Is that Trollope she’s reading?
She must be in her thirties...
Want to be a happier and healthier you in 2014? The answer might just lie in literature. But we’re talking Bronte and Balzac, not self-help nonsense, says Catherine Nixey
It seems we have been cruelly misled. You know all those embarrassing hours we have spent feasting on brightly coloured books about starvation diets and Atkins diets and Dukan diets and Stone Age diets and why the French don’t get fat or throw away food? Well, all of those have, it seems, been in vain.
Of course we probably knew this anyway, given that our children still misbehave and our legs still don’t look like a supermodel’s. However, a new book has just been published that seems to confirm this. The smart self-help money isn’t on Dukan or Atkins but on Tolstoy, Hemingway and Austen this New Year.
In The Novel Cure, Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin argue that when we are fat or depressed or unable to cope with our children we should not turn to self-help books but to literature. Their bold claim is that “2,000 years’ worth of literature” can help us not only to become “healthier, happier and wiser” but also to cope with divorce, lose weight and overcome depression. And, frankly, look a bit more intellectual while we’re reading them on the Metro.
Better still, unlike the usual self-help one-size-fits-all for the various ages, this one recognises that each stage of life needs its own particular balm. So teenagers are advised to read The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, thirtysomethings are recommended Martin Amis and fortysomethings are, rather charmingly, advised to read In Praise of Older Women.
Partly this is because those books will suit you better at certain times. However, it is also because, as with ordinary medicines, literary medicine also apparently has
to be administered at the correct time if it is to work at all. This is not necessarily before meals, but at the correct time in life. “There are certain books that, unless you read them when you’re 18 or 21, you become too old,” Elderkin says. “They are at their most powerful when you’re that age.”
However, if the idea of trying to tackle 2,000 years of literature as well as a persistent muffin-top sounds off-putting, don’t worry. The Novel Cure is clearly organised, alphabetically by ailment. Under each you are given suggestions of an author who could help cure it. So under “obesity” you are advised to read Muriel Spark. Under “depression, general”, Sylvia Plath. And under “diarrhoea” you have Samuel Beckett. All of these books, say Berthoud and Elderkin, “give you paths for overcoming difficulties in life”.
Perhaps. Though not always in such instantly obvious language as self-help books usually use. For example, if you pick up Mimi Spencer’s The Fast Diet Recipe Book one of the first phrases you meet is “the importance of fat loss versus weight loss”. Whereas if you pick up Muriel Spark, you’re greeted instead with: “I was living in furnished rooms in a tall house in South Kensington.” Which is all very nice but not quite as easy to put into practice. Or into one’s lunch.
However, the main question is: does all this work? The authors describe their cure as a “medical handbook”. The scientific test, though, of medical efficacy is the randomised controlled trial and they have not, they admit, tried administering Georgette Heyer to several thousand fevered brows. Besides, it would be hard to see what they could use as a literary placebo. Mills & Boon perhaps?
They do, however, say that they have (and doctors among you should look away now) “an avalanche of anecdotal evidence”. In 2008 they started running “bibliotherapy” sessions at the School of Life in London in which they gave one-toone literary advice in 40-minute classes. Yet there are other problems. Readers expect those who write their self-help books to embody what they advise and are upset when they fail them. However, few of these authors do. The late, great Muriel Spark, prescribed for obesity, was many wonderful things but you would struggle to describe her as slim. While Ernest Hemingway, Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath, all prescribed for various forms of mental distress, are hardly examples you would want to follow, given their depression-led sticky ends.
But they are, says Elderkin, “leaving the authors out of it. It’s their novels we’re about”.
Besides, even if these authors can’t cure you, they can comfort you. As CS Lewis said, “We read to know we are not alone.” He may not, it is true, have been thinking of haemorrhoids at the time. But the principle holds good. And anyway, says Elderkin, it doesn’t really matter whether or not the cures work. Because “if they don’t make you better you will have had your life enriched by them”.
And felt a lot less embarrassed while reading them in public. Turn over to discover the top 10 books prescribed for every age range...