Meet the people using books as therapy

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Roman philosopher Cicero once famously said: “If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.”

That line is from some 2,000 years ago, so it seems we’ve known the value of reading for a very long time.

And ever since books were invented, we’ve been recommending them to one another — whether it be passing comics around the playground, forming book clubs, and compiling lists of summer must-reads.

Lucy Pearson has taken those recommendations a step further.

Her job as a bibliotherapist is to prescribe a book based on your needs. A book to help you navigate and enrich your life.

Lucy Pearson recommends people books based on what is going on in their lives. (Supplied: Lucy Pearson)

“When you’re simply recommending a book to someone, you tend to just ask what sort of books they enjoy,” Ms Pearson says.

“With bibliotherapy, it’s getting a bit deeper into what the person might be looking to achieve through reading.”

She started practising bibliotherapy at her local bookshop in Bondi in 2020.

“You have to be able to sort of have an understanding of what someone’s going through and marry that with a piece of literature that might help,” she says.

Bibliotherapists say anyone can harness the therapeutic power of reading. (ABC Radio National: Simon Leo Brown)

Sparking conversation

But bibliotherapy goes beyond prescribing a self-help book, or simply recommending someone which books to read based on new releases or popularity.

Susan McLain, a bibliotherapist with the State Library of Victoria and podcast host, also practices bibliotherapy in group settings like prisons.

“What I do is select different literature, something really relevant and accessible … and I’ll use that as a way of having a conversation that the group members benefit from,” Dr McLain says.

“Stories and poetry are written in ways that help us feel emotions, and we will feel emotions when we read them … after we read them, we’re going to have a conversation about what comes up for us from the story.”

That conversation might be about resilience, or compassion, or love. Dr McLain says it depends what the group — and their psychologist — thinks is needed.

In one prison session, Dr McLain read aloud from My Left Foot, an autobiography by Christy Brown about his experience with cerebral palsy, to kickstart a conversation about unconditional love.

“It was creating that sort of gentle space that they needed,” she says. 

Susan Mclain is a bibliotherapist.(Supplied: Jasper Carn)

Dr McLain says people are often unsure about bibliotherapy at the beginning of her sessions — but that uncertainty quickly dissipates. 

Pointing to the prison example, she says the practice had a profound impact on inmates.

“It doesn’t take very long to understand the format of it … it was really rather beautiful, some of them would put their heads down on the tables and talk with their heads on their arms [after we read the literature].”

Dr Mclain says the prison psychologist also noticed the effects of bibliotherapy.

“The feedback very quickly was that it was making a difference.”

Who can be a bibliotherapist?

While Ms Pearson’s background is in book blogging, Dr McLain studied bibliotherapy formally in the UK — and she is working on a training program in Australia.

They both say that anyone can use literature therapeutically.

“Just reading a book to begin with — if you’re doing it to relax, or distract yourself — already that’s bibliotherapy,” Dr McLain says. 

“If you’re reading a self-help book that’s been suggested to you by a counsellor or GP, that’s bibliotherapy too.”

Interviews from this story first aired on the ABC’s WA Regional Drive program.

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