How Book Therapy Began - A Personal Journey
Posted by Bijal Shah on
I often get asked the story behind Book Therapy. In Q&A format, I've answered the 5 questions I get asked the most below which I hope narrate the Book Therapy story in the most accurate way.
Q: How did you get into bibliotherapy?
A: Post-completion of a part-time diploma in psychodynamic counselling and psychotherapy where I underwent therapy myself. I was working in Investment Banking at the time since graduating with a Bachelors in Science in Mathematics.
During my own therapy sessions, I noticed, that every time I explored an issue, I'd reach out to a book to understand the context better. My therapist would suggest books/greek myths or simple stories to illustrate a point which I found helpful and leveraged the whole therapeutic process. It was at this point that I felt, there's something powerful here that needs to be explored. I was also in touch with several leading professors whose research on bibliotherapy cemented my belief in the power of literature to heal. One of these professors was Finnish Bibliotherapist and Doctor of Philosophy and Literature at the University of Oulu, Pirjo Suvilehto. (You can read my interview with her here.)
Initially, I published a non-fiction book titled “The Happiness Mindset” hoping to combine my passion for literature, writing and psychology.
Then, in 2017 whilst on maternity leave with my firstborn, Arianna, I developed a 3-step methodology for selecting books on a variety of issues. I built a database of books and wrote several essays on literature and therapy. When my husband was offered an international assignment in San Francisco, I left my job at Deutsche Bank in London and launched Book Therapy, a bibliotherapy and book curation service.
I began by offering bibliotherapy sessions and also the personalised book prescription service, which was essentially the reading list without the face-to-face session. Some clients wanted the reading research service for personal interest and were not necessarily seeking therapeutic literature. There were clients interested in parenting books, books on career changes or were curious about astrology or French history — so it became about curation. This prescription-only service is without books but if you want books too, you can always opt for the personalised book boxes, that include three hand-selected books in a delightful book box.
Clients were also interested in learning self-bibliotherapy techniques for their own personal development and well-being so I launched an online course in Bibliotherapy, Literature & Mental Health which has been very popular. And this course has now also been completed by mental health professionals (counsellors, psychotherapists, life coaches) as well as librarians, social workers, teachers and other interest health care professionals too. I also run corporate workshops in this space as well.
My book recommendations have featured in the Guardian, NBC News, Marie Claire, Asian Voice and various other publications.
Q: Were you always an avid reader?
A: I was always a voracious reader when I was younger — growing up in Kenya, East Africa there was only the community library and a few bookstores. Whilst in pre-school in Nairobi, my best bet was the bookstore as the community library offered very little children’s literature. My parents would take me to the bookstore every weekend and we’d buy a new book — I ended up with quite an impressive library and a habit was born. To this day, I continue to buy at least 2 to 3 books a month. I also receive a lot of free books to review.
Q: How does it work — do you prescribe a range of books to people, from fiction to self-help?
A: The personalised book prescriptions, are based on clients' reading habits, goals, interests and personal needs. Upon purchase, I email my clients a list of specific questions, exploring their reading preferences (i.e. preference for fiction/nonfiction, if there is something specific they are looking for, whether they like to listen to books or read paperbacks or prefer the kindle and also how much time they can devote to reading). Within 48 hours, I prepare a ‘personalised book prescription’, a report setting out the book recommendations. I introduce them to books that explore feelings they might not have understood before — or books that bring new meaning, hope, perspective on an existing situation — or simply books that focus on a niche that they’ve been hoping to explore for a while but never had the time.
I specialise in fiction, creative and narrative nonfiction as well as poetry and philosophy.
I offer unlimited support to all my clients for up to two weeks following the delivery of the book prescription which can be over email or a bibliotherapy session (therapy/coaching using the literature). If you want the books too, you can always opt for the personalised book boxes.
To get a sense of what I prescribe, check out my A-Z of Book Prescriptions for Adults and Children, as well as essays prescribing reading lists for different issues that examine life through literature. Also here's a recent client video testimonial
Q: What sort of people come to you for help?
A: Mainly men and women between the ages of 20 to 45 years old. My clients are international: the UK, US, Australia, Germany, Hong Kong, Pakistan, India, Dubai, Russia, Portugal and Ukraine.
Q: Could you give me five examples of books to read if you are stressed, depressed, getting over a break-up, etc?
A: If you’re feeling stressed, I would suggest poetry, specifically Deborah Alma’s The Emergency Poet — an anti-stress poetry anthology, it’s the perfect way to slow the mind, bring us in the here and now so we can pause, re-energise, feel a sense of calm and re-boot.
If you’re feeling depressed, my go-to books are: Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar (Fiction) and Jenny Lawson’s Furiously Happy (Non-fiction) — The Bell Jar provides extraordinary access to the mind of someone who is depressed, validating their feelings. Raw, and insightful, the book empathises and provides cathartic relief to the depressed reader. For something lighter, Furiously Happy is a hilarious memoir of Jenny Lawson’s experience with severe depression, again resonating with people struggling with symptoms. Given the intensity of The Bell Jar, Furiously Happy complements the book perfectly.
Two for getting over a break-up, one fiction and one non-fiction are:
1. The Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler — a Pulitzer Prize Nominee for literary fiction, the story centres around a travel writer, Macon Leary, who writes books for people who hate to travel. Having lost his son a couple of years ago, his wife leaves him shortly after. Unsure of how to proceed with life he uses his writing to chronicle the challenges, the transitions and the emotional processing we are forced to embrace as life goes on. A beautiful story filled with colourful characters, both human and vulnerable, that teach us life-affirming lessons along the way. A feel-good book overall.
2. Maybe You Should Talk to Someone by Lori Gottlieb — The non-fiction book starts off with Gottlieb, having just broken up with someone, seeking therapy. A therapist herself, she wonders how she didn’t see it coming. The book essentially a memoir of her own therapy post a relationship break-up, as well as a memoir of the cases she works on during this time, is a fascinating insight into how we make sense of what has just happened to us, and how we heal, ready to take on the world again, opening ourselves to new relationships. Engaging, it reaffirms our belief in the power of psychoanalysis and conventional therapy to release us from our own suffering.
My favourite quote from Gottlieb’s book: “We can’t have change without loss, which is why so often people say they want change but nonetheless stay exactly the same.”
Q: Finally — tell me a little bit more about yourself.
A: I’m based in Hampstead, North West London, and am a mum of two, a boy and girl.
Hope you enjoyed reading this post. As a warm welcome, we are offering a 10% discount on our personalised book prescriptions and personalised book boxes as well as our online course on Bibliotherapy, Literature & Mental Health. Simply type in "TENPERCENT" into the promotional code box at check out.
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A big hello and thank you for reading! Passionate about literature, psychology, and life I launched Book Therapy as an alternative form of therapy using the power of literature. I create reading lists/personalised book prescriptions based on your individual needs, this is my signature personalised reading service. My book recommendations have featured in The Guardian, NBC News and Marie Claire. You can also check out Book Therapy’s free reading lists and A- Z of book prescriptions (covering both fiction and non-fiction). These suggest books based on your existing life situation (e.g. anxiety, job change, relationship heartache) as well as interests (e.g memoir, historical fiction, non-fiction, crime etc). There’s also a Children’s A — Z of Book Prescriptions. Feel free to check out the blog for more literary gems. There’s also a post on my personal story of how I entered the world of bibliotherapy and book curation. And if you’d like to connect, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or www.booktherapy.io.
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