HAVE you ever finished reading a really good book and then happily floated around on a big white fluffy cloud of contentment for the next few days?
Do you find you are sleeping better, your stress levels seem to have relaxed and you feel good about the world and yourself?
You’re not alone, regular readers have known about this effect for centuries. The entrance to the library in Thebes, in ancient Greece, had an inscription above its door saying inside was a “healing place for the soul”.
Shakespeare knew about the healing power of reading too. In his Titus Andonicus the lead character advises Lavinia to “Come, and take choice of all my library/And so beguile thy sorrow”.
The scientists tell us that reading has the same effect as meditation. Sigmund Freund used literature in his psychoanalysis. After the First World Ware librarians in America were trained to prescribe books to traumatised soldiers.
Reading makes the neurons in our brains fire up in the same way they would if we were actually undergoing or watching the event described in the text.
An active mind is thought to delay or eliminate the onset of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, especially in older people.
People who read a lot of good quality fiction tend to develop more empathy for others. They also become more socially perceptible.
If you are about to become a new father, for instance, you can’t go past Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Scout’s father, Atticus Finch, is a perfect role model.
The Americans, of course, have capitalised on the healing powers of fiction and poetry. They have consultants, called bibliotherapists, who prescribe specific books to suit their patient’s condition.
It can also work the other way, of course, so you have to be choosy about what you read. If you are worried about the state of the world with its internecine warfare and terrorism it’s not a good idea to read war literature, it will only make you feel worse.
Then again, some people are only happy when they are miserable.
The other thing to avoid are self-help books. They invariably promote the most impossible standards achievable and are guaranteed to make you feel inadequate and depressed when you fail to measure up.
Stick to good fiction and poetry, it’s much better for you.
And don’t get tricked into thinking you can get the same fix of therapeutic fiction from watching movies and television. While spending hours watching television might be great multitasking - screwing up your brain and body at the same time - it is a visceral medium and not soothing like reading.
You might have noticed that the few good politicians we have are avid readers, people like Gary Juffa and Charles Abel, while the dopey majority probably haven’t read a book in their lives.
They are too busy, they say, but what they really mean is they think literature and reading are a waste of time. I guess when you’ve got your snout in the public trough it’s hard to hold a book.
If you are interested in bibliotherapy a good place to start is by reading an article by the Australian author, Ceridwen Dovey in The New Yorker last year called ‘Can Reading Make You Happier?’
She seems to think it works but I’m sure it does – as does every other dedicated reader.