearly and silently inside your head." That really is a form of magic.
No literature lover is ever really alone. And today, thanks to the internet, you can hunt down every word your favourite author ever wrote. And having the complete works of a favourite author lined up on your shelves can in itself be tremendously comforting. Oscar Wilde, for example, often spoke about long-dead authors as though they were not just living but actually in the room, and he would even joke that he imagined his books chatting to one another when he went to bed. Wilde also argued that great writers ought to be "liberated" from their books and read aloud. And this is excellent advice. When you read a book, mark any passage you really love in pencil. Then, when bored, lonely or sad, open your books, find these passages and read them out loud.
It may also help to read aloud with others. Sharing a love for books is a wonderful way to connect. A good example of this can be found in the so-called 'Inklings'. These were a group of friends at Oxford, mostly academics and writers, who would gather to chat, drink beer, and read aloud from the books they were writing. The most famous members were J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis. Tolkien read much of The Lord of the Rings out loud to the group and Lewis read from the science fiction novels he was working on. This was during the Second World War, when the U.K. was being bombed and food was scarce. And yet the members of the group recalled the immense happiness they experienced sharing their love of language and story.
Tolkien was often accused of being an "escapist," to which he would reply that the only people who opposed escape were prison guards! Literature does offer sheer escapism which, in itself, is a kind of therapy. Anyone who has struggled home through a gloomy, rainy commute is surely welcome to escape to other planets or other worlds. And more than one parent has looked forward to reading their child a Harry Potter or a Narnia book in order to escape their dread of next week's sales conference.
Finally, of course, there is simple beauty. The German philosopher Schopenhauer, who came to some very grim conclusions about the nature of reality, argued that the arts were one of the few consolations available to us. For Schopenhauer, human beings are forever trapped between boredom and desire: either we want something we do not have (sex, money, power, food etc) and feel frustrated and miserable, or we obtain it and feel satiated and bored. When in the presence of beauty we neither desire nor are we bored – in poetic language, it "stills the soul."
Of course, you do not need to pay for expensive therapy sessions in order to benefit. Even a simple book group, intelligent friend, or online discussion forum will provide you with guidance. The key is to be open minded and prepared to try the sorts of books you'd normally avoid.