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  • Writer's pictureMac Ling

A Biblio-Prescription for What Ails You

"BIBLIOTHERAPY" [The first use of the word in its modern sense—describing books as prescriptions for specific ailments—hails from a 1916 Atlantic Monthly article entitled "A Literary Clinic"]

"To be interesting, a thought must pass through the mind of an interesting person. In the process something happens to it. It is no longer an inorganic substance, but it is in such form that it can be easily assimilated by other minds. It is these humanized and individualized thoughts that can be profitably held. Then it struck me that this is what literature means. Here we have a stock of thoughts in such variety of forms that they can be used not only for foods, but for medicine.  During the last year, I have been working up a system of Biblio-Therapeutics... A book may be a stimulant or a sedative or an irritant or a soporific. The point is that it must do something to you, and you ought to know what it is. A book may be of the nature of a soothing syrup or it may be of the nature of a mustard plaster."

LITERARY FICTION READING LIST You may choose to whet your reading palate this month with the following short story selections from global literature. Remember, it is not primarily the plots that will transform and stretch your mind; rather, it is the bizarre narrative voices—falling into the always imaginative, sometimes strange thought patterns of another person.

  • The Garden of Forking Paths (Jorge Luis Borges)

  • The Hunger Artist (Franz Kafka)

  • The Mark on the Wall (Virginia Woolf)

  • The Canterville Ghost (Oscar Wilde)

  • The Yellow Wallpaper (Charlotte Perkins Gilman)

  • The Distance of the Moon (Italo Calvino)

  • A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings (Gabriel Garcia Marquez)


What are some of the relationships and conflicts that have transformed you in the past? Can you find books or characters who illuminate these matters in unexpected ways? When you read the situation from another character’s perspective, you may find that it helps you to forgive yourself or someone else, to let go of hurt or to recognize that your own actions and feelings were justified and move forward.

Make a list of the transformative issues you are likely to encounter within the next year. For each, assign yourself an old or new book that involves the relevant emotions (and feel free to e-mail me for suggestions!). If you are at a loss, the non-profit Center for Fiction in Brooklyn, New York offers a paid bibliotherapy service called “A Novel Approach” that does just this, creating a reading list customized to your impending life events.


The impressively curated book The Novel Cure: From Abandonment to Zestlessness: 751 Books to Cure What Ails You, compiled by Ella Berthaud and Susan Elderkin, includes reading prescriptions that range from the recommendation of Thomas Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles for the affliction of "temptation to spill the beans" to Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children to help assuage the "birthday blues". If you can find access to this book for assistance with this exercise, please do—their recommendations span from ancient texts to modern novels, and you can use this list for a lifetime! If you're not able to find it, don't worry: The insights you have gained from your personal reading experiences are just as (if not more) valuable.

Identify 2 people you are close to (family, friends, mentees, etc.) who might benefit from a book recommendation about a particular personal challenge. Explain how you think your recommendation might bring them illumination or comfort. Then, ask them to "read it forward" by doing the same for 2 of their friends. Especially during this month, let's try to spread compassion as far as we can!


Toni Morrison’s Nobel Lecture (Text + Audio) Listen to Morrison’s soothing storyteller voice as you sit in the dark, focusing on words that feel strung together like careful beads. Afterwards, read the text and ruminate on her points. “Reading in the Age of Constant Distraction” by Maireed Small Staid (The Paris Review) Staid delves into the differences between deep reading and superficial reading and their varying effects on self-reflection and thought-building. “Does Reading Fiction Make Us Better People?” by Claudia Hammond (BBC) An admirably researched article with references and links to relevant academic studies.

"Can Reading Make you Happier?" by Ceridwen Dovey (The New Yorker) A comprehensive piece on the history of bibliotherapy, its psychological underpinnings, and its modern use. "Susan Sontag on Storytelling, What It Means to Be a Moral Human Being, and Her Advice to Writers" by Maria Popova (BrainPickings) Maria Popova writes with characteristic eloquence about Sontag and her belief that thoughtful literature "educate[s] our capacity for moral judgment."

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