The Medicinal Nature of Good Literature


I happened upon another interesting essay at my go-to site for intellectual inquiry aeon.co today, about literature and medicine and how both can be complementary treatments for the other. I found myself nodding along with the author’s viewpoint until he got to the part where he pointed out the differences between author and physician.

He argued that while writers and [their] readers have “the liberty to lose themselves in their world of characters and plotlines,” . . . “Physicians who give themselves up entirely to the suffering of their patients risk burnout.”

What? And we writers don’t? Has he never heard of Truman Capote? Or Ernest Hemingway? Or Harper Lee? Even Stephen King suffers writer’s block. Has the essayist not seen Secret Window? It stars Johnny Depp, for goodness sakes! Clearly the writer of the essay, one Gavin Francis, M.D., sees himself as a physician first and writer second!

Seriously though, his essay got me thinking about the medicinal nature of good literature, or any literature for that matter. If a reader connects with a work of fiction and is able to derive a level of insight that assuages some emotional pain, then reading can’t be all bad. Researching this premise some more, I found an old article published in the British newspaper The Guardian, which discusses the use of bibliotherapy as a formal treatment option. “Prose not Prozac,” so to speak. While skeptics abound, and there is still a dearth of medical literature on the subject, (a professor of medicine is quoted in the article as saying, “No one sends out for a poet when they are seriously ill.”) I do believe reading can be cathartic for reader and writer alike.

The writer of the first essay I mentioned, Gavin Francis, speaks of an Afghanistan veteran with PTSD he treated, who found great relief from reading Philip Klay’s collection of short stories Redeployment. I have read that Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried short story collection provided the same solace for Vietnam vets. Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper was no doubt extremely cathartic for both the author and for the many women who read the work and discovered their own voices needed to be heard in the patriarchal society in which they lived. The list of healing books goes on and on.

Literature as medicine is hardly new. Plato saw the arts as “an aid to bringing our soul-circuit, when it has got out of tune, into order and harmony with itself.” While some people see readers (and especially writers) as self-absorbed and isolated, it is my belief that they hardly see themselves as alone. They are being educated in priceless life skills, such as exploring different ways of being human, seeing the conditions in which other people live, learning to empathize with others who live their lives differently, and widening their world-view. In short, I say beware the person who says he doesn’t read books! (Yes, I'm speaking about you, Mr. P!)

What are your thoughts? Do you have a favorite novel that was a life changer? Let us know below.

Note: I have to give a special call out to the remarkable fine artist Jacquelyn Bischak, whose beautiful work I ran the risk of violating the copyright of for this blog post because the intensity of the reader’s connection with the words on the page she is reading is breathtaking. If I ever earn enough from this writing gig to buy original art, Jacquelyn Bischak’s gallery will be one of the first places I’ll call. Check out some of her other incredible pieces here.

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