“A book enters the life of an individual, a deep relation is formed, and the person changes in some significant way as a result of this engagement.

Stephen Bonnycastle



I’m currently teaching a literature class via the lens of bibliotherapy, the practice of “prescribing” books to improve mood and mental health. 

Yesterday, students shared that they wished to read more “classics” and challenged me to give them the top five classics they should read.

My heart sang, and my head nearly burst at the idea.

But, as I shared in an email to them shortly thereafter, of course I want to take on the challenge. 

I’ve decided to do a version of that in this space over the next six weeks with a focus on the top five classics of British literature that I would prescribe as a bibliotherapist.

But first, I’ll share a bit about bibliotherapy.

Ancient Greek libraries carried the inscription “medicine for the soul” above their doors, which is the basic idea.

The term bibliotherapy was coined in 1916 by Samuel Crothers. In the 1920s, hospitals in the United Kingdom had staff librarians charged with offering patients books as healing tools. 

Modern-day bibliotherapy involves the practice of giving clients recommendations for self-help books and/or works of fiction, which is my interest here.

Reading fiction helps because it offers an opportunity for readers to understand that they are not unique in having their particular problem. Readers can also witness problem solving. 

Sure, it’s a fictional character who has the problem and who is doing the solving, but since those characters were conceived by a fellow human, it means another soul has understood. 

More significantly, our brains don’t much care or know that the other one with the problem isn’t real. Put someone in an MRI scanner, give them a great work of literature, and have them read with care; parts of the brain light up that show the brain experiencing the fictional world in the same way it would if these events were actually happening. 

For these reasons (and more), reading literature with care and attention has been proven to reduce anxiety and depression and to increase empathy. 

Reading allows for perspective taking. We all inhabit a perspective, but we tend to forget that. One great example of our failure to recognize perspective taking is attribution bias, where we look at another person’s actions and judge that person, assuming a bad act means a bad actor. If we do the same act ourselves, we understand our motivations and tend to see that act as operating in isolation, giving ourselves the break we don’t give to others.

Since anxiety makes us egocentric, being able to engage in perspective taking and to identify with others helps tremendously—because it turns out, in spite of what those seagulls say in Finding Nemo, all of reality is not ”mine, mine, mine, mine.”

The first topic that I’ll investigate and offer a prescription for will be that of choice because, from my own experience and observation, a lot of us feel pretty overwhelmed by choices nowadays.

To quote a great English Renaissance writer, Sir Philip Sidney, literature has the power “to teach and delight.” My selection on the subject of choice has taught and delighted readers (including me) for centuries. 


Photo provided by Priscilla Du Preez on  Unsplash

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