If you can find it, the right book at the right time can be a balm. It can ease the rawness caused by, for example, a pandemic, abuses of power, or widespread social unrest. Partially, this is because reading offers a distraction or an escape. But, there are actually more reasons that the right book can help, and there’s science that backs them up.
The thing is, no one can tell you the right book for you. The right book for you will fit perfectly what you are feeling and thinking at this moment in your life. Those are things no one can know for sure but you.
There are lots of lists and recommendations out there for ideas. There are book blogs and best-of lists (I LOVE best-of lists). There are even “bibliotherapists” you can get in touch with. But, since reading is letting someone else’s voice into your brain, it comes down to you and the book.
Books as a prescription for mental health
One explanation, as well as a way to find the right book, is through bibliotherapy. This is the recommendation of books as a treatment for mental health concerns. It can be types of books or individual titles. Some practitioners have a list they recommend, while others provide personalized lists. The books usually have uplifting or inspiring messages.
Many have at least heard the term, but bibliotherapy has not been accessed in a widespread way. Which I get. Even though I am interested, I have not done the work to seek it out, either. Nevertheless, the concept of bibliotherapy is actually over three thousand years old. An inscription over the doorway of at least one Ancient Egyptian library read:
ψῡχῆς ἰατρεῖον = the house of healing for the soul
Research has shown that when properly done bibliotherapy is as beneficial addition to other forms of therapy. The benefits are also long-lasting. I hope it increases in popularity over the next few years, as large numbers of people grapple with the upheaval of the past year.
If you are interested, and can’t find a bibliotherapist near you, there are online options such as Book Therapy, which also offers small lists for specific topics like Happiness, Communication, and Parenting.
Reading as a flow state
One of the main reasons reading can be so calming is due to the concept of flow. Flow has been a study of positive psychology for years, and I think it’s something we should keep top of mind, as it has long-lasting effects. If you aren’t familiar, flow is the state of being so immersed in an activity that you don’t notice the passage of time. Experts have demonstrated the positive benefits of flow for performance in music, sports, yoga, meditation, gaming, and more.
For many, reading is a fast and easy way to enter a flow state. But, it can’t be any random book. I have seldom been able to find flow by reading something I have been told to read. At such times, reading can be torture. I’m thinking of you, high-school English.
Reading for pleasure has to be self-initiated.
At the library, when a parent is looking for a book for a kid that “isn’t a big reader,” I recommend they bring home a variety of books and leave them someplace their kid might come across them. A kitchen counter, or hall table. I tell them not to talk about it, and for Pete’s sake, don’t MAKE them read. No one will ever choose to read if it is not pleasurable for them, and a big part of that is choosing what appeals to you and hopefully finding that feeling of flow. Of course, if your parent suggests it, you are less likely to do it. I’m sure there’s science to back that up as well.
Reading with your gut
It all comes back to personal taste and personal circumstance. You have to go where your gut tells you to go. The gut is our second brain after all. If travel memoirs attract you, go that way. The same is true if it’s popular science, romance, or steampunk.
As someone who has dealt with anxiety and depression, I tend toward positive books when I am down. I especially love books with found families or weird characters finding their way. I find comfort in their relationships, or seeing a character build a life that works for them.
But, everyone has their own thing, and it’s important that you find what works for you. One person I know reads almost exclusively heart-wrenching historical fiction, about the Holocaust. She reads these books, has a good cry, and that’s how she processes negative emotions. Many, including book clubs, seek to shift their perspective and broaden their minds. They choose authors with other worldviews or books about other places or times.
Many people read dark, gritty books about murder, kidnapping, and other vicious crimes. Mystery, thriller, and true crime books are among the most popular genres at the library. This must be because these books satisfy a need to connect with the dark parts of our lives in a safe way.
Whichever way works for you is great. Things are hard right now. For many people it’s a dark time, so let’s share anything that helps us a little bit. One of those things could be the right book. I hope that you have things or people that help you, whatever they may be.
If you need help finding a book, let me know. Many local libraries will also provide recommendations over the phone and online. We can give you some choices. Then you can pick the right one.
Stay safe, stay sane.
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