Bibliotherapy pairs readers with the book they need, when they need it

Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel

Could your local library have all the supplies you need to get through a harrowing breakup or quell a throbbing headache after a busy day?

That’s the idea behind bibliotherapy – the art of matching people with the perfect books to help them through tough situations. Librarians have been doing it for years, but it’s gaining popularity in the digital age as people seek comfort during times of anxiety, loss, loneliness and other emotional hardships.

Rivkah Sass, director of the Sacramento Public Library, said people often come in hoping to find the key to happiness somewhere among the labyrinth of shelves.

She does her best to recommend a book that might help them, whether they’re going through a divorce or having anxiety around parenting.

“We’re curators and we’re finders and we’re guides,” she said. “We live for matching books to people where they are, when they’re there. … And it’s not always a self-help book. Sometimes it’s just a book that helps you realize that you’re not alone, or a book that grounds you.”

Bibliotherapy has emerged as an alternative treatment in recent years, with websites such as BiblioRemedy offering a remote service where people submit their problems to a book expert online and the expert “prescribes” five to seven books. The website LitTherapy offers a full directory of bibliotherapy books, browseable by author and theme.

In 2014, a pair of British bibliotherapists released a book called “The Novel Cure: An A-Z of Literary Remedies.” Its kitschy cover features medicine bottles with labels such as “Harper Lee,” “Jonathan Franzen” and “Jane Austen.”

The authors recommend titles for specific ailments. For high blood pressure, try slow-paced novels such as Charlotte Brontë’s “Villette” and Virginia Woolf’s “The Waves.” Have a toothache? Distract yourself with Leo Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina.” They also address more abstract conditions, such as being homesick, fearing death or not wanting to get out of bed.

While not a substitute for medication, the right book can be a powerful tool to help people cope, said Denise Berkes-Sanchez, a marriage and family therapist intern at the Hope for Healthy Families Counseling Center in Elk Grove who is in the process of writing a more scientific spin on “The Novel Cure.”

Berkes-Sanchez finds the book-matching tactic particularly helpful when counseling adolescents, who often need a story or character to show them their problems are solvable, she said.

She tries to assign young patients a novel that features a protagonist close to their age, and preferably of a similar racial background. Seeing that character succeed can help reassure teens that their own stories will turn out all right, she said.

The first book in the Harry Potter series, for example, really speaks to children who are in foster care or feel out of place in their family, she said. The same theory applies to adults experiencing grief.

“People deal with grief in so many different ways, and everybody has advice on what people should do when they’ve lost a loved one,” Berkes-Sanchez said. “But it’s hard to tell somebody what to do. So maybe getting into a story where someone deals with grief, even if it’s unconventional, perhaps they can realize that maybe this is normal.”

When Amanda Elsberry, 32, was diagnosed with depression last year, she sought out books that would lift her up, she said. The Rancho Cordova resident reads between 10 and 12 books a month on her own and with her Folsom-based book club.

She has an intimate connection with a fantasy series called “Paladin of Souls.” In it, a character named Ista falls victim to a curse that manifests as a sort of depression. Elsberry first read the series about a decade ago, she said, but when she picked it up again this summer, it took on a new meaning.

“Over the last few years, the depression aspects are something I’ve come to identify with more,” she said. “(Ista) came out of that in the second book and the curse was broken. You can see her finding her own way in the world, finding her own path and doing what she needs to do to feel like she can be herself. It was really hopeful for me.”

Sometimes just rereading an old favorite, regardless of theme, can be its own form of bibliotherapy, Sass said. When she lost her husband this January, she was too overcome with grief to read at all until she picked up a copy of “Jane Eyre,” an all-time favorite title that she had read roughly 40 times.

“We’re so busy; we’re so connected to all this stuff,” she said. “And sometimes you do need to disconnect with something that does feed your soul. And that’s really what I think books do.”

People may be looking for more pick-me-up tactics as the sky darkens and the weather cools, Berkes-Sanchez said. Many people suffer from seasonal affective disorder – a shift toward depression in fall and winter. Some people who have lost loved ones find it particularly hard to get through the holiday season.

So if you’re feeling down, curl up on the couch with a carefully curated novel and a cup of tea.

“I don’t think that reading a book can be the end-all,” Berkes-Sanchez said. “But for your average, everyday person who’s feeling in a slump or what have you, I think that’s perfect. Go read a book.”

Sammy Caiola: 916-321-1636, @SammyCaiola