I have been reading lately about bibliotherapy, and how the right book might cure a host of spiritual ills. Not self-help books. Novels. Biographies. Poetry collections. Essays.
It’s a concept I embrace, having been saved by literature myself more times than I can count. I read for sanity as well as for pleasure. And as C.S. Lewis said, I read to know that I’m not alone in the world.
As I write this, Father’s Day is approaching. I can’t think about reading without remembering my father, for whom books were a livelihood and a compass and a bulwark against ignorance. Reading was a cornerstone of my childhood, an activity as basic as eating and sleeping. It was what we did, on the front porch, in front of the fire, in bed at night. My earliest memories are of my father reading to us, back in the olden days before TV. He read us Charlotte’s Web, and Stuart Little, and Grimm’s Fairy Tales. He read fluently, expressively, inventing character voices for Wilbur the pig and Snowbell the cat and any number of kings and trolls and giants. Long before we knew how to read ourselves, he showed us the worlds that waited between the covers of books.
My first experience of bibliotherapy came at age 4, when I broke my leg in a car accident. Sidelined from backyard games, I accompanied my father on Saturday morning errands. Our first stop was the town library, a turreted old Victorian house where the Children’s Room was the front parlor, cozy with threadbare sofas and window seats. My miniature cast propped on a footstool, picture books stacked high around me, I became fast friends with the elderly librarian. The message of those quiet hours was clear. If you have books, you will never be lonely, or bored, or awash in self-pity. If you have books, you will be safe.
We moved when I was 9. The posh suburb was another universe compared to the comfortable, slightly shabby small town we left behind. In my fourth-grade class, the resident Mean Girls sized me up on day one and pegged me as the duck in the chicken coop.
Once again, I found shelter in the library. A dodgeball reject, I smuggled the slim Bobbs Merrill orange biographies out to recess and sat under a tree escaping into the lives of Susan B. Anthony, Girl who Dared and Pocahontas, Brave Girl and Harriet Beecher Stowe, Connecticut Girl. These feisty heroines who beat the odds gave me permission to imagine a day when I would find my own voice and speak up, loud and clear.
I moved on to boarding school and an education grounded in 19th century principles, which included memorizing poetry and reciting it aloud. It was, perhaps, the greatest gift a writer could be given—the luxury of Shakespeare and Wordsworth and Yeats and Emily Dickinson on demand. Learn it by heart and it’s yours for life, my favorite teacher told us. I believed her then, and I believe her now. Those poems, committed to memory decades ago, have seen me through dark days and given me language to express the ineffable. I cannot imagine wiser therapy than the injunction to “give sorrow words,” or a truer observation of modern life than this: “The world is too much with us, late and soon. Getting and spending we lay waste our powers.”
As the recent horror of Orlando unfolded, I turned for counsel to the poet Mary Oliver. “Can one be passionate about the just, the ideal, the sublime, and the holy, and yet commit to no labor in its cause?” she asks. Moments of silence and flower-decked memorials are well and good, but flowers fade and the silence yields to talk and more talk. “The gospel of light is the crossroads of—indolence, or action,” she continues. “Be ignited, or be gone.”
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