By Niall McArdle
Today is World Book Day, a celebration of reading. Every schoolchild in Britain and Ireland will be given a book token to encourage them to read and enjoy books of their own.
Reading is good for your soul, of course, and an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, so it seems apt that on a day that encourages children to learn to love books I should be reviewing two marvellous books offering “bibliotherapy”.
“One sheds one’s sicknesses in books – repeats and presents again one’s emotions, to be master of them.” D.H. Lawrence
Reading, as everybody knows, is a healing act. There are few things which will make you feel better about things than a good book. Bibliophiles Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin met at Cambridge, and “began giving books to each other whenever one of them seemed in need of a boost.” Having prescribed literary tonics to friends, they have taken their “bibliotherapy” to an extreme in The Novel Cure: An A-Z of Literary Remedies, a joyful collection of literary cures for every possible physical or emotional ailment.
The authors’ advice covers everything, from the minor, like being unable to find a cup of tea – their cure is to read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, whose hero, Arthur Dent, has to remember everything he knows about tea so that the Nutri-Matic drinks synthesiser can make him a decent cup, to the major, like dying – the authors prescribe Ovid’s Metamorphoses, in which we learn that “everything is mutable, nothing remains static, all beings pass from one state into another – not dying, but becoming.”
Writing with wit and style, the authors offers an eclectic range of books and show a healthily democratic approach to literature.
Are you a liar, unaware of the damage lies do? Read Ian McEwan’s Atonement, in which a child’s lie ruins several lives, including her own.
Suffering from unrequited love? Try Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto, Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd, and Turgenev’s First Love.
Having an identity crisis? Kafka’s Metamorphosis.
Feel yourself to be somehow different from others? Try Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex (a girl, Cal, discovers she is in fact a boy, and so sets about living life beyond conventional boundaries: “I’d like to have at my disposal complicated hybrid emotions, Germanic train-car constructions like, say ‘the happiness that attends disaster.’”), or John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces with its wonderful, grotesque, revolting, obese, dirty genius-hero Ignatius J. Reilly.
The authors have sound advice about, er, vices. Trying to quit smoking? In Tom Robbins’ Still Life with Woodpecker, a character meditates on and creates an imaginary world out of the palm trees and pyramids on a pack of Camels: she then can’t open the pack because it would ruin the illusion. In Patrick McGrath’s Asylum a compulsive smoker deliberately turns her head from an appalling and preventable tragedy so she can focus on her cigarette.
The cure for doing too many drugs? Irvine Welsh’s heroin tale Trainspotting, Huxley’s Brave New World (in which it’s mandatory to take the hallucinatory drug soma – “Christianity without the tears” – that leaves the novel’s protagonists so addicted they can’t be saved), and Bret Easton Ellis’ hedonistic Less Than Zero.
Their advice for people who fear they may be on the road to alcoholism comes in three parts. The first is to scare yourself silly by reading Stephen King’s shlocky pulp horror The Shining, followed by the radically depressing but still funny Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano (in which the British consul in Mexico gleefully drinks himself to a stupor before uttering his final words, “Christ, what a dingy way to die.”) The final part of the cure is to read John L. Parker Jr’s Once a Runner, a novel about the joy and pain of competitive running. “Let Once a Runner inspire you to change your relationship with your body completely.”
The Novel Cure also includes a selection of cures for various Reading Ailments, such as “Not knowing what novels to take on vacation”; “Reading-associated guilt”; “Having a non-reading partner”; and “Being a compulsive book-buyer” (take note, Cathy of 746 Books). All of their cures are filled with a mixture of love for reading and good old common sense. Their advice for “Reverence for books, excessive” is Personalise your books. “Books exist to impart their worlds to you, not to be beautiful objects to save for some other day. We implore you to fold, crack, and scribble on your books whenever the desire takes you.” If you are put off by an over-hyped book, they suggest storing it in the garden shed, preferably wrapped in leftover Christmas paper. Then: “when taking a break from watering the tomatoes one day, pick it up and start to read. The unexpected, unbookish surroundinsg will bring an air of humility to the book.”
There are some ailments that need more than one cure, so the book offers “Ten Best” lists. I’ll pick just one list as an example:
The Ten Best Breakup Novels
Call Me by Your Name Andre Aciman
Wuthering Heights Emily Bronte
The End of the Story Lydia Davis
This Is How You Lose Her Junot Diaz
Heartburn Nora Ephron
The Love of My Youth Mary Gordon
The End of the Affair Graham Greene
High Fidelity Nick Hornby
Fashion, and Jewellery Leanne Shapton
Anna Karenina Leo Tolstoy
Verdict: The Novel Cure is a book to have by your bedside in the case of any sickness, physical, psychological or spiritual. Highly recommended.
Novelist Alice Hoffman offers therapy and wisdom of a different sort in Survival Lessons. Several years ago, the author of Practical Magic, Turtle Moon, and Seventh Heaven was diagnosed with breast cancer, and during her treatment “I was looking for a guidebook. I needed help in my new situation. I needed to know how people survived trauma.” She wrote Survival Lessons “to remind myself that in the darkest hour the roses still bloom, the star still come out at night.” Fifteen years later, she’s a survivor.
Choose Your Heroes: Hoffman tells how as a girl her hero was Anne Frank, who she admired for her amazing optimism. Her other heroes are her mother and her grandmother (“if you’re lucky enough to have one person believe in you, you have it made.”)
Choose to Enjoy Yourself: Hoffman’s advice is to start with chocolate. She offers up a treasured recipe for brownies.
Choose Your Friends: “When you have a dinner party, only invite people you want to talk to …invite alive young people. Girls with pink hair who have big dreams. Young men who plan to change the world. Children who get into trouble at school because they have too much energy and too many ideas.”
Choose How You Spend Your Free Time: “Watch every old movie you’ve always wanted to see…Avoid anything focusing on death, sorrow, or illness.” I’m glad to learn that Hoffman is a big fan of Bill Murray.
Choose to Dream: “Plan the trip you always wanted to take. You didn’t have time before, you couldn’t afford it, you were afraid to fly. Now just buy the ticket and stop thinking so much. You’ll pay it off later. You’ll take a Valium. Now you know that you have to make a time.”
Verdict: Survival Lessons is a short, pithy book offering some sage and common-sense advice on life and love. At moments it might be in danger of Oprahitis, but this is still a warm, generous-hearted book: picking it up at random is like getting homemade biscuits and a big hug from your granny or favourite aunt, and there are times when we all need that.