Reading for Healing

Reading for Healing


In January this year I met author, Bijal Shah, on Zoom to discuss Bibliotherapy: the healing power of reading which was soon to be published. For an hour we discussed her book and my interest in bibliotherapy, and she agreed to send a copy for me to review. As my AuthorsElectric readers know I have written a number of pieces on the subject in the past so here goes: 


I had originally encountered Bijal through a course called "Book Therapy" that had appeared online in the midst of the pandemic lockdown of 2020 and which my wife, had bought for me as an Xmas present. Bijal’s course was linked to a thesis by Kelda Green who had investigated the link between Seneca, and Stoicism and modern psychological therapies. Kelda Green had connected these to the writings of a variety of classical authors, particularly George Eliot and Wordsworth. The work of both writers had been invaluable aids to me at various points in my life and, as I sat at my screen in the midst of the lockdown completing Bijal’s course, I was able to discover anew how reading literature, particularly novels and poetry, could lift one out of the doldrums often encountered in life and through a healing process regain one’s sense of equanimity. 


The book arrived on my doormat in February and I read eagerly about the author's background and how and why she wrote it. Born in a Jain community in Kenya, coming to England as a child and training to be a counsellor, Bijal recounts her own early acquaintance with bibliotherapy through the personal essay style of Montaigne. She goes on to tell us of her own teenage reading of Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss with its story of Maggie’s search for approval; and of her later experience of the emotional difficulty caused by the breakup of a relationship. She shows at this point how writing her own poetry helped her to recover, something with which I was able to empathize.


After an explanation of how bibliotherapy works, Bijal details Caroline Shrodes’s, contribution to the idea: the reader experiences a shock of recognition when they see themselves reflected in the character of the book which they are reading. Shrodes, she says, identified three qualities, identificationcatharsis and insight that qualify a book as a means through which bibliotherapy can take place. Books, particularly novels, were important to Bijal from an early age, for within the Jain culture there was no mental health support and very little understanding of mental health conditions like depression. Fear of shame, she says, was instilled into members of this society in which she grew up and feelings of anxiety and guilt were able to grow. Bijal recounts how she had to break free of these feelings and she explains that it was through her later training as a counsellor that she was able to cross the boundaries in her own life that had made her unable to say when unreasonable requests that were made of her. She cites another book, Where to Draw the Line, by Anne Katherine which had helped her to understand the process of healthy boundary setting. Now, she says, she can recognise ‘red flags’ which tell her when things are not quite right in the relationships that she is establishing with other people.


Bijal brings the two ideas of Shrodes and Katherine together in a book that stood out for her by Toni Morrison. This was The Bluest Eye, a book which, she says, confronted three things - racism within the black community, the struggle of being a woman in a patriarchal society, and class dynamics. All three of these had made her feel invisible in her society, and Morrison’s take on it in the character of Percola resonated with her. This is a really good example of how a book can change the way we think about ourselves: Bijal presents us with reflections from her journal of how Percola’s desire for blue eyes reminded her about her own story of growing up in an East African Indian community where male and female roles were clearly defined so that men were superior in every sense. The Bluest Eye crystallised for Bijal the feeling of how putting others’ needs before her own led to a kind of invisibility, which was familiar and comfortable, but which she needed to break out of in order to grow and develop.


The resulting book is a testament to her success in doing this. There is a series of chapters on how bibliotherapy can work, where Bijal draws on examples from her own practice as a bibliotherapist. In a chapter on Annette and David she recounts the story of a couple who had met at secondary school and married and who were voracious readers. After the birth of children their relationship had begun to stagnate and Bijal describes how she helped them to recover their love for each other. She used what she calls a ‘late night book club’, where they were able to share their interest in reading through a memoir which she recommended to them called Dear Selma: A World War 11 Love Letter Romance. It is the story of a couple, originally childhood friends, who fall in love through the writing of letters during the second world war. Bijal based her therapy with Annette and David on the writing of letters to each other on a weekly basis, and this developed into other forms of literary sharing such as reading poetry together. The chapter ends appropriately with a poem called This Marriage by Rumi.


Other examples follow. There is a study of the reading and writing therapy undertaken by four Asian women who had lost children through either miscarriage or early deaths. Bijal shows how she used group bibliotherapy to deal with the grief that these women felt for their loss, and how the sharing of poems such as John O’Donahue’s “For Grief” had produced a catharsis which enabled them to deal with it. There is another chapter on Leo, a boy whose autism had caused him great difficulty with relationships and learning at school. Bijal tells us about how introducing him to graphic narratives enabled the mind of this young boy to engage with emotional issues through the art of storytelling. Metaphors, she says, can allow us to experience a situation from a novel perspective while still containing universal themes. Leo had felt shame at the difference he had felt between himself and other children, but she was able to show him through the story of Percy Jackson and the Lightening Thief that this feeling was like a beautiful wildflower which is too scared to bloom but that when it does is no less of a flower, just as he was no less of person for being a late developer.


Bijal’s book ends with an excellent section on literary curation, the choosing of books that are suitable for bibliotherapy. There is a list of novels, non-fiction works and poetry, matched to a vast range of situations in lfe. One or two of these strike me immediately: for Ageing Nothing to Be Frightened of by Julian Barnes; for Fatherhood To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee and for Depression Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Wool. For Overthinking, something to which I am prone, there is a suggestion of the poetry of Mary Oliver and I am put in mind of "The Summer Day"


This final chapter reminded me of my WEA students who have continued to meet after the closure of their physical space during the pandemic. Zoom saved them and me because, using this medium, a group of us meet most Thursday afternoons. We have adopted an anthology, Contraflow, and each week we choose a poem to read to each other. Like Bijal’s testimony in her marvellous book, the value of the sharing of literature for people’s mental health is something that cannot be overstated. 




Eds. Gardner, K. and Greening, J., Contraflow: Lines of Englishness 1922-2022 (2022) Renard Press


Green, K. Rethinking Therapeutic Reading: Lessons from Seneca, Montaigne, Wordsworth and George Eliot (2020) Anthem Press


Katherine, A. (2000) Where to Draw the Line Touchstone

Morrison, T. (1970) The Bluest Eye


Shrodes, C. (1960) ‘Bibliotherapy: An Application of Psychoanalytic Theory’ American Imago


Shah, B. “Book Therapy” (2020)


Shah, B. Bibliotherapy: The Healing Power of Reading (2024) Piatkus




I am helping Bijal Shah with a series of discussions about her book on Zoom. These are on March 20th (completed), April 17th and May 15th

All are welcome. It is not necessary to have read the book.


















Griselda Heppel said…
This sounds a wonderful book. Strong proof of what reading can do for us besides entertainment and escapism (important too). In an age when so many ostensibly more alluring distractions compete with the effort of reading a book (gaming, youtube, social media etc) we need people like Bijal to remind us of the healing and strengthening process of losing ourselves in a marvellous story.

Interesting that Bijal's experience of growing up in the Jain culture instilled in her feelings of anxiety and guilt, much in the way low church Christian teaching can do and certainly did in the last century or two. Jane Eyre could never have been written without this background of perceived Christian duty and nor could The Mill on the Floss. I'm intrigued that the latter - a book whose masochistic ending makes me quite angry - formed part of Bijal's teenage reading, and I only hope Maggie's totally unjustified self-sacrifice for the sake of her horrible elder brother spurred her on to reject the emotional blackmail in which she grew up. Guess I'll have to read her book to find out!

Super post, thank you for introducing me to Bibliotherapy.

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