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Does Reading Really Help Improve Your Mental Health?

In difficult times, reading can be an important remedy, said authors at a special BBC Culture event at the Hay Festival.

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Many ardent book readers are worried that the use of social media has been leading to a decline in reading books. However, it has been found that many people still prefer reading books.

During the discussion about the therapeutic effects of reading fiction at this year’s Hay Festival, bibliotherapist Ella Berthoud suggested Theresa May, who is going through a difficult phase, to start author Hubert Selby Jr’s classic 1978 novel Requiem for a Dream to come out of such torrid times.

Berthoud said, “The overall message of the book is to try and stick to your principles, and seize the day once more, so hopefully she’ll read it and feel purged and renewed.”

Alongside best-selling novelists Alex Wheatle and Jessie Burton, the panel talk saw Berthoud offering her thoughts about the role of reading in improving mental health.

So how can books improve your mental health?

“With a film or TV show, you’re given the visuals whereas with a novel you’re inventing them yourself, so it’s actually much more of a powerful event, because you’re involved,” noted Berthoud.

Wheatle offered an example of the transportative effect of fiction. He recalled discovering Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn when he was living in a children’s home in South London.

He said, “It was quite brutal, and so [the book] was a place where I could escape my everyday turmoil. At least, come 9 or 9.30pm, I could hide under the covers with my little torch and go through those pages, and imagine I was floating down the Mississippi River, coming across steamboats and making my own decisions about where I was going to eat and rest.”

Novels can bring order to a disordered mind with their structured narratives. Burton explained the audience her favorite novels to read during troubled times were CJ Sansom’s Shardlake series of historical mysteries set in Tudor England. She said, “It was Sansom she turned to for solace: getting yourself involved in quite a gnarly plot that you can try and solve is a displacement activity from your own mind’s whirrings.”

The panelists believe that restorative fiction need not be happy, in fact, it can be positively grim.

Wheatle recalled how his father would tell him about his own childhood in Jamaica when he was growing up. He said, “When a storyteller would go from village to village, especially at harvest time, and they would interpret stories of slavery and so on. This stuff is very gloomy but it also affirms the struggle people have been through.” He added, “Part of the appeal of dystopian fiction lies in the similarly unexpected solace it provides; it’s about how people have got tested, and how [they] can overcome.”

Re-reading your favorite novels can also help in providing a particular kind of bibliotherapy, allowing you to take stock of yourself from an illuminating vantage point.

Fiction can also play an important role in combating the mental health crisis in the youth, which is increasingly part of the global conversation. Numerous young adult novels are available, which can help adolescents to address mental health issues that they might face in their day-to-day lives, such as bullying and social exclusion.

Berthoud mentioned Melvin Burgess, Juno Dawson, and Malorie Blackman among such novelists who may be helpful in getting teenagers to talk about their mental health issues. She added, “The issues which might be happening in their lives, but they haven’t been able to articulate. I really think that a book can be the axe that breaks the frozen sea within us, as Kafka said, and that is true of any age.”

What about writing? Does it also help? Burton and Wheatle admitted that a writer’s life could be a mixed bag when it comes to mental health. Wheatle suggested that writing can be a brilliant way to process and empty out your emotional trauma. On the other, Burton said, “The actual act of writing is hugely isolating and you are alone for weeks, months, years on end, going a bit loopy.  I used to be an actress, which was a collaborative experience, and I deeply miss [that aspect] … the paradox is your book gets read by thousands of people but you’re not there to witness that – you don’t do that in concert – so it’s very strange.”

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