Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Books Can Heal: Bibliotherapy and The Effect of Reading on the Brain

Reading on the brain: is bibliotherapy good
for our health? Image source.
I'm certain that reading has had a positive effect on my brain, my health and the way I live my life.

I often encourage readers to find positive books to help their wellbeing, problem-solving abilities and attitude to life, but it's worth thinking about the science behind bibliotherapy.

Can books really heal and help the brain? Can they help us feel healthy and live a happy life? This is something that I covered briefly in my ebook, but I think it most definitely deserves a place here on the blog!

Reading has a positive effect on our health

Reading reduces stress levels by 67%, and a 2003 study also claims that reading can reduce the risk of dementia by up to 35%. So, by spending time with a great novel, you are not only helping yourself feel happy and relaxed, you are also looking out for your future elderly self.

Books help us to understand society and live our life fully

Dr. Keith Oatley (both professor and published novelist) has noted that fiction is a useful ‘simulation’ to help us deal with the challenging and confusing social world around us.

Based on his studies of brain scans, literature can teach us how to live our lives the best we can, guiding us in the same way as if a computer simulation would teach us to fly a plane. This makes sense of all the times we’ve felt instructed or illuminated by a novel, comparing ourselves to the bold Elizabeth Bennett or the ungrateful Ebenezer Scrooge.

As fiction can help us through life by acting as a simulation of real-life situations, reading really can improve us as human beings, it seems. What better way to grow up and mature through life than accompanied by great novels to show us the way?

Reading can change our behaviour to match characters

When you “lose yourself” inside the world of a fictional character, you may actually end up changing your own behaviour and thoughts to match that of the character.

In one experiment, researchers examined what happened to people who, while reading a fictional story, found themselves feeling the emotions, thoughts, beliefs and internal responses of one of the characters as if they were their own - a phenomenon the researchers call “experience-taking.”

They found that, in the right situations, experience-taking may lead to real changes, even if only temporary, in the lives of readers.

For instance, readers who strongly identified with a fictional character who overcame obstacles to vote were significantly more likely to vote in a real election several days later.

Let's find our fiction prescriptions!

Isn't it great to think that we can read about inspirational characters and make positive changes in our own lives as a result?

Personally, I've gained so much courage from reading great books. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy is a book I've praised so much - particularly in relation to my PTSD and anxiety - and Tennyson's "Ulysses" has helped me remain "strong in will" when dealing with my past. Recently, Sarah Moss's wonderful tale of her time in Iceland in Names for the Sea has calmed me down while I've been undergoing changes in work.

On top of the fact that reading can improve our health, understand society a little better and also feel calmer, this makes me so keen to pick up a book.

Could a book a week be the prescription that we're all in need of?

Do you feel that reading has affected your brain and health in a positive way? I'm excited to see what science reveals about bibliotherapy in years to come!

Thursday, 23 January 2014

A Quick Note on Changing Domains

Man reading in book circle
Lots of lovely books! Image source.
Dear lovely blog readers,

I've decided to change my primary domain name to (much easier to type!), although I'll be keeping as a redirect. This means you'll be able to find the blog on this same address, although I'll need to do some switching around in the next few hours.

Don't panic if you can't see the blog tonight - it should all be back and working soon!

Happy Thursday everyone!

Posts are coming up on...

  • The magic of fiction and non-fiction on Iceland
  • The effect of reading on the brain, or the science behind bibliotherapy.


Saturday, 18 January 2014

My Latest Project: A Bibliotherapy Recommendation Site!

A bibliotherapy site is like a great bookshelf!
Because we all deserve an awesome book
 collection, right? Image source.
I was planning to keep this secret, but here I am giving in. I decided a while ago that the blog's bibliotherapy lists could be easier to navigate, particularly if they were in a more visual format.

I also wanted to create an easier way for others to share the books that have helped them most.

Therefore, I'm creating a separate bibliotherapy recommendation site with the following features:

  • A page for each feeling/situation/problem that books can guide you through
  • Books displayed in a visual format (with book covers) for each category.

Perhaps at a later stage, or if all goes to plan, also...
  • A user area and the capacity for users to add their own books to the categories
  • A way for users to add books to a 'my fiction prescriptions' list in their personal user area for future reference
  • A way for users to comment on and rate books, adding a social networking element to the site. 

I always love to have a project, and this one is proving so exciting. More details coming soon!

I'll also post news on: and

Friday, 17 January 2014

On War & Peace: My Problems With The Pevear & Volokhonsky Translation (Part II)

Anthony Briggs translation of Tolstoy's War and Peace
My well-worn copy of War and Peace. Apologies to those of you who hate seeing writing in books. 

I really enjoyed sharing the reasons why I enjoyed the Anthony Briggs translation of War and Peace  more than the popular Pevear and Volokhonsky.

However there are a few points I decided to leave for another post, including: side-by-side comparisons of the two translations, an investigation into whether Briggs is actually the translator to blame, and a discussion of the compatibility of War and Peace and e-readers. The last point I'll dedicate a separate post to, but here's a quick look into the first two issues.

A Comparison of the Briggs and Pevear/Volokhonsky Translations

I wish I could speak Russian and read War and Peace in all its original glory, but alas that won't be happening any time soon. However, non-Russian speakers like myself can easily compare translations side-by-side in order to think a little more about the original content and the various ways of interpreting it in English. I know I could bring other translations into the equation, but for this post I'll stick to Briggs and P&V.

Here's one of my favourite parts of War and Peace, found in Part III Chapter III, in which Prince Andrei comes across an oak tree that brings back memories:

What's the best translation of War and Peace?
I'll introduce you to my copy of War and Peace,
translated by the wonderful Anthony Briggs.

Pevear & Volokhonsky

"Yes, here, in this woods, was that oak that I agreed with," thought Price Andrei. "But where is it?" he thought again, looking at the left side of the road, and, not knowing it himself, not recognizing it, he admired the very oak he was looking for. The old oak, quite transformed, spreading out a canopy of juicy, dark greenery, basked, barely swaying, in the rays of the evening sun. Of the gnarled fingers, the scars, the old grief and mistrust-nothing could be seen. Juicy green leaves without branches broke through the stiff, hundred-year-old bark, and it was impossible to believe that this old fellow had produced them. 

Anthony Briggs

'That oak-tree, it was somewhere here in the forest. There was such an affinity between us,' he thought. 'But where was it?' As he wondered, he glanced across left and, unconsciously, without recognising it, began to admire the very tree he was looking for. The old oak was completely transformed, now spreading out a canopy of lush dark foliage and stirring gently as it wallowed in the evening sunshine. No trace now of the gnarled fingers, the scars, the old sadness and misgivings. Succulent young leaves with no twigs had burst straight through the hard bark of a hundred years; it was almost impossible that this old fellow should have grown them.'

I didn't realise that the V&P passage started with a typo when I chose it, I promise. 'In this woods' appears in both my paperback and ebook, but we can hardly blame V&P for a typo. The "oak that I agreed with" is something I have more of an issue with, and it sounds clunky to me in English, particularly compared to Briggs's eloquent use of 'affinity'.

I also find the sentence that starts with 'Of the gnarled fingers' to be confusing and quite odd, especially as the phrase isn't clarified until the end of a very complex sentence. To jump to another point, it's interesting to me that both V&P and Briggs use 'old fellow' here.

Let's look at what follows:

Pevear & Volokhonsky

"Yes, it's the same oak," thought Prince Andrei, and suddenly a causeless springtime feeling of joy and renewal came over him. All the best moments of his life suddenly recalled themselves to him at the same time. Austerlitz with the lofty sky, and the dead, reproachful face of his wife, and Pierre on the ferry, and a girl excited by the beauty of the night, and that night itself, and the moon-all of it suddenly recalled itself to him. "No, life isn't over at the age of thirty-one," Prince Andrei suddenly decided definitively, immutably. 

Anthony Briggs 

'Oh yes, that's the one,' thought the price, spontaneously overwhelmed by one of those surges of delight and renewal that belong to springtime. All the best times in his life came together sharply in his memory. The lofty sky at Austerlitz, the look of reproach on his dead wife's face, Pierre on the ferry and that young girl who had been so enthralled by the night's beauty, the night itself and the moon... suddenly he remembered it all. 'No, life isn't over at thirty-one,' was his instant, final and irrevocable conclusion.

The main part of the V&P translation that bothers me here is "the dead [...] face of his wife" (dead face?), and there's not much about the writing that makes me want to savour it. Alternatively, I really like what Briggs did with the final phrase: "his instant, final and irrevocable conclusion". This seems to me so much more powerful than the rather limp "Andrei decided definitely, immutably".

In fact, I love most of Briggs's writing here: it's so well-written and absorbing to read. There's just one issue: is the readability of the text a good or bad thing?

Is Briggs to blame?

Vladimir Nabokov, in his Lectures on Russian Literature, maintains that “the third, and worst, degree of turpitude” in literary translation, after “obvious errors” and skipping over awkward passages,

is reached when a masterpiece is planished and patted into such a shape, vilely beautified in such a fashion as to conform to the notions and prejudices of a given public. This is a crime, to be punished by the stocks as plagiarists were in the shoebuckle days.

Orlando Figes uses this quote to start off his "Tolstoy's Real Hero" essay, before explaining how Tolstoy is deliberately unconventional in his syntax, repetitive and even clumsy in War and Peace. He then goes on to praise V&P alongside,

all the characteristic idioms, the bumpy syntax, the angularities, and the repetitions that had largely been removed in the interests of “good writing” by Garnett and her followers [...]

V&P is bumpy, I'll give you that, but I'd rather read an absorbing 1300 page book than a jolty one just to say I've read something closer to the original. Well, at least for the first reading. Feel free to disagree.

Let's be grateful for multiple translations

I realise that the Anthony Briggs translation isn't for everyone, and I know many people enjoy the Pevear & Volokhonsky translation very much (some of you even commented on Part I of this post). I'm so glad that there are multiple translations of War and Peace for readers to choose from, as this makes it much more likely that readers will find one they like and wish to reread.

Anthony Briggs's translation is the one for me. Maybe this is because it was the translation I read first; a reading experience I have such fond memories of. The 'Britishisms' and the flowing writing are also reasons why I liked it (you can hate me for this), even if these weren't part of the original and aren't necessarily accurate.

The plot and characters behind War and Peace are what I love most about Tolstoy's masterpiece, and for me Anthony Briggs simply brings them out best.

Do you need to agree with me on this? Not at all. I just think that anyone put off the P&V translation should think about other translations before giving up on War and Peace completely.

To finish up, I still can't get over how V&P think one man may address another as "my gentle".

Pick the right translation and you'll love War and Peace

Monday, 13 January 2014

Dubliners by James Joyce: Short Stories with Life Lessons

Today I'll be sharing with you an analysis of James Joyce's Dubliners, probably my favourite short story collection, by Brian over at Babbling Books

Brian's been a long-term reader of the blog, and I always look forward to his comments and his own blog posts. Therefore, I was clearly excited when we started discussing guest posting! Rather than coming up with his own idea, we decided that I'd nominate a book for him to read and interpret. What better book than Dubliners for this?

I do hope you enjoy reading his thoughts on Dubliners as much as I have, and that you feel inspired to check out his blog. Thanks, Brian!

James Joyce and Dubliners
Dubliners by James Joyce: the finest literary representation of Dublin? Image source.

An overview of James Joyce's Dubliners

James Joyce’s Dubliners is a collection of short stories centering on various characters who are inhabitants of Dublin. There appear to be certain common themes inherent in the tales. Many of the stories involve people who become disenchanted or at least discouraged in some way with their own aspirations and ideals. The endpoint of this disenchantment is often exhibited in other, sometimes older, characters who have traveled further down the path of life, who seemed to have once shown promise but are now seriously damaged or corrupted.

A good illustration of this occurs in the story “An Encounter”. Here a young narrator feels stifled in his Catholic School experience and longs for intellectual and physical exploration. He laments,

“I wanted real adventures to happen to myself. But real adventures, I reflected, do not happen to people who remain at home: they must be sought abroad."

At another point he ruminates about his intellectual adventurism and those who would suppress it.

"I liked better some American detective stories which were traversed from time to time by unkempt fierce and beautiful girls. Though there was nothing wrong in these stories and though their intention was sometimes literary they were circulated secretly at school."

One day, he and his friend Mahony decide to play hooky and explore the far reaches in the city. Serious and genuinely dangerous pitfalls are encountered that seem emblematic of the real and intellectual perils encountered in life. The boys barely escape the clutches of a seemingly thoughtful but perverse older man who seems to shows intentions of wanting to molest them. Eventually, our protagonist comes to a realization about his friend Mahony, a boy characterized by exuberant action but also by thoughtlessness and a lack of empathy: "for in my heart I had always despised him a little."

In the course of the story’s journey, it seems that the narrator’s idealistic views on exploring the world at large, acting with vigor as well as intellectual and social adventurism, become tarnished. This pattern of disappointment in enthusiastic aspirations is repeated over and over again in these stories.

An interpretation of Dubliners 

It appears to me that Joyce has hit upon certain hazards common to human lives the world over. He is very good at portraying a subtle demeaning of one’s morality, dreams and ambitions. The end result of a lifetime of such small failures is a degraded and pernicious older person, in this case a child molester, who still shows indications of intellectual underpinnings. Though most of Joyce’s characters do not end up as morally indigent as the child molester, many suffer such ills as excessive cynicism, emotional detachment, depression, etc.

Are there lessons here for readers of all ages? 

I do not detect a lot of optimism inherent in these stories. Joyce does not present much hope, either in avoiding decay or in finding redemption in “An Encounter” or in many of the other stories included in this collection.

If we start with the proposition that Joyce’s analysis concerning what happens to people is reflective of real life, at least for some, then the writer has hit upon a real problem for many attempting to navigate through life. In my opinion, the dangers that are highlighted here are indeed a threat to human well-being. However, Joyce is not instructing here. This collection is not a guidepost aimed at helping readers to avoid disillusionment and decay.

Even with that realization, perhaps even this dim view of the world can help a person who wishes to preserve their ideals and thus avoid such malign fates. Though the writer offers no solutions, it can be argued that the first step in avoiding danger is recognizing and understanding that danger. Perhaps a reader, young or old, can take these warnings to heart, and thus avoid some of these traps. Though Joyce does not go there, and thus may seemingly not believe in a way out, a perceptive and self aware reader might be able to devise certain life strategies aimed at avoiding the worst aspects of this personal decay. Since Joyce does not himself offer answers, I will leave the formation of solutions to the reader.

A bibliotherapeutic conclusion to Dubliners

I must not fail to mention that no matter what, some of the disenchantment and degeneration that Joyce pinpoints here are an inevitable turn in the winding path of life. The storms and squalls of existence will inevitably batter ideals, aspirations and noble views. Joyce’ s art is not a warning; rather it is a mirror upon reality. Thus what he is saying about people goes way beyond a road to self-improvement. With that said, by thinking about and analyzing what Joyce is showing us, perhaps we can employ a combination of smarts, determination and hard work that, combined with some luck, may be allow us to weather storms and preserve some of the nobler aspects of existence.

Friday, 10 January 2014

Books for Insomnia: A Bedtime Bibliotherapy Reading Plan

Insomnia reading plan with bibliotherapy
Can I use fiction and bibliotherapy to help my insomnia? Image source.

The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
- Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening - Robert Frost

You may recall me mentioning a few months ago that I was having trouble sleeping, a problem I'm still facing. Could bibliotherapy possibly help my insomnia, or is it back to the Diazepam?

I've always been one of those people who spends a while just thinking things over before I fall asleep, but sometimes this gets a bit out of hand. When thinking turns to worrying tends to be when it's most dangerous, meaning that I'll stare at the ceiling most the night and feel completely useless and exhausted the following day. I'll then find myself thinking that this exhaustion will guarantee a good nights sleep to come, but I'll always end up staring at the ceiling again. And repeat.

I'll note that night terrors are pretty much guaranteed when I'm in a hotel room or new place overnight. I imagine this links to the PTSD remnants that still lurk inside.

It's easy to conclude that I sleep much better when I'm back at home in England. Here in Spain I rarely have a great night's sleep, while back in Sussex I'm usually asleep pretty soon after hitting the pillow. Maybe this suggests the following: I'm less healthy, happy and relaxed here than I am at home. Which makes sense. Maybe a follow-up post is required on homesickness (just a quick tip: Edward Thomas's 'Home' poems have done wonders in making me feel I'm not alone with this).

Whatever the circumstances, I need something to help me out with sleeping.

Types of books that have helped my insomnia before

  • Poetry. It's easy to process and it's shorter than fiction. I tend to prefer reading only a few poems at a time due to jumps in subject, though.
  • Fiction with beautiful settings. I love reading about dreamy settings that are deep in nature, relaxing and positive.
  • Lighthearted books. Often treating myself to something easy-to-read is just what I need to fall back in love fully with fiction. It can also help me to relax enough to fall asleep.
  • Books with calming characters. I like to read books with characters that lull me off into a safe enough state to sleep. Renée in The Elegance of the Hedgehog, perhaps.
  • Books I associate with happy memories. Not much to explain - rereading books we read at a happy time (or books we associate with one) causes happy things to happen in the brain.
  • Extracts and poetry I know by heart. Not exactly books, but repeating in my mind extracts and poems that I've learnt by heart has always been an anti-insomnia tool for me. Wordworth's My Heart Leaps Up and Frank O'Hara's Mayakovksy come to mind.
  • Philosophy. Sometimes reading a little philosophy gives me something to ponder instead of my own anxieties, although I prefer not to choose anything too heavy. Michel de Montaigne or Epictetus often does the trick.

Books that make falling asleep more difficult

  • Most self-help. I've been reading Tim Ferriss's The Four Hour Work Week (you either love him or hate him; I can't quite decide which side I take) and it really isn't ideal for bedtime reading. Books about getting out, doing things and improving myself just get me worked up, twitchy and restless at night-time.
  • Scary books. This may not bother some of you, but monsters and zombies will never help me sleep well.
  • Books I struggle with. I seriously disliked Cloud Atlas, and reading it before bed made me frustrated and even close to despising my bedtime reading habit. Bedtime reading shouldn't allow for forcing yourself to read books you struggle with or dislike. 

An Insomnia Reading List

To be prescribed:

30 minutes - 1 hour before bed every evening, ideally with a night-time tea blend.

Will these books help me sleep better and address my insomnia? I'm looking forward to testing some of them out and keeping you posted! If you also have trouble sleeping, does reading help you, or does it keep you awake?

Monday, 6 January 2014

Best Book on Mental Health 2013: The Shock of the Fall - Nathan Filer

The Shock of the Fall (Where the Moon Isn't) and mental health
The Shock of the Fall, one of my favourite
novels on mental health. Image source.
It's hard to believe this is a first novel - it's so good it will make you feel a better person. - The judges of the 2013 Costa award on The Shock of the Fall.

I wasn't planning on writing up my thoughts on The Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer just yet, despite reading it a few months ago and thoroughly enjoying it, particularly the theme of mental health and schizophrenia within the novel. However, the wonderful debut novel has won the Costa first novel award, and I feel now is a better time than any to encourage you all to read it.

Nathan Filer, 32, is a registered mental health nurse, but he's also an incredibly talented writer. Lucky for us, Filer combines his knowledge of mental health with his creative writing ability in The Shock of the Fall (previous title, Where the Moon Isn't), and we're left with a deeply emotional and meaningful first novel.

In the novel, meet Matthew Holmes, a nineteen-year-old struggling with memories, voices and the battle going on inside his head. You'll also meet Simon, his brother, and find out why he's so close to Matthew's heart as he passes in and out psychiatric units.

The narrative coherency changes with Matthew's state of mind, and the metafictional nature of the novel leaves us often questioning Matthew's reliability as sharer of the story. The novel, like the reality of the theme of mental health behind it, is deeply real, and Filer's approach is so tactful, thought-provoking and sensitively done. 

"It's a story about a family coming to terms with grief and it is a character study of Matthew Holmes and one of the things about him is that he's got schizophrenia. But it's not a novel about schizophrenia and it's not a novel about the NHS," said the author.

You can't read the novel without thinking about these things; they're simply so close to the story's heart. However, I don't believe a novel has to be directly about mental health for it to help us through our own mental health issues and help others with theirs. That's not how my view of bibliotherapy works.

Simply put, The Shock of the Fall has helped me to better understand schizophrenia and deteriorations of mental health, but it's also got me thinking about recovery. Most of all, the novel has left me with some deeply memorable characters, friendships, and beautiful writing.

The Shock of the Fall was named as one of five category winners for the Costas and will go forward to compete for the overall book of the year prize, to be decided later this month. Also going forward is Kate Atkinson, having won the novel award for Life After Life. All the best to Filer and Atkinson!

On War & Peace: My Problems With The Pevear & Volokhonsky Translation (Part I)

 Pevear & Volokhonsky translation
What are your thoughts on the Pevear and
Volokhonsky translation of Tolstoy's
War and Peace?
I decided about a year ago that I'd like to re-read Tolstoy's War and Peace every summer (this post may help to explain such madness). The first two times I read the almighty tome, I picked up the Anthony Briggs translation that my grandmother gave me for Christmas when I was fifteen years old. And I absolutely loved it.

In the summer of 2012, I read it in twelve days; I couldn't put it down, despite having read it before. 

Fast forward to last summer, when I initially started with the Briggs translation once again. I was thoroughly enjoying it, but I couldn't carry it on my travels (for fears of breaking my back, naturally). 

To remedy a total lack of War and Peace, I downloaded the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation onto my Kindle, settled down to read it at the start of a long train journey across the UK, and turned my Kindle off less than fifteen minutes later. Most uncharacteristically, I spent the rest of the journey mostly staring out the window.

Was it me? Had I grown out of War and Peace, my favourite novel, all of a sudden? Surely not.

I tried continuing with the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation over and over again last summer, after relocating to Spain, but didn't get anywhere. You, my poor readers, may well recall my frequent lamentations about my lack of progress with it.

After starting in August 2013, I had barely made a dent into Part III of Volume I by October, and shortly afterwards I gave it up altogether.

Needless to say, this translation clearly isn't for me. But why? I decided to do some investigating.

Perhaps I didn't enjoy the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation because...

  1. I found the writing awkward. It didn't run smoothly and there were very few passages I felt like underlining, bookmarking or annotating.
  2. Anthony Briggs made it fun to read. I wasn't finding this fun at all. 
  3. It didn't have the same magic or beauty that Briggs conveys.
  4. The 'peace' parts were nowhere near as engaging as Briggs makes them. Where was the exploration of ordinary life that I looked forward to?
  5. The French dialogue is kept, meaning you need to flick back and forth to find out what's going on if you don't speak the language (particularly tricky on a Kindle).
  6. Who on earth addresses a man as "my gentle"?!

I'll clarify here that it's still War and Peace. And many people love the P&V translation. The plot means that it's absorbing and vivid in all translations if you're a fan of Tolstoy. However, the reasons above made it very difficult for me to gain the therapeutic reading experience from the text that I normally do.

Have you read Tolstoy's War and Peace? Do you remember the translator of your edition, or have you tried several? Finally, what memories do you have of your reading experience? 

Hold tight for Part II of this post and I'll look at some side-by-side comparisons of the two translations. I'll also have a think about whether Briggs is actually the translator to blame, as well as if I would have enjoyed it more in paperback.