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Seeking refuge from COVID-19-induced isolation? Try bibliotherapy

The art of using books for therapeutic purposes precedes the COVID-19 pandemic, but it finds particular application now

People practice social distancing while picking up books at Ken Sanders Rare Books in Salt Lake City on Saturday, April 18, 2020. “Bibliotherapy” is one way to combat pandemic-induced isolation.
Ivy Ceballo, Deseret News

For persons affected emotionally by COVID-19-induced isolation and situational depression, turning to great literature may offer a readily available and relatively inexpensive avenue of solace. Reading good books can be done at home; and, thanks to the internet, expense is minimal.

Reading for therapy does not require one to wait for a masked appointment or a Zoom meeting with an overbooked psychologist. With the advent of e-commerce, Kindle, Libby and audiobooks, acquiring a great book does not require one physically to visit a bookstore or a library. One can even listen to a recording and pause the reading to jot down notes, impressions or questions for further pondering.

The art of using books for therapeutic purposes carries a name: bibliotherapy. As commonly practiced, bibliotherapy makes use of books to treat mental diseases and psychological disorders in young people. It is sometimes described as “the process of using books to help children think about, understand and work through social and emotional concerns.” Graduate programs in this academic discipline exist in both the United States and the United Kingdom.

While bibliotherapy alone should not be considered a replacement for professionally trained counselors — especially in circumstances involving clinical depression or suicidal thinking — reading classic works of literature can be used to help people of all ages realize that they are not alone in what they are feeling or experiencing. Other men and women, real and fictional, have dealt with and overcome challenges similar to what modern-day readers may experience. Many characters in books offer examples of those who have emerged stronger and more resilient after facing tremendous trials. Providing comfort and calming fears, offering new perspectives and stimulating personal growth — these are all goals of bibliotherapy.

In the case of adults, the idea of using books as a therapeutic aid may strike some as too simplistic an approach for dealing with mature problems. History, however, has demonstrated that perceptive readers can find much to treasure in the company of great minds of past eras. They can find not only companionship and relief but also warnings and solutions for coping with current events. When we issue invitations to great writers to enter our homes and join us in our solitude, time-proven authors often present viewpoints that we may not have previously considered.

Many great women and men have survived isolation and pandemics to write about how they dealt with their challenging experiences. If we are open to hearing their voices, we may learn life-changing lessons from them.

A key example of an adult engaging in self-administered bibliotherapy, centuries before the term was coined, is found in Niccolò Machiavelli. Italy’s first political scientist, he experienced a form of house arrest after falling out of favor with Florence’s powerful Medici family. In a letter to his colleague Francesco Vettori, Machiavelli recorded how he spent his evenings. When nightfall descended, he changed from his work clothes and put on dignified garments. Appropriately dressed for a court appearance, he then communed through literature with what he termed “the venerable courts of the ancients.” There he nourished himself on their food for thought. He wrote that he was not embarrassed to converse with antiquity’s authors, including the Roman historian Livy, and to question them about the motives for their actions. They, “out of human kindness,” answered him through their written words.

Machiavelli penned these words in the epistle to his friend: “For four hours at a time I feel no boredom, I forget all my troubles, I do not dread poverty, and I am not terrified by death. I absorb myself into the ancient authors completely. And because Dante says that no one understands anything unless he retains what he has understood, I have jotted down what I have profited from in their conversation and composed a short study.”

That 16th century “short study” proved to be Machiavelli’s greatest and most-enduring work, “The Prince.” It was composed in isolation while the author dialogued with great minds from the past. It subsequently has influenced generations of kings and military leaders, civilian rulers and political figures.

How does an Italian Renaissance author’s example of reading great books in isolation pertain to our current situation? Once we accept that we are not the first to confront deadly contagion and acute loneliness, we may begin to ask ourselves, “What did others realize and prioritize in the face of widespread disease?” “What insights did they gain about the human condition?” “How did they find refuge from pestilence or overcome isolation and depression?”

Just as we are not the first generation to face widespread disruption, unemployment, self-isolation and death resulting from a pandemic, we are not the first to write about those challenges. From Thucydides’ “History of the Peloponnesian War,” which includes a description of the virulent fever that killed nearly a third of the Athenian population in the 5th century BCE, to Albert Camus’ fictional description of the plague in the French Algerian city of Oran, we can read of varied actions and reactions. In ancient Athens the doctors who attended the sick were among the first to die, and those who survived suffered from depression. In Algeria doctors had to prioritize which victims to treat and which to allow to die unattended — a dilemma faced recently in overcrowded California medical facilities.

One of the most pertinent examples of reactions to a plague occurs in the 14th century. It is found in Boccaccio’s “Decameron,” a collection of 100 fictional stories whose narrative frame is the actual bubonic plague that undermined the social order of Florence. Between 1347 and 1351 the plague peaked as it spread throughout Italy and the rest of Europe. This pestilence, later known as the Black Death, killed tens of millions of people and led to massive social upheaval and economic chaos.

In the introduction to his tales Boccaccio graphically describes the effects of the unrelenting disease on the citizens of Florence. Sick persons were barred from entering the city. Neighbors stopped visiting each other in their respective homes. The government issued safeguards for protecting the people’s health, but they were often disregarded. Large groups of people gathered in churches to pray, only to end up spreading the disease. Most medicines were of little to no avail. Hospitals were overcrowded. The sick and the dying felt abandoned by friends and family members. Funeral ceremonies were canceled. The bodies of the dead were stacked up in the streets. Mass graves were hastily dug for the multitude of corpses. Do these events not have parallels in our own day?

Boccaccio’s account of how his fellow Florentines responded to the plague proves instructive. He describes two main reactions to the ensuing chaos. One group shrugged off the plague as if it were a big joke — a medieval version of “fake news.” They believed in eating, drinking and merrymaking to the greatest extent possible. They would visit one tavern or bar after another. They refused to speak about the pestilence and insisted on focusing only on subjects that were pleasant or entertaining. In their conduct, they disrespected the laws of God and man. When they were exposed to the plague, these plague-deniers suffered greatly or died.

The other group was of the opinion that a sober and abstemious mode of living considerably reduced the risk of infection. They formed themselves in tight-knit groups that lived in isolation. They ate healthily and moderately, avoiding excesses, and they refrained from interacting with outsiders. The 10 storytellers who are the fictional protagonists of the “Decameron” leave Florence for the countryside, where they enjoy fresh air and diversion. In essence, they quarantine or isolate themselves in a country villa with a private garden; they separate themselves from the pestilence that is rife in their hometown; they use stories to instruct and to lift their spirits. What is more important, in doing this the ten narrators survive the plague and thrive. Sharing, discussing and commenting on stories is their therapy.

If we, like Machiavelli, are open to dialoguing with voices from the past and, like Boccaccio’s narrators, are willing to engage in sharing and pondering stories, we may learn life-enhancing lessons from great literature. Bibliotherapy, in other words, may offer insights and solutions as well as hope and solace.

Madison U. Sowell, professor emeritus of Italian and comparative literature at Brigham Young University and former provost at Southern Virginia University and Tusculum University, has lectured extensively about the value of the liberal arts in modern society.