When times get rough, sometimes you wish you had just the right book to get you over the hump. Perhaps you have been laid off from work. What’s the best read to chart a new course? Or if a loved one has died, is there a story to help you grieve?
Alain de Botton, a firm believer in the healing power of books, argues that the books we read should not just be entertainment, or ways to pass an exam and impress the neighbors, but tools for tackling some or our deepest anxieties. “They should be therapeutic,” he says.
In 2008, de Botton, a philosopher and author of several of his own books, and a few partners founded the School of Life, a quirky storefront in the heart of London offering classes, dinners and sermons on “how to live wisely and well.” Since the school opened, one of its most highly demanded services has been “bibliotherapy.”
For 80 British pounds (about $125), someone can visit the School of Life, talk with a therapist about his or her struggles (for instance, raising a rebellious kid or balancing home and work life) and walk away with a prescription. For books, that is.
What is bibliotherapy?
We are all aware of coming across books that were particularly interesting or life enhancing. But we tend to come across those books relatively randomly. Someone recommends something. We bump into it. It happened to be on someone’s bookshelf.
What makes books good, generally, is we are reading them at the right time. And I think what makes books ineffective, boring or easily forgotten is that we have come across them at the wrong time. What bibliotherapy tries to do is marry the person up with the book that would speak to them at that time.
We live in a book-reading world, which is very dominated by the most banal of all categories: what has been published recently, and what is selling well. Why should it matter whether something is being read by a million people or three people? If it is interesting to you, that’s what matters—whether it was published just yesterday, a hundred years ago or 2,000 years ago.
In a way, bibliotherapy is about reorganizing how people come to books. It is about saying the thing that you should start with is yourself and the dilemmas in your life.
At the School of Life, there are three bibliotherapists on staff. What qualifies a person for this job?