Bibliotherapy has been popular in the form of the nonfiction self-help book for several decades now. But lovers of literature have been using novels as salves — either consciously or subconsciously — for centuries.
Our belief in the effectiveness of fiction as the purest and best form of bibliotherapy is based on our own experience with patients and bolstered by an avalanche of anecdotal evidence.
Sometimes it’s the story that charms; sometimes it’s the rhythm of the prose that works on the psyche, stilling or stimulating. Sometimes it’s an idea or an attitude suggested by a character in a similar quandary or jam.
If you lived on a planet as small as the Little Prince’s planet, Asteroid B-612 – so small that you’d have to take great care, after you’d finished washing and dressing each morning, to dig out any baobab shoots that had appeared overnight lest they take over your planet; and that one day you watched the sunset forty-four times, just by moving your chair; you’d be living a simple life that would inculcate in you the habit of carefulness.
You would water the one flower that grew on your planet every day, and never forget. You would take the trouble, before you went away on a trip, to rake out your volcanoes, even the extinct one.
Because you would know that it’s the time and care you spend on things that makes them important. And that if you didn’t take this care, you’d wake up one day to find yourself surrounded by things that were sad, feeling their unimportance themselves.
Whatever the size of your planet when you begin reading The Little Prince, we guarantee it will have shrunk and become much more like Asteroid B-612 by the end. And that afterwards you will live your life with more care.
The insights themselves are still nebulous, as learning gained through reading fiction often is—but therein lies its power. In a secular age, I suspect that reading fiction is one of the few remaining paths to transcendence, that elusive state in which the distance between the self and the universe shrinks.
Reading fiction makes me lose all sense of self, but at the same time makes me feel most uniquely myself. As Woolf, the most fervent of readers, wrote, a book “splits us into two parts as we read,” for “the state of reading consists in the complete elimination of the ego,” while promising “perpetual union” with another mind.