Reading for mental health, but not ‘self-help’

Reading for mental health, but not ‘self-help’
Effexor is prescribed for depression, but a group of U.K. librarians have another suggestion: reading.
(Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

A good book is like good medicine.

This is the message that comes to us from assorted British health professionals, and reiterated last week by the U.K.’s leading librarians.


Why take a pill when you can pop open a metaphor? Why sit in line at your doctor’s office when you can be soothed by an uplifting story instead?

In the wake of a study showing that “self-help reading can help people with common mental health conditions,” the Society of Chief Librarians and the nonprofit Reading Agency came up with a list of 27 books to make you feel better.


“It is hoped those with ‘mild to moderate’ mental health conditions will try out the idea before turning to prescription drugs -- many of which can have unpleasant side effects,” the Daily Mail writes.

Most of the books on the list, however, are not “self-help” book at all, but works of fiction, history and memoir that have strong literary qualities and that are especially hopeful in their portrayal of the human condition.

There is, for example, Bill Bryson’s travelogue through the U.K., “Notes From a Small Island,” Armistead Maupin’s collection of novels, “Tales of the City,” and Salman Rushdie’s children’s book “Haroun and the Sea of Stories.”

And there’s E.H. Gombrich’s wonderful 1935 book “A Little History of the World,” which retells the story of several millenniums of the human experience. The Austrian art historian began the book as a series of letters to his granddaughter explaining his work. It’s a book that’s approachable, illuminating and, yes, comforting.


Going back in history, Gombrich writes, to the time of “grandfather’s grandfather’s grandfather,” is like falling into a bottomless well. “So let’s light a scrap of paper, and drop it down into that well. It will fall slowly, deeper and deeper. And as it burns it will light up the sides of the well… Our memory is like that burning scrap of paper. We use it to light up the past.”

Like many other books on the Brits’ feel-good list, Gombrich makes great use of metaphor and simile to take us to a simpler place -- his tone throughout the book is explicitly that  of an elder speaking to a young person. But I don’t think books have to be written to our inner child to make us feel better.

Just about any excellent work of narrative art can transport us away from tedium and sorrow, as Annie Murphy Paul wrote in an excellent piece in the New York Times last year. Among other things, she described how scientific researchers, using brain scans, have recently documented the power of evocative descriptions and vivid metaphors on our minds.

“Stories, this research is showing, stimulate the brain and even change how we act in life,” Paul wrote.


To read a good work of fiction is to be transported into the mind of another, or to see one’s world differently, or more deeply. In fact, even reading a “dark” work can be a liberating experience -- and perhaps a longer-lasting and more rewarding “high” than a “lighter” work can give us.

I can still remember the electricity that ran up and down my spine upon reading the opening pages of Thomas’ Pynchon’s masterpiece “Gravity’s Rainbow,” a notoriously difficult book: “A screaming comes across the sky.”

In a similar vein, I never felt quite the same after reading Don DeLillo’s portrait of the deeply troubled Lee Harvey Oswald in “Libra,” another dark and cerebral book. 

“This was the year he rode the subways to the end of the city…,” DeLillo writes, describing the young Oswald’s life in New York. “His body fluttered in the fastest stretches…There was so much iron in the sound of those curves he could almost taste it, like a toy you put in your mouth when you are little.”

I liked the intimacy of “Libra,” the way it took me into a tortured mind and showed me something human and unexpected there. For the days that I read that novel I stepped outside of myself -- and that, of course, is the kind of good medicine just about any good book can give us.


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