Head of English

Head of English

Recently I stumbled across an article in The New Yorker with the engaging headline, ‘Does reading make you happy?’

As an English teacher, my immediate response was absolutely! But as I began to read the article, my presumption that I knew all the benefits of reading was dismantled. Of course reading is a wonderful way to build our vocabularies, fire up our imagination, and extend creative and critical thinking skills but, as it turns out, reading is actually considered a genuine therapeutic tool for people. As the article went on to explain, ‘bibliotherapy’ is a very broad term for the ancient practice of encouraging reading for therapeutic benefits.

This practice has lasted the test of time, gaining  popularity after WWI when traumatised soldiers were ‘prescribed’ books to help them deal with their grief and shock, and to find their own humanity once more. The practice has been steadily building since then. Bibliotherapists do much more than just prescribe self-help books to people; they seek out their patients’ interests, determine what they would like to find the answers to, what stimulates and soothes them, and then  compile a list of books, both fiction and non-fiction, to help people feel that they are not alone in whatever they are experiencing.

It struck me that, in a way, anyone who recommends a book to someone, who seeks out the perfect novel as a gift for a loved one is, in fact, a bibliotherapist. When we ourselves can begin to recognise that the books we pick up and voraciously read can move us in ways we don’t anticipate, or when we find a favourite author who we feel understands us, then we too become our own bibliotherapists.

It goes without saying that there are many educational and academic benefits to a regular reading habit which have been well documented over time. It’s a sobering statistic but the difference in the word exposure of a 12-year-old child who, over the course of a year, reads 20 minutes a day versus 1 minute a day is a staggering 1,800,000 to 8000 words. The more words we have, the better equipped we are to understand the complexities of our world and express our opinions and emotional reactions with confidence and clarity. It was, after all, a deliberate decision of George Orwell in his novel ‘1984’ to make the controlling and limiting of language one of the most powerful tools of the dystopian government of Oceania. We need words to survive and thrive as a society.

But isn’t it also consoling to recognise that we need reading and books to enhance our pleasure and happiness each day? I really do believe that reading makes us feel more comfortable in our own skin. Reading gives us friends, be they fictional or real, who help us understand our true selves. On that note, I’ll let Roald Dahl, who had an uncanny knack for saying profound things very simply, sum it up for me: “These books gave Matilda a hopeful and comforting message: You are not alone.”


Ms Rosanne Timmins

Head of English