As a child, I was scared a lot. When I was seven we moved to a big, old house near a military airfield, and I would regularly convince myself that the planes I heard flying overhead at night were alien spaceships, that the scuffling birds in the sloped walls of my attic bedroom were the ghosts of previous inhabitants. I remember one completely sleepless night in the late nineties (I would have been between 8 and 10) after I learned from a boy in the school playground that some philosopher had predicted the world would end that day. I thought that if I stayed awake I could stop it happening. Another time, after about a week of refusing to walk past my bedroom window, I worked myself up into full blown, sobbing hysterics explaining to my mum that the pinkish shape in the window across the street was surely a ghost-boy, or a scary old man, watching over me (it turned out to be a lampshade). As such an anxious little girl, it was vital that I develop a strategy to help control my fearful imagination, and, luckily, I did: books. The ones that worked best were the ones that took place in imaginary universes completely removed from my own: Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights is the first I remember really loving so much that it hurt to finish it, and the Harry Potter books were a god-send. I spent countless nights hiding inside them, safe from the ghosts and ghouls in the world outside.
Since then, I’ve always thought of books as my escape route. I like to line my walls with them, carry them around with me, so that I know I’ve always got somewhere to go when things get bad, or scary, or just plain boring. Although they take up a lot of space within it, my little south London flat is a whole lot bigger for all of the books it contains: thanks to Daphne du Maurier it’s as long as the Cornish coast; thanks to Jean Rhys it’s as wide as the Sargasso Sea. My books help me feel safe and secure because (paradoxically) they have the power to take me somewhere else; it is this transportive, transformative power of books which I have always recognised and loved. Unsurprising, then, that when I first heard about the notion of ‘bibliotherapy’ I was instantly intrigued. In their book ‘The Novel Cure’, Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin attempt to provide a book to cure any ailment, be it psychological, physiological, or situational. For example, they suggest Charlotte Bronte’s Villette as a treatment for high blood-pressure, Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle as a cure for writer’s block, and Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina as a remedy for toothache. If you’d like to learn more about their work, do check out their excellent website here. Inspired by their theory, I thought I’d share some of my own tried and tested bibliotheraputic solutions:
Frightened/ Anxious/ Scared:
Little Women, by Louisa May Alcottt
Everything is ordered, everyone has their role, and Marmee is always there to make it better.
Northern Lights, by Philip Pullman
The lead character, Lyra, is bold, brave, fearless, and kind. Learn from her.
Harry Potter (all of them) by J. K. Rowling
These books have always felt like a bog warm hug to me. They remind us that friendship, love, and kindness will always overcome cruelty and small-mindedness (something we all need to try and remember, especially now).
Serious Concerns, by Wendy Cope
Cope’s heartfelt and funny verses always cheer me up.
Elegance, by Kathleen Tessaro
This novel tracks its protagonist’s use of fashion and style to recover and recreate herself after the breakdown of her marriage. It is heart-warming and hope-giving.
Cold Comfort Farm, by Stella Gibbons
Flora Poste’s no-nonsense, ordered approach to life is the perfect antidote to modern-day overwhelm. Plus the novel is completely hilarious.
Uninspired/Bored/In a Rut:
A Room of One’s Own, by Virginia Woolf
I’ve always found Woolf’s feminist call-to-arms for women writers extremely rousing and inspiring.
Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte
Jane’s strength of character and determination are enough to give everyone some get-up-and-go.
The Happiness Project, by Gretchen Rubin
This memoir entertained me, and helped me realise that I could make my life better, one tiny change at a time.