Once upon a time we gave novels to one another. Perhaps one of us needed some escapism, or a boost – or a gentle rap on the knuckles in the form of a cautionary tale. Then we started giving recommendations to friends unsure of what to read next. One day, we heard whisperings about a new, alternative educational establishment which believed in helping people answer the great questions in life. It was called The School of Life. We met and talked. We got them and they got us - and so the Bibliotherapy Service was born. When the School of Life opened its doors in 2008, we began to see clients – in person, by skype, in London, in Bognor Regis, Barcelona, Bangkok – for individual 40-minute sessions, after which we sent them a tailor-made eight-book prescription. We became so busy we took on a third bibliotherapist, ex bookshop-manager, Simona Lyons. Five years on, having tried and tested our cures, we have written an alternative medical reference book, The Novel Cure: An A-Z of Literary Remedies*.
A medical reference book, you say? Well, ok, there are a couple of differences. First of all, it does not discriminate between emotional pain and physical pain. You’re as likely to find a cure within these pages for a broken heart as a broken leg. You’ll also find cures for common predicaments such as moving house, looking for Mr/Mrs Right, or having a midlife crisis. Life’s bigger challenges such as losing a loved one or becoming a single parent are in there too. Whether you’ve got the hiccups or a hangover, a fear of commitment or a sense of humour failure, we’ve found a novel that will help.
The other difference, of course, is that we won’t be prescribing Paracetomol. No Milk of Magnesia, no unguents, splints or burn creams. Instead, our apothecary contains just novels: Balzacian balms and Tolstoyan tourniquets, the salves of Saramago and the purges of Perec and Proust. To create it, we have trawled two thousand years of literature for the most brilliant minds and restorative reads, from Apuleius, second-century author of The Golden Ass, to the contemporary tonics of Ali Smith and Jonathan Franzen.
Many decades before we found The School of Life and The School of Life found us, bibliotherapy had achieved popularity in the form of the non-fiction self-help book. But lovers of literature have been using novels as salves – either consciously or subconsciously – for centuries. Next time you’re feeling in need of a pick-me-up – or require assistance with an emotional tangle – reach for a novel. Our belief in the effectiveness of fiction as the purest form of bibliotherapy is based on our own experience with clients who’ve come to us through The School of Life and bolstered by an avalanche of anecdotal evidence. Sometimes it’s the story that charms; sometimes it’s the rhythm of the prose that works on the psyche, stilling or stimulating. Sometimes it’s an idea or an attitude suggested by a character in a similar quandary or jam. Either way, novels have the power to transport you into another existence, and see the world from a different point of view. When you’re engrossed in a novel, unable to tear yourself from the page, you are seeing what a character sees, touching what a character touches, learning what a character learns. You may think you’re sitting on the sofa in your living room, but the important parts of you – your thoughts, your senses, your spirit – are somewhere else entirely. ‘To read a writer is for me not merely to get an idea of what he says, but to go off with him and travel in his company,’ said André Gide. No-one comes back from such a journey quite the same.
Whatever your ailment, our prescriptions in The Novel Cure are simple: a novel (or two), to be read at regular intervals. Some treatments will lead to a complete cure. Others will simply offer solace, showing you that you are not alone. All will offer the temporary relief of your symptoms due to the power of literature to distract and transport. Sometimes the remedy is best taken as an audio book, or read aloud with a friend. But usually it’s a flesh-and-blood book to curl up with by yourself. As with all medicines, the full course of treatment should always be taken for best results. Along with the cures, we offer advice on particular reading issues, such as being too busy to read and what to read when you can’t sleep; the ten best books to read in each decade of life; and the best literary accompaniments for important rites of passage, such as being on your gap year – or at death’s door.**
We would like to thank The School of Life for giving us a platform from which to hone the tools of our trade – and our clients, past and present, for allowing us to experiment on them and for reporting back. We urge you to keep a copy of The Novel Cure in your homes or indeed about your person, in your car or your backpack, for small injuries and major life crises – for you never know when an ailment may strike. We wish you every delight in the fictional plasters and poultices you find therein. You will be healthier, happier and wiser for them.
*For die-hard fans of non-fiction, do not despair – non-fiction is still prescribed for those using the Bibliotherapy service.
**As PJ O’Rourke said, ‘Always read something that will make you look good if you die in the middle of it’.
Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin have been bibliotherapists for The School of Life since it opened in 2008. To find out more about the service click here.
Visit thenovelcure.com and follow their daily A-Z remedies for the next 26 days on twitter via @theschooloflife. And of course you can pick up your copy of The Novel Cure at The School of Life bookshop.