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What is Bibliotherapy?

Bibliotherapy, or guided reading, is defined as using books from a list created under the guidance of a subject expert in order to address a therapeutic need. It has been shown to help people when reaching a crossroads and facing critical decisions. A good book offering solace, enlightenment, and inspiration may become a factor in the healing process by presenting choices and pointing out a path, as detailed in our post related to the use of bibliotherapy for addictions including some literature on the subject.

How can books offer all this? Here are a few ways. Reading and discussing books will help you via

  • providing information and insight,
  • finding facts for solutions,
  • contemplating and offering dialogue on problems,
  • communicating new values and attitudes, and
  • learning about how others have faced the same problems.

My interests in the therapeutic use of books started over a decade ago. In my previous job I was looking up potential titles for clinical bibliotherapy at the Alcohol Library, requested by the clinical therapist author of Overcoming Alcohol Problems and the matching workbook for their next grant. She was interested in locating any material in the library that addiction counselors could hand over to their patients to complement the in-person intervention and/or treatment, following the classical definition of clinical bibliotherapy. Materials for this purpose include self-help publications, brochures, workbooks, and therapy manuals. I found out that many of these had been successful with problem drinkers and others with substance use problems, as well as with their families.

Reading about how others faced the problem of alcoholism and relating to it through shared experiences is rooted in the “Big Book”––or, as its original title goes, Alcoholics Anonymous: The Story of How More Than One Hundred Men Have Recovered from Alcoholism. Published in 1939, the first edition is a treasure nowadays, and the stories have inspired many people with substance use problems to quit and remain dry. The prescription is simple: read, digest, relate, learn, and change your life, with the help of a community of peers around you. A selection of 12-steps books and workbooks was an obvious choice for an addiction bibliography collection. Sorting through them was eye-opening as we developed a methodology.

Inspired to look for more, I discovered another approach via reading traditional literary works, such as fiction, poetry, and drama, i.e., the works of established writers and poets, a practice called developmental bibliotherapy. The method is based on a group session, where the moderator reads the text aloud and guides the conversation as dictated by the needs of the individual or group. Next, I found out about the licensed bibliotherapist training program in my native Hungary, where session moderators are trained for four semesters in psychotherapy, literary theory, and analysis in a master’s program. Addiction bibliotherapy presented a new focus for me, professionally and personally.

The rest is history. With the help of a Carnegie-Whitney grant from the American Library Association, we developed a program called Reading for Recovery (R4R) at the Rutgers Center of Alcohol Studies Library in 2015-2016. The LibGuide is still up offering easily discoverable, open-access resources. They aim to assist readers, including librarians and counselors, who are looking for information and guidance on the potential of bibliotherapy for treating addictions.

With addiction librarian colleagues on both continents, we decided to follow the Book Club model in our “live” sessions, but with a twist. We started to experiment with shorter texts at a time (e.g., a poem or short story), digestible in bits and pieces in an hour. Selected texts were complemented with a variety of support materials we developed, such as discussion questions or talking points, following the clinical bibliotherapy textbook-plus-workbook model. Take the addiction element out of the equation, and we have arrived at Books We Read and Summer Tales.

Is this classic bibliotherapy? Yes and no. Your reflection and contemplation providing new perspectives will have therapeutic effects. The experience is primarily language-based, inviting participants of a discussion group to a continuous, open dialog in order to reach a better understanding of the self. On one’s own, one can benefit from talking points to create a similar experience of reassessing situations. The goal is to activate the language and connect the content to one’s own life, either thinking together in a group or through a virtual dialogue between the individual and the text.

Without actually sharing details of unsharable personal life stories, participants in a group can use fictional characters from stories to talk about their deepest issues, avoiding any guilt or shame. The dialogue can start the process of reflecting on their own life, and then lead to a better understanding of the self and improved decision-making in the long run.

In bibliotherapy, everyone brings something to the table, including participants, the moderator, and the author. Discussions are far from resembling an English literature class. There is no single valid interpretation of the text for the moderator to approve. The text serves as a compass to guide us in getting to know ourselves.

“A text appropriate and effective for therapeutic purposes has the potential to evoke (positive or negative) feelings and experiences of the reader, to lead them to important understandings, and to become a catalyst for conversations and creative writing,” claims Judit Béres, the top Hungarian bibliotherapy educator (In Hajnal Ward, Judit: Tintásüveg, p. 16, translation by J.H. Ward).

The selected text is important, but so are the readers who contribute to the dialogue with their own thoughts as they discover their own feelings and try to make sense of the world around them.

Is bibliotherapy good for you? See for yourself in the LibGuide. Try reading some of the short stories and poems we selected for Summer Tales 2020 and 2021. Try to answer the questions, think about the talking points, and make up your own. Then find something to read and try to ask and answer some questions related to the text––at the very least, it’s guaranteed to distract from whatever problems you face!

If you do not want to take it too seriously, but still want to give it a try, the book The Novel Cure: From Abandonment to Zestlessness: 751 Books to Cure What Ails You is for you. A fun collection of book titles matched with ailments, available in most public libraries, can get you started.

If you are a student, find out if it’s worth spending your time reading rather than doing something else in your free time. Here, on the pages of Books We Read, we shared our experiences from the projects. We believe not only that we benefited tremendously, but that our readers did too. Check out the following posts: