Sunday, 19 April 2015

The Sunday Post: Bibliotherapy

In Asia, we’re used to supplementing antibiotics with a whole range of other therapies: Ayurveda, TCM, Malay Traditional Medicine, and so on and so forth. Now readers can try bibliotherapy: the prescribing of fiction for life’s ailments, physical, or emotional.  Or so bibliotherapists Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin suggest. They have collaborated on The Novel Cure, a pharmacopoeia – with a difference.
Rather than listing drugs, and describing how to use them, The Novel Cure suggests novels that may be used as salves for anything from abandonment, to zestlessness, as their subtitle has it, or from, say family, coping with, to family, coping without, and from cancer, having (quite ambitious, that one), to teetotaler, being a (in world of drinkers, so not, say in Malaysia, or Indonesia.)

Depending where you are, you may find physical copies of either the UK (Canongate) or US (Penguin) editions of The Novel Cure available in bookshops, in either paperback, or hardback, priced in local currencies, or, if you have an account with Amazon either in the UK or the US, you can download it as an eBook. It is also available in several Asian editions: in Korea through Random House; in Taiwan through Rye Field; in China through Horizon Media; in India through Roli Books.

Ella and Susan also offer an online surgery. To test it out, I sent in a request for help with an ailment I think often (mistakenly) bedevils writers and readers in Asia: the sense that all the action literature-wise, writing-wise and publishing-wise, takes place in London, New York, or, at a pinch, Sydney:

Dear Ella and Suse,
I feel very much like I am far from the centre of things, living on the margins. Can you give me literary solace?

On the Margins.

In return, I got an excellent prescription:

Dear Living on the Margins,
This is an ailment which many of us feel, even when some would say that we live in the thick of it. For some, living in the heart of London still feels marginal, as they may feel that way for social or political reasons as much as geographical ones. So this ailment is a very pertinent one for many of our readers. There are many books that investigate this feeling, from classic literature with books like Homer’s
Odyssey tackling the theme, to Remembering Babylon by David Malouf, in which an English boy is marooned on an island with only aborigines for company -  but when Europeans settle on the island he attempts to rejoin the European world, which of course is not easy. 

We think that what you need to read now, however, is the recently published An Unnecessary Woman by Rabeh Alammedine. The heroine of this ruminative novel is a Lebanese lady of 72 who has devoted her life to translating books into Arabic, none of which have ever been read by anyone else but her. Aaliya is unapologetically her own person, unattractively dressed, unfriendly to her neighbours, more able to inhabit the skin of an Alice Munro character than to be able to relate to her own mother or siblings. “I long ago abandoned myself to a blind lust for the written word. Literature is my sandbox … If literature is my sandbox, then the real world is my hourglass – an hourglass that drains grain by grain. Literature gives me life, and life kills me.” But her love of literature is what animates her and the book, and what shows that living on the margins can be true of anyone in any place, but it doesn’t make you any less important, or make your life any less valid, than the people that live in the very centre of it all.

Once you’ve read this, pick up the ever-brilliant Life: A User’s Manual by Georges Perec, in which Bartlebooth is the main character of a book full of people doing rather unnecessary and pointless things, living in the centre of Paris. Their worlds are rich, colourful and fantastical, but their directions in life are seemingly inconsequential. You will be heartened by this vicarious experience of a life at the centre of a great metropolis, and realise again that your own ‘marginal’ existence is no less valid than theirs.
Ella and Suse

We prescribe: An Unnecessary Woman by Rabeh Alammedine; Life: A User's Manual by Georges Perec

For more information on bibliotherapy click here.  Ella and Susan offer one-to-one sessions, which can be done either by Skype or by phone, even if you can’t get to London in person.