A dose of prose

Published Dec 31, 2015, 8:24 am IST
Updated Jan 10, 2016, 8:38 am IST
Stutee Kotnala asked authors to share their experience about reading
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 Representational Image

Ancient Greeks had these words inscribed at the entrance to a library in Thebes: “Healing place for the soul”. Sigmund Freud used literature during psychoanalysis sessions. And since 2011, bibliotherapists at London’s School of Life have been offering reading lists to help people heal and deal — with broken hearts, career uncertainty, life-juncture transitions, depression, bereavement Only fiction, and not self-help books, is offered as the ultimate cure —  R.K. Narayan’s The Guide and Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha for “enlightenment”, The History of Mr Polly by H.G. Wells in case you are feeling like a failure... Bibliotherapist Ella Berthoud and Elderkin’s The Novel Cure: An A-Z of Literary Remedies now has an Indianedition which includes remedial reading lists for “public urination” and “obsession with cricket”.  Stutee Kotnala asked authors to share their experience about reading and the restorative power of books.

Siddharth Chowdhury
Author of The Patna Manual of Style

I absolutely believe in Bibliotherapy and was quite chuffed when my novel Day Scholar was featured in The Novel Cure: From Abandonment to Zestlessness: 751 Books to Cure What Ails You alongside The Catcher in the Rye as an antidote to adolescence!

Anything by Hemingway always restores my spirits especially The Snows of Kilimanjaro. Dharamvir Bharti’s Suraj ka Satvan Ghoda is another favourite in the times of the blues.

When beset by despair at the futility of the writing life, I have always found Arthur Miller’s bracingly vainglorious autobiography Timebends to be wonderfully restorative. Amit Chaudhuri’s Odysseus Abroad gave me great pleasure. I found its tone to be absolutely enchanting.

Jeffrey Archer
Author Be Careful What You Wish For

Absolutely! Reading not only makes you happier, it can help you relax, and lasts longer than any film. Though I never heard of Bibliotherapy, one could try Kane and Abel, and I think you’ll feel better. I always turn towards The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas. But would also like to recommend Beware of Pity by Stefan Zweig — a magnificent piece of storytelling.

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
Author of Mistress of Spices

I am a great believer in Bibliotherapy. When I went through difficult periods in my life, books often gave me a safe refuge as well as inspiration. I found encouragement to fight my battles when I read about far greater challenges faced by characters who had the strength to overcome them and go on.

They allowed me to escape into the world of make-believe when I needed a break from the harsh realities of my life. Books have taught me empathy. By discussing books with people I thought I had little in common with, I have become friends with them.

Books connect us with each other. With a good book in hand, one need never be lonely or restless or bored. I read somewhere (in a book, most possibly) that books wash away from the soul the dust of everyday life. I agree.

Aatish Taseer
Author of The Way Things Were

Happiness is not what we come to reading for. Anyone, as Bob Dylan says, can be happy. No, what we want from reading is something else. I'm writing this from Banaras, and yesterday someone very young said to me: If true bliss is to be achieved (ananda, not sukha), the first things to go are pain and happiness. Reading is important because it engenders a love of solitude through an act of concentration. It is a sadhana. It gets you somewhere you want to be. Forget happiness. Melan-choly is fine, so long as you can see it from a distance. Reading can help in this respect: It can teach you to look in on yourself. It can give you distance. Read what you love; but privilege those things that have come from concentration. Concentration is everything. Read Dance of Shiva; it’s a little miracle of a book.

Vikas Swarup
Author of The Accidental Apprentice

Books are food for the soul and the best books have the power to feed and elevate the human spirit, to restore a sense of wonder and enlarge our understanding of what it means to be human. We turn repeatedly to certain books depending on the kind of mood we are in and the message we expect from that particular author. I saw first hand the power of books when I had an interaction with a young woman in Johannesburg who said that she was going through a rough period in her life and, in fact, had almost decided that life was not worth living. She said that is when she re-read my debut novel, Q&A, and the redemptive life story of my protagonist Ram Mohammad Thomas gave her the strength to carry on.

Manju Kapur
Author of Difficult Daughters

Happier hmm I don’t think happiness quite covers what books do for you. Books are essential for reasons that have been reiterated countless times. They take you out of yourself, introduce you to a broader world, suggest different ways of looking at things, stimulate the imagination, expose you to ideas, encourage self-reflection, etc. etc. I keep coming across book lists, but I think the purpose of that is to really share what interests you. It’s like sharing a part of yourself. For comfort, I turn to literary fiction — often that of the past. Anything else seems to pale in comparison. One of the books I read recently that I would recommend is The Surveyor by Ira Singh. Besides being well written and evocative, its north Indian setting gives it a familiarity of place that resonates.

Prajwal Parajuly
Author of The Gurkha’s Daughter

At times, I don’t want to read anything too heavy. I want to read something silly, so I read comics — by Pran — and my nephew’s fairy tales. My go-to book is Puss in Boots. It was the first book I read. Life beco-mes less complicated.

Manu Joseph
Author of The Illicit Happiness of Other People

Reading is the only activity that can make one happy and people who are trained to read a vast variety of books are lucky. But there is no activity more useless than having to read what you don’t wish to read at all, like reading a so-called “classic”. If we are curious about the world and honest about our interests and about what we wish to read, then reading is an activity that completes life. I’ve never heard of “Bibliotherapy” — it sounds like something daft that might actually work on some people.

Musharraf Ali Farooqui
Author of Between Clay and Dust

I can only relate an incident from 2009 when I read The Siege by Ismail Kadare, and came out of a long period of indifference towards writing. I know that this novel drastically changed my outlook about something personal to me. For comfort I turn to humour. Novels by Charles Dickens, Oriental Tales by Marguerite Yourcenar. I recommend Love Stories #1 to 14 by Annie Zaidi.

Annie Zaidi
Author of Love Stories # 1 to 14

Books can comfort you in many ways. First, through lessening your loneliness. You not only enter a world full of characters, but you are also taken out of your own isolation or friendlessness, if you happen to be in that state. Besides, in books, you meet people who have different perspectives or values, or those who are treated badly. You grow aware that there are others who are rejected, are sad through no fault of theirs. It is comradeship of a sort. The other comforts are related to humour, wit. It makes you laugh. And the beauty of language itself — metaphor, rhythm and rhyme, or crisp lines, or just perfectly real dialogue. A perfectly formed poem or a clever couplet brings me joy, even if it carries a layer of grief.

Ashwin Sanghi
Author of The Rozabal Line

I do believe in the power of words. I have read Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda several times. I find myself going back to it repeatedly and on each reading I find that I am better equipped to deal with life.

Bulbul Sharma
Author of The Anger of Aubergines

Yes, I certainly do believe in Bibliotherapy though I had never heard of the term! Reading does help to calm me down. In fact, I have got through many tense moments in life by reading a tiny book which I always carry in my bag. It is a collection of classic short stories. Delayed flights, dentist’s waiting room, traffic jams and other tedious situations fade away when I travel to the far away worlds these stories are set in.

I cannot go to sleep unless I have read a few pages. I think, if you love reading you are never lonely, bored or boring. When I need some extra help to get through a day or a sleepless night I always read Jane Austen. Her words have a soothing quality and never fail to work their magic.

Sudhir Kakar
Author of Mad and Divine

It is undeniable that depending on the individual’s taste, reading books, watching movies, listening to music or looking at art can temporarily take you away from pressing personal problems and give you solace. I am stressing “temporarily”, because reading books is not therapy. Therapy endeavours for a more permanent change in one’s view of the self and the world which art rarely provides. The only exception is reading poetry which can be truly therapeutic. For both psychoanalysis and poetry emotion is the “heart of the matter”. Robert Graves, a poet as well as professor of poetry at Oxford, declares, “A well chosen anthology is a complete dispensary of medicine for the more common mental disorders”. He is only partly right. I would limit the therapeutic efficacy of reading poetry to depression or what used to be called melancholy.

Tishani Doshi
Author of The Pleasure Seekers

Bibliotherapy is one of those old ideas made fashionable, designed to make you believe the universe is on your side. As a writer, I don’t put much stock in it, especially if it means having to return to my own books. Ditto for books of friends or other contemporary writers. As Hanif Kureishi once put it: “To read a book — it’s impossible. Either because it’s so bad it’s impossible to read, or it’s so good you feel ashamed and embarrassed.” In times of crisis I turn to HBO and Toblerone. But at a pinch, I’ll settle for Pablo Neruda.

Kunal Basu
Author of Kalkatta

Books are real lifesavers. When living turns into pain or pure tragedy, they transport us magically into a parallel reality. A good book doesn’t simply act as a detour from the dangerous highway of life; it engages the soul to counter the troubles of head and heart. Only books can regenerate hope because they awaken an inner eye that allows us to see beyond. When my father passed away suddenly, I turned to one of his favourite novels. Re-reading Emile Zola’s Germinal gave me fortitude, connected me to him in ways hard to express. I remember reading Mario Vargas Llosa’s The War of the End of the World as I waited in the hospital for our daughter to be born.

Akash Kapur
Author of India Becoming

Yes, I think reading reminds you that you are part of a wider universe, that you are not unique or alone in your problems or concerns — and, in many ways, helps put things in perspective. It also introduces you to new ideas and new worlds, and can sometimes give you new ideas (and thus new hopes) for your life.

I always turn towards Anton Chekhov’s short stories because they are the wisest and most humane pieces of writing I know.