‘Book Doctors’ Say What You Need Is a Good Read
Bibliotherapists recommend tomes they think can help what ails you; finding calm in ‘The Old Man and the Sea’
Dutch novelist Mano Bouzamour at the Frankfurt Book Fair. Photo: Sarah Sloat
Dec. 18, 2016 3:05 p.m. ET
FRANKFURT—Depressed? Over-the-counter remedies abound, though some are hard to swallow. The 272-page “City of Thieves” by David Benioff, for example.
It is one palliative prescribed by Mano Bouzamour at the recent Frankfurt Book Fair, where he sat at a desk sporting a white doctor’s coat and stethoscope. The Dutch novelist, who has no medical license, was serving as a “book doctor.” After brief consultations with people who lined up in the cold drizzle outside a pop-up clinic, he pulled out a prescription pad and scribbled titles to alleviate readers’ woes.
“You need ‘The 25th Hour’,” he told an enervated university student, referring to a novel by Mr. Benioff.
“Great story. Punchy dialogue. A drug dealer gets sentenced to prison,” said Mr. Bouzamour, who recommended any Benioff title to cure listlessness and the blues.
At the session’s end, he couldn’t resist recommending his own novel, “The Promise of Pisa.”
“This book cures cancer!” he said, adding quickly: “But I hope you don’t have such a problem.”
Mr. Bouzamour’s act is part of a growing movement among bibliophiles who put the “script” in prescription by treating problems with personalized book recommendations. Unaffiliated with bookstores, these consultants—often called bibliotherapists—talk to clients about issues and suggest books they think can help. Consultations and recommendations go for varying fees, usually excluding the books themselves.
“We genuinely believe novels are a powerful thing,” said Susan Elderkin, a U.K. bibliotherapist. “People can glean a lot from a novel that can stay with [them] in a resonant way.”
At a turning point in life? Her service suggests “Bel Canto” by Ann Patchett.
Frazzled? Keep cool and carry Hemingway.
“So many people come to us with stress,” Ms. Elderkin said. “We find ‘The Old Man and the Sea’ is a very calming read.”
Stuck in a rut? Rose Macaulay’s “The Towers of Trebizond” works wonders.
She and her colleague Ella Berthoud have counseled thousands of clients since 2008 when they started their service, which is connected to The School of Life, a London-based learning and development center. They have added three colleagues and seen an increase in people asking for training to be bibliotherapists themselves, Ms. Berthoud said.
Their recommendations go heavy on fiction with an occasional dose of nonfiction, usually autobiography or a memoir. They shun self-help books.
“Reading a novel can affect a deep transformation, whereas reading self-help is talking to your conscious mind,” she said.
Customers seek help with problems ranging from procrastination to bereavement, but Ms. Berthoud warns bibliotherapy isn’t for everyone. People facing extreme situations or deep psychological problems are referred to a psychiatrist.
“Bibliotherapy is a good alternative to a psychologist,” said César Ferreira, who runs a bibliotherapy service in Lisbon. Whether it can replace professional help depends on the nature and depth of the problem, he cautioned.
Mr. Ferreira designs goal-oriented reading programs to address professional, personal and learning issues. Among his go-to books is Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning,” which he says encourages people to find clarity and purpose.
Tânia Montalvão, who consulted Mr. Ferreira when she wanted to reset her priorities, found the book “transformative.” Bibliotherapy seemed “a completely original idea,” she said, and the concept of using books as guideposts appealed to her.
The Book Pharmacy, based in Berlin, aims as much to bring readers the right books—like a personal librarian—as to tack an “Rx” to ex libris.
Founder Paul Leworthy said The Book Pharmacy dispenses a range of “detox” book bundles for people who feel like they have too much going on and need to take a break. There are “detox classics,” including epics like “The Odyssey,” and “detox-by-distraction” bundles of crime, romance or fantasy.
For stronger medicine, there is a “wellness” bundle that includes a day-pass to thermal baths outside Berlin with books “specially selected for their cleansing, soothing and revitalizing qualities.”
Caroline Donahue, a life coach who offers individualized book recommendations. Photo: Caroline Donahue
In the U.K., even M.D.s are recommending books. The Reading Agency, a charity, works with health professionals and libraries to offer “books on prescription”—reading lists to help patients manage different areas of health and well-being. These are mostly self-help but the agency also assembles lists of mood-boosting books, including one it puts together with a cancer organization.
The Reader, another U.K. organization, hosts reading groups for patients with dementia and chronic pain. “We concentrate on literature—not in a snobby sense but in a sense that everyone can connect,” said spokeswoman Emma Walsh. She said some chronic-pain patients respond better to reading in groups than to cognitive behavioral therapy.
Caroline Donahue, a life coach based in Los Angeles, offers fee-based literary “prescriptions” of mostly self-help and nonfiction, and hosts a free podcast along with her website, The Book Dr.
She got the idea to combine therapy with reading while working in a bookstore after completing a degree in psychology.
“People would come in and really open up about their lives,” she said. “It was a good training ground.”
Kathryn Hellwig tapped Ms. Donahue when she was struggling with whether to follow a boyfriend to Italy, and later in dealing with the loss of her parents while tackling a writing project about living abroad.
For her, consulting Ms. Donahue was a kind of alternative therapy, but more targeted.
“I’ve had my fair share of counseling and it helped for a period of time,” she said. But “I’m not a person who wants to pay for years and years and years of it.”
Many clients come to Ms. Donahue with relationship problems, or “lack-of-relationship problems,” she said. The tribulations of dating are a recurring ailment.
“Dig into a thesaurus,” Ms. Donahue advised a man dismayed by online dating. A virile vocabulary would work like steroids on his profile, she advised.
Back at Frankfurt’s book fair, some visitors—mostly publishing professionals—were also invited to don the doctor’s coat. One of them, book blogger Lizzy Siddal, fielded a request for a remedy for depression.
Her prescription: Thomas Hardy’s “Jude the Obscure,” a downer from page one that grows darker, ending in a tragedy.
“When you reach that tragedy, you will feel that nothing in your life can ever be as bad,” Ms. Siddal said. “And you will cheer up.”
Write to Sarah Sloat at firstname.lastname@example.org