Sunday, 22 September 2013

A Bibliotherapy Review: The Novel Cure by Ella Berthoud & Susan Elderkin

The Novel Cure by Berthoud and Elderkin
The Novel Cure by Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin:
a lighthearted and readable approach to bibliotherapy.
"May we massage you with Murakami? Ease your pain with Wolf or Wodehouse? Do you require the Very Book to lessen your Loneliness? May we revive your Spirit with a Literary Tonic?"

For almost a year, I've been keenly awaiting the release of The Novel Cure by Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin. It confesses itself to be an "A-Z of Literary Remedies", and is a book deeply rooted in The School of Life, a London-based philosophical and cultural centre through which Berthoud and Elderkin work their magic as bibliotherapists.

I've been looking forward to The Novel Cure not only because I love the concept of using literature as a healing and guiding tool, but also because I've been working on my own Tolstoy Therapy book project this year. To check that my ideas are unique and distinct from The Novel Cure, I needed to give this a read!

First of all, the hardback edition is beautiful. It seems destined to be the ultimate coffee table book: it's sturdy, eye-catching and clearly quite intellectual. Inside the book, the pages are alphabetically structured in a way that makes it so easy to flick through without feeling overwhelmed by text, and the 464 pages do not seem at all dense or crowded.

Now, time for the important stuff. Firstly, I didn't expect The Novel Cure to be lighthearted. It's not that I imagined the authors to be boring - in fact, quite the opposite - but I've always approached bibliotherapy in quite a serious way here on the blog. For me, bibliotherapy is closely bound to more serious mental health problems, largely because of my personal use of books over the years. To Berthoud and Elderkin, literature can be a remedy for all manner of things. Stubbed your toe? Can't function without coffee? The Novel Cure says it can help you with this.

A favourite quote on bibliotherapy
"A little reading is all the therapy" I need.
Image from Pinterest.
In their review of the book last Saturday, The Guardian neatly summarised one of my concerns. Whimsical entries such as "egg on your tie" are placed so close to seriously challenging problems (for instance, eating disorders), and it's quite difficult to read the book in a linear manner as a result. However, many readers are sure to find this approach to bibliotherapy to be a refreshing and cheery decision.

At the end of the book (which is more like a guide or handbook, really) is an index of the ailments and lists featured in the book, which is handy. It would have been good if Berthoud and Elderkin had included a list rather like my own "Bibliotherapy Recommendations" at the end of The Novel Cure, for sometimes I found that the section for each "ailment" was rather limited.

It's common for there to be one book mentioned per ailment, so if you've had an unhappy relationship with that single book listed, you'll be left to fend for yourself. Also, it was quite odd to see the book recommending ways to get over excessive book buying - shouldn't such a book encourage its readers to read everything and everything? Maybe I'm just reluctant to overcome my own literary addictions, though.

Quite typically, I loved the lists that were included in The Novel Cure. "The Ten Best Big Fat Tomes" was a particular favourite, while "The Ten Best Novels to Read on your Gap Year" is very appropriate to my life in Spain right now!

Overall, The Novel Cure is a fun book to have around. Booklovers are sure to receive it as Christmas presents and give copies to friends, while it will probably be recommended to less literary folk as a way of finding great fiction.

I think that my own book project is quite different to The Novel Cure (my approach is a lot more personal, for one), and I really enjoyed seeing bibliotherapy represented in an unfamiliar way. If you want to see literature depicted as a healing tool for both physical and psychological issues, definitely try The Novel Cure. Let me know what you think if you do!


Elena said...

I saw this the other day and thought it would make a great reading. However, I'm skeptical when it comes to dealing with a problem like a smashed toe with a book/story. On the psychological field, I'm 100% sure of the power of stories, narratives and themes to help us deal with everything, but not so much with physical issues.

I'll add it to my wishlist now.

Brian Joseph said...

In terms of the physical ailments I suppose that the therapy
part relates to dealing with pain, discomfort and inconvenience. There have been, of course, lots of books written about sick people.

I think that it is OK that the book mixes the lighthearted in
with the serious, though I can see how this can cause negative reactions and lead to folks not taking the serious parts as thoughtfully as intended.

tolstoytherapy said...

Exactly, I can't say I've ever thought of turning to my bookshelf after stubbing my toe, but maybe reading a great book for more serious issues would help get my mind in the right place for healing. Maybe. Although for me, reading = the ultimate way to relax (with a good cup of tea)!

And lets hope so! For now we can just be one step ahead of everyone else :)

tolstoytherapy said...

Hi Brian. Yes, that makes a lot of sense. The way that reading acts as a distraction tool can certainly be classed as healing, and this probably forms the basis for why the authors of The Novel Cure have connected bibliotherapy to physical issues. I would have appreciated it if the book had discussed this a little more: for me I'm not quite convinced about the links between bibliotherapy and all physical issues or challenges.

And I think the authors must have decided that a lighthearted tone would open the book up to the widest audience!

Hope you're well,

Repsych said...

I was waiting for this book all year and finally when I saw the review at Guardian I got very excited but then I read it and I decided not to read this book. It sounds more like a list with book recommendations, rather than bibliotherapy. Now reading your review, I'm sure this book is not what I'm looking for. But I have to say, I like the fact that is light-hearted, it's fun and unusual. I'm very very excited about your book project! I've missed your post about it before, I'll get in touch soon x

Jennifer Hartling said...

It doesn't sound like this book is at all what I expected. Ah well, that happens ;) Still sounds like a fun one to peruse.

tolstoytherapy said...

Yeah, I too got really excited about it but found it to be not quite what I imagined. It's a good read if you're looking for book recommendations, but it doesn't really go into what bibliotherapy is and how you can implement it in your own life. Let me know if you do choose to read it, though!

And I'm having a lot of fun with my book project, I must say! I'd really love to have a week off work to focus solely on it, but for now I'm restricted to weekends. Hopefully I'll be posting about it on the blog again soon!

Hope things are going well with you xx

tolstoytherapy said...

Yeah, a lot of us seem to be feeling the same about this book! It's a fun book to have lying around, but perhaps more advice and personal anecdotes could have been added to it. As the authors offer bibliotherapy coaching, I was sort of expecting to hear some stories about the people they've worked with. But anyway, let me know if you do choose to read it!

Elena said...

Of course, positive thinking is key! I totally believe it, but well, if you smashed your toe getting out of the bathtub, it's only a matter of time and ice to get it right physhically and to find something to distract your mind from the pain, that's where fiction and stories come handy. But, more "serious" things like the flu, well, time, paracetamol and sleep :)

I really love your review and the idea of healing through stories. One day, everyone will realise literature and narratives are key to human life and only something we, humanities people, care about.

tolstoytherapy said...

Hi Elena,

I have to agree with you on this! Reading has helped me so much with psychological issues, and I'm a definite advocate of bibliotherapy. However, I'm not convinced that you can truly push it to physical afflictions. Perhaps bibliotherapy can help you to deal with disability in yourself or others, but not so much for more minor or temporary issues that simply require time and rest. For me bibliotherapy could help someone to relate to others who are going through a similar physical struggle, but relate is the key word. Overcoming a physical issue is a much greater claim.

Although, it could be argued that the authors are wishing to demonstrate the power of positive thinking or hopefulness during sickness and physical issues. But this is something I'm not sure about.

Thanks for the comment - it's got me thinking!