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Anxious? Depressed? Literate? Try Bibliotherapy

August 17, 2012, 12:00 AM

What's the Big Idea? 

 One of the unfortunate early casualties of a data-driven world is anything that can’t easily be measured. The great promise of the recent push toward the collection and analysis of “big data”  is scientific reproducibility. If we collect enormous data sets on how millions of people behave, we can more consistently produce things they want and need. The illusion – created in part by the marketing advance guard of the data-mining firms – is that we’re already there. 

But many valuable things remain unmeasurable, and though we may be eager to transcend once and for all the dark ages of human superstition, we’re foolish and premature when we dismiss intuition entirely. As generations of book lovers will tell you, literature transforms us. If pressed to say exactly how, most of us will mutter something about perspective or the experience of entering another person’s consciousness. But all would agree that our best-loved books have in some significant way changed us for the better. 

Author Alain de Botton (Religion for Atheists, How Proust Can Change Your Life) and his partners at the London-based School of Life have taken this intuition a step further. Their “bibliotherapy” program matches individuals struggling in any aspect of their lives with a list of books hand-selected to help them through tough times. You get your reading list after an initial consultation with a bibliotherapist in which you discuss your life, your reading history, and your problems. 

[VIDEO] Alain de Botton on Bibliotherapy

No, there’s no training program – the three bibliotherapists currently on staff include a longtime small bookstore owner, an author and an artist. And of course, they’re all avid, lifelong readers. No there’s no objective measure of the results – all the (abundant) evidence of bibliotherapy’s efficacy is anecdotal. And no, bibliotherapy is probably not the best remedy for schizophrenia. 

What it does offer is distance from and perspective on your troubles as you view them through the lens of other people’s lives. The people are mostly fictional (though some non-fiction is also prescribed) but they’re dealing with issues just like yours and almost certainly approaching them differently.  

Inflexible thinking is characteristic of both anxiety and depression, the two most common psychological complaints. In their non-clinical forms, these ailments are self-perpetuating because the sufferer is locked into thought-patterns that reinforce them. While unproven, literature’s rumored power to reorient and rewire these patterns is certainly worthy of future study. 

In the meantime, the “shelf-help” program has a growing fan-base among Londoners who appreciate its relatively low-cost, non-medicalized approach to the anxieties that are characteristic of modern life. And for those dubious of literature’s healing power, the School of Life also offers walk-in talk therapy, a program which also treats a certain degree of psychological suffering as a normal, everyday occurrence. 

[VIDEO] Alain de Botton on how Proust can change your life

What's the Significance?  

What’s remarkable about the School of Life’s approach is that it flies in the face of modern Western society’s expectations of expertise and empirical evidence for the efficacy of any service more serious than a manicure. It offers alternative models for relieving our troubles at a time when professional industries and drug companies have billions invested in the notion that they, and only they are qualified to do so. 

But as Big Think blogger David Berreby recently pointed out, psychology is one science in which knowledge claims are particularly tough to verify, there being so many variables involved in human thought and behavior. 

Bibliotherapy is a rare and refreshing acknowledgement, in this age of the algorithm, that there’s quite a lot we still don’t understand, and that we’ve got other options besides suffering in silence while waiting for the science to catch up. 


Follow Jason Gots (@jgots) on Twitter

Image credit: Shutterstock.com



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