All about bibliotherapy: 10 lessons I’ve learned about healing & self-care with books

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“I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading! How much sooner one tires of any thing than of a book! — When I have a house of my own, I shall be miserable if I have not an excellent library.” 

― Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

I started Tolstoy Therapy back in 2012, sometime before I heard of bibliotherapy. But as soon as I came across the term, I knew it was what I had been doing all along: healing with books.

What does bibliotherapy mean? It involves storytelling or the reading of specific texts with the purpose of healing. It uses an individual’s relationship to the content of books and poetry and other written words as therapy. It’s a perfect accompaniment to writing therapy, or a great stand-alone wellbeing booster that’s been recommended by the NHS and even hospitals during WWI.

Bibliotherapy has been shown to be effective in the treatment of depression. From my own unscientific perspective, it’s also helped me through anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and something I haven’t shared with you before: my challenges in learning to navigate the world as a woman with high-functioning autism, or Asperger’s syndrome.

In my years as a reader so far, here’s what I’ve come to learn about healing and self-care with one of life’s very best therapists: a good book.

1. It’s not just about finding feel-good books – miserable Dostoevsky might be just what you need

I love feel-good books. I think back to reading The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson and can’t help but smile. I adored Three Men in a Boat, the English classic published in 1889 telling the humorous tale of a two-week boating holiday on the Thames.

Bibliotherapy can involve books that make you chuckle and forget your worries. But that’s only one part of it.

Bibliotherapy is about finding the books that speak to you right now. That might mean a feel-good book like Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, a relaxing guidebook of Buddhist wisdom like Zen: The Art of Simple Living by Shunmyō Masuno, or Notes From Underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky for a book to grumble along to.

2. The most unexpected books will change your life

Sometimes when I pick up a book, I feel the words coursing through my body and setting up home in my brain. After finishing the final page and closing it with a smile, I know that I’m a different person than before.

To find the books that unexpectedly change the course of my life, I can’t lose sight of the value of self-care with books. To benefit from reading, I have to actually read.

I need to get lost in bookshops and see what I discover, get Kindle samples of unfamiliar genres, and tune in to the books that are on the right wavelength for where I am now.

It’s only by immersing myself in the words of others that I can find the books that unexpectedly change me and my life.

3. The benefits of reading aren’t just from the words on the page

The benefits of reading form a large interconnected web – and I love every one of them. There’s the joy of immersing yourself in an imagined world, of course, but there’s also the act of reading. The benefits of reading also cover:

  • Where you read: Whether it’s a cosy sofa, a scenic train journey, or tucked up in bed, your reading nook is all part of the adventure.
  • How you feel as you read: Remember to get comfortable, breathe fully and deeply, and slow down to savour the words on the page.
  • How you find your books: Recommendations from friends, wandering around bookshops, ebooks you’ve stumbled upon by chance: finding the perfect book is a sort of magic.
The book that changed everything for me: Anthony Briggs’s translation of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, here in a clothbound edition.

4. Rereading brings back the magic you felt the first time

My favourite books hold special places in my heart. Now that I’ve tidied up my book collection and donated or sold hundreds of books I do not particularly love, they hold special places in my home, too. I’m more likely to pick them up to experience the same feelings all over again.

With time, I’m becoming less concerned with reading hundreds of books a year and more likely to reread those I know and love; it’s the literary version of my small circle of friends rather than a thousand passing acquaintances.

5. It’s so easy to fall out of the habit of reading

I sometimes go weeks without reading. I become too busy with work and forget to pick up books, especially fiction. I listen to podcasts before bed instead of finding a new imaginary world to explore.

As soon as I finally start a good book and find myself looking for any excuse to get back to it, I remember how happy and well I feel when I’m reading.

6. When I’m living well, I’m reading daily

Reading is my therapy and monthly appointments will never cut it. A book before bed is my best form of self-care. When I’m remembering to do this, I’m usually in a good place in life.

My current bedtime and hour-upon-waking book is The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker.

It tells the story of the Iliad as we’ve never heard it: in the words of Briseis, Trojan queen and captive of Achilles. Shortlisted for the Costa Novel Award, I’m so looking forward to writing about this novel.

The story of the Iliad as we’ve never heard it – in the words of a woman.

7. If I’m not reading, it’s time to sit and look at my life

When I stopped working full-time and started my own business back in May 2018, something unexpected happened shortly afterward – I suddenly felt incredibly creative.

I hadn’t even noticed my lack of inspiration and creativity until I regained it; waking up and wanting to write every day, read widely, and start new projects.

At this time I started, where I share my adventures designing a happy, rich and sustainable life.

I realised that if I’m not feeling creative and reading regularly, something is probably out of balance. It calls for time to sit down, pour a cup of tea, and look at the key areas of my life – health, love, community, creativity, mind and body – on paper and outside of my head.

  • What is calling out for attention?
  • What can I work on now to get back to where I want to be?
  • Am I remembering what’s important?
  • And how can I remedy this and find more time for self-care?

8. Don’t be afraid to jump between books

My mind jumps around, as do my feelings. Sometimes I feel like reading something completely different on two consecutive days. I can even change my mind during the same reading session.

Nowadays, I just go along with that. I’m fine with having 10+ books on the go on my Kindle. It means I can choose between an adventure memoir, feel-good novel, biography of a historical figure, guide to Zen living, or whatever else takes my fancy at that particular moment.

If you love Haemin Sunim and little hardbacks about living well, you’ll love this.

9. But keep one novel that you’re immersed in

Although I allow my in-progress non-fiction reads to pile up without any guilt, I usually have just the one novel on the go – or at least one that I’m immersed in.

One of my best-loved parts of being a reader is that focused joy of finding a book that you can’t put down; when I’m taking care of myself, there will likely be a book I can’t stop thinking about, talking about, and carrying around with me. It’s a special sort of love.

10. Writing about books is as much for me as anyone else

When I started this website seven years ago, I had no intentions of having any readers – as is the case with most people who simply love to write, I guess.

Listing quotes, curating my thoughts, and sharing the books I love are simply parts of my job as a reader; it’s work I hope I’ll always carve out time for.

With time, I’ve come to approach reading with a calmer composure and a larger measure of gentleness. I don’t need to prove myself on Goodreads by reading 200 books a year (or even remembering to update Goodreads). And I certainly don’t need to use reading as another reason to be hard on myself.

Reading is my self-care, my treasure trove of adventures, and my source of a thousand friends, therapists, guides, and teachers to help me along, day after day. I’m living a life with books right there alongside me – and that’s such a joyous thing to nurture and protect.


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