Reading as Therapy – The Healing Power of Books

I love that moment after you’ve trudged through the first 20 pages or so and you are abruptly grabbed wholeheartedly by a book.  It robs you of sleep.  It keeps you from vacuuming and dinner may be late. Your email inbox is bloated to the point of rudeness or job threatening but will go unread, knowing full well it can’t compete.

You are on a journey to places, times, experiences – cathartic and transformative – where no plane will ever take you; you are empathizing with characters far from your sphere.  You can’t put the book down yet you dread the inevitable – that last turn of a page marking the end of your journey when you bid farewell to characters who have shared  their innermost thoughts with you.

But their voices may still ring in your head, some for the remainder of your days.  Perhaps it’s 6-year old Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird, or Wilber pleading with Charlotte, or Holden Caulfield, or for me most recently, the haunting prose of Tara Westover from her memoir, Educated.

In an article called Your Brain on Fiction, The NY Times says, “The brain, it seems, does not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life; in each case, the same neurological regions are stimulated.”

So reading grants us new experiences and increases our ability to empathize.  But here’s something you may not have known about the benefits of reading (I didn’t) — books are a therapeutic tool.  It’s called “Bibliotherapy”. There’s even a list of titles used as prescriptions for different ailments such as depression, apathy, fear, grief  (The Novel Cure).

In her 2015 New Yorker piece, Can Reading Make You Happier?, , tells us that  reading improves our mental health.  And some of us, she says, have been self-medicating our whole lives. “Reading has been shown to put our brains into a pleasurable trance-like state, similar to meditation, and it brings the same health benefits of deep relaxation and inner calm. Regular readers sleep better, have lower stress levels, higher self-esteem, and lower rates of depression than non-readers. ”

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Reading can also be a social affair.  My book club features all the important ingredients — zero pressure to have read the book, ample wine and food, and fun conversations usually unrelated to the book itself.  We have covered many different genres and most have been page turners.

So now that we retired Baby Boomers have more time to read, how should we pick books?

PBS just aired a show called The Great American Read. with Merideth Vierra who “takes viewers on a journey across the country to uncover the nation’s 100 most-loved novels.”   Chosen by a national survey, these books are featured with descriptors and endorsements by authors, celebrities, and regular book lovers.  There are 6 shows to be aired that will dig deeper into book themes and why we love this diverse list.  There’s also a Facebook page where people like us share and recommend titles.  (By the way, lest you think this is a high-brow list, 50 Shades of Grey made the cut right alongside War and Peace, and is not a tad embarrassed.)

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Also, PBS Newhour has joined forces with the NY Times Book Review to form an online book club called Now Read This.  They select a book per month and post discussion questions on Facebook.  You can also ask questions of the author who appears on the PBS Newshour at the end of the month to be interviewed by Jeffrey Brown.

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So let’s get lost in a book.  And not feel a bit guilty about doing so!

Oh the places we’ll go!

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Today’s Takeaway –

-If you’re like me, you have an annoying tendency to forget what you read! (Scary)  I recently started a google doc with titles and brief summaries.  This will hopefully prevent me from reading the same book twice!

-Find a fun book club if you don’t already have one.  Look for those key ingredients – no pressure, wine, food, friends.

Enjoy the ride!

xox Barclay and Joy

Want to take the quiz (below) and see how many of the 100 books you’ve read?  You don’t have to share your results!  I’m certainly not going to share mine!

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