This article in the New Yorker “Can Reading Make You Happier?” introduces me to the concept of bibliotherapy in which reading is used as a route to mental well-being.
When I read New Yorker’s question: “Can Reading Make You Happier?” I thought “Can ice cream help lift your spirits?” and assumed the article would give me my favourite kind of research, the sort that gives me results I want to believe, feeds my confirmation bias and gives me a basis for piously telling others that reading isn’t an indulgence, it’s part of my mental health regime.
Except the article doesn’t really do that. It’s written in that anecdotal style that educated Americans see to use to make an argument. It speaks to personal experience of reading and discussing books, references Virginia Wolf and George Elliot directly and Italo Calvino indirectly on the nature of reading, thus establishing a sort of “literary erudition” for the article to stand on but then makes an arguement for reading as therapy which, apart from giving it a name “Bibliotherapy” remains unexplored, unchallenged and data free.
It pushes a book:
“The Novel Cure: An A-Z of Literary Remedies,” which is written in the style of a medical dictionary and matches ailments (“failure, feeling like a”) with suggested reading cures (“The History of Mr. Polly,” by H. G. Wells).
This seems to use novels the way Vianne Rocher use chocolates in “Chocolat”. and seems to me to be a form of magical realism.
Let me declare a prejudice. I am deeply sceptical of all forms of “Talking Cures”. I see therapy as having the same scientific validity as palmistry or reading the Tarot and I think it’s pitched at much the same market.
So, for me, saying reading novels can make you happier because it’s an “affective” bibliotherapy is a negative association that smacks of charlatanism.
That said, I believe that reading fiction, for some of us, is a necessary part of life. I use it to soothe, to excite, to distract and even to anaesthetise myself. It is the textual equivalent of anything from a cup of tea to a shot of whiskey. I also use it to help me imagine new things and explore old things, to maintain my empathy and improve my understanding. Increasingly, I use the discussion of novels as a primary means of socialising.
So, “Can Reading Make Me Happy?”. Yes. It can also make me sad or angry or excited or depressed.
What I can be certain of is that NOT being able to read novels would make me miserable.
Reading novels is no more therapy for me than walking in the rain or sitting in the sun or swimming in the sea or eating on a terrace watching the sun set over the sea. I do them because I want them, not because I’m fixing myself.