Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

An Interview with Bibliotherapist Susan Elderkin: The Science of Better Living Through Literature

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Is it possible to fall in love with a service?

I’ve used books to help me survive every difficult period in my life, and I can always remember the book that got me through. I read Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice and Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone when I was studying for my final exams of undergrad. When I was about to teach in a classroom the first time, I read Mr. Pip by Lloyd Jones, and Gentlemen and Players by Joanne Harris. I brought Anil’s Ghost with me to the hospital when I went into labour. I’ve chosen books to match my situation, to escape, to show possible futures. There have also been times in which I’ve been overwhelmed, tried book after book, read the first pages and put them down again. I remember the relief of finally finding the right one.

Books help. So many of us know this intuitively. But here’s something that I didn’t know. There’s a service to help you to choose the right books. There are people who devote their time to making these choices, people who have training and insight into both psychology and literature. I’m in love. I read about bibliotherapy at The School of Life recently in a fantastic New Yorker article. Obviously, I emailed them immediately. Incredibly, they answered.

Here is my interview with Susan Elderkin, bibliotherapist at The School of Life and co-author of The Novel Cure: An A-Z of Literary Remedies

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Alexis: Could you describe the questionnaire by which you get to know your patients?

It’s a couple of pages long and asks about your reading history and current relationship to reading; your taste in books; and what challenges, if any, you’re facing in your life right now. Clients can answer in whatever depth they choose. We then have a one-to-one session with the client (usually via skype or phone) in which we explore their answers in a little more depth and find out what sort of prescription they’re interested in receiving and what sort of books (mostly fiction, with a little non-fiction; big meaty stories, or short poetic ones; a mixture of contemporary and classic; etc etc). Some people come to us because they are voracious readers and want to discover some new authors; some because they are overwhelmed by the number of books published these days, and want to make the most of their precious reading time; and some because they are going through something challenging and want to see what books can offer in terms of shedding light on the issue, or just helping them feel less alone. Usually it’s a combination of all three.

How well do you feel you need to know the individuals that you diagnose?

Susan: It’s amazing how quickly you can get a feel for someone when you ask them what books they’ve loved in their life – and what the last thing they read and loved was. It’s a fast track to understanding what makes them tick. The person who loves Haruki Murakami is different from the person who loves Carol Shields, who is different from the person who can’t get enough of Neil Gaiman. And the person who loves all three is different again!

How accurate are individuals’ conception of their greatest fears or preoccupations? How often do these fears or preoccupations change?

Diagnosing someone’s deepest fears is the job of psychotherapists, not bibliotherapists. We think of ourselves more as literary match-makers – helping people find the books that may shed light on a particular issue, in a voice that will appeal, and which they may not otherwise come across. Our mission is to bring people to great literature – the books that are truly inspiring and wonderful and transformative – books which don’t tell you what they do on the cover (unlike self-help books, which people can generally find for themselves.) There’s very little that you can go through in life which a character in literature hasn’t been through already – and literature has the advantage of all the experience being mediated through the mind of the writer. So you have company, and you have a new perspective. It’s like being able to live another life for a while, in the company of a brilliant and witty and incisive commentator.

Why do you think that literature works well as therapy?

We read for many reasons – for escapism and distraction, for the story, for the enjoyment of the prose... But whether we realize it or not, both the story and the rhythm of the prose get under our skin and profoundly affect us. How can we not be affected by something that is delivered brilliantly, and moves us, and shows us an experience we may not otherwise have had? We are what we read. Some books cure by shedding new light on an issue, some inspire you to do things differently, some offer solace by showing you you’re not alone. Some cure just by the way they’re written. I find reading the first page of Mrs Dalloway a great pick-me-up – it’s so enthused with the joy of being alive in that moment, and appreciating the way memory layers with and enriches our present. And I find The Old Man and the Sea a wonderful antidote when I’m feeling harassed by life. The prose is calming, and the old man’s take on life – that one accepts what life brings, and doesn’t lose hope, however hard it gets – is a philosophy that we can all do with being reminded about from time to time. The great thing about books is that they are cheap (or free), you can read them at your own pace, wherever and whenever it’s convenient for you, and you can raise and lower the dosage (and type of medication) at your own will. What could be better? How can we sit by when 2,000 years worth of great literature is buzzing away, full of ideas and thoughts and experiences regarding the nature of existence and what it means to be human – the stuff that we often do not think about or talk about in our day-to-day lives – and not want to plunge into it??

Is it generally best to have clients read about their own circumstances? Or is escape ever preferable?

This very much depends on the individual, and on the ‘ailment’. We have found – somewhat to our surprise at first – that those who suffer from serious depression will want to read something, if they can read at all, in which someone is suffering from serious depression also – it helps to feel that someone is willing to take you by the hand and keep you company in that bleak and awful space. Repeatedly, novels like The Bell Jar, and The Unbearable Lightness of Being will be named by people in this situation who’ve been helped by books. It makes sense to me now – books that are too light and jolly will only irritate and compound the feeling of isolation. But when one is stressed-out and anxious and convinced that everything’s difficult, well in that case one needs a book to remind you that you can choose to see the world differently. A book infused with a lightness of spirit such as HE Bates’s The Darling Buds of May may be just the thing.

This is a more personal question, but I’m so interested. How many new books do you read? Is reading for pleasure different from reading in order to prescribe?

I love to read so reading is always a pleasure. It’s true that I look for the potential curative value in everything I read now; but I think that has increased my level of enjoyment if anything. I generally read a couple of books a week – one in physical form, the other imbibed via audiobook as I’m driving or doing the cooking. My six-year-old son has been exposed to a lot of unsuitable novels because of this (a few days ago, a graphic mid-air mating scene in The Bees by Laline Paull). I would probably read all day every day if it wasn’t for the need to earn a living and look after children.

The New Yorker article mentioned regional variations in your book (The Novel Cure: An A-Z of Literary Remedies) once it went into translation. In therapy, do you alter your reading prescriptions based on a reader’s culture, primary language or country of birth?

Only in so far as it affects their taste. We did really enjoy the different ailments that were proposed to us by the editors of the overseas editions that have appeared though. The Indian edition contained the most new entries – arranged marriage, Indian stretchable time (particularly amusing to me and my husband as he is of Indian ethnicity), being obsessed by cricket, public urination. The Germans added hating parties and feeling that everyone hates you. The Dutch added having too high an opinion of your own children, and having too low an opinion of your own children. And the French added a lot of ailments related to love – having a complicated love life, having a roving eye, being unable to get over someone etc etc. It was so funny how all the cliché’s about a country came to bear. We of course included some particularly English ailments in the original English edition, such as Having a stiff upper lip, and Bad manners.

How many books do you generally recommend to a client? How long do you suggest readers take to go through the lists? Are they generally very long projects? Do you ever suggest a fast pace of reading?

I love the way you use the word ‘projects’ for this! And in your description of your own reading in your email. We generally recommend six books. Anything more than that starts to look a bit like a required reading list for school, and can be daunting. We don’t generally suggest a time scale, but we always find out when someone reads and for how long; and if they are struggling to finish the books they start, or to feel really transported by the books they read, we’ll advise them to read in longer and less interrupted blocks – giving a book 45 minutes at the first sitting, for instance, is a great way to ensure that you ‘get into’ the book. Reading for five minutes every night in bed and then falling asleep is not a way to get the best out of a book, or to give yourself the most rewarding experience. A reader who is in the habit of skimming, or peeping at the ending (!) or ‘skipping the descriptive bits’ will generally be prescribed something that demands that they slow down and read more carefully – because it’s hard to be really transported (and therefore transformed) if you rush a book. Jenny Offill’s recent novel, The Dept. of Speculation, would be a great cure for this habit, as it is written in fragments of one or two lines each which appear at first to be fairly randomly plucked from the author’s imagination but coalesce gradually into a thick soup of a story, with every fragment resonating and infusing the rest with meaning.

What else would you like Open Book Toronto readers to know about your practice?

We see clients from all around the world these days – generally on skype or by phone. We have grown our service since it founded, with two bibliotherapists based in the UK, two of us in the States, and one in Australia. This covers most time zones!

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I really believe in this idea. I’m currently reading A Novel Cure, and I bought a voucher for bibliotherapy for a loved one who’s about to go through a life change. I plan to have a bibliotherapy session as well, as soon as my son is a bit older and I have a bit more time to read. This life change that I’m currently going through has been a pretty big one. I just had a child. My life is massively different. I’m massively different. I’ve been split into about four people, it feels, and sometimes I don’t know whether any of those individuals would even like each other. None of them would want to be stuck in a room with my old self – that I know. I’ll admit that even though, rationally, I know that many people have gone through this and continue to go through it, at times I’ve felt like I’m the only one. It will be a relief to get a reading list from professionals. It will help, I think, to figure out where to go from here.

I’m amending my decision. I’m going to reach out before I have time to read more. Here’s the reason: I write novels. At least one of my new selves will continue to write. I’ve always felt that it’s my job to read as much and as widely as possible. I try to read across cultures, genres and styles, but sometimes I fall short, and I’m also limited in what I have access to. I can’t look up a book if I’ve never heard of it. This is a service that can help with this too. Bibliotherapists can help us to be our best selves. They can also help us to be our best writers.
I’m in love.

Here’s a link to find out more about bibliotherapy services.

Here’s a link to buy a session for a friend.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Alexis von Konigslow

Alexis von Konigslow has degrees in mathematics from Queen's and creative writing from Guelph. Her debut novel, The Capacity for Infinite Happiness, was recently called Arcadia for the connected age. She lives in Toronto.

You can contact Alexis throughout the month of September at writer@openbooktoronto.com

Go to Alexis von Konigslow’s Author Page