About The Author
Ella Berthoud (left) and Susan Elderkin bonded over books while studying literature at Cambridge University, sharing ideas and recommendations for many years.
Ella went on to study fine art and become a painter and art teacher, while keeping up her intravenous diet of literature through constant reading and listening to audiobooks. She lives in Sussex with her husband and three girls. Susan became a novelist (Sunset Over Chocolate Mountains and The Voices, both Fourth Estate) and in 2003 was listed by Granta as one of the Twenty Best of Young British Novelists. She also teaches creative writing and reviews fiction for The Financial Times. She now lives with her husband and son in Connecticut.
In 2008 they set up the bibliotherapy service at The School of Life in London, and since then have been prescribing books either virtually or in person to patients all over the world. Theirs is a medical handbook, with a difference. Whatever the condition, they offer a cure in the form of a novel - or a combination of novels - to help ease the pain. They also offer advice on how to tackle common reading ailments - such as what to do when you feel overwhelmed by the number of books in the world, or you have a tendency to give up halfway through. When read at the right moment in your life, a novel can - quite literally - change it, and The Novel Cure is a reminder of that power.
Below, we chatted exclusively to the authors about how literature really can cure problems, the therapeutic benefits of reading groups and how they produce tailor-made 'prescriptions' for their clients.
You can read more about The Novel Cure at the authors' own website, as well as some extracts below, including the Introduction, the cure for a Broken Heart, the benefits of Re-Reading and how to Seize the Day.
Author photo (c) Johnny Ring
Questions & Answers
There's a tongue in cheek element to your presentation of literary remedies - for example, offering Iain Sinclair's Downriver as a palliative for haemorrhoids - but you also seem passionate about the idea of literature as cure. Is there a sense in which you think the world isn't quite ready for a more serious presentation of book-as-remedy?
We are indeed passionate about literature being a cure for real problems, and the majority of the ailments - and their cures - in our book are absolutely serious, such as our cures for Depression, Despair, Divorce, Eating disorder, Fear of commitment to name just a few. But it's quite cheeky to suggest that we can cure physical ailments with novels so we have a bit of fun with those. The best literature doesn't take itself too seriously, after all.
But even with the physical ailments there's always a curative element to the cure - our cure for the hiccups, for instance, Philip Hensher's The Fit, is packed with practical suggestions about how to get rid of them, and although we've yet to test our cure for Constipation - Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts - it's certainly a book which will make you enjoy your time on the loo. In other cases we suggest ways of life that will lead to the eventual cure of the ailment. Haemorrhoids is a good example of this, actually. Reading Downriver won't make your haemorrhoids disappear immediately, but it may well have you walking excitedly around the country, and holding animated conversations with strangers, which in itself will lead to more walking, more exercise, a less sedentary lifestyle, and thus, ultimately, the disappearance of your haemorrhoids. Haemorrhoids sufferers also buy local anaesthetic creams, but we feel that Iain Sinclair does just as good a job at distracting your mind from pain, at a fraction of the cost.
Bibliotherapy has been used when working with children and in prisons. Do you think its use will become more widespread?
We certainly hope so. Self-help books have of course been big news for several decades now, but bibliotherapy in the form of fiction has until now only really been offered to children. Children are particularly responsive to stories as a way of 'showing' rather than 'telling' about an issue or predicament that they too might be experiencing. This isn't surprising as they learn by watching others. And although adults are less consciously on the look-out for role models to aspire to and for guidance, they can certainly have their perspective shifted big time by a powerful work of literature.
Great artists are the arbitrators of the human soul, they write about what it means to be human, about right and wrong and how to forge a path through life in a way that will fulfil us, while accommodating and respecting others. These are the issues that both children and adults who wind up in prison are struggling with - how to exist within a society in which you haven't yet found your place. Can you think of a better role model for how to stand up for what you believe in - even when everyone else thinks you're crazy - than Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird? Or how to reconcile yourself to the extraordinary grief and rage of losing your only son to the death penalty for murder than the humble, elderly priest in Cry, the Beloved Country? Children, and adults in prison, may be dealing with emotions that they can't control, let alone understand. For this you need literature which attains to the epic.
Do you get much feedback from your recommendations? Do 'patients' subsequently send in their own suggestions?
Yes, we encourage an ongoing email correspondence with our clients for several months after our session, and we frequently see them a few months after the first consultation for a follow-up. It's helpful to know how someone got on with the books we prescribed so we can continue to learn which books work for which sort of reader. Many clients tell us their own recommendations, particularly about books which have helped them at pivotal junctures in their lives, so yes, we are always picking up new tips from our clients and very much enjoy this two-way dialogue.
How do you whittle down areas in which there were thousands of potential candidates to just two or three choices?
Well, of course we have to use books that we know - there are always more books out there to read and discover! When we're working with individual clients, we start with the ailment or the yearning for a particularl kind of book; then we search for books that we think will work for them. The art of our job is to fit the right book to the right person at the right time, and though there may seem to be thousands of options, the subsets of choices get smaller as you work in reaction to what kinds of books that client is likely to fall in love with and be really gripped by. Everyone's taste is different. With The Novel Cure it sometimes worked the other way round - we knew we wanted to have Anna Karenina in there, and that it had a powerful transformative effect on the reader; but what was it best at curing?
Your suggestions tend to fall into the general category of 'literary fiction', eschewing fantasy, science fiction and including very few crime and thrillers. Do these not do the job as well? Or does it reflect your own reading tastes?
We love all genres of books, and don't eschew any kinds of fiction. Crime and thrillers on the whole don't tend to be healing books - violence and death may make for good escapism and distraction, but they are not so obviously positive and nurturing as other kinds of fiction. Our book is all about bringing positives into people's lives, stimulating them, moving them, exposing them to the human condiiton. Sci-fi can be incredibly mind-opening and transformational, though, and there is a good scattering of sci-fi in our book.
How do you decide if you think someone should read about a similar predicament to their own or go for escapism?
When we make prescriptions to clients after a bibliotherapy session, we always recommend eight books. So we would normally give them a mixture - some books for escapism and some that will allow them to explore their current situation vicariously. But it depends a lot on the personality type. We let them direct us, largely.
When you're reading are you always looking for ways to classify your reading to suit various 'ailments'? Does this detract from the pleasure of reading?
Yes, we do, but it doesn't detract from the pleasure of reading - it just adds another layer. We've really loved looking at books in this new way - especially old classics which we know well, such as Jane Eyre or Middlemarch or Emma. We allow a book to work its magic on us - if we don't do that, we won't know what sort of an effect it has on us. We still read for story, and the music of the words, as well.
Do you think reading groups have any therapeutic benefit, perhaps regardless of the book under discussion? Definitely. The gathering of friends under one roof, drawn together by any common ground, is a balm in itself. But when some great literature is thrown into the mix - or even some quite good literature - revelations can occur, and people can find themselves sharing previously unexpressed feelings and thoughts unexpectedly, and growing together as a group. A good novel will touch on the sort of deep emotions and subtle perceptions about being a human being that just don't come up in everyday conversation. The delightful thing is that you can expose as much or as little about yourself in your opinion of a character as you like. You can use it as an opportunitiy to talk
about personal issues and experiences, or simply to discuss the nuances of language.
Can you tell us more about your bibliotherapy service at The School of Life?
For some of our clients it is a reading-list service - people come to us who love reading but are, rightly, highly selective, and want ideas for books they may not otherwise find by themselves. We try to go against the grain a little in terms of what we suggest: if a novel is being read by all the book clubs, we probably won't bother to recommend it.
But for some it is more obviously a therapy - people come to us at a difficult time in their lives, or when they're at a crossroads. We often get people who are thinking about a change in career, and want fiction that opens doors, and encourages them to think outside the box. We also often get people who have been bereaved. Self-help books have their place, but literature is the place to feast on the really great minds.
We give tailor made eight-book prescriptions to our clients, and of course each prescription is different. So, for instance, for someone who is bereaved we may prescribe a couple of books which explore the feelings of a character in a similar position, and a couple of books which are pure escapism, in the genre they already like to read, be it literary fiction, historical fiction or sci-fi. Then we might give them a couple of books that open up some new, positive doors to help them move forward. We ask a lot of questions before prescribing so that we get a firm sense of what they will love. Reading time is hard to come by these days, and it's really important to be selective about what you read. Often the clients come back to us and tell us how they have got on with their reading, and we suggest a new batch, and so it goes on. Sometimes these relationships can go on for many years. It's really satisfying to watch someone be nurtured and stimulated by their reading life.