A Prescription For Happiness – Bibliotherapy.

Reading is the new therapy.

Reading is the new therapy.

Recent studies from Liverpool University led by Professor Philip Davies have demonstrated that reading the classics improves our own reflectiveness and self-knowledge. Extracts from works such as ‘Othello,’King Lear,’ ‘Macbeth’ and ‘Corialinus’ were read by participants and scientists measured brain changes during these exercises using Magnetic Resonance Imaging. Extracts from the work of Larkin, Wordsworth and TS Eliot were also read by the readers for the experiment. After reading the classical work, the participants then read the work in a simplified form, without any of the metaphor and colour of the original. Not surprisingly, the results showed much greater electrical activity in the brain when the complex phrases and eloquent sentences were being read, as opposed to the dumbed down versions of the classical construct.

Indeed, the right side of the brain which is concerned with personal memory and emotion was highly stimulated when reading poetry, which prompted the scientists to extrapolate that self-reflection and a reappraisal of previous experiences is produced by the bardic works. This research is in its infancy but coupled with the rolling out this May of a scheme in the U.K. dubbed “Books on Prescription,” there is a very large swing in favour of the healing powers of books and literature. The scheme according to Miranda McKearney, director of the Reading Agency will allow GPs to write out prescriptions for books available at their local libraries to sufferers of mild to moderate anxiety and depression.The list includes many self-help books as well as mood-boosting novels and poetry from writers such as Jo Brand, Bill Bryson and Terry Jones. This is extremely good news for those of us who have always known the restorative powers of an early night and immersion in a good book.

I have always been a book lover and it is a relationship that has withstood the vagaries of time and has remained unsullied by my odd flirtations with music and travel. A life without books for me would have been an arid desert of gulag groundhog day, dull and dreary and essentially unintelligible.  I read for the sheer pleasure of escape into another World, into other states of consciousness, other apercus and filters of experience. The only World any of us know is the one our own brain shows us, and as human beings we can often feel alone in our thoughts and views, unable to access the inner thoughts and feelings of others. Even as a young reader I always loved that eureka moment when the character in the novel had a train of thought similar to my own, that communing with the author, that finding a bit of myself in the pages of a book.

I progressed from an obsession with bible stories at four through Enid Blyton, hanging out for a while with Anne of Green Gables.I think that reading The Catcher in the Rhy at thirteen opened my eyes to teenage angst as suffered by Holden which was mirroring by own bubbling rebelliousness. Life and art are good bedfellows and in novels and poetry the dilemmas and beauty of the human condition are there in the pages , waiting to be discovered by the reader. The School of Life, which was set up my philosopher and writer Alain De Botton in Bloomsbury, London is a unique cultural enterprise whose goal is to try to help us all live lives with more meaning and to negotiate the often tricky minefields of work and relationships. Uniquely they also offer a biblotherapy service, where very accomplished authors and thinkers will prescribe a course of reading which will help with negotiating the times when life can be more challenging whether because of career angst or coping with bereavement.These gurus are like personal trainers for the soul and aim to change your thinking and ignite and revitalise your life using carefully selected books as tools.  You can click here to learn more about Bibliotherapy.

Over the next few blog posts I am going to trawl through my shelves and find those books whose pearls of wisdom have sustained me over my life.


Image from The School of Life

Commencement – London in January

This blog was supposed to begin life in early January but had stiff competition from other time consuming pursuits namely those related to work and to the annual early January obsession with gyms and aspirational new life styles. There was an added note of urgency to the reigning in of my hedonistic passions this year as I wanted to attempt to look a little younger at my graduation ceremony on the 23rd January in the Rose Theatre, Kingston. It was to be the culmination of two years of part time study and travel between Kerry and Kingston, enduring the claustrophobic confines of Ryan Air and late night angst as the dissertation deadline loomed.

It was also a triumph of folly over reason, of spirit over reality. The first two weeks of the new me were difficult but were showing results. I had waved a fond farewell to the Chablis and Sancerre in the early hours of January 1st aided hugely by aversion therapy after massive overindulgence over the season. I promptly turned up at my local gym BTS fitness and was put through my paces by the very fabulous Silvia, whose toned physique and boundless energy got this devotee of lounging to spend a few hours a week hauling kettle bells and donning boxing gloves. I had also given up the consolations of consulate, the menthol friends that have been a constant in my life.

Naturally, by all the laws of nature , I was a little lighter and a lot fresher as I boarded the flight to London Luton accompanied by my mother an the afternoon before graduation. Despite gloomy predictions of snow blizzards and arctic conditions from weather reports and of course Sky News, we arrived with ease to a bitterly cold but snow-free Ebury Street, Victoria. This is a great location for a sojourn in London and I can’t recommend the Lime Tree Hotel enough, located as it is next to a fabulous bistro, The Ebury Wine Bar and on the doorstep of Elizabeth Street with its designer shops and rarefied village appeal. The Hotel is a little gem with really helpful staff, a taste of Made In Chelsea for those of us without trust-funds, ideal for myself as I do like the champagne lifestyle on a beer budget.

When my sisters flew in from Dublin that evening and arrived at eleven to the hotel, I allowed my hedonistic self to re- emerge and nourish herself after the gulag of the previous few weeks. There was nothing for it but to run around the corner to Boisdales Of Belgravia, one of my finds over the course of my studies. A couple of cocktails later and I was singing along with the jazz band and even worried in the manner of a stray dog’s effect on sheep, a young musician from Queens New York. I kept repeating that I knew the area well, as if I was google earth in human form, albeit that very delectable form that I feel after one too many hendricks. It came to pass that my vision of waking on the graduation day- performing a few sun salutes, then meditating for twenty minutes on the meaning of Art in life, then dressing and resembling Dita Von Teese -didn’t come to pass.

Instead I found myself in Clapham Junction wearing snow boots with my new body-con dress, also accessorised with a camel hair polo neck and a very loud leopard print coat. The rest of my gear was carried in a black holdall, not unlike a kit bag. The dream of floating effortlessly to Kingston in my high heels and a clutch bag was not to be. Instead I shuffled through the cold station with the swagger of a blubbery inuit on the frozen Alaskan plains. After queuing for caps and gowns and other discombobulating stuff in the JG building, I was plucked from the misery of walking to the town for lunch by Dominic Bury, one of the young boys from my class. This dapper poet transported me in his mini-cooper to the restaurant where I was meeting one of my tutors for lunch. Climbing out of the mini and waving goodbye to the bespectacled hipster definitely made me feel a lot younger.

After a glass of bubbly with Rachel Cusk, combined with interesting discussion, I emerged to take my place at graduation. It was a really special day and I really enjoyed the upbeat and positive talk given by Wendy Perriam who received an honorary doctorate that day. Graduation speeches are extremely important and set the right note and are always remembered by the graduates afterwards. My all time favourite commencement address is by the inimitable David Foster Wallace in ‘This is Water’.