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To Cure What Ails You, Bibliotherapists Prescribe Literature


Yes, books can be a window to the world ,but they may also offer a window to your own inner world. That's the thinking of Susan Elderkin. She is a bibliotherapist, and the cure she prescribes is literature. Elderkin has been offering the service since 2007 through the School of Life in London. We read about her in The New Yorker and wanted to find out more about the healing properties of literature.

SUSAN ELDERKIN: Books, we believe, can help you in many different ways. Sometimes it's a sense of company or solace that you're not the only one who's been in this situation or mental state, and sometimes books cure just through the rhythm of their prose. I mean, there are books which have a wonderfully calming effect on our pulse rate. Ernest Hemingway's "The Old Man And The Sea" always does it for me. You know, it totally stills me in some really beautiful fundamental way. And if you can't get up in the morning, the first few pages of "Mrs. Dalloway" by Virginia Woolf is always a winner for rousing you and throwing open the window into the sunshine.

MARTIN: I imagine people come to you with varying degrees of hardship. Are you ever concerned that, perhaps, someone is coming to you for a book recommendation and they should in fact be seeing someone who's medically trained? There are limitations, I imagine, to bibliotherapy.

ELDERKIN: Of course, and we're not trained therapists, and I think if somebody is very seriously depressed, yes, they need to go and get medical help. But we've had great success with books like the "Unbearable Lightness Of Being" in which there is a character with serious depression and people have reported that it was an enormous help in helping them to feel that they weren't the only person, they weren't going mad. And in fact, it can be a first step to recognizing that they need help.

MARTIN: Let's talk about how this works - the mechanics of it. You have your clients fill out a questionnaire. And I did this, and had to disclose my reading habits and what kind of challenges I may be facing right now so here it is - I, like so many of us, struggle with that whole work-life balance thing but also trying to be OK with the fact that most of the time it just feels imbalanced. And I used to read more than I do now, but I've got a 3-year-old and 1-year-old, and there's just not a whole lot of time.

ELDERKIN: Absolutely. I so know this element. I've been there myself. You said in your questionnaire that you're looking for short books.

MARTIN: (Laughter) Short, yes.

ELDERKIN: Which is certainly one way to go about it. It's not the only way, and I'll come on to that later. But I've chosen three books for you.

MARTIN: Oh, great.

ELDERKIN: The first one is a collection of short stories, so we can't get much shorter than that...

MARTIN: Love it, love it.

ELDERKIN: ...With the wonderful title of "Hey Yeah Right Get A Life" by Helen Simpson who's a British author. This is a collection of interlinked stories featuring a mother of young children, and this manages to capture that mixture of domestic bedlam which can go on when we've got lots of young children in the house and the struggle to maintain one's sense of self and a hold on one's intellectual being.

MARTIN: Love it. So that's not the book to read when I feel like I want to escape my life, but it helps me see myself in someone else's experience.

ELDERKIN: Right. Exactly, which is a good place to start. So then I thought I would give you something. This is more of an escape - "True Grit" by Charles Portis, which is a very pacey westerner. It features a young heroine called "Mattie" who's a plucky girl, who wants to avenge her father's murder, and she sets out to find somebody to help her do that. And the thing that I think that you may take from this is that she is extremely single-minded, and it occurs to me that if you are trying to spend quality time with your family in the time that you have off, you have to be single-minded about that. You know, when you're with your kids, you're with your kids. She is somebody who's very inspiringly single-minded about her business.

MARTIN: Very cool. OK. You got one more?

ELDERKIN: So I mentioned earlier that short novels is not necessarily the way to go.

MARTIN: You're going to make me read a long book, Susan. OK.

ELDERKIN: I might do it, Rachel. You know, there was a good reason behind this - is that you know, it takes some sort of effort to get into a novel. So if you're only reading short things, you're having to make that effort each time you open a new book. If however you read a great, big, fat thing, you make that initial effort and then you're hooked. That is the state we want to try and get you back into, so that you rediscover your love of reading. So my recommendation to you is a triology. It's a set of three books.

MARTIN: A trilogy? Susan.

ELDERKIN: Yes. It's by Sigrid Undset who is a Norwegian Noble Laureate, and it's called "Kristen Lavransdatter." And it's a historical epic set in the 14th century in Norway. It's a little weird to begin with, but then you quickly get your head around it, and it becomes very beautiful. Stay with me.

MARTIN: (Laughter) I'm trying.

ELDERKIN: The main character is again another headstrong, plucky vikingess, really. She's a tough girl. She has a difficult marriage. She also brings up six sons in amongst all this, so I thought, well, that will make you feel like having two small boys is quite a...

MARTIN: No big deal, yeah. Well, you have given me some assignments. Thanks so much, Susan.

ELDERKIN: Thank you, Rachel.

MARTIN: That is bibliotherapist Susan Elderkin. She's the co-author, along with colleague Ella Berthoud, of "The Novel Cure: An A-Z Of Literary Remedies." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.