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I need a sonnet, doc — fast!

Anna Karenina to combat compulsive behavior? Wuthering Heights to ease depression and promote hope of romance? Treasure Island to encourage extroversion?

More and more readers might soon be receiving prescriptions of “two sonnets by Shakespeare, read daily until condition improves” or “five love poems by Pablo Neruda, read morning and night, for two weeks or until symptoms subside.” 

Reading and writing have always been therapeutic for me, but I’ve never thought of assigning books for emotional and medical conditions. That’s part of a relatively new practice called bibliotherapy, which is growing popular among psychologists, doctors, librarians, and teachers. (I read about this in the October 2010 issue of Ode, a magazine that I love.) It involves reading specific texts in response to certain situations or conditions.

According to Ode, ancient Egyptians called libraries psyches iatreion or “sanatoriums of the soul.” In the early 1800s, psychiatrists in the U.S.  were discussing reading as a therapeutic tool. Today, doctors or therapists are writing literary prescriptions — prose, not pills — to help with physical discomfort, disability, emotional conflict or other suffering.

The therapy involves either writing or reading or both, drawing on texts from fiction to self-help books. Whether they’re medical or not, bibliotherapists give their clients reading suggestions based on their individual situations. “Reading can change and improve how we feel and behave,” says Joseph Gold, a former English professor and author of  The Story Species: Our Life-Literature Connection.

Brain imaging studies at the University of Washington in St. Louis, Missouri reveal that some areas of the brain, active while someone reads a story, duplicate the same areas involved when people “perform, imagine or observe similar real-world activities.” Apparently, while reading, our brains simulate what happens in a tale, using the same circuits as if the same things were happening to us. Neurologically, we become part of the action.

I find this fascinating. Obviously, any good book engages us and inspires our imagination, but I hadn’t thought of the physiological impact of reading. I’ve experienced first-hand the therapeutic impact of writing, not to mention its healing results in countless writing students I’ve had. (I taught creative writing to adults with mental illness for five years, and to regular students.)

However, within the broad writing community in North America, there are those who view “therapeutic writing” as a somehow lesser genre, something beneath the purity of “true” prose or poetry. They imply that it’s self-indulgent and therefore, doesn’t rise to the universal value of literature.

Well, let them keep their snobbery. I advocate reading and writing in any form to create greater self-awareness and healing. It works. Let’s make it official. Hurry for bibliotherapy.

(For this post, I drew on Ursula Sautter’s Ode article “Reading, writing and revelation: How the written word helps refresh body, mind and soul.”)

March 6, 2011 at 3:29 pm
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