Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Fictional Therapy

These two look like they could use a little bibliotherapy.
Posted by Melissa Baumgart
No one said that the books we read this month had to be fictional, however, that has been my unspoken rule as I attempt to choose my four books.  Is it that fiction is more interesting?  Not always.  Is it that fiction offers an escape from the everyday?  Perhaps.  I actually think it is because fiction is so human, with the potential to be reflective and introspective.

I found an article from Psychology Today, titled "Novel Delights."  The author, Marina Krakovsky, begins by sharing that "a study at the Journal of Research in Personality showed that frequent readers of narrative fiction scored higher on tests of empathy and social acumen than did readers of expository nonfiction."  It makes sense, right?  Through reading fiction, we learn about people perhaps very different from ourselves, people that make choices we wouldn't make.  We are opened to their backstory and their inner thought process.  We get to catch of glimpse of why someone behaves a certain way, versus the snap judgements we often place on real life situations, where we are left to our assumptions of what motivates someone to do things we never would.

I just finished reading Number the Stars by Lois Lowry, for a Mother-Daughter book club I belong to with my oldest daughter, Lily.  It takes place in Denmark during the German occupation in 1943.  I got to see how a ten-year-old that doesn't think she could ever be courageous, finds that in herself.  I read and understood the motivations for making a difficult choice that risks your life and your family's.  I came to a new understanding of why a parent might lie to their child, to protect them.    

On the other hand, fiction might also bring us to a new understanding of our own life.  It could shed light onto parts of ourselves we unconsciously keep in the dark.   The Psychology Today article quotes a divorce lawyer, Jackie Stanley, that worked with couples about to take that step to dissolve their marriage.  She had all of her clients read Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy.  "It's a big, messy book, but it has the most meaningful ending in literature," Stanley says. Your life may be messy, but that's all part of the plot, she explains. "To get the full experience, you have to keep turning the page."  She claimed that reading this book helped her clients see past their current crisis.

Stanley later published her own book, a non-fictional tome about bibliotherapy, Reading to Heal.  Bibliotherapy has been mostly used with children, and there are lists available online for books to read to your toddler or pre-adolescent for various crisis from thumb-sucking to abuse.  The concept of book holding the power to heal emotional wounds has been around for quite some time, in Ancient Greece the quote "healing place for the soul" was often hung as a sign above library doors.

I think we all innately feel this to some degree when we read a book that engages us, that we find ourselves devouring in a matter of days.  It make me wonder about the "good books", the "best-sellers", the ones that seem to reach such a wide audience.  Do those books touch on a common thread of the time in which they exist?  Or are the characters archetypes for shared human experiences that span generations?

I also wonder if other art offers the same therapeutic benefits?  Say, watching a movie, perhaps.  Or better yet, a movie that was adapted from a novel.  I am likely thinking in this way because so far, both of my books are currently also titles in the theater.  In fact, I am toying with the idea of going to a matinee of The Descendants today.  You know, to test its therapeutic value.  Purely as a scientific experiment in regards to bibliotheraphy vs. cinematherapy.  Yes, there is a website on the topic.  But I have to say, at least bibliotherapy shows up on a search.

What do you think?  What fictional books have been therapeutic for you?



Shawna said...

Your post made me think of a wonderful memoir, _Reading Lolita in Tehran_, by Azar Nafisi ( In her book she talks a lot about the novel as a vehicle for creating/building empathy. The book also fiercely advocates for the liberating power of fiction and literature. Even though her book is not fiction, I highly recommend it.

Melissa Baumgart said...

Thanks for the recommendation, Shawna. I have thought about reading that book in the past. I totally agree with idea of "the novel being a vehicle for creating/building empathy."
Thanks for reading...