"Quinquireme of Nineveh" -- Peter Leyland
“Quinquireme of Nineveh”
I was reading a novel called Home by Marilynne Robinson and when I got to the end, I realised that it had in some ways improved my mental health by the process of bibliotherapy. By the end of this very engrossing and comforting book, my longstanding and recurring problems with anxiety and depression had been if not entirely put to bed, then given notice that I was not going to let them get the better of me.
Since publishing a piece for psyche.co last April about how one might use literature as the bibliotherapy defined by Montaigne, Plato et al, I have come across a number of articles and taken part in events which address the theme of how we can help our minds to heal through reading literature. The first article is by journalist, Josie Glausiusz, who had lost her young son to a rare form of brain cancer and who describes in her piece how poems had given her an anchor in her grief. I came across Josie’s article on Twitter, now known as X, and when I had downloaded it, I read the moving story of how she had sat by her son’s bedside when he was gravely ill and read to him his favourite works like Lewis Carrol’s “Jabberwocky” and extracts from the Just William stories by Richmal Crompton. She also read to him her own favourite poems like “Cargoes” by John Masefield. A phrase from this gave me the title for the piece.
In her article Josie went on to describes how she formed a WhatsAp poetry group which she called “Poetry is Medicine” and which she invited friends to join. She tells us about some of the poems they shared: “Late Fragment” by Raymond Carver, his last published poem, which dealt with being loved, as her son had been; a poem called “Theme in Yellow”, her son’s favourite colour, by Carl Sandberg; and “Moses” by Luis Alberto de Cuenca, translated from the Spanish. This was the poem that was most meaningful to her as it echoed the Torah portion of “BelShalach” which her daughter, the son’s twin, had read aloud while celebrating her bat mitzvah seven weeks before her son’s death. It is an extraordinarily moving piece of writing.
Twitter, or X , is a useful means of connecting people. I now follow Josie and I had noticed that she was traveling in Scotland near Inverness, an area I know well, so I hoped that the travelling helped her to deal with the grief she would undoubtedly still be suffering. I also follow Marina, a translator and author, and co-incidentally she sent me an article that she thought might interest me regarding my theme. This is a piece by Michael Schwaub, a journalist and writer about books, who had found himself suffering from a nervous breakdown and who had used novels successfully to help him get better.
Michael describes how when he was 19 he had suffered a depressive episode and came out it by returning to books by his favourite authors one of whom was Toni Morrison. This connected with me. Toni Morrison was one of the key authors in an “American Novels” course which I ran in the 1990s, covering great books like Shula, The Bluest Eye, Song of Solomon and Beloved. I can imagine that reading any of those books would have helped Michael to get in touch with himself again, to get back to enjoying the things that he used to love.
At this age Michael had been suffering from a condition diagnosed by his therapist as ‘anhedonia’, defined as a lack of interest in things that one previously enjoyed. Michael describes in his article how this depression returned to him 24 years later, along with anxiety and that this had caused a complete breakdown. His description had echoes of my own story referred to in the psyche.co article and I read on with great interest. What I found was that he couldn’t do very much during the weeks that he lay in bed recovering, but he could still read. He found a book by Ellen Cooney that he had himself once reviewed favourably and found a particular passage that had resonated with him: It was from a character in the book who was a hospital chaplain and who was speaking to his patient: “Please imagine what hope is, and please then have it”. Although the book, One Night Two Souls Sent Walking was unfamiliar to me, I was able to identify with the chaplain’s plea and its message that the patient would get better.
Michael Schaub ends his article by saying that he is not suggesting that books are a cure for mental illness, and I wonder if he is right? They can be, and some personal histories including my own, might bear this out, but I think that books are more than just a great resource when one is in need of a mental and emotional lift, I think there is something deeper happening. I did experience this uplift when I was reading Home as I said, but I wanted to discover the mechanism that enabled this to happen.
I found help with this idea when I attended a Zoom workshop run by Allan Frater, a psychotherapist who believes that reading can be transformative. He has written a book called Waking Dreams (2022) about how we can live a more imaginative life by using stories to assist us and the benefits of doing so. His book focuses on how we can use the process of reading a story as a framework to understand ourselves. He is interested, he says, in the effect that words on a page have on us and how we can transfer them to our everyday life.
In the workshop he asked if any of the the participants could describe a book they had read recently, and one person volunteered. The book she chose was a novel called Pew by Catherine Lacey. It is the story of a town where a stranger suddenly appears, waking up in a pew belonging to one of the members of the local church and the effect that this has on the townspeople. She, the participant, explained that there was some suspicion and hostility on the part of the townspeople towards the stranger. After her exposition, Allan asked her if she was drawn to identify with anyone in the story and she said that she had connected with the character who had shown the stranger some warmth and that this stood out against the ‘fakeness’ of the other people in the town. When Allan asked if it gave her a better awareness of how to live in a world where some people are ‘fake’, she replied that it wasn’t that the people in the story were bad people but that this was the culture of the town. It had connected her back to her own growing-up in a small town and had made her more aware of the process she had been through. From listening to the exchange, I felt that she was now better able to deal with any ‘fakeness’ in her own life.
I took away the processes from the workshop and wondered if I could apply it to my own reading of Marilynne Robinson’s Home. This novel is the story of a brother and sister who are looking after their ageing father. The brother holds a family secret that has shamed the father who is a pastor, and during the book the secret unravels. It is shown to be that the son had fathered an illegitimate child which had later died due to neglect and for which his wider family is partly responsible. The sister is in the position of observer and the story is told mainly from her point of view. She strives and mainly succeeds in curing her brother’s anger about what had happened in the past, which had been expressed by his abuse of alcohol, and to some extent she also succeeds in reconciling the father and his son.
If asked with whom I would identify in Home, I would at first have said the brother, but then on reflection I would identify with the sister who is so intent on keeping everything together and balancing the emotional friction and deep-seated anger between the father and his son. The sister’s nurturing role I would find more congenial than the wastrel aspects of the brother which I could never really find in myself. My nature I believe is more conformist. I had prepared for Allan Frater’s workshop by reading in advance a story called Bliss by Katherine Mansfield which he recommended in his pre-course handout. In the event it wasn’t needed because of the participant who came up with Pew, but I was suitably prepared.
My final example of bibliotherapy comes from my class of poetry lovers which has met each week on Zoom since we were forced to abandon our adult education classes during the pandemic. As this is now four years ago you may imagine we now know each other very well. We have been looking at poets from different regions in England and our choice of poet recently was Liz Berry from Birmingham, the Black Country, so called because of its industrial base. The process is that we each choose a poem, share our choice in advance and then read it aloud with each other online.
I had chosen “Birmingham Roller” about the fat pigeons that were trained by men to fly and tumble like acrobats over the terraces. I had to practise the reading beforehand getting the Birmingham accent as near as I could. Lovely lines were, ‘we’m winged when we gaze at you/ jimmucking the breeze, somersaulting through/ the white breathed prayer of January’. One member of the group who had seen Liz Berry herself at a live performance, read “Yam Yam’s Diner”, a vivid account of a day in the life of a waitress at a greasy spoon café. Another poem and the one which gave us most discussion was “The Burning” which we thought was very personal and related to the spirit of womanhood. The session was uplifting, and its sharing of ideas left me feeling a great deal better from the depressive episode which I had experienced. I was also immensely pleased when following this session, I noticed on X that Liz Berry had been awarded an Honorary Doctor of Letters by Wolverhampton University. I posted my congratulations to her and she thanked me in reply.
The question remains, however, what is it about those readings of poetry and novels that makes me, and other people, respond in the way that I have described? Is it the familiarity and comfort of a good book, the spiritual uplift that one sometimes gets from reading a poem, a sense of connection to the characters in a story; or is it a shared sense of something beyond ourselves that the work has revealed and enabled us to move forward? Reading through the examples that I have given it is the sense of sharing that resonates with me the most - the group poetry, the online workshop, and Marina sending me the piece about anhedonia. I would call it the “Quinquireme of Nineveh” from the John Masefield poem that Josie Glausiusz refers to in her article about her son. This is the element of bibliotherapy that I want to investigate further.
Peter Leyland 23/01/24
Opinion: Poems offered me an anchor as I lost my son so I shared them, by Josie Glausiusz, a journalist living in Israel, May 2023
The right book at the right time becomes a lifeline, by Michael Schaub, Globe,
Correspondent, May 2023
Fiction Therapy Gone Wild: New Developments in Bibliotherapy – Allan Frater, September 2023
***A book to look out for***
Bibliotherapy: the healing power of reading by Bijal Shah will be published in February and I hope to review it for AuthorsElectric