On reading for wellbeing

Earlier in the year, I thought that doing a PhD, working in 2 casual jobs as well as doing home-family things wasn’t enough so I enrolled my self in a 6 week MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) offered through Warwick University by FutureLearn called Literature and Mental Health: Reading for Wellbeing. The course was on how reading can be a balm, a salve for a variety of mental health problems. Each week addressed a different condition – stress, bereavement, trauma, heartbreak, depression and ageing. The hosts Jonathan Bates and Dr Paula Bates interviewed famous people like Stephen Fry and Ian McKellen as well as not-so famous people (well to me anyway – they might just be UK famous) and there were also set readings (which were not compulsory). Most of the readings were poetry or excerpts so these were easy to get through. 

I did the course as a professional development for Readers’ Advisory work for librarians but there were many other professionals doing the course too from counsellors, medical practitioners, English teachers and the list goes on. Though I did like the readings they selected it was too narrow a selection for my own personal reading preferences. It was predominately the classics and (no surprises here) mostly male authors. I would have liked to have seen more contemporary examples as part of the course work but plenty of the participants brought their contemporary reading into the comments section. As for romance – yes, there was some Jane Austen covered in the second week but the focus was on understanding and helping heartbreak. The comments section had some participants making disparaging remarks about romance fiction but I was heartened to see a number of women stand up and challenge those comments.

I quite liked the course and particularly the discussions they held with medical practitioners as to how reading may or may not help keep you well. The hardest part of the course was trying to take part in the conversation. The comments from other participants really interested me yet I found the numbers overwhelming. By the time I was doing the readings (usually early in the week) there were already 500+ comments and some easily tipping into the 1Ks, The MOOC design was such that this was managed well and I didn’t feel spammed the few times that I commented but I hardly commented (the readings and ideas that were being addressed actually touched on some deeply personal feelings that I wasn’t prepared to discuss on the forum). The discussions I read through had a broad representation of readers. There were the lit snobs, the anything goes yobs, the mansplainer nobs, the diverse reading mobs and so on and so on.

I certainly think reading plays an important role for many people from the physical act of reading to the selections that a person makes . The act of reading can be calming and meditative, allowing for focus over long periods of time but this can also be a negative if you are already sedentary and you are trying to break out of your inertia. I lived in a house with someone that was constantly reading motivational books yet they never got out of bed before 1pm, never washed or cleaned and it wasn’t until I completely lost my temper and we (Hubs) asked him to move out that he even bothered getting a job. It took him ceasing to read (and losing his cheap rent) to give him some get up and go. Reading in this case did not contribute to my wellbeing!

The other most fundamental element in whether reading can contribute to your wellbeing is what is being read. In my work as a librarian, I have had to help many people find materials to help them through difficult periods of their life whether it has been terminal illness, a break up, addiction as well as “grappling with the black dog” as one of my borrowers had said to me. Overwhelmingly, my borrowers wanted materials that would make them happy. Several had said to me that they could not bear to cry again and to please give them something to keep their mind off their cancer, or as one distraught, shivering man kept saying

Please, I know if I hold a book in my hands and I am laughing, I won’t go back to the casino. Please don’t give me a counselling phone number or a website. I just need to be somewhere without temptation.

Each time I have had this type of request, I place deep importance in finding out what appeals to the person asking me for materials, what makes them happy, what makes them laugh. Whether it is comedic writing, feel-good Happily Ever After romances or parodies and satirical writing, it is challenging to find materials that can help someone escape their problems even momentarily because this type of writing does not receive critical acclaimed. This is where I felt the course needed more content. Too much time was spent on exploring writing that helped someone understand that they are not alone in their suffering (also VERY important) and it would have been good to counterbalance this with engaging with writing that took helped readers escape from deep introspection. (I have to honestly say, that I would hesitate to recommend Virginia Woolf to someone who is suicidal).

I do not think that I am unique in my experience as a librarian being asked for happy materials. If I am being asked, then other librarians are also encountering these requests and it is important that we are able to meet the requests of our borrowers by understanding the range of materials that are available and how different readers engage with it. During this course, I really wanted to explore how to help lift someone out of their grief/heartbreak/stress/etc and the materials other people recommend (and how they came to these recommendations). This is my only criticism of an otherwise good course.

Ultimately, do I think that reading can contribute to your wellbeing? I believe every person is unique in their mental health needs and as strongly as I love and support reading, I remain unconvinced as I don’t think reading is a cure-all for everyone. Music, TV, exercise and so many other leisure activities all play too important a role for a reading proselytiser like me to be making this sort of claim.

Overall, it was an interesting course to take part in but I won’t be heading back to another MOOC until I finish my thesis. I would have loved to have engaged on a deeper level than I was able to and I do recommend taking part in a MOOC if you do have some spare time.

5 thoughts on “On reading for wellbeing

    • It isn’t the bibliotherapy itself that I doubt as much as my distrust of the piousness of those making the reading recommendations. Some of the guests/interviewees showed a deeper understanding of the breadth of reading that can be helpful/cathartic – particularly one doctor who discussed picture books.

      I also understand the feelings you describe in your own blog post. Crying not for the character that you have read about but for the person in your life who has already had this experience. I think it is storytelling that allows this catharsis – there have been times of grieving when I have had to give up reading altogether as I can either not see the writing through the tears or I am fidgety and lack focus but I am able to watch a movie or TV show. And the beauty of this is that I can watch with other members of my family and we all end up in a crying circle together and rather than processing grief on my own, for a moment that visual storytelling allows for us to share the grief.

      I think that this is where the course fell down for me. It was too invested on further elevating classics and the canon to really explore the depth with which human emotions can be impacted by all kinds of stories.

      • It isn’t the bibliotherapy itself that I doubt as much as my distrust of the piousness of those making the reading recommendations.

        This, so much this.

        We all have our own agenda, consciously or not, but it seems to me that too many of these courses/seminaries/workshops/lists aim to further a very narrow view of ‘this is what’s good for you’ (with a hidden “and only this” emphasis).

        • I agree. We all have our own agendas. Even wanting non-canon in a course is part of an agenda. That said, I have been thinking about some of the set readings andd I also see that they could have been set because people are already familiar with the stories so connecting understanding those stories within a framework of mental health eg Macbeth and PTSD, makes it easier to deliver understanding to the 1K+ participants. As I said, I didn’t mind the canon being in there, I just minded it being there to the exclusion of more contemporary texts.

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