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!

Lucy
It's good to meet you! I started Tolstoy Therapy back in 2012 to share my healing journey through anxiety and PTSD with books. I also climb mountains, go on solo adventures, and write over at livewildly.co.