Experienced readers know that books are good for the soul, and that can translate into improved psychological and even physical health. The Novel Cure by Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin takes that extra step made by some bibliotherapists, and suggests that particular books can be used to treat specific ailments. As their subtitle notes, they offer “from Abandonment to Zestlessness: 751 Books to Cure What Ails You.”
Should we believe these claims? I don’t know. I suspect that the results may vary significantly from reader to reader. But I do know that well timed books have cured me of many of the ailments listed in this book: anger, existential angst, broken spirit, falling out with a friend, guilt, hypochondria, failure to seize the day… I could go on. For each ailment, Berthoud and Elderkin describe a book or two or three. We get Crime and Punishment for feelings of guilt, Jane Gardam’s Old Filth for a horror of old age, or The Tin Drum and The Hobbit for being short. For being in a cult, the suggestion is Peggy Riley’s Amity and Sorrow and for a fear of confrontation we get My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok. Sometimes a character in the book suffers the same ailment more drastically than the average person. Sometimes he or she finds an elegant solution to one of life’s problems. In still other cases, the tone or style of the book is the antidote.
In addition to these prescriptions for specific problems, the authors add book lists for people in a variety of conditions or states of life. For instance, each decade of life gets a top ten list. They also include solid advice for readers with a variety of problems: being overwhelmed by one’s to-read list, having a non-reading partner, loneliness induced by a bookish life, or a tendency to either give up halfway through books or fail to give up on books that one doesn’t enjoy. All in all, the layout of this book is fun, and provides plenty of variety.
The list of books prescribed by the good doctors is impressive, including titles just barely released and classics that are unjustly neglected. I don’t know if they can cure all of your problems, but Elderkin and Berthoud are sure to add some carefully targeted choices to your reading list.
This book could prove very useful for groups, which might try asking readers to select one of the novels mentioned and report back on whether it helped with the ailment in question. Or it might be interesting for book groups to play further with the idea of bibliotherapy, perhaps using one of the ailments from this book as a theme for a month’s reading or a variety of ailments for a year-long series of selections. Put it to the test. If it works, I’ll send you the bill when you’re feeling better!