The Pleasures of the Text

Ceridwen Dovey asks “Can Reading Make You Happier?” in an article at newyorker.com this week. Not surprisingly, the answer is yes. No doubt you’re feeling better already.

No, of course it’s not that simple. If happiness were just “words, words, words,” Hamlet would be a comedy. He was a hard case, but any avid reader knows how much one’s mood hangs on getting ahold of the right book. Fortunately – since it’s generally safer not to leave self-improvement up to oneself – there are experts to consult. As Dovey explains, you probably want the services of a professional “biblio-therapist” in order to get the most out of your reading regimen. Dovey sent away to England for her prescription of (mostly fiction) books, but the American Library Association has a well-stocked bibliography devoted to bibliotherapy that should help anyone suffering from self-medication.

Not surprisingly, your health plan is not likely to cover it, even though what we might call the “reading cure” appears to be almost as old as the talking cure. The term was first used, Dovey tells us, in 1916 in an interview in the Atlantic Monthly with “Bagster,” the proprietor of what he calls “A Literary Clinic.” Bagster set up his pioneering practice in the vestry of his church, where patients would receive a prescription of books mixed usually to correct an otherwise unbalanced reading diet. As Bagster explains,

“A book may be a stimulant or a sedative or an irritant or a soporific. The point is that it must do something to you, and you ought to know what it is. A book may be of the nature of a soothing syrup or it may be of the nature of a mustard plaster.”

So far so good; it’s always nice to see common sense prevail over fadism where health is concerned. As Bagster continues, however, one wonders if early bibliotherapy, like so much primitive medicine, didn’t elicit in its practitioners at least a hint of barbaric – if well-meaning – sadism. Here’s Bagster on the salutary effects of satire:

“It belongs, not to medicine, but to surgery. When the operation is done skillfully, there is little shock. The patient is often unaware that anything has happened, like the saint in the old martyrology who, after he had been decapitated, walked off absent-mindedly with his head under his arm.”

Bagster’s heirs, the therapists Dovey consulted, show the same zeal to heal, promising a “transformational experience” through reading prescribed after careful and thorough consultation, though she allows that the effects are not typically as dramatic, at least for the onlooker. As Dovey admits, the insights proffered by the novels in her treatment “are still nebulous, as learning gained through reading fiction often is.” Still, like a precisely formulated time-release capsule, the right book at the right time “offers one of the few remaining paths to transcendence” in Dovey’s experience.

One might think this would hearten a professor at a great books college. But as Bagster explained (now a century ago), books, like drugs, can grow stale:

“[T]he full stimulating effect of most books is lessened after they have been kept long in stock. When to-day you uncork Rousseau, nothing pops. Calvin’s Institutes had a most powerfully stimulating effect upon the more radical young people of his day. It is now between three and four centuries since that work was exposed to the air, and it has lost its original effervescence.”

But Bagster does offer some comfort to those of us in allied fields (cold though it be). He notes the consequences of making such potent fare more readily available. It’s “too much to expect,” he counsels one patient, “that a faultless masterpiece should be produced every week. It is hard enough to get people to read masterpieces, as it is. If they were produced in greater quantities it might be fatal to the reading habit.”

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