The Millions has a thought-provoking article up about bibliotherapy. Like James McWilliams, I am rather skeptical about using books as actual therapy to solve problems and cure what ails you. Not that books can’t be therapeutic, they totally are, but I find it difficult to believe a single book can fix a therapeutic issue. As McWilliams says,

novels don’t work this way. They aren’t narrative prescriptions. Even when done badly, novels are artistic expressions necessarily unmoored from reality, expressions that ultimately depend on idiosyncratic characters who act, think, and feel, thereby becoming emotionally, psychologically, intellectually, and even physically embodied — quite differently — in every reader’s mind.

I also think to read in such a way does a disservice to literature because the novel is being forced to be something it was not intended to be. It narrows the possibilities of the book and it limits the experience of the reader.

McWilliams suggests that the premise of bibliotherapy is

to take down obstacles and march us towards happiness. Proof is how easily this genre of therapy veers into self-help territory.

And it does appear this is the case, at least in a pop psychology setting where the purpose is to sell books. There is much wrong with such an approach. It plays into the books as broccoli idea that there are certain books we should read because they are good for us, because, somehow, reading The Great Gatsby will make you a better person. Then of course there is the whole problematic, very American idea, that we should all be striving for happiness to begin with.

I think McWilliams makes a great point by stressing that every reader reads a book differently and to assume the prescription of a particular book will help with a specific problem is a huge presumption. In addition, such a self-help approach to literature

seek[s] to tamp down the very human emotions that literature dines out on: fear, insecurity, vulnerability, and the willingness to take strange paths to strange places… Being moved by fiction means being willing to be led astray a little.

Nonetheless, McWilliams says, and I agree, avid readers know how much books enhance our lives. We know that a book might unsettle us but because we read so much, the effect of the accumulation of our reading does tend to be comforting and therapeutic. This kind of bibliotherapy does not seek to solve specific problems. This kind of bibliotherapy, far from making us feel better and find happiness “should be to make us feel more, to feel deeper, to feel more honestly.” That’s the kind of bibliotherapy I can agree with!