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Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin, The novel cure: An A-Z of literary remedies (Review)

August 21, 2013
Novel Cure bookcover

Novel Cure (Courtesy: Text Publishing)

I don’t usually blog about books before I’ve read them cover to cover, but I’m making an exception for Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin‘s The novel cure because it’s one of those books that’s best read in small doses (no pun intended). You see, it is a book of bibliotherapy, a book that recommends novels to read to cure almost any ailment you can think of.

Bibliotherapy is described in Wikipedia, but I’ll give you Berthoud and Elderkin’s definition:

the prescribing of fiction for life’s ailments.

I don’t want to give away too many treatments. After all, the authors need to eat. But, to give you a taste, here is a sample of ailments and their prescribed treatments:

  • Daddy’s girl, being a: Can you guess the treatment? It’s Jane Austen’s Emma! You didn’t expect me not to start with Jane Austen did you? Emma, Berthoud and Elderkin say, “has been sent out into the world with an overly high opinion of herself and a self-centredness that can only bring her grief”. They suggest Emma should be seen as a cautionary tale and that girls at risk need to “stop playing the game and show him [their father] what a bad girl you can be”. “See: rails, going off the, for inspiration.” Are you getting the idea?
  • Control freak, being a: The authors suggest two Australian books. Is there something these two Englishwomen are trying to tell we colonials? Both are books I’ve reviewed here, Elizabeth Harrower’s dark The watch tower (my review) and Graeme Simsion‘s comic The Rosie project (my review).
  • Nose, hating your: What else could they suggest for this but Patrick Süskind‘s chilling Perfume. That’s a novel that’s not easy to forget. For all the horror of this novel, the authors manage to turn it to a positive purpose, one determined to help the self-esteem of those self-conscious about their noses!

As lighthearted as all this might sound, the authors do believe in the efficacy of literature to help ease (if not cure) both emotional and physical pain. They apparently hold highly successful bibliotherapy sessions and retreats in the UK. Among the ailments in the book is “Eating Disorder” and the two recommended books, Deborah Hautzig‘s Second star to the right and Jenefer Shute’s Life-size, are serious offerings for sufferers and their carers.

Like the good reference book it is, The novel cure includes see references (such as “Control, out of: See adolescence, alcoholism …”) and see also references (such as “Old age, horror of: See also amnesia, reading associated ….”). These helpful pointers warmed the cockles of my little librarian heart.

Scattered through the book are “Ten Best” lists, for which there is an index at the back so you can find them easily. One that made me laugh is “The Ten Best Novels For When You’ve Got A Cold”. As all Australians know, the best remedy for a cold is eucalyptus. It’s fitting then that Murray Bail‘s gorgeous novel Eucalyptus is top of the list.

There are two other indexes at the back of the book. One is the Index of Reading Ailments (for such life-threatening conditions as “Holiday, not knowing what novels to take on” and “Household chores, distracted by”). And the other is, of course, the Index of Novels and Authors. This makes the book useful for those of you who don’t have any ailments needing cure. You can  see if your favourite novels are cures for others.

You will also see, if you look at this index, the breadth and depth of authors and their works covered in this book. I was thrilled to see many Australian authors represented, covering more than a century of Australian literature. As far as I can tell, every continent is covered. The authors include, for example, South African Lauren Beukes, Indian Rahul Bhattacharya, French Albert Camus, Mexican Laura Esquivel, Japanese Haruki Murakami, Russian Leo Tolstoy, and so on. This index comprises eight two-column pages.

To conclude, I’ll offer my own ailment and cure: Reading slump, being in a: Read The novel cure. You’re sure to find a book or two to cure you and, if you don’t, well, you’ll be reading anyhow!

Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin
The novel cure: An A-Z of literary remedies
Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2013
Cover design: WH Chong
456pp.
ISBN: 9781922079350

(Review copy courtesy Text Publishing)

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21 Comments leave one →
  1. August 21, 2013 6:00 pm

    What a clever idea. I love it when something new and fresh comes along and then I wonder “Why have I never thought of that?” I’m trying to imagine which books I would tackle for life’s various ills. I might write them down before I get a copy of ‘Novel Cure’ and see if any of my choices align with Elderkin’s.

  2. August 22, 2013 1:03 am

    Oh how fun! It sounds both amusing and serious, a good combo. As I was reading I was wondering if they offered cures for a reading slump. I’m not in one but feel perilously close and I have seen many other bloggers complain recently about being in a slump. My library currently has it on order so should I actually slip into a slump, I will be sure to borrow a copy!

  3. August 22, 2013 5:59 am

    There are quite a few reading specific ailments Stefanie … BUT unfortunately I’m in one country (Spain) and the book another. It was it published in England. Hopefully an American publisher will take it up.

  4. August 22, 2013 10:27 am

    This is such a fabulous idea. One to leaf through when I come home… whenever that may be. Wait. What do they prescribe for homesickness/missing family?

    • August 22, 2013 2:27 pm

      You’ll have to ask me when I get back, Hannah … I recollect there was a cure for that.

  5. August 22, 2013 6:09 pm

    This sounds fundamentally funny – and useful! So many times I pick up a novel and find it totally corresponds to my mindset. Right now reading Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, The Sea, about isolation and reflection, past love and, well, the sea. All too close to the bone for this holidaymaker!

    • August 26, 2013 11:49 pm

      Thanks Catherine … Iris Murdoch is there as a cure, as I recollect, but I don’t have my book here with me to check what book for what cure. But it sounds like we need to find a different cure for you!

  6. August 22, 2013 6:41 pm

    This book is such a great idea. I am glad that it is both humorous contains real advice. I do believe that books can help us deal with life’s issues. I often remark that reading fiction is likely to me more helpful then any of the multitude of the popular self help books.

    • August 24, 2013 6:44 pm

      Oh good point, Brian, re fiction being better than self-help books. Fiction can be reassuring sometimes … when you think you are the “only one” experiencing something something, can’t it?

  7. Brian Joseph permalink
    August 22, 2013 6:45 pm

    WordPress seems to have swallowed my first comment…my apologies if it reappears.

    This book sounds like such a good idea. I am glad that it is both humorous and contains real advice. I do believe that books can help us with real life problems. I usually think that folks who are read any the multitude of popular self help books would be better off reading quality fiction or philosophy.

  8. Alex in Leeds permalink
    August 22, 2013 8:09 pm

    Yay. I remember seeing a video of one of Berthoud’s bibliotherapy sessions and being amused and impressed by the questions she asked and the recommendations. How lovely to have something like this to dip into – I’ll be buying my own copy but will suggest it for my library too. 🙂

    • August 26, 2013 11:51 pm

      That’s great Alex to hear you’ve heard of them … There is a serious edge to their tongue in cheek which I like.

  9. August 23, 2013 11:58 am

    Another great idea would be to write one on books not to read at certain stages of life – e.g. Portrait of a Lady when considering marriage to an impressive aesthete… in fact the more I think of it, pretty well any Henry James when considering marriage! Then of course Conrad if considering a voyage by water, almost anything Irish when thinking of moving to Ireland, Kafka before sitting for a public service exam, any recent John Banville if you are a male getting on in years…..

  10. ian darling permalink
    September 4, 2013 9:38 pm

    Interesting topic bibliotherapy but I don’t know if it undermines the patient/reader’s autonomy. I might read a book through word of mouth or an interesting review but if I was told that a book might be “good for me” – I probably would pass it up. I do agree that a lot of people should be aware that imaginative literature is there for them – but more for its own sake with any therapeutic benefit incidental.

    • September 4, 2013 11:11 pm

      You rebel you, Ian! But, I guess that’s fair enough. One of the things I like about the book though is how well they related classics, in particular, to modern issues and concerns, confirming why classics are such. And, as you say, they do make an important point that imaginative literature has more value than just being fun (not that there’s anything wrong with fun, either!)

  11. October 9, 2013 6:24 pm

    Reblogged this on olatzsanchez and commented:
    starting something new in the university. this year, this means that everything we do, think about or post in any social network should be connected with the rest of our and your networks.
    sorry and thank for reading 😉

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  1. The Novel Cure, by Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin | ANZ LitLovers LitBlog

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