• "Read a book and your life becomes so much richer and more exciting – it’s very consoling." (Hilary Walker)Source: Hilary Walker
Does reading fiction have the ability to make us happier, less stressed, or cure a broken heart? School of Life bibliotherapist Sonya Tsakalakis believes so and prescribes literary remedies for five common human conditions.
Mariam Digges

15 Apr 2016 - 7:53 AM  UPDATED 15 Apr 2016 - 12:28 PM

Aristotle called reading a healing pleasure. From a very young age (mums are now encouraged to read to their unborn babies in utero), books have the ability to expand our vocabularies, our minds and our understanding of the world. They can entertain us, help us sleep and keep our brains sharper for longer.

For those who want to read themselves happier, stress-free, or into becoming a better version of themselves, the natural inclination has historically been to venture down the Self Help aisle. But a bibliotherapist will tell you it’s simply “shelf help” you need and that non-fiction doesn’t necessarily hold the answer.

“It’s so easy: read a book and your life becomes so much richer and more exciting – it’s very consoling,” explains Sonya Tsakalakis, a bibliotherapist at The School of Life Melbourne.

Trained at the School of Life London under the tutelage of bibliotherapist royalty Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin (author of the best-selling The Novel Cure: an A-Z of Literary Remedies), Sonya harnesses genetic counselling skills from her former life to build a rapport with clients.

After completing a questionnaire about their reading habits (both at present and from their childhood) clients then sit down to a one-on-one literary counselling session to divulge what is going on in their personal life, and what they’re hoping to get out of reading.

“It’s a holistic approach,” explains Sonya. “There’s usually a life challenge that brings people to bibliotherapy. It could be midlife angst, it could be career change, or it could just be literary indecision. They’re usually feeling uninspired and need direction.”

She then compiles a personally-curated reading prescription for them, featuring a rich selection of material that is tailored to where readers are up to in their life’s journey. The list spans everything from fiction, to poetry, to translated works, the classics, contemporary titles and Australian fiction.

“I always include the Russians,” Sonya admits. “There’s something about Chekov and Dostoyevsky – Virginia Woolf was a great fan of the Russians, too. She said they were eternal enough and sober enough and deep enough to express life for all of us. I think I’ve prescribed Chekov’s short stories to most of my clients. I don’t think you ever come out of reading Chekov the same person as when you started. He writes with such simplicity but it’s also kind of hard to digest. He’s captured life’s conundrums really well.”

I’ve prescribed Chekov’s short stories to most of my clients. I don’t think you ever come out of reading Chekov the same person as when you started.

While Sonya is one of only a handful of bibliotherapists working in the country, the practice is becoming increasingly popular; bibliotherapy is even the theme of the 2016 Sydney Writers’ Festival.

It may seem a novel concept, but reading for therapy and healing can be traced back to the first libraries of Ancient Greece. Later, following World Wars I and II, it received further attention when soldiers who returned with posttraumatic stress disorder symptoms were prescribed books as a cost-effective alternative to traditional treatments, writes Zipora Schechtman in his 2008 book Treating Child and Adolescent Aggression Through Bibliotherapy.

Using fiction, poetry and other high quality literature, bibliotherapy helps readers connect with emotional experiences and human situations through the process of identification. Take young Harry Potter readers in Europe, for example; in a paper published by the Journal of Applied Social Psychology, young adults in the UK and Italy who read the J.K. Rowling series were found to have more positive sentiment towards minority groups such as refugees.

Schechtman puts it down to the idea that reading aids our ability to identify with literary characters. By exposing ourselves to a wide range of emotions – some of which we may recognise in ourselves – we increase our empathy for their happiness and their suffering.

If we read the right materials, we can change our beliefs and correct bad habits, Schechtman believes.

For those who have recently experienced grief, Sonia recommends Elizabeth Smart’s 1945 novel, Grand Central Station.

“The way she captures this fiery, intense, doomed love affair is so beautiful. The musicality of it is quite consoling – you get that extreme of the heights of passion and then the depths of despair when love goes wrong.”

To a mother in New York living with the daily stresses associated with new parenthood (Sonya also consults to international clients via Skype), she prescribed Dorothy Canfield Fisher’s The Home-Maker.

“It’ll distract her for a while – she’ll be so lost in the satire of New York in the 1920s and 30s; it’s a total pleasure read.”

If we read the right materials, we can change our beliefs and correct bad habits.

For readers who are after the literary equivalent of a chamomile tea to unwind for the day, Sonya suggests The Summer Book by Finnish author Tove Jansson: “It’s a beautiful book about a grandmother spending the summer with her granddaughter on an old unspoiled island. The writing is very sparse and beautiful.”

Melbourne writer Steven Carroll’s wartime love story, A World of Other People was prescribed to a client experiencing a broken heart. And for holidaymakers who are wanting to fast-track the unwinding process, Rachel’s Cusk’s Outline has been known to do the trick.

“Dedicating just 30 minutes a day to reading for pleasure can be very transformative.”

The School of Life Melbourne has announced an event with Susan Elderkin on 24 May 2016. For more information on The School of Life and Sonya’s bibliotherapy sessions visit www.theschooloflife.com.au

Love the story? Follow the author on Twitter: @MariamDigges

Green therapy: how getting out in nature can save your brain
We know that going on a hike or swimming in the ocean makes us feel good, but getting closer to nature may also make our brains healthier, helping to reduce depression and stress, increase our attention spans, and even make us more creative.
6 toxic relationship habits most people think are normal
What is normal in a healthy and happy relationship? Psychological research over the past few decades throws up some principles that actually go against what is traditionally considered “romantic” in a relationship.