Have you ever thought a book could solve all your problems—if you only knew which one to turn to? Ella Berthoud, a bibliotherapist based in the UK, has a talent for “prescribing” books to people based on their ailments. At the Boston Book Festival’s virtual Bibliotherapy Event on April 23, she’ll be providing literary remedies for any and all existential anxieties or quarantine-related concerns (register ahead of time to send Ella your own grievances!). We spoke with Ella about how she became a bibliotherapist, the power of books, and what she’s been reading in these uncertain times.
How did you first get into “prescribing” books to people?
It all began at Cambridge University when I lived in a room next to [now author] Susan Elderkin, and we started to give each other books to cure each other’s problems, such as heartbreak, intellectual burnout, sense of inferiority, worries about being a writer, ambition, etc. We practiced on each other and on friends and family, and talked a lot about the idea of prescribing books and being book doctors at that time. I then became an artist, and Suse became a writer. I listened to books on audio over many years while Suse wrote. We carried on prescribing during that time. Then, in 2007, we met [philosopher and author] Alain de Botton at a party when he was starting The School of Life. We suggested the idea of bibliotherapy sessions at what was to become The School of Life, and he thought it was a great idea. We set up the bibliotherapy service and it became what it is today—a one-to-one session that lasts about an hour. We also do group sessions and sessions in front of an audience with an interesting person. We have traveled all over the world doing bibliotherapy sessions and been to many festivals where we do them, too.
How do you think reading can help people during these frightening times?
Reading is one of the best ways of staying calm. The very act of reading is meditative and helps to prevent stress – just six minutes of reading can be as calming as one hour’s meditation. Reading helps you to escape to new places, to take you into other worlds and better times, and to distract you from your current worries. Some people in the present worrying times like to read about pandemics, dystopias, and extreme versions of what they are living through to help them to deal with what is happening right now and feel better prepared. Others would rather escape into the past, or read romantic novels or more escapist literature. Whatever you feel suits you, sitting down with a good book, turning off the Wi-fi, disconnecting from your phone, and reading for at least half an hour is really therapeutic. Reading aloud with a friend is also a great way to be distracted. And listening to audiobooks while doing chores is another great way to enjoy literature. I personally love audiobooks and am addicted to them. I often spend longer cleaning surfaces just so I can hear more of the story….
What books or authors have helped you through the most difficult moments in your life?
Tom Robbins—Jitterbug Perfumeis one of my all time favorites. King Alobar seeks eternal life in that book, and he finds the secret to immortality—but then, 800 years later, questions whether he wants to keep it. It’s a book full of joy and verve and seizing the day. I love it and refer to it often.
The Moomins—I love them. Moominland Midwinter and Comet in Moominlandare my favorites, but I also love Moominpapa at Sea. All the Moomin books are full of wisdom and quirky characters – they look at human behaviour and make it funny and forgivable, and they also take you back to a happy, cozy world at the end… they are genius. Tove Jansson generally is a goddess.
The Master and Margaritaby Mikhail Bulgakov got me through traveling in Thailand when I was 18 and a bit scared of the unknown, and I have frequently returned to it ever since.
Far From the Madding Crowdby Thomas Hardy—I love the way he writes about nature, and he is brilliant on love and romance too. I often go back to him and I love to just open a page at random, read it and meditate on each sentence.