Sunday, July 22, 2018

Reading can make you happy

A personal account by Ceridwen Dovey, where she also traces the history of bibliotherapy.

Several years ago, I was given as a gift a remote session with a bibliotherapist at the London headquarters of the School of Life, which offers innovative courses to help people deal with the daily emotional challenges of existence. I have to admit that at first I didn’t really like the idea of being given a reading “prescription.” I’ve generally preferred to mimic Virginia Woolf’s passionate commitment to serendipity in my personal reading discoveries, delighting not only in the books themselves but in the randomly meaningful nature of how I came upon them (on the bus after a breakup, in a backpackers’ hostel in Damascus, or in the dark library stacks at graduate school, while browsing instead of studying). I’ve long been wary of the peculiar evangelism of certain readers: You must read this, they say, thrusting a book into your hands with a beatific gleam in their eyes, with no allowance for the fact that books mean different things to people—or different things to the same person—at various points in our lives. I loved John Updike’s stories about the Maples in my twenties, for example, and hate them in my thirties, and I’m not even exactly sure why.

But the session was a gift, and I found myself unexpectedly enjoying the initial questionnaire about my reading habits that the bibliotherapist, Ella Berthoud, sent me.

I know this for a fact, but the practice is secondary to the object of reading. That is, what matters more is what you read. You can, for example, read a lot of nonsense, of which there is no lack, and the exercise can make you miserable. But if you turn to good books--materials that make you think, introspect, criticize, evaluate, cry, laugh, and best of all, wonder--then reading can potentially give you happiness.

On top of my head: Philippians, written by Paul during his imprisonment in Rome, Confessions by St. Augustine, An Artist of the Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro. I'm sure there's so much more.

3 comments:

  1. Random thoughts:
    Of course reading makes me happier! Why else would I do it?
    Bibliotherapy?! Wow. I'd like to see that questionnaire myself.
    The School of Life is overtly atheistic, IIRC.

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  2. Ooh, this is fun: 'in an interesting twist, the contract allows for a local editor and reading specialist to adapt up to twenty-five per cent of the ailments and reading recommendations to fit each particular country’s readership and include more native writers. The new, adapted ailments are culturally revealing. In the Dutch edition, one of the adapted ailments is “having too high an opinion of your own child”; in the Indian edition, “public urination” and “cricket, obsession with” are included; the Italians introduced “impotence,” “fear of motorways,” and “desire to embalm”; and the Germans added “hating the world” and “hating parties.” '
    I wonder: a) what sort of problems would be included in a Filipino edition; b) which local novels would be included?
    For a, perhaps "you keep experiencing natural disasters"?

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    Replies
    1. Yes, great point! I agree with natural disasters. We might also include political turmoil and traffic congestion.

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