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Why Reading Is the New Therapy (Except Way Cheaper)

author image Cara Stevens
Cara Stevens has authored more than a dozen books for children including graphic novels, board books and activity books. She has been writing about healthy living and lifestyle topics including parenting, beauty, popular health, diet, and fitness since 1990. She holds a Bachelor's degree in developmental psychology from Vassar College and a Master's in communication from NYU.
Reading can cure many mental ailments, not just boredom.
Reading can cure many mental ailments, not just boredom. Photo Credit rasstock/Adobe Stock

If getting lost in a book is one of your favorite guilty pleasures, there’s great news from the field of psychology: You shouldn’t feel guilty. Therapists and counselors are now looking to works of fiction to make you happier, healthier and more able to handle whatever life throws at you. Bonus: It’s cheaper than therapy.

A Novel Approach to Therapy

Bibliotherapy, or the power of healing through books, is actually a practice as old as books themselves. More than 3,000 years ago the library of Pharaoh Ramses II featured the inscription “the house of healing for the soul” above its door. Millennia later, Sigmund Freud began prescribing novels as required reading for some of his psychotherapy patients.

It doesn’t take a doctorate to recognize the healing power of books. Many children discover books as therapy as soon as they are old enough to read independently.

“I grew up the target of bullies in a world that generally blamed the target and excused the bullies,” recalls Mitch Posner, a former law-enforcement professional and part-time bookseller. “Books became my escape from a cruel world and gave me a place to go where I did not even think about tormentors and loneliness. The boon to my emotional and mental state was immeasurable.”

Robert Hoge, a journalist, motivational speaker and author of the new young adult memoir UGLY, was born with multiple deformities that required facial reconstruction. Despite a long history of bullying and rejection, Robert remained determined not to let his situation hold him back from living a happy, fulfilled life.

He credits much of his positive outlook to his discovery of books as a young child. “I spent most of my childhood with my head in one book or another. Books didn’t judge me based on my looks. They didn’t tease me or argue back,” he recalls.

Most everyday avid readers can relate in some way, recalling similar experiences of getting lost in a book that were so much more than an escape route from the everyday world, and modern academics can back up these claims.

Researchers are exploring the effects literature has on expanding a reader’s emotional state, sensitivity and understanding of the world around them. Professor Emeritus Keith Oatley of the University of Toronto studies the psychology of fiction and the causes behind the effects of reading a good book.

“What we’ve found is that the more fiction you read, the better is your empathy with other people and the better is your understanding of other people. The other kind of finding we’ve had is that reading fiction enables people to change themselves by small measurable and distinctive ways.”

Fiction may have a more productive influence than self-help.
Fiction may have a more productive influence than self-help. Photo Credit Alextype/Adobe Stock

Why Novels Are Better Than Self-Help Books

Dr. Oatley points out that if you’re in a muddle, self-help books can point you in one specific direction, whereas a well-crafted novel can help you choose your own path. “The idea is that if, in reading a novel, you project yourself into the mind of another person in circumstances which you could recognize but are not the same as your own, maybe it will get you to think more widely about your own circumstances.”

He has seen book therapy work in extreme situations with teen mothers in a group home and juvenile offenders who joined court-mandated book groups as an alternative to jail. “It doesn’t work for everyone, but of the 10 or 12 people in each group, for two to three of them real connections are being made.”

Cheaper Than Therapy

Whether you’re feeling down in the dumps, stuck in a rut or are dealing with a big, life-changing issue, picking up a book can be a great first step to changing your emotional outlook.

Alison Courtney is a former bookseller who turned her passion and talent for book recommendations into a business she calls Biblioremedy. “I listen to people talk about themselves and their lives, and I create a list of books for them to read,” she explains. “I dedicate 45 minutes to an hour with each client. Then I create a list of books with descriptions and the reason I chose the books and email it to the client.”

While people have a hard time rationalizing spending money for a bibliotherapy session for themselves, it makes a great gift. “It’s like getting a massage. People think ‘I can’t afford to do it for myself.’ But when they actually do it they realize how good it feels.”

“Reading can put your mind in a completely different world, taking you far away from your stressors,” Posner agrees. “For a reader, a fantastic low-cost getaway is a bookstore. Many, including Barnes & Noble, provide places to sit and will let you stay all day reading at no cost.”

And, of course, when you’re talking about free resources to discover books, the best place to start is the public library.

“Librarians love recommending books to people, and they do it for free!” says S. Rebecca Lubin, Head of Branches at Albany Public Library. “Librarians are trained in reference interviews, not only when faced with research questions, but when connecting people with fiction titles also. Librarians love to make suggestions beyond the best-sellers and popular books and authors.”

Instead of visiting your therapist, perhaps pay a visit to the library.
Instead of visiting your therapist, perhaps pay a visit to the library. Photo Credit stokkete/Adobe Stock

You can even discover your next good read from the comfort of your computer or mobile device. Recommendation algorithms are smart search engines that get smarter as more users input their own preferences.

WhatShouldIReadNext.com is a book-recommendation algorithm based on collective taste and association of its users. Simply enter your favorite books, check the ones that fit your current mood, then get recommendations of books others have associated with the ones you’ve read and loved.

Creators Andrew Chapman and Paul Lenz combined their technical know-how with their love of books to create the recommendation site. “Back in 2005 we started wondering whether it would be possible to take the vast amounts of data about books already available online even then and come up with a tool to approximate people’s taste somehow,” Chapman recalls.

“We got lots of heartwarming comments about how people find it really useful, and we can’t really ask for more than that. It turns out that a large percentage of our users are young adult readers, which is fantastic.”

In fact, a growing trend in book purchases shows adults are actually reading more YA books these days, blurring the lines between adult and children’s literature. And it seems a lot of that has to do with the healing power of books.

Many books geared toward teens have a strong focus on emotional issues and transitions and are written with a more prescriptive mindset. Adults looking for answers for themselves and parents looking to connect more deeply with their teens are discovering these books are not only educational, they’re enjoyable too.

“Teens feel life at a very deep level and lot of that is expressed in YA fiction. I think that parents of teens should make an effort to keep up with young adult (YA) fiction,” Lubin suggests. “I recommend this not as a way of checking up on them, but as a way of understanding the world they are trying to navigate and the issues and questions they are facing.”

Book-by-Mood Reading List

Here is a list of perspective-shaping books and author recommendations from the experts mentioned above. You’ll find a good read for every state of mind or life experience.

For insight and perspective: Everybody should read “Pride and Prejudice.” It was a radical idea at the time, and it’s still radical — that you can only really love someone if you understand them. It’s poses the idea that you never know someone, until you get to know them in an intimate way.

Jane Austen not only does that, but as you’re reading along, you begin to feel you know her more intimately yourself. That mirrors in a way what’s going on between Elizabeth and Darcy.

When you’re feeling “different”: “Far from the Tree,” by Andrew Solomon, is a book about parents raising ‘difficult’ children, but there’s a lot more to it than that. “Wonder,” by R. J. Palacio, is a mid-grade novel about a young boy with craniofacial deformities.

Try classic science fiction and fantasy — “Ender’s Game,” “Red Mars” and anthologies of science-fiction stories. All of these show that a person’s worth comes from their ideas, not their background or appearance.

For parents trying to understand their tweens and teens: Look to J.K. Rowling, Judy Blume and Madeline L’Engle for a good dose of perspective.

Trying to find the lighter side of life: “Where’d You Go, Bernadette,” by Maria Semple, puts a funny or extreme spin on everyday situations.

When dealing with your own dysfunctional family issues: “The Family Fang,” by Kevin Wilson, is about two grown children whose parents are performance artists. Dysfunctional family books can often make you realize that whatever is going on in yours isn’t so terrible.

When coming to terms with clinical depression — yours or someone else’s: “Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things That Happened,” by Allie Brosh. “I have never read a book that simultaneously represents clinical depression and the ridiculousness of dog ownership in such a real, honest and absolutely hysterical way,” says Lubin.

On the death of a parent: “Motherless Daughters,” by Hope Edelman. When you’re in the mood for something beautiful and strange: “Station Eleven,” by Emily St. John Mandel, is a well-written piece of dystopian fiction.

Dealing with deep, sad issues: “Her,” by Christa Parivani, is about a twin that has died.

When you’re feeling lonely or separated during times of change: “The Summer of the Great-Grandmother,” by Madeleine LEngle.

When faced with a difficult life-changing decision: “Letters to a Young Poet,” by Rainer Maria Rilke, offers a new and insightful perspective as he gives advice to a young man through a series of letters.

What Do YOU Think?

Do you believe reading impacts your emotional health? Would you read any of the recommended books? What was a book that helped you through a hard time?

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