Behold the awesome powers of the book and the ideas stored therein! Books have changed the world we know over and over again. Think about Plato’s The Republic, Karl Marx’s Capital, Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, or Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man. These books contained ideas that shaped centuries of human experience. Sometimes it was for the better, other times for the worse, but there’s no denying the power of books to effect change on the macro-level.
But what makes books really great is that they work on the micro-level as well. Reading the right book at the right time can change the course of your life. It can help you overcome obstacles, make better choices, fight distress (and boredom), and just give you that little push you need. If you ever had a teacher, a parent, or a friend recommend a book to you because they knew it would help, you have experienced the power of the book that appears out of nowhere and makes things a bit better. You have also experienced bibliotherapy.
Bibliotherapy rests on the notion that the answers to many of the dilemmas and troubles we experience in our lives can be found in books. And not just in pop-psychology or self-help books, mind you, but in the works of literary fiction and nonfiction. Feeling like you’ve lost your sense of direction in life? Try reading Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha or Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Feel insecure about becoming a father? Ever heard of Atticus Finch? Even if you have, give Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird another read. Name a problem and there’s bound to be a book that can help you overcome it.
Bibliotherapy is not the latest fad for people who have “issues” and too much time on their hands. Using books for therapeutic purposes dates back all way to the ancient Greeks. The term “bibliotherapy” was coined in the first half of the twentieth century by Samuel Crothers, and it was around this time that librarians, especially those in hospitals, started designing training programs in bibliotherapy and applying their knowledge to helping hospital patients. The librarians in the United States led the movement, while their United Kingdom colleagues quickly followed suit. In the twenty-first century, bibliotherapy found itself being examined under a more serious, randomized-controlled-trials kind of lens. The findings of these trials confirmed that bibliotherapy can, in fact, help people suffering from a range of conditions.
It’s important to keep in mind that bibliotherapy is not a panacea and that it has a very limited scope of effect. You can’t mend a broken leg by reading a book—that’s a cold, hard fact. But a broken heart? That’s something books can help with. Mild to moderate psychological problems? Bibliotherapy might help with those as well, although it’s always a good idea to see a doctor before going to the librarian for book therapy recommendations. But then again, when dealing with depression, anxiety, OCD, or even addiction, every little bit of help you get is more than welcome, and the only side-effects of reading a book are the good ones. They improve your vocabulary, they strengthen your empathy, you learn how to express yourself better, and they might help you rest from your troubles, at least for a while. So when you have a toothache, go to a dentist. But when you’re feeling down, insecure, or weary, reach out for a book recommendation.