Thursday 1 October 2015

Read Two Books and Write Me in the Morning

"Bibliotherapy:  an ancient practice of encouraging reading for therapeutic effect." (Wikipedia)

On the weekend, I attended The Word on the Street, a Toronto Book Festival.  Author Ann Walmsley read from her book The Prison Book Club, based on her own personal experience.  She weaves the tale of the various inmates of a prison whose personalities emerge once she shares literature with them.  During her talk, the author pointed out the redemptive power of literature, of how the reader, in identifying with the characters, develops empathy.  She said that recently, an Iranian judge, faced with the overcrowded local prisons, imposed a book reading sentence for a light crime. (

Today, I googled the concept and learned a new word, bibliotherapy, which is the "ancient practice of encouraging reading for therapeutic effect."  In fact, the practice is so ancient it goes back to Egyptian times when the King's royal chamber, which was full of books, had the words "House of Healing of the Soul" written above the door.  

It was not until 1916, however, that the term bibliotherapy was coined when popular essayist Sam McChord Crothers wrote a piece in The Atlantic Monthly called "A Literary Clinic".  As Mr. Crothers explained:  "Then it struck me that is what literature means.  Here we have a stock of thoughts in such a variety of forms that they can be used, not only for food, but for medicine."  Mr. Crothers pointed out that reading a good book could be akin to a "spiritual event"; literature has the power to transform a person. (

Pioneer librarian Sadie Peterson Delaney used bibliotherapy to treat patients successfully at a Veterans Hospital in Tuskegee, Alabama from 1924 to 1953.  It is the "human inclination to identify with others through their experiences in art and literature". (

By the 1980's and 1990's, doctors were employing bibliotherapy to treat a wide variety of disorders such as:  OCD, depression, bulimia, insomnia, emotional disorders, alcoholism, sexual dysfunction and self-harm.  As one writer titled his article about the treatment:  "Read two books and write me in the morning."  It is interesting to note that bibliotherapy is often used hand and hand with writing therapy (see

Even my husband, Rob, practises bibliotherapy.  Our basement is full of stacks and stacks of comics. The more stressed that Rob gets, the more he buys comics and the more he reads them.  They are a welcome change from the Political Science journals that he used to pour over when he pursued his PhD.  

So, the next time you are feeling stressed, pay a visit to your local library.  Sink into a winged back chair and dive into a book.  You will reap the rewards.

For more information, read the recent article written in the National Post by Robert Fulford, "The World of Bibliotherapy" at


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