By Erin Reeve
Self-help books get a pretty bad rap. I know I feel pretty sheepish when looking through the self-help section of my local book shop, checking over my shoulder to make sure nobody I know can see me. So it was with a sense of trepidation that I went along to Books That Heal at the Melbourne Writer’s Festival. Was it going to be a bunch of lonely people looking for the secret to finding happiness?
Instead of a bunch of sad sacks, what I discovered was an intelligent discussion from Jane Sullivan, GP Jacinta Halloran and real-life Bibliotherapist (more on what that later) Susan McLaine, on the power of fiction (not self-help books) to change people’s lives for the better.
The morning started with the beautiful Joyce Carol Oates quote: “Reading is the sole means by which we slip, involuntarily, often helplessly, into another's skin, another's voice, another's soul.” Ahhhh…and so the scene was set for a thought-provoking morning.
The talk posed the question: is there any scientific evidence that reading is good for you? It turns out the answer is a resounding yes. Science backs up what I’ve suspected my whole life; reading has real benefits for the mind and body. The name for this is bibliotherapy: the practice of using books to improve people’s lives.
Reading not only relaxes your muscles it also lowers your heart rate and, as Susan pointed out, being read aloud to can be incredibly soothing. Listening to Jacinta, Susan and Jane had a similar effect on me, and I suspect the rest of the audience, as we were all lulled into a kind-of literary meditative state.
Most of the chat centred on the research behind bibliotherapy. For example, a University of Washington study showed that when participants read stories about compassion their levels of empathy and pro-social behaviour increased. What I found even more astonishing was a study run by the University of Massachusetts, which showed that prisoners who were part of a bibliotherapy program had a re-offending rate of 18.75 per cent compared to the non-readers who had a 45 per cent chance of re-offending.
This was demonstrated when Susan read out a moving excerpt from Nelson Mandela’s A Long Walk to Freedom, a book she herself had read to inmates as part of a prison bibliotherapy program. As she read I got a little chill down my spine and I was reminded of the power of a single story to bring about great change.
The audience were read various excerpts from books and poems that have been used successfully as part of bibliotherapy treatment, for everything from mild depression and anxiety to post-traumatic stress disorder and even dementia.
On the flip side, Dr Halloran told the audience how medical students at St Vincent’s Hospital are encouraged to read fictional accounts of illness to better understand what their patients are going through.
So it turns out I’ve been self-medicating with books for years. I might even be an addict. When I need cheering up? Alexander McCall Smith. When I need to get away from it all? Margaret Attwood. And if I just need a good cry? John Green will usually do the trick.
And the best part of all, thanks to the Melbourne Writer’s Festival, my reading habit is now backed up by doctor’s orders. If only I could start claiming books on health insurance…