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The Novel Cure

Ottobre 2014
Un rimedio (letterario) per ogni malattia. È l’idea alla base di Curarsi con i libri (The Novel Cure), scritto da due amiche ‘biblioterapiste’ con lo scopo di consigliare il libro adatto per tutti i sintomi, con tanto di dosi e durata della cura. Un esempio? Per combattere la depressione la lettura ideale è L’insostenibile leggerezza dell’essere. Mal di testa? Provate Hemingway!

di Linda Ligios

File audio:

'Bibliotherapists' Susan Elderkin (left) and Ella Berthoud (right) in action.
'Bibliotherapists' Susan Elderkin (left) and Ella Berthoud (right) in action.

Many people believe in the healing power of books, but for two friends this belief was so strong that they invented a new profession. Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin are both "bibliotherapists": they prescribe books that help cure "life’s ailments," anything from a broken heart to shyness, hiccoughs and broken legs. The focus is on treating emotional issues, but physical problems are also included, even if the approach is less serious. A book prescribed for a broken leg won't necessarily mend it, says Ella, "but it can facilitate the mental process with healing thoughts."


The idea of becoming bibliotherapists first came about when Susan and Ella were students at Cambridge University. Susan wanted to become a writer but got demoralized. Ella suggested that she should read Archy and Mehitabel by Don Marquis. Marquis was a journalist at The New York Evening Sun and in 1916 he began writing stories about a cockroach, Archy, who wrote on a typewriter at the newspaper's office when the humans had left the building. Susan was inspired by this book and it clearly worked: she has since published novels like Sunset Over Chocolate Mountains and The Voices.


Ella and Susan realized that bibliotherapy could also work for other people. They started teaching and offering sessions at the School of Life, a cultural enterprise founded by the philosopher Alain de Botton in London’s Bloomsbury district. The School runs classes that address various issues such as how to master the art of relationships, how to achieve calm and how to deal with emotional baggage.


The success of their bibliotherapy sessions was such that Ella and Susan decided to write a book, The Novel Cure: An A-Z of Literary Remedies. It was published last year and it has already been translated into 12 different languages (with local literary additions), including Italian. As they prepared the book, Ella and Susan were helped by the fact that they are both voracious readers: Ella reckons that on average she has read two books a week since the age of 10.  


The Novel Cure's prescriptions include The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera (for depression),  Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (for broken hearts), Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen (for snoring), Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood (for victims of bullying), and Michel Faber's  The Crimson Petal and The White (for people suffering from a lack of ambition).  Audio books are also considered good for "patients," who are given instructions on the "doses" and the duration of the treatment. The Novel Cure has been so successful that Ella and Susan are working on a new volume, a list of remedies for children.   




Speaker: Justin Ratcliffe (Standard British accent)

Reading is not only very enjoyable, it can also be very therapeutic. This is the opinion of Ella Berthoud, who is the co-author, along with Susan Elderkin, of the book, The Novel Cure. The two authors also work as “bibliotherapists” at the University of Life in London’s Bloomsbury district. Here they suggest suitable novels for people who are having problems in life:

Ella Berthoud (Standard British accent)

There’s a lady in Australia who was really unlucky to lose her daughter when she was two, and also her twins were born dead, and she was really, really in a bad state, understandably. So we have used bibliotherapy to help her over a couple of years, and she has been very moved and helped by the books that we’ve given her. Of course, she is in a very extreme situation and she is married, so we’ve suggested reading aloud with her husband, and that has been really fantastic, she’s really loved that, and we’ve suggested a series of graphic novels to help, and also short stories and novels as well, as well as some self-help books, and she has really loved some of the novels. I think it’s always really interesting with someone like her that occasionally a book you suggest doesn’t work because you have to make a leap to get into a book, which you might not be able to do when you’re really traumatized, so there were a couple that didn’t quite work, but then there were about three or four books that we gave her over a few months which she was very moved by and very helped by, and which helped her to see that she could go on and that she would try again to have another child. So she’s been incredibly positive about the bibliotherapy experience, which has been really nice.


So why are novels so therapeutic?

Ella Berthoud

With a book, the fact that you have a private internal relationship with it – so it’s just you and the writer – and, when you read a novel, you’re inhabiting the psyche of the writer and of the characters. So that period of time that you spend with the writer, which can be quite long – it might be two days or it might be a month – can effect a sea change within your personality because you are effectively living the life of another person, and understanding what it is to feel like another person, to effectively be another person. So that’s why we feel it’s so profound ‘cause there’s no other art form in which you can be changed from the inside. And a self-help book is not the same at all because it doesn’t appeal to your imagination in the same way. It tells you things, but it works on your conscious side, not your subconscious, whereas fiction works on your unconscious.

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Her twins were born dead. I suoi gemelli sono nati morti. Di solito si dice her twins were stillborn, che è considerato un modo meno “pesante” per dire la stessa cosa.

To help her over two years.
Per aiutarla per un periodo di due anni. La parola over ha vari significati. Qui vuol dire “per un periodo di”.

Novels as well, as well as books...
Anche romanzi, oltre a libri... Qui Ella Berthoud dice as well due volte, ma non si sta ripetendo. La prima volta as well vuol dire anche, mentre as well as ha il senso di “oltre a”.