I don’t care much for self-help books, but I love literature that masquerades as self-help—Sheila Heti’s genius title, How Should a Person Be?, or Sarah Bakewell’s wonderful How to Live (or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer). I don’t think novels, or even philosophical essays, are going to change my life (other than Joan Didion when I was 16, but that’s a whole other ball of self-help) Lord knows if it worked like that, I’d be a lot more evolved than I am. But it’s fun to imagine that they could, and how.
Apparently I’m not the only one. Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin, a fine artist and writer, respectively, have recently written a book titled The Novel Cure: An A-Z of Literary Remedies, which posits that there is a remedy for every one of life’s ills, large or small, to be found in literature:
Are you weary in Brain and Body? Do you desire a Positive Cure for your Pessimism? Do you require Bronte to re-boot your Broken Heart? Do you despair of your Nose? Can Fielding open your Flood Gates? Or Pynchon purge your Paranoia? May we administer Austen to curb your Arrogance? Hemingway for your Headache? An injection of du Maurier for your low Self-Esteem?
This sounds a bit frivolous, granted. But as anyone who has determinedly sunk themselves into a book to avoid their woes—which I’m guessing is most of the people reading this—it’s not such a huge leap to imagine turning the idea of escapism on its head, and requesting that fiction do some slightly more proactive work. Berthoud and Elderkin advise that “Our apothecary contains Balzacian balms and Tolstoyan tourniquets, the salves of Saramago and the purges of Perec and Proust,” as well as a good sampling of contemporary authors, and they write with the authority of well-adjusted lifelong bookworms. It helps that they’re English, with that particular tone that is both authoritative and cheerful at their disposal—and that they have an actual outlet for their services, at something called The School of Life, in London. This is a real thing, and while its website makes it look, at first, like the kind of organization that dresses up as something else, like one of Dave Eggers’ storefront enterprises, this is exactly what it appears to be:
The School of Life is devoted to developing emotional intelligence through the help of culture. We address such issues as how to find fulfilling work, how to master the art of relationships, how to understand one’s past, how to achieve calm and how better to understand, and where necessary change, the world.
It’s Alain de Botton’s pet project, and while its mission is clearly aligned with the kind of soul-soothing explorations he writes about, it’s not a bad idea overall. They give classes, publish books, offer business consultations, and produce videos, as well as “a range of objects & tools that will assist you in the quest for a more fulfilled life.” And, apparently, book therapy—for a (rather steep) price, you can spend an hour there with a “bibliotherapist,” talking about your troubles, at the end of which you will be prescribed the perfect set of novels to cure what ails you. Whether you’re in need of perspective, amusement, insight into the human condition, or a little compassion for others, it’s all there to be discovered in literature. While the general idea can smack of more than a little free time and privilege—The Grapes of Wrath probably won’t help you much if the bank is foreclosing on your house—when it comes to wrangling with issues on the less concrete end of the spectrum, novels can help. And there’s plenty of good pop science to back it up these days.
You can try it out for yourself at the book’s website, with a sampling of problems from Apathy (prescription: The Postman Always Rings Twice) to Zestlessness (prescription: Ragtime). They also take requests. The book’s introduction does note that
Some treatments will lead to a complete cure. Others will simply offer solace, showing you that you are not alone. All will offer the temporary relief of your symptoms due to the power of literature to distract and transport. Sometimes the remedy is best taken as an audio book, or read aloud with a friend. As with all medicines, the full course of treatment should always be taken for best results.
As far as I’m concerned, it has to be better than your average self-help book floating around out there. Plus I’m always a sucker for a good phrenology diagram, used well. Not to mention a good novel in times of need.