Take the Literary Cure

Published in the Australian Financial Review, 04/07/2014

 

A little over a year ago, writer Estelle Tang stumbled across a job ad that could have been written just for her.

It called for someone with a wide knowledge of books, an ease with and curiosity about people from all walks of life, and the ability to recommend a good novel to just about anyone.

The job in question was Bibliotherapist in Residence at the Melbourne branch of Alain de Botton’s School of Life.

“It was probably one of the most unusual job applications I’ve ever done,” she says with a laugh. After a short, intense training period, Tang officially became part of an industry that is rapidly growing in reputation.

“The idea behind bibliotherapy,” she says, “is that the right book at the right time can really lead you on the right path.”

As a private practice, bibliotherapy is relatively new, having kicked off in 2007 when friends Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin took the concept they had developed in Cambridge to the staff at the UK School of Life.

The two are now the doyennes of the bibliotherapy world, responsible for Tang’s induction into the practice, and the idea they developed has taken off. For £80 ($145), the school’s bibliotherapists in London, Melbourne and New York will listen to key concerns in their clients’ lives, and “prescribe” fiction, poetry, and narrative non-fiction as both an instant fix and a longer course of treatment.

The idea is not just to find a “good” book. Library recommendation services do a wonderful job at that – Tang praises them highly – but to develop a reading list that responds to an individual’s tastes, interests, time constraints, and vulnerabilities.

THE BUSINESS OF BOOKS

A social entrepreneur might be given a mix of philosophy, poetry, and social realism, giving a wider context to her aim of making change. A frazzled executive might be prescribed short stories and novellas that offer a short pause for beauty and reflection in an otherwise frenetic day.

The service is accessible globally, though currently clients can only see bibliotherapists in person in London and New York. Now overseas, Tang consults with Melbourne-based clients via Skype, which, while not as intimate as an in-person consultation, is surprisingly cosy.

A few days before a session, Tang gives her clients a questionnaire not dissimilar to an online dating survey. The responses to these questions: How would you describe your relationship to books? Did books feature largely in your childhood? – form the basic framework of a 45-minute bibliotherapy session.

After giving her clients an instant prescription for a book within the consultation, Tang mulls on their circumstances for a few days, then sends through an eight-book list that will round out their treatment.

The ball is then in her clients’ court as to whether the recommendations are followed up. “People can be quite passionate and specific about what they do and don’t want to read,” she says. Often, though, she finds the “instant prescription” she gives a client has been recommended to them before. “It gives them a real kick up the bum, so to speak, to go and seek that book out,” she says.

“It’s something that really serves to reinforce that person’s taste, and put them back on the path to a bookshop or a library and to giving themselves the time and the opportunity to read.”

WORLD LITERATURE

Outside of private consultation, bibliotherapy is also experiencing strong growth as a clinical practice, taking the same core principle of connecting people to literature at the “right time” and filtering it through the lens of clinical psychology.

For bibliotherapist Susan McLaine, short stories and poems can be the fulcrum upon which a host of mental health interventions turn. She sees fiction and poetry as a powerful tool for building empathy and awareness, something that often happens naturally in book clubs and classrooms but may need a bit of a prompt in less propitious circumstances.

McLaine came to bibliotherapy in 2010, after training with the “Read to Lead” program in the UK, and now trains psychologists in group bibliotherapy, as well as writing a thesis on the effects of this training on the bibliotherapists themselves.

In the four years she’s been working, she’s seen health groups in the US, the UK and Australia start looking seriously at bibliotherapy as a tool for reducing depression and anxiety in both individuals and groups.

It has recently been found to reduce the stress of professional carers, highlighting its efficacy as a simple and inexpensive tool for promoting wellbeing.

“It’s grown in the UK from a literacy or literature background, but really,” McLaine says, “it’s the wellbeing aspect that people are drawn to. And that’s what we’ve found works in Australia.”

Rather than work as a private practitioner, McLaine has ties with Victoria’s legal and health communities, and is invited into hospitals, aged care facilities and the criminal justice system as a specialist consultant. In the bibliotherapy groups McLaine runs, a psychologist acting as a facilitator reads a short story aloud, then follows it with a poem.

“The people in the group wouldn’t describe themselves as readers, but reading aloud really engages the imagination,” she says. “The groups are designed so that they’re welcoming and feel safe, and after people have been there for a little while, they realise that what they share is going to be listened to and be respected.”

VOICES IN FICTION

McLaine works predominantly with marginalised communities, where people might not always find pathways into profound social engagement. Speaking “through” the characters in a short story can give people a confidence they might not possess in talking about their own lives, and allows a safe space for expressing themselves.

“These groups have more than just the literature aspect that’s therapeutic,” she explains. “The literature is the vehicle, really. The main feature of this model is that there’s a social connectedness that’s really important.”

At the School of Life in Melbourne, program director Daniel Teitelbaum is meeting me for coffee. He’s interviewing prospective bibliotherapists, and structuring the upcoming winter term.

Though corporate bibliotherapy is not yet on the table, bibliotherapist Ella Berthoud in the UK branch of the School of Life is often invited to workplaces, motivating teams with Malcolm Gladwell and Shakespeare.

In the meantime, Teitelbaum hopes to invite strangers into the Melbourne school’s cafe, talk to a crowded table about their favourite novel, and add a vital social aspect to the value found in books.