Is that Trol­lope she’s read­ing?

She must be in her thir­ties...

Friday - - Leisure -

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...

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