Yesterday at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival, I went to a session called Healing Words, which featured three writers discussing the power of words to help people deal with ill-health or emotional issues. It was a serious discussion, rather sombre in tone though Peter Goldsworthy did his best to lighten the mood. It wasn’t the sort of session where the audience dashes out afterwards to buy a book: I suspect that there was more than one would-be author writer from the audience who in question time told us that she wanted to write a book about her journey with mental illness…
By coincidence I have been reading The Novel Cure, an A-Z of Literary Remedies by Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin. This delightful book takes a much more light-hearted approach to bibliotherapy, (which is appropriate, since neither of them are qualified psychologists*). The book lists a splendid catalogue of ailments for which reading a book or two is the cure – of course I loved it!
Their mockumentary style can be discerned from one of the early footnotes, where they list the fourteen causes of anxiety:
10) Trauma, including abuse, and death of a loved one; 2) Relationship problems, either at home or at work; 3) Work/school; 4) Finances; 5) Natural disaster; 6) Lack of oxygen at high altitude; 7) Taking life too seriously; 8) Gnawing feeling that you should have read more of the classics; 9) Negative self-talk; 10) Poor health/hypochondria; 11) Taking too many drugs; 12) Being late/too busy; 13) Inadequate food, water, heat or comfort; 14) Threat of attack by wild animal/person.
Well, if you too suffer from No. 8, there is a literary cure for you and the bonus is that Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady ‘can be expected to ameliorate’ ten of these causes although they sagely advise that in the case of No. 14 ‘a novel of any sort is unhelpful, except perhaps to use as a weapon’.
There are of course more prosaic ailments, such as ‘appetite, loss of’; ‘coffee, can’t find a decent cup of, and ‘idiot, feeling like an’ as well as cures for personality defects such as ‘arrogance‘ (for which they recommend Pride and Prejudice, of course) and ‘jealousy‘, for which they suggest a less clichéd example, Venus in Furs by Leopold Von Sacher-Masoch. This willingness to range far and wide across the literary globe is one of the most refreshing aspects of this book: the authors are very widely read and especially pleasing is that there are numerous Aussie books included.
While I hope that none of my readers are suffering from ‘dictator, being a’, I’m sure that even those with only mild symptoms (see ‘control freak, being a’) will enjoy Ismail Kadare’s The Successor, and I would certainly endorse Daisy Ashford’s The Young Visters (sic) as a cure for ‘manners, bad’ which I read as a girl (though I can’t attest to how long the effect lasts).
There are times, however, when the authors go too far: there are occasional homilies inserted amongst the pages, and I take strong exception to the very idea that there is such a condition as ‘reverence of books, excessive’. Also, I suffer myself from ‘find one of your books, inability to’ but can only partially endorse their cure: ‘take inspiration from Borges and designate one room in your house the library’. Serious cases of this ailment require two rooms or more, and in my case, the building of a ‘branch library’ upstairs, (a renovation project yet to take place, but I am sure The Spouse will recognise the seriousness of my condition before too much longer. Perhaps when he falls over a pile of books in the hall…)
Do visit Sue’s review at Whispering Gums – she enjoyed it too.
*Anyone who has a mental illness should always be under the care of professional medicos.
Authors: Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin
Title: The Novel Cure: An A-Z of Literary Remedies
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2013
ISBN: 9781922 079350
Source: Review copy courtesy of Text Publishing