Thursday, 25 April 2013

Bibliotherapy for Anxiety: Active, Beautiful and Calming Fictional Books

Reading to reduce anxiety. Image source.

I'd like to emphasise now that literature is not a replacement for therapy or medication when anxiety is severe. Nothing replaces getting help, although I believe bibliotherapy can complement recovery and maintain wellbeing.

In February I posted about using bibliotherapy for depression and low mood. Since then, I've been thinking about how fiction can benefit anxiety, and I've come up with some suggestions.

I've been reading a lot of philosophy in the last year or so, and it's helped me to view anxiety as something exciting that motivates me, rather than something negative that threatens me (see my posts on Marcus Aurelius and Stoicism).

However, I know that if I sat still and contemplated my nerves or my situation, I would not be so calm. My worries would escalate, I'd consider worst-case scenarios, and I'd experience physical symptoms. In this post I'll outline how literature helps me with anxiety, and list some useful books.

I'd like to categorise relaxing literature into three categories:

  1. Books that involve the mind
  2. Books that are inherently beautiful to read
  3. On a similar note, books that calm the mind.

Firstly, some people benefit from reading fast-paced and active books when they're feeling nervous. This may be an action novel or thriller, for instance Robert Ludlum's Bourne Series. I've also heard good things about The Walking Dead graphic novel series. The declaration on the blurb of the first book, Days Gone Bye, even appealed to me (I usually dislike anything zombie-related): "In a world ruled by the dead, we are forced to finally begin living."

Bibliotherapy for anxiety
Do you find reading fiction to be relaxing?
Image source.
Comparable books in this first category are those that involve the mind. Marcel Proust and Henry James, for instance, are complex writers that demand your full attention. The writing is rich, layered, and often there is a huge amount of it. Perhaps it's significant that in Haruki Murakami's 1Q84, Aomame reads Proust's In Search of Lost Time during her high-risk time of hiding. If you like Proust, I would also recommend Alain de Botton's How Proust Can Change Your Life, a book that blends literary fiction and self-help.

Next are the beautifully written books. It's very clichéd to say this, I realise, but I feel it's the most appropriate word to use. I'd include Speak, Memory by Vladimir Nabokov, F. Scott Fitzgerald's Flappers and Philosophers, and Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being. This category contains the books with the power to enchant and enrich, turning your attention away from your anxiety. In this category I would also include Pierre's lofty reflections on life and nature in War & Peace. It's impossible to encapsulate the beauty of War & Peace in one sentence, but this passage (which I've discussed in this post) almost does it justice:

But this bright comet with its long, shiny tail held no fears for Pierre. Quite the reverse: Pierre's eyes glittered with tears of rapture as he gazed up at this radiant star, which must have traced its parabola through infinite space at speeds unimaginable and now suddenly seemed to have picked its spot in the black sky and impaled itself like an arrow piercing the earth, and stuck there, with its strong upthrusting tail and its brilliant display of whiteness amidst the infinity of scintillating stars. 

For the final category - calming literature - it is perhaps easiest to write about poetry. Above all, I find poetry to be most calming when it discusses particularly tranquil places. I imagine this is because they provide a mental escape, or alternatively bring up fond memories. My favourite examples include Edward Thomas' lines on the English countryside (see Adlestrop), Wordsworth's depictions of the relaxing act of walking, and Yeats' description of calming settings in The Lake Isle of Innisfree:

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee;
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight's all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet's wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart's core.

After quoting this poem, it is fitting to emphasise not merely what you read, but where you read it. The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim is both beautiful and calming, but I find it much more pleasant to read outdoors than inside. Others may feel it to be a welcome antidote to the Underground or bus journeys, however. Find what place works best for your reading, be it a garden, park, mode of public transport, an office or bedroom. Then make sure to visit that place, focusing on the book at hand and your surroundings, rather than your worries.

My Top Five Bibliotherapy Recommendations for Relieving Anxiety:

  1. Selected Poems - Edward Thomas
  2. The Enchanted April - Elizabeth von Arnim
  3. Love in the Time of Cholera - Gabriel García Márquez
  4. The House of the Sprits - Isabel Allende
  5. Speak, Memory - Vladimir Nabokov

Although these books work for me, they may not necessarily suit you. Let me know in the comment box if you come across any other useful books for anxiety and bibliotherapy!

Man is not worried by real problems so much as by his imagined anxieties about real problems ~ Epictetus

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Wednesday, 17 April 2013

The Best Fiction Books Set in Barcelona

Casa Mila novels set in Barcelona
Gaudi architecture in Barcelona (Casa Mila)
As some may know, I will be spending my next university year in Spain, as part of my year abroad. I have chosen to work in Barcelona, for reasons of location, the Catalan language and, primarily, culture. The city's cultural attractions include Gaudi's architecture, the Sagrada Família, and the National Museum of Art of Catalonia. There are so many other examples, and I look forward to writing about them (and, of course, taking lots of photos to share) on my trip to Barcelona.

In this brief post, I'd like to discuss Barcelona's literary influence.

Fiction Set in Barcelona


Firstly, I have to mention The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón. This is a fantastic book, particularly when read in the original Spanish. The novel is set in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, and, as an ultimately gothic literary thriller, it deals with mystery, murder, madness and doomed love. This spans all corners of the city, and often uses the famous café Els Quatre Gats on Carrer Montsió for orientation: one of the main centres of Modernisme in Barcelona. The narrator writes,

"Els Quatre Gats was just a five-minute walk from our house and one of my favourite haunts … Inside, voices seemed to echo with shadows of other times. Accountants, dreamers, and would-be geniuses shared tables with the spectres of Pablo Picasso, Isaac Albéniz, Federico García Lorca and Salvador Dalí." 

Secondly, George Orwell's Homage to Catalonia is the classic account of Barcelona and Catalonia during the Civil War. In 1936, Orwell travelled to Spain to report on the conflict, but instead found himself joining the violence. Homage to Catalonia describes the hopes and betrayal of the Spanish revolution, alongside first-hand experience, in an honest and personal way. In the following quote, Orwell describes Las Ramblas in central Barcelona:

"Practically every building of any size had been seized by the workers and was draped with red flags or with the red and black flag of the anarchists: every wall was scrawled with the hammer and sickle … Down the Ramblas … the loudspeakers were bellowing revolutionary songs."

Literature is such a good way to prepare you for visiting a place, and I hope to soon share some full posts on fiction (and non-fiction) set in the Spanish city. For now, I'll leave you with a list of Barcelona-based literature that I'd like to read:
Parc Guell Barcelona, a city of great literary influence
Parc Güell, overlooking a city of great 
literary influence.  Image source


I'd love to know any other recommendations you may have - feel free to comment below!


Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Stoicism for Modern Lives: William B. Irvine and Marcus Aurelius

I've been interested in the Stoic school of philosophy for the last year or so, starting with my reading of Jules Evan's brilliant Philosophy for Life (see my post here). This book primarily introduced me to Marcus Aurelius, whose Meditations I've underlined, highlighted and flicked through extensively.

I included some of his main teachings in this post, but this is probably one of his most famous quotations:

"Say to yourself first thing in the morning: today I shall meet people who are meddling, ungrateful, aggressive, treacherous, malicious, unsocial. All of this has afflicted them through their ignorance of true good and evil. But I have seen that the nature of good is what is right, and the nature of evil what is wrong; and I have reflected that the nature of the offender himself is akin to my own - not a kinship of blood or seed, but a sharing in the same mind, the same fragment of divinity. Therefore I cannot be harmed by any of them, as none will infect me with their wrong."

Marcus Aurelius primarily focuses on the fear of being judged, the importance of mental calm, and the avoidance of indulgence in sensory affections. He advocates that we find our own place in the universe, and see that everything came from nature, and so everything shall return to it in due time. According to Aurelius, everything exterior to our mind is outside our control, so there is simply no point in trying to manipulate it. We should rather be serene, patient and honest at all times, if only because these things are in our power.

William B. Irvine, in A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy, puts an interesting spin on Stoicism. Irvine explores the ancient philosophy of men such as Seneca, Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus, but applies their thought to modern living. In a world of ever-present technology, consumerism, stressful careers and increasing levels of divorce, it appears normal for an individual to wonder if this is all there is. It's common to worry that, despite our best efforts, we have effectively wasted our lives. This is where Stoicism comes in, says Irvine.

Irvine looks at various Stoic techniques for reducing anxiety, and explains how we can implement these in our own lives in order to minimise worry, let go of the past, and deal with insults, grief, old age, and the temptations of fame and fortune.

The main Stoic techniques examined in A Guide to the Good Life:


  1. Practice Stocisim "stealthily" in order to avoid the comments and doubts of others. 
  2. Negative visualisation: At spare moments during the day, contemplate the loss of whatever you value in life. This can help you realise, if only for a time, how lucky you are and how much you have to be thankful for, regardless of your circumstances. 
  3. The "trichotomy of control": Distinguish between things we have no control over, things we have complete control over, and things we have some but not complete control over. Irvine uses the following example: rather than wanting to win a game of tennis, we should play the best game we can under the circumstances. By doing this, we "internalise" our goals, or allow them to be within our control rather than dependent on external factors and other people. 
  4. Become an insult connoisseur. Irvine describes how he has learnt to respond to insults with self-deprecating humour. If someone calls him lazy, he may respond that it's a wonder he gets any work done at all. He believes that this makes it clear he is impervious to such insults, or that he even finds them amusing. If this is too difficult, Irvine states that simply ignoring insults can be just as effective. 
These are the main techniques that Irvine advocates for modern Stoicism, although other tips and strategies are mentioned. I've found Irvine's "trichotomy of control" to be incredibly useful in minimising worry and needless anxieties. It's also a greatly useful tool for developing goals that are less likely to affect your self-esteem if they are not realised. On the contrast, negative realisation is not something that comes easily to me (not even in the slightest!) Perhaps it will grow on me. I currently find simple gratitude easier to carry out. 

I would recommend William B. Irvine's book for anyone interested in Stoicism, and particularly its application to modern life. Stoicism today is shown to be as relevant as ever, and I find it a useful tool to consider even if I do not want to be a fully-fledged Stoic.

If you want to return to the original philosophy, I would, as always, recommend Marcus Aurelius's Meditations, although Seneca and Epictetus have also been valuable to me. I will end this post with a quote from the latter that I hope will appeal to fellow book-lovers:

“Don't just say you have read books. Show that through them you have learned to think better, to be a more discriminating and reflective person. Books are the training weights of the mind. They are very helpful, but it would be a bad mistake to suppose that one has made progress simply by having internalized their contents." ~ Epictetus

Thursday, 11 April 2013

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson: Alternate History & 'What Ifs?'

What if we had a chance to do it again and again, until we finally did get it right? Wouldn't that be wonderful? ~ Kate Atkinson

I'm now back in England, after a lovely week of snow and mountain air. Unlike some passengers on our flight home, I am thankfully back with all of my limbs healthy and in one piece.
Life After Life and alternate history
Wash DayBavaria. John Ottis Adams (1885).
Image source

Whilst abroad, I read my first novel by Kate Atkinson: Life After Life. It's certainly lengthy at 529 hardback pages, and it involves a great deal to take in.

Life After Life plays with the idea of alterate history, in a similar way to Stephen King's "what if?" treatment of the Kennedy assassination in 11.22.63. Ursula Todd, the child of a wealthy English banker and his domestic-loving wife, Sylvia, is born on a snowy night in 1910. However, her life is short-lived when the umbilical cord strangles her.

What if a doctor were present to save her? What if the circumstances were different? This is what Atkinson cleverly envisages within this novel: in the following chapter, Ursula is born a healthy baby who simply had a near-miss with death.

As Ursula grows, she also dies, repeatedly, in a number of ways. However, Atkinson emphasises the significance of minute details in her alterations of history. In this way, Ursula Todd follows life in numerous directions; some tragic, some exciting, and others sorrowful. Possibilites of love are considered and then shattered, career paths contemplated and then doomed to failure, and family relationships go from healthy to distant. However, Atkinson's treatment of history spreads across a much wider scale. As a novel centred on wartime Britain and, to a lesser extent, Germany, the perpetual alterative history question - what if the Nazi party never gained power? - gains ground.

I've always found this concept interesting, although I believe it's quite hard to encapsulate it successfully in fiction. Life After Life doesn't fully engage with the theory, and therefore Atkinson appears to skate around it somewhat. Perhaps the subject requires a novel to itself: after all, the causes, events, outcomes and consequences must be considered. Ursula's close contact with Hitler and his "henchmen" is certainly interesting and well-researched, but it is never quite revealed if history is changed, and if so, how future unfolds as a result. 

Life After Life is greatly inventive, personal and poignant. I'd say that Atkinson's greatest strength is her depiction of the Todd family: I'll surely remember the eccentric aunt, despised brother, and admired father. I imagine that many readers admire the quaint rural England setting, although as an inhabitant of such an area myself, it felt a little too overdone at times.

I'll be sure to find some other novels by Kate Atkinson - do comment if you have any to recommend!