Whatever your ailment, there’s a book that can help

As any Cambridge alumnus will tell you, whether your problem be moral, social, ethical or — frankly — hypothetical, a bit of ‘bibliotherapy’ can work wonders.

Image credit: University of Cambridge

We’re no longer quite sure which of us was the first to do it. But let’s say for the sake of argument that it was Suse who came back to her room one day in her first term at Downing College to find a book outside her door. It was a copy of Archy and Mehitabel by the satirical New York columnist, Don Marquis, famously written from the point of view of a cockroach who believes himself to be a poet. It didn’t take her long to realise who’d left it there — and why.

Ella was the only person who knew that she, too, wanted to be a writer one day — and that she would need the sort of determination and perseverance that Archy had in order to stay the course — even if it meant having to hurl herself head first at each typewriter key in turn. On the inside cover she’d written, “If Archy can do it, you can bloody well do it too.”

A lot of books went between us after that — Jane Eyre, Mrs Dalloway, Charles Bukowski’s Women. Some novels showed us someone going through what we were going through, and helped us to feel less alone. Some rallied and inspired; some warned us off. Some simply calmed and soothed with the rhythm and pace of their prose.

Seventeen years later, with English degrees and rather more life experience under our belts, we finally found a word for what we’d been doing: bibliotherapy. The concept dates back to the Ancient Greeks, but hadn’t hit the mainstream for several hundred years. So here we are, in 2017, handing out books instead of prescription drugs — and offering cures for your social, physical and psychological problems, wherever you are in the world.

Ailment: Daunted by your to-do list

Cure: The Martian (Andy Weir)

Illustration by Matt Blease

Many of us are regularly confronted with to-do lists that are so long, we’re paralysed before we’ve even begun. If this sounds familiar, read The Martian — the story of someone for whom completing their to-do list is a matter of life and death.

When a violent sandstorm hits the Nasa spaceship Ares 3 during a mission to Mars, the crew’s botanist, Mark Watney, is buried in Martian dirt. His fellow astronauts leave him for dead; but as Watney slowly emerges into consciousness, he’s struck by the grim realisation that there’s no food, air, water, radio signal or hope of rescue for another four years. Watney’s only chance is to put his formidable knowledge of plant and bacteria life to immediate use. Or, in his words, “to science the sh*t out of this”.

What follows is Watney’s indefatigable ticking off, item by item, of what is possibly literature’s most daunting to-do list. He must somehow turn the 31 days for which his “Hab” is designed to keep him alive into 1,412 days. First job is to stitch up the wound in his own stomach. Second is to create soil to cover the floor of the Hab, turning flammable hydrazine into water, encouraging earth-born bacteria to grow. Ultimately he must produce enough food for four years out of the 12 fresh potatoes thoughtfully provided by Nasa for the crew’s Thanksgiving meal.

Most people would just curl up and submit to an unpleasant death. But Watney greets each task with impressive zeal. With occasional glimpses of an agonised Nasa watching from Earth, and the light relief of seeing Watney torment himself with the only entertainment available, Seventies TV, we root for the cowboy spaceman all the way. By the end, your own list will seem laughably easy.

Ailment: My Cambridge contemporaries are all so much more successful than me

Cure: This Book Will Save Your Life (AM Homes)

Illustration by Matt Blease

The tendency to compare ourselves unfavourably to others is hard to avoid these days. Every half hour our computers ping us a Facebook status update announcing somebody’s self-proclaimed perfect day in their self-proclaimed perfect life, accompanied by a smiling couple on a white, palm-tree-fringed beach or up a skyscraper in New York. It’s enough to make you want to live inside a hermetically sealed box, unplug the computer and put on a noise-cancelling headset.

This is, in fact, what the protagonist of AM Homes’s book, Richard Novak, does — though for slightly different reasons. Since leaving behind his four-year-old son, Ben, after a divorce 13 years ago, Novak has lived in a glass box house, his life representing everything artificial about modern-day LA. The only people he sees are his housekeeper, his nutritionist, his masseur and his personal trainer.

But one day, Novak starts to feel again — beginning with an undiagnosed physical pain. Gradually, people start coming into his life: Anhil, the owner of the donut shop, Cynthia the put-upon housewife, and his ‘startlingly sexy’ movie star neighbour, Tad. The next thing he knows, he’s breaking his own rules — drinking coffee, snacking on donuts, bursting into tears… and he doesn’t care what anyone thinks.

Gradually Novak rediscovers an appetite for living his own life. Soon, this turns into an urge to be heroic — to rescue abducted women and save people from themselves. When his son Ben, now 17, pitches up on his doorstep, Richard is ready to rescue the most important person of all.

You’ve only got one life to live, and comparing yourself to others will only lead to dismay. By all means notice the achievement of your peers, and your own — but then turn your attention back to the job of living instead.

Ailment: Feeling like you don’t read enough

Cure: The Uncommon Reader (Alan Bennett)

Illustration by Matt Blease

Let’s be honest: we suffer from it too. Part guilt, part yearning, the feeling is perhaps an inevitable part of being a reader, unless you have no job, a broken leg, and live either alone or with someone who doesn’t mind your mental absence (eg a dog). We spoilt many a reading moment fretting about this ailment…and then along came this witty novella and banished it forever.

When a travelling library parks behind Buckingham Palace one day, the Queen goes in to apologise for her barking corgis — she only borrows a book (by Ivy Compton-Burnett) out of politeness. The truth is, she’s never had an interest in reading. But brought up to finish “what’s on one’s plate”, she reads the Compton-Burnett, and follows it with a Nancy Mitford. Soon there’s no stopping her, and she takes off on a delightfully random reading extravaganza, devouring everything from Jean Genet to Anita Brookner — and wishing she’d started earlier.

Through books, the Queen discovers what it’s like to be ordinary. Books do not ‘defer’ to her, like everyone else does; to books, all readers are equal. And in a lovely example of bibliotherapy at work, she expands her understanding of human nature and learns to empathise. None of which goes down well with her equerry, Sir Kevin, who sees how books are distracting her from her public duties (she gets very good at waving while reading as she parades down the Mall).

Sir Kevin’s concerns are not misplaced. The more she reads, the more the Queen starts to question what she’s doing with her life — and of course when you’re the Queen, such thoughts are problematic. Read this novel to reassure yourself that you’re reading just the right amount. Any more, and you may inadvertently turn your life upside down.

Ailment: Hubris

Cure: Station Eleven (Emily St John Mandel)

Illustration by Matt Blease

Back in the day, an individual suffering from hubris — overly confident or impressed with him or herself — would receive a stout put-down from the gods. Nowadays, we must look to our partners, family and friends to correct us when we get too cocky. But where do we go for our put-downs if, in these days of technical audacity, hubris has infected us all? To literature, of course — and post-apocalyptic novels such as Station Eleven.

When world-famous heartthrob, Arthur Leander, suffers a fatal heart attack while playing King Lear in Toronto, everyone is in shock. But Leander’s death turns out to be the prelude to a disaster of far more epic proportions. A fatal strain of flu is sweeping the world. Told of its spread as he tries to resuscitate Leander, trainee paramedic Jeevan stocks up on essentials, filling seven trolleys at a corner-shop. Then, holed up in a penthouse flat, he watches as civilisation implodes.

Fast forward 20 years and we find a very different world. Countries, as such, no longer exist and modern technology is inoperative. People scavenge and kill to survive. A prophet emerges who takes brides against their will, while claiming the ‘collapse’ was God’s way of purging humanity of their arrogance, his own hubris a twisted echo of Leander’s. But there is also Kristen who, as an eight-year-old, shared the pre-apocalypse stage with Leander in Toronto. As she recalls the end of the old world in flashbacks, she and a travelling troupe perform Shakespeare in an attempt to salvage the best of humanity’s legacy.

Read this novel to remind yourself of all that is worth preserving from the realm of art and our better natures. But also to ward against the feelings of omnipotence that man’s achievements can inspire in us. What is there to be proud about if all — or nearly all — is so easily lost?

Ailment: Flat bicycle tyre

Cure: The Old Man and the Sea (Ernest Hemingway)

Illustration by Matt Blease

One minute you’re pootling your way merrily down Sidney Street, whistling to yourself and marvelling at the fact that you’re in good time for your supervision at the other end of town. But then you feel the dreaded bump-bump-bump of metal against tarmac. You look down to see your back tyre slouching towards the ground…So much for punctuality.

Do you curse, kick the bike and rage against fate? Or do you possess a strange sagacity born from the happy knowledge that you are like Santiago in Hemingway’s famous novel, to whom nothing is too great a setback? For once you have this tale at your mental disposal, all impediments, great and small, will be met with equal composure — to be analysed, observed and borne.

Santiago achieves his remarkable equilibrium after living a long and simple fisherman’s life in Cuba. Now an old man, he has been unable to catch a fish for 84 days. Nonetheless, he keeps going out in his boat alone, determined that this will be the day when his luck changes. And then he does indeed hook an 18-foot marlin.

The marlin, however, has other plans, and leads the old man a grim, three-day dance that ends with the fish being devoured by sharks while still attached by a line to his boat, even as a battered Santiago makes it back, barely alive, to his village. Physically, he’s ready to collapse on his bed — but mentally, spiritually, he’s been made stronger and more noble by this ultimately hopeless fight.

Accept the pain of wheeling your bike to the nearest verge, getting out your repair kit, and quashing your reluctance to dirty your hands. Infuse yourself with the spirit of Santiago, knowing that this setback will lead to greater depths of wisdom and forbearance — even if the puncture ultimately defeats you and you end up calling a taxi.

Article by Susan Elderkin and Ella Berthoud.

Susan Elderkin (Downing 1987) and Ella Berthoud (Downing 1987) are the authors of two bibliotherapy compendiums, The Novel Cure and The Story Cure (both Canongate). They run a bibliotherapy service at Alain de Botton’s (Caius 1988) The School of Life.

This article first appeared in CAM — the Cambridge Alumni Magazine, edition 81.