Bibliotherapy: how reading with others can boost your wellbeing

Find out why we’re drawn to bibliotherapy in times of crisis – and how you can reap even bigger benefits by reading with others.

During the pandemic, many of us rediscovered the pleasure of reading. We picked neglected favourites from our bookshelves. We ordered new releases, prompting a surge in book sales around the world. Some of us even joined a global reading community to tackle, together, the thousand-odd pages of Tolstoy’s War and Peace (#TolstoyTogether).

According to La Trobe alumni Dr Sara James and Dr Juliane Roemhild, what we were doing has a name: bibliotherapy. Here, they take us through what bibliotherapy is, how it can help us, and why we should be reading with others for maximum wellbeing.

What is bibliotherapy?

Put simply, bibliotherapy is the idea that reading is good for you. People have long used reading as a practice to increase personal wellbeing – from reading religious texts for spiritual guidance, to reading novels for pleasure or a deeper understanding of life.

For Juliane, a Senior Lecturer in English at La Trobe, and Sara, a Senior Lecturer in Sociology at La Trobe, the reasons we read are as diverse as our needs.

‘People read to alleviate stress and boredom, to find answers to life’s problems, for entertainment, escape or company, to soothe, or to stimulate. Reading encourages us to reflect on our personal experience and life with the help of literature,’ says Juliane.

Reading can also help us connect to a sense of liberty and play.

‘Getting lost in a story allows us to escape our immediate surroundings and enter a different world for a while. Escapist reading or armchair travel is not trivial, but a vital act of re-establishing a sense of inner freedom and playfulness that can easily get lost when we feel under pressure. Our inner horizons expand, and our world feels bigger and richer,’ says Sara.

As the pandemic continues, Juliane and Sara are interested in how bibliotherapy can help us cope. Their latest research explores how the practice could offer a socially inclusive and healthy response to COVID-19.

‘Reading can help us explore a range of feelings in a safe setting,’ Sara says. ‘With the help of a story, we can work through anxiety, fear and sadness. Or, we can experience joy and satisfaction together with the protagonist.’

At a time when the prevalence of anxiety and depression has increased by 25 per cent worldwide, reading's role in processing our feelings could be crucial.

Perhaps there’s a specific feeling or circumstance you need help with? There are books for that, too.

‘Books like The Novel Cure by Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin contain long lists of novels for life’s assorted challenges. And Reading the Seasons, by bibliotherapists Sonya Tsakalakis and Germaine Leece, includes many wonderful meditations and reflections on how we can use books to help us through life. It also has a great list of reading suggestions at the end.’

Prescribed reading in hospitals, book clubs and beyond

Today, bibliotherapy is practised widely and in many forms. Visit one of La Trobe’s libraries, for example, and you’ll find librarians ready to recommend books for your needs and interests.

Of course, book clubs are a kind of bibliotherapy too. In a book club, you read books from an agreed reading list, then gather as a group to discuss them. Rather than a strict literary experience, then, book clubs offer you a social fix as well.

You’ll also find bibliotherapy happening in hospitals and aged care homes.

‘Bibliotherapy is considered an important tool in medical settings. Stories and poetry are used in the treatment of depression and anorexia. Hospitals have libraries, and GPs may ‘prescribe’ a book as well as a pill,’ Sara says.

As more and more people realise the wellbeing benefits of reading, new services and contexts for bibliotherapy are emerging. For instance, you can pay a professional bibliotherapist to create a tailored reading list for you.

‘A bibliotherapist we interviewed in 2021 told us that in the early stages of the pandemic people had asked her for recommendations on dystopian novels. After a while, however, readers increasingly asked for lighter stories and escapist fiction,’ says Juliane.

So what books would they recommend for those of us who feel like the pandemic may never end?

‘A personal favourite is Gabriel Garcia Marquez Love in the Times of the Cholera. Not just because it involves a pandemic and ends on a wonderfully utopian note, but also because it is a book about the vagaries of love, about waiting and determination, and about making a life in the meantime,’ Juliane says.

‘Reading poetry together is also really lovely, because poems often allow much room for interpretation. You can enjoy and explore the different shades of meaning in a line or a phrase and enjoy the imaginative use of language together. If you’re new to poetry and would like some guidance, check out the marvellous Poetry Unbound podcast.’

How reading with others improves your wellbeing

Bibliotherapy is often a solo pursuit. Even if we discuss the writing as a group, we tend to read alone. Yet Juliane and Sara say this is a recent change. Throughout history, reading has been something humans do together.

‘For many centuries reading was a collective experience. Families would gather to listen to stories or poetry or read the Bible together. It’s only over the last 200 years that reading has predominantly become a solitary activity,’ Juliane says.

Reading with others has many advantages. For one, it helps us slow down and listen. But it also creates a sense of connection.

‘Reading is a moment of digital detox and an opportunity for connecting with others. When reading in a group we hear about the experiences of others, which can help us feel less alone in our anxieties. By sharing our views and interpretations of the text, we open ourselves to other viewpoints and deepen our engagement with the story – and with each other,’ Sara says.

Join a Shared Reading group

Now you know the benefits of reading with others, you might be wondering how to start? If you live in Victoria, Australia, Sara and Juliane encourage you to reach out directly.

‘If you’re interested in joining a reading group, please just contact us!’ Sara says. ‘We’re running Shared Reading groups in a range of settings and locations across Victoria.’

For folks based in Sydney or regional NSW, check out Shared Reading NSW for your local group.

And if you’re living further afield, there’s bound to be a Shared Reading group in your area. In the UK, for example, an organisation called The Reader runs over 700 Shared Reading groups in libraries, aged care homes, prisons, hospitals and beyond. Or, if you’re in NZ, head to The Reading Revolution.

When you’ve found your Shared Reading group, Juliane and Sara advise you jump straight in.

‘Shared Reading is great because it requires no preparation. There’s no obligation to read an entire book in advance, and you don’t have to be a literary expert – you can just come along, read a story and a poem together, then talk about them,’ Sara says.

If, after two pandemic years, you’re feeling a little socially shy? No problems.

‘You can just listen and enjoy.’

About our experts

Dr Sara James is a cultural sociologist and Senior Lecturer in Sociology at La Trobe University. Her research focuses on work, identity and wellbeing. Sara holds a Bachelor of Arts (Hons) (2006), a PhD in Sociology (2012) and a Graduate Certificate in Higher Education Curriculum, Teaching and Learning (2018) from La Trobe. Learn more about Sara's work.

Dr Juliane Roemhild (PhD in English, 2009) is a Senior Lecturer in English at La Trobe University. Her research focuses on British and German interwar literature, particularly women's writing, happiness in literature and the current ‘eudaimonic turn’ in literary studies. Learn more about Juliane's work.