As I write, England is just starting to emerge from lockdown. Weeks of closure of places of employment, shops and schools. Weeks at home; weeks of boredom, distress and worry. I know I’m not the only one who has found it hard. In times like these, what I read changes. Rather than seeking out new books and challenging texts, I go back to old favourites. The ones where I know what happens at the end. The ones that reassure me that everything is going to be OK.
From the research I’ve done on bibliotherapy, or the use of books to as a therapeutic resource, often to support people with mental health problems, I know others do the same. Interviews I conducted with those who identify reading as a source of support show that the need to re-read familiar texts is particularly pronounced in times of distress. Re-reading is a source of calm in difficult times. Patricia Meyer Spacks theorises that re-reading helps us to make sense of ourselves, and I would add that I think it also provides an anchor that allowing us to think about what has changed in the world around us.
One participant in my research described favoured texts as ‘a little flock of books at home.’ The image of a small, loyal set of feathered friends to draw on in times of need seems very apt here. But what about for those who home is not a place of safety and security? And what about those who do not have their own flock of books to rely on?
The Covid-19 pandemic has been shown to adversely affect those living in socio-economically deprived communities. Alongside these increased risks in living conditions, lack of ability for some members of our communities to socially-distance and to work from home, we have all also lost access to institutions that support our well-being in difficult times. One of those, the public library, is a key space for people who do not always have access to resources – internet access and books are not affordable if the weekly budget barely stretches as far as it needs to.
The public library is both a therapeutic landscape and a community hub. As the libraries remain closed, then if, like me, settling down with a good book is part of your self-medication strategy, you may feel the loss of the public library even more keenly. Public libraries are working so hard to support their communities – ebooks, audiobooks, online reading groups – and their ongoing engagement is much appreciated. But as I look forward to browsing the shelves again, I know that this can only happen when we have an appropriate harm reduction strategy in place that keeps library staff and readers safe. In the meantime, re-reading another old favourite is an option that I am lucky enough to have – and I’m thinking of those who don’t.
Liz Brewster is a senior lecturer at Lancaster Medical School and works variously on creative method for managing mental health issues. She is often active on Twitter @LizBrewster.
Suffolk Libraries have been making audio recordings of favourite books remembered by some of their older readers.
I like the article Liz. Just recently a member of my WEA poetry class organised Zoom meetings for us to discuss poetry that we have read in the lockdown. We are now in our second week. Face to face WEA meetings are unlikely to resume until Spring.
I have just received Lost in a Book from the USA, one of the books from your reading list.