Read ‘The Novel Cure’ If You’re Tired of Self-Help

This reference guide offers useful reminders for book lovers

Melissa Toldy
Oct 2, 2020 · 5 min read

How many books does it take to find your way in the world? Bibliotherapists Eliza Berthoud and Susan Elderkin recommend 751 novels “to cure what ails you.” Their collection — The Novel Cure — offers suggestions for problems as wide-ranging as “being judgmental” to “can’t find a decent cup of coffee.”

Before you run off to purchase this book-about-books, I will warn you: Do not make the mistake that other readers have made, by thinking that the authors will shield you from spoilers and important plot revelations. You will be disappointed.

The Novel Cure has occupied space on my limited bookshelf for five years now, so I feel confident writing about its merits. The bulk of my reading happens on my Kindle. (I check out titles from New York City’s vast online library, for free.) But there are some books that only make sense as physical copies you can flip through at random. The Novel Cure is one of those books.

Among the ailments covered, there are reading-specific ones, like, “having a non-reading partner” and “desire to seem well-read.” For the “tendency to live instead of read,” the suggested cure is “read to live more deeply,” elaborated further:

Books develop our capacity to be empathetic and nonjudgmental, to accept and honor difference, to be brave, to extend ourselves and make the most of ourselves. And they remind us that beyond the minutiae of life, there is another realm of existence common to us all: the mystery of being alive, and what that means. One cannot live fully without spending time in that realm, and books are our ticket there.

If you agree with that paragraph, it’s likely you’re an avid reader, and if so, you might enjoy The Novel Cure, as I have, not for its recommendations, per se, but for its commiseration.

When I first purchased this book, I approached the text as the authors intended. I looked up a specific ailment and read the so-called “tonic” qualities a certain novel would provide. For example, I looked up “low self-esteem” and found Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca. The authors gave this reasoning:

Watching Mrs. de Winter put herself down and compare herself unfavorably to the elegant, clever, beautiful Rebecca, her husband’s first wife, becomes hard to stomach after a while. If you’re similarly self-critical, you’ll blush in guilty recognition as you read, and swear to put an end to such self-destructive behavior once and for all.

I read Rebecca, and I was not cured of my low self-esteem. Does this mean Berthoud and Elderkin can’t be trusted? Um, no. I read Rebecca, and I found what all good literature delivers: a compelling interior landscape.

Unlike self-help books, literary novels don’t make any promises for the reader. You’re not guaranteed a happy ending. What you will find, though, is a window that widens your view.

The Novel Cure is a self-help book filled with 751 potential windows. If you’ve never looked at any of these windows before, the authors’ descriptions will probably mislead you. Take, for example, their cure for “lack of empathy” in The Stranger by Albert Camus:

…ask yourself if you felt anything for Meursault’s victim … If not, you need to read every novel we recommend in this book, for scientific studies have shown that reading fiction is the number one best cure for lack of empathy.

I shudder to think of a reader approaching Camus’s novel, bracing themselves for an empathy test. But if you’ve already looked at the world through Meursault’s eyes, reading this summation is strangely satisfying. For me, this is the real charm of The Novel Cure. It doesn’t work as a recommended reading list, but it works wonderfully as a reminder for book lovers. We’re reminded that reading about books is not the same as reading a great book.

There’s a lot of tongue-in-cheek humor weaved throughout The Novel Cure, and once I got hip to reading the recommendations for books I had previously read, I started to see the reference guide as a fun companion. For example, the authors restrained themselves when writing about Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. “We won’t give any more away,” they wrote, followed by:

Suffice it to say, we’re so sure this cure will work we’ll give our right arms if you still believe in the best of all possible worlds by the end.

The funny thing is, if you’ve read the novel, you understand the implications of giving your “right arm.” This book is recommended for “incurable optimists,” but I’m not sure if the brief paragraph would convince anyone to hunt down the book. (It’s wildly popular, actually, not much of a hunt.) However, if you love this book, as I do, seeing the title makes you want to revisit the story.

The Novel Cure is the perfect self-help book for people who are tired of self-help. The text points readers back to the original self-help genre: great literature. I like having this book on my shelf, so that any time I’m misled to believe that a single book can cure what ails me, I can look at the 751 titles inside, and I remember what I really want.

I want stories, not answers. Stories help me find connection. Stories help me feel less alone.

I love this paragraph, included in the cure “read to live more deeply,” especially the last line:

It’s simply not good enough to say you’re too busy getting on with the process of living to spend time reading. Because as Socrates was the first to point out, ‘an unexamined life is not worth living.’ Books offer a way of turning inward, reflecting, and analyzing the life that starts up again as soon as we emerge from the book. And besides, how much living can one person actually do?

Bookshop link for The Novel Cure


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