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What happens to you when you read?
What happens to you when you read?

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10 Reading throughout history

‘Take choice of all my Library, and so beguile thy sorrow’

Helen Mary Gaskell, 1918

During the Covid-19 pandemic, you might have noticed how much media attention was being given to the idea of reading offering one important way of responding to a crisis of this kind. Reading, as suggested everywhere from BBC podcasts to newspaper articles to tweets, could offer a distraction from the worry; it could offer a way of dealing with the boredom of lockdown; it could make you feel less alone. The idea of ‘transportation’ as you’ve learned about it here seems particularly relevant to some of these thoughts about reading in difficult times.

As critical as this idea has been for readers of all kinds in this contemporary crisis, it’s not a new one. Books have been regarded as a source of solace, consolation, and healing throughout history. One 2017 newspaper piece by Germaine Leece put it that ‘the understanding that literature can comfort, console and heal has been around since the second millennium BC’. The idea has been revived periodically, in slightly different forms, in different places, ever since. Key historical examples from the more recent past emerged during the First World War (1914-18) – and, as you’ll remember, the example of the transformative power of reading that Ford wrote about also came from this traumatic period in history.

This image shows 9 old and worn books on a book shelf.

Helen Mary Gaskell was a well-connected and wealthy woman who decided on the 4th August 1914, when war was declared, that her contribution to the war effort would be to organise donations of reading matter to sick and wounded soldiers. Her own experience of being sick and finding comfort in books had led her to respond some years previously by sending some out to a relative wounded in the Boer War. His reaction, and that of his wounded comrades, was so effusive that she knew, when war broke out on 4th August 1914, that she wanted to make sure sick and wounded soldiers had access to the books that they loved wherever they were in the world. Gaskell’s War Library was operational by the end of 1914 and had bases stretching as far as Alexandria, in Egypt. Millions of books and magazines were collected and donated via the War Library during the course of the war, helping to counter what one editor of the time, Ernest Rhys, called a ‘book hunger’ affecting soldiers who were a long way from home. Soldiers’ requests were met where at all possible. Gaskell’s philosophy was that meeting the type of request was itself important, showing a personal touch and careful attention to the individual who was ill or wounded. When she wrote the account of her War Library, which she published in 1918, she chose a quotation from Shakespeare’s play Titus Andronicus to head it: ‘Take choice of all my Library, and so beguile thy sorrow’.

The ‘healthiness’ (or otherwise) of reading is an age-old question, but it’s one that became increasingly prominent in the west as reading audiences grew with the expansion of literacy. Commentators in the nineteenth century thought that newly literate women were vulnerable to the manipulative appeals of fiction due to their feminine emotions. The supposed results were ‘novel addiction’ and a tendency to confuse the world represented on the fictional page with the external reality of the reader’s life. The popularity of crime fiction and the biographies of famous criminals with newly literate working-class men, meanwhile, led to fears that reading would encourage them into lives of crime. At the same time however, other voices arose—from reforming politicians and journalists and public library advocates, for instance—claiming that ‘good’ literature was necessarily beneficial and encouraging the growth and spread of the ‘reading habit’ across all social classes. Female commentators also pushed back against hostile representations of their reading lives, claiming that fiction provided women with a temporary mental escape route from confined and predictable domestic routines of ‘crushing boredom’ (Flint, 1993, p. 32).

During the First World War, earlier general claims for the ‘healthiness’ of literature crystallised into the new discipline of bibliotherapy, which claimed to be able to heal bodies as well as minds with carefully prescribed and administered reading material. First trialled on a large scale in American Veterans’ Administration hospitals in the United States after the First World War (and to a smaller extent in Red Cross-supplied hospital libraries in the Britain), bibliotherapy is now a well-established discipline with many practitioners across the globe and a high degree of visibility in the contemporary book market. Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin’s bestselling book The Novel Cure (2013), for instance, contains lists of books recommended for readers with various afflictions, ranging from ‘wanderlust’ to a broken heart. Described as a ‘medical handbook with a difference’, this apparently light-hearted title masks a more serious purpose. Berthoud and Elderkin run their own bibliotherapeutic practice, while clinical evidence now indicates that reading certain carefully prescribed books in a bibliotherapeutic setting really can contribute to the treatment of some mental illnesses and personal problems, ranging from depression to loneliness and social isolation (Floyd, 2003). In the United Kingdom, the Books on Prescription programme (first piloted in 2003) provides patients in British hospitals with a range of reading material categorised to help alleviate various traumas and mental illnesses (Brewster, Sen, and Cox, 2012).

Activity 9 Books that mean something to you

Timing: Allow approximately 10 minutes for this activity.

In Ella Berthoud’s and Susan Elderkin’s book, Northern Lights by Philip Pullman (and the other books in the trilogy including the one you have read extracts from in this course) is suggested as one book that can help with feelings of loneliness. Berthoud and Elderkin argue this is a great book to read if you are lonely because the characters in the book are accompanied by a daemon (a companion in the form of an animal that is always with them).

Have a think about the books that have meant most to you in your reading life. Do they remind you of particularly good times, or friends and family that you love? Do they represent a time when you discovered your reading independence, or what an escape reading can be? Or are they simply as familiar as old friends, improving your feelings of well-being when you pick them up?


Each one of you will have had a different response to this activity. Continue to think about your own habits and preferences as a reader and how they are an important part of your identity, as important, say, as the clothes that you wear or the music that you like.