How is bibliotherapy with fiction hypothesized to work, and what are the ideal conditions for treatment success ? Patterns in the bibliotherapy literature are explored. Questions are posed and suggestions offered regarding the practice of bibliotherapy with fiction.
Authors discussing the subject of bibliotherapy commonly quote an inscription from the lintel of an ancient Greek library (Head, 2007; Riordan & Wilson, 1989; Zaccaria & Moses, 1968). The library decreed itself "the healing place of the soul" (Riordan & Wilson, 1989, p. 506), and by including this quote, authors hope to convey that the use of books as an aid to feeling better is not new, is ancient in fact, and if it was good enough for the Greeks, those eternal fonts of arts, letters, and wisdom in general, it should be good enough for us. However, in the intervening millennia, the study of bibliotherapy with fiction has not moved much beyond this pithy invitation. Yes, in some ways it seems natural to assume that because stories and poems give people so much pleasure and peace in daily life, they should have some psychotherapeutic application as well. Yet watching basketball also gives people pleasure and peace. Why not watch basketball in therapy? Why read fiction?
In this article, I explore the potential of fiction as a medium of therapeutic change. I examine the basic premises underlying the theory of action, raise the current shortage of empirical support for the theory as a limitation, and provide suggestions for future research. Also, I challenge three basic assumptions of the theory regarding who is considered a good candidate for bibliotherapy, what types of books should be used, and what the therapeutic goals are. Finally, I offer a set of new ideas intended to advance the knowledge and practice of bibliotherapy with fiction.
The term bibliotherapy originated with Samuel Crothers in 1916 and refers to the use of books as healing tools (Pardeck, 1994). Following Crothers example, most writers on the subject keep their definitions broad, allowing room for use of both fiction and nonfiction. Bibliotherapy is "helping with books" (Ahmann, 1997, p. 500) or "the use of assigned readings" (Coleman & Ganong, 1990, p. 327). Expanding on the definition, Riordan and Wilson (1989) wrote, "Bibliotherapy refers to the guided reading of written materials in gaining understanding and solving problems relevant to a person's therapeutic needs" (p. 506). This definition provides a clue as to how bibliotherapy might in fact "heal the soul" or at least augment therapy: A book can promote understanding and help individuals solve problems when it addresses their needs for improvement. Other definitions are more restrictive, seeming to rule out the possibility of fiction as a therapeutic aid: Bibliotherapy is "a form of self-administered treatment in which structured materials provide means of self-improvement or help alleviate distress" (Gregory, Schwer Canning, Lee, & Wise, 2004, p. 275). Are fiction books "structured materials"? Are poems? How does a short story "provide means" for improved well-being? The problem seems to be that as the definitions become more specific, they make more sense for the use of nonfiction than of fiction.
MODELS OF BIBLIOTHERAPY WITH FICTION
Pardeck and Pardeck (1984) might be considered advocates of the "classical view" of bibliotherapy with fiction. They saw it working in three stages. In the first stage, "identification and projection" (Pardeck & Pardeck, 1984, p. 196), clients, with a therapist's guidance, come to recognize themselves in the life and problems of a character in a book. Next, in the stage called "abreaction and catharsis" (Pardeck & Pardeck, 1984, p. 196), clients experience an "emotional release" (Pardeck & Pardeck, 1984, p. 196). Little is said about this stage except that clients should respond to the story with some sort of passion. …