Endpaper Pradeep Sebastian

Word cures

The Novel Cure; Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin, Canongate Books Ltd, Rs. 1489.   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

When I heard that The Novel Cure was about something its authors referred to as ‘bibliotherapy’, I was naturally curious. At first glance in the bookshop, it seemed to be a literary list recommending books for various problems and ailments, both physical and emotional. Anything from loneliness to high blood pressure to being unable to finish a book to constipation! Reading as therapy — thus bibliotherapy. But spending time with the book and exploring its website, I realised this was more than a whimsical reading project — more than a fancy bookish idea — that its two authors had converted the imaginative notion of bibliotherapy into actual therapy practice.

The Novel Cure was a result of bibliotherapy practice at the Bloomsbury School of Life (where Alain de Botton, that other famous bibliotherapist, is also apparently a teacher) by Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin. They have, for some years now, addressed various ailments with remedies from fiction. In their introduction, they write: “This is a medical handbook — with a difference…Our medicines are not something you’ll find at the chemist, but at the bookshop…We are bibliotherapists, and the tools of our trade are books. Our apothecary contains Balzacian balms and Tolstoyan tourniquets, the salves of Saramago and the purges of Perec and Proust.”

To create this, the authors go on to say, they “have trawled two thousand years of literature for the most brilliant minds and restorative reads, from Apuleius, second-century author of The Golden Ass, to the contemporary tonics of Ali Smith and Jonathan Franzen. Bibliotherapy has been popular in the form of the non-fiction self-help book for several decades now. But lovers of literature have been using novels as salves — either consciously or subconsciously —– for centuries. Next time you’re feeling in need of a pick-me-up — or require assistance with an emotional tangle — reach for a novel. Our belief in the effectiveness of fiction as the purest and best form of bibliotherapy is based on our own experience with patients.”

Their website for The Novel Cure expands on this: for a literary site you’ll see unusual tabs like ‘Remedies’ and ‘Surgery’. Clicking on the first takes me to a literary definition of ‘Apathy’, and how the anti-hero of James M Cain’s noir classic, The Postman Always Rings Twice embodies the dangers and the thrills of apathy. The entry notes: “Indeed if one was to adopt his philosophy of life, you’d end up (as he does) with a price on your head and several angry women in hot pursuit. But the novel is written with such rattling exuberance that it’s impossible to read without becoming physically buzzed. By the end, you’ll be up and about with a bounce in your step, throwing caution to the wind in your determination to have a hand in fate, setting you on a more spontaneous and proactive — if slightly reckless — new tack.”

Clicking ‘Surgery’ opened to letters from readers describing their problem/condition/ailment and asking the authors what books the authors would recommend that might offer help or clarity or even therapy. “Whether you have a stubbed toe or a stubborn case of the blues,” the authors offer as an introduction, “within this website you’ll find a cure in the form of a novel — or a combination of novels — to help ease your pain. We have a selection of remedies chosen from our book, The Novel Cure, to give you an idea of what we’re all about, but if you don’t find what you are looking for just visit our surgery and request the answer to your own ailment — we always like a new challenge. You’ll also find advice on how to tackle common reading ailments, such as what to do when you feel overwhelmed by the number of books in the world, or if you have a tendency to give up halfway through. When read at the right moment in your life, a novel can — quite literally — change it, and The Novel Cure is a reminder of that power.”

The Novel Cure reminds me of the kind of lists Woody Allen used to think of in his prose pieces in the New Yorker, except the authors here are serious about making these bookish salves — at least half serious. For the most part The Novel Cure is good fun, allowing you a romp through contemporary fiction. It’s all quite addictive and the authors need to think of a cure to helping us get over their book or offer an even better remedy: a sequel.    

The Novel Cure ; Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin, Canongate Books Ltd, Rs. 1489.

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Printable version | Sep 24, 2021 7:51:33 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/columns/pradeep_sebastian/endpaper-word-cures/article6748642.ece

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