What’s the Perfect Book to Get Over a Breakup?

Alain de Botton has provided a valuable service: giving reading prescriptions for a “shelf-help” approach to everyday problems

Vincent Starr

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?

Most obviously, very wide reading. We look for someone with a finger on the pulse of what is happening in the world of literature, and what has happened. A kind of reader who reads, in the deepest sense—to be changed and transformed, to learn and to be energized and saddened, as appropriate.

We also look for some kind of therapeutic background, sometimes a degree or practice in psychotherapy or psychoanalysis. It just lends a theoretical background to recommendations.

What types of life issues can bibliotherapy remedy?

It could be anything from “I’m suffering in a relationship” to “I’m a bit bored” to “I’m lacking ambition,” “I’m too prey to nostalgia” or “I can’t get on with my children.” Whatever it is.

We have got some e-mails from irate bookstore owners who say, “We do this anyway. We love our customers and if they come in and want a book, we will recommend one to them.” But, with all due respect, I think what we’re trying to do is to go a little bit deeper than that. It will be a rare independent bookstore owner that is able to spend an hour with someone and draw up a 100-book reading list for him or her.

The following recommendations are written by bibliotherapist Ella Berthoud of the School of Life in London.

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What is a typical appointment like?

You come in. Normally, there has been a little bit of e-mail correspondence between the consultant and consultee. So, the bibliotherapist will know roughly what the areas of concern might be. Through conversation, the patient’s interests are teased out and a systematic reading program or reading list is drawn up. It depends—it could be that the meeting is the moment in which the reading list is delivered, the e-mail exchange having kind of revealed the dilemma quite simply. Other times, it might be a longer process, and the session is data gathering for that list to then be drawn up. It might be that you have had an interesting time and six months later you want to be guided with another issue, or you want to take your reading further.

Do bibliotherapists prescribe books with characters going through similar predicaments? What is the strategy?

Not necessarily. Things can be relatively counterintuitive. It might be that if you have a problem with courage, you don’t necessarily want to meet a character with a problem with courage. You might want to meet someone courageous.

It goes right to the heart of why we read. One of the reasons is we want to feel that we are not alone with an issue. But sometimes we want to understand the problem, and that’s a different thing. Sometimes we want a diversion from the problem, but a diversion that is in some way aware of the problem that it is trying to divert us from. There are different ways of coping. It is not just, I’m unhappily married; here is someone else who is unhappily married. Or I am bored, and here is someone else who is bored. It can be more imaginative.

What book has been the most therapeutic for you?

It all began with Proust [de Botton wrote a book titled How Proust Can Change Your Life.] Proust’s work In Search of Lost Time brought into focus for me all kinds of feelings and observations that I had long felt, but never grasped so clearly before. Reading his work was like putting on a pair of glasses and suddenly seeing the world more clearly.

This interview series focuses on big thinkers. Without knowing whom I will interview next, only that he or she will be a big thinker in their field, what question do you have for my next interview subject?

I guess I would ask, in what ways are you trying to change the world for the better? What is your method? And what is your diagnosis of the problem? What is wrong with the world, and what are you trying to do about it?

My last interviewee, Barbara Natterson-Horowitz, a cardiologist and author of Zoobiquity spoke about the benefits of doctors and veterinarians working together. If you were to bring into your conversation a related field that does not traditionally intersect with your own, what field might that be?

I think that medicine is a fascinating one to marry up with culture and the arts, the area that I know best. We are slowly remembering that human beings are whole creatures made up of minds and bodies. When we think about healing somebody, it tends to have to be the whole person. Serious people and serious culture have been ignoring this for about 100 years. It has been left to people on the margins of scholarly life to point this out.

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