The term bibliotherapy first appeared in a 1916 article in The Atlantic titled “A Literary Clinic.” Written by Samuel McChord Crothers, the playful essay verges on satire and recounts a visit with his friend Bagster, who runs a “Bibliopathic Institute.” “A book,” Bagster lectures, “may be a stimulant or a sedative or an irritant or a soporific.” Bagster views books as “prescriptions” insofar as the reading experience affects the reader. “After reading [books] we actually feel differently and frequently we act differently.” Before Bagster can finish his lecture, he is called away to attend to a patient who had “overdose[d] of war literature.”
Then and now, someone prescribing books might sound rather like a quack entrepreneur in the wellness industry. Moreover, with an abundance of streaming options, why even pick up a book? But the coronavirus crisis has made it difficult, if not impossible, to relax. Most of the nation is quarantined indoors, upending daily routines. Time has become slippery, thick as quicksand, now that we’re unmoored from our usual frameworks.
To fill this void, those of us lucky enough to be inside have binged Tiger King, mastered sourdough, and scheduled Zoom happy hours. Several weeks into quarantine, some might crave an experience that requires more active participation, something that can consume us just as we can consume it. As watching a sitcom starts feeling too passive, we might turn more and more to reading, precisely because it is so demanding of our attention. Even if “A Literary Clinic” was intended as satire, it nonetheless belies a solid truth: Reading can be therapeutic. In fact, it might be the best antidote for the psychological toll of a socially distanced life.