The Therapeutic Value of Reading

 

If you have been socially-distanced into submission, as many have, you might be reading more than you once did. Have you turned to self-help books, more news articles, history, poetry, novels, or something else?

The decision depends on what your goal is.

Distraction is called for, at least some of the time. Understanding our politics provides another enticement, though “hair on fire” prose of questionable truth won’t find me turning the page. I salute take-home guides to personal problem solving unless they offer you an escape from changing your life by thinking about it alone.

One might categorize writing differently. Sometimes the language of long and short stories is therapeutic in itself. Virginia Woolf’s work comes to mind. Here is a bit from To the Lighthouse:

What is the meaning of life? That was all — a simple question; one that tended to close in on one with years, the great revelation had never come. The great revelation perhaps never did come. Instead, there were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark; here was one.

The author’s reflections and her lovely way of expressing herself make me wish to know more. She takes me outside of my mind and back again to show me the inside. The author transports me. I am caught in the updraft of her sense and spirit.

Books can make one laugh, too, and good-natured humor at almost any moment has value.

For me, however, most of the time, I’m searching for a new idea, a way of thinking from a perspective I passed over. I don’t require a happy ending, just one I find believable.

I want my eyes to widen, an enlargement of my view of the world, my imagination inspired, my humanity extended. Yes, reading offers this help.

Take a quote from the late Christina Crosby, who wrote of her life after a paralyzing accident of endless residual pain:

In order to live on, I must actively forget the person I was. I am no longer what I once was — yet, come to think of it, neither are you. All of us who live on are not what we were, but are becoming, always becoming.

Yes, I want words like these, arranged to communicate insights just beyond my reach until I read them. I want Dr. Crosby’s eloquence and frankness, the greatness of spirit in her fortitude.

In the end, I want to learn more. I seek enlivenment. The way to this destination requires some amount of disquiet. How is discomfort therapeutic, you ask? Remember, psychotherapy creates a tolerable degree of discomfort, as well. We often must strain and extend ourselves to grow.

The literature for which I search might unsettle me. Do you wonder whether we should bring on more distress in the time of COVID-19?

Franz Kafka created my answer over 100 years ago:

I think we ought to read only the kinds of books that wound or stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow to the head, what are we reading for? We need books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the ax for the frozen sea within us.

The not yet world-renowned writer was then 20-years-old.

———-

The first painting is A Beauty Reading by Utagawa Kunisada. Next comes The Magdalen Reading by Rogier van der Weyden from the National Gallery, London. The photograph was done by luxfon.com/painting. Third in line is a photo of an Old Man Reading a Newspaper Early in the Morning at Bansantapur, Nepal by Bijay Chaurasia. All of these come from Wikimedia Commons.

31 thoughts on “The Therapeutic Value of Reading

  1. Good morning and thank you very much for your beautiful book proposals, even the one by Kafka, which I didn’t know!
    I personaly think that different kinds of books are essential to me, according to my state of mind.At the moment I am reading SHANTARAM by Gregory David Roberts and I am citing one sentence:
    Her story told to me by many voices, month after month, became all the stories, even my own. And her love-her willingness to know the truth of my heart and to love me-changed the course of my life.
    Best regards Martina

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  2. Thank you, Martina. I’d only known the last line of the Kafka quote until I recently finished Rilke’s “The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge,” a book I found both difficult and enlightening. I searched for a quotation to capture Rilke’s impact and the Kafka quote did so. Your quote from Gregory David Roberts is memorable, as well. Thank you for sharing it.

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  3. I know these books aren’t “highbrow” but I learned a lot from them while enjoying the ride. Dick Francis wrote about 50 books. They take place in the world of British horse racing. The plots are all different but the wisdom is the same. The hero has a difficult childhood, identifies the villains, wins over them but never seeks revenge. Sara Paretsky imagined her heroine perfectly, V.I. Warshawsky. This detective is fascinating. And, the stories take place in Chicago! Robert B. Parker developed another wonderful character: Spenser. My friend Kathy said: “Reading good books is the best therapy.” Thanks Gerry for this important post.

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    • No need to excuse your interest in Dick Francis or Robert Parker. Willie Mays, the Giants baseball great, was once asked to rate his many gravity-defying catches. His answer was “I don’t compare ’em, I just catch ’em.” Thanks for your recommendations, Joan.

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  4. Thanks, Dr. Stein, for sharing these great reasons for reading the great writers of our time. From a young age, growing up in a British colony, I discovered new ways of seeing the world through books.

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  5. An excellent source right now because of the pandemic are E-books through the local library and PDF Drive, where one can download books for free to read. I am presently reading The Untethered Soul.

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  6. I see Deepak Chopra suggests your book may give you a glimpse of eternity! As an architect once said, make no small plans! Thanks, Nancy.

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    • Wouldn’t it be nice if there was an eternity? I have been identifying as agnostic lately, figuring death is like a colonoscopy, aware one moment and nothing the next, which does not feel frightening to me. Michael Singer talks about “consciousness” and hints that it was here in the beginning and will be here at the end and we all are part of this. All heady stuff that is difficult to comprehend, but if death is like the peace I experience while meditating, during those moments when there are no thoughts, no feelings, and just an energetic feeling of energy while in this state, I wouldn’t mind that, it has to be better than burning in hell for all eternity for not confessing my sins to a priest prior to my death. 🙂

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      • I could go on for a long time about the idea of eternity. The only conclusion I’ve come to (for myself alone) is that it would be a place in which humans would no longer behave as humans do. We would be unrecognizabel to ourselves. We would no longer grieve at the state of the world. Peace would be nice. A blissed out or meditative, trance-like state sounds nice, too. Who knows? None of it is in our hands. All we can do is live well and do good. Thanks, Nancy.

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  7. Oh, how I would love to hear you go on about the state of eternity, especially now that I am older rather than younger. I would enjoy your version of eternity and I think Michael Singer would agree with your thoughts on this. I am still reading the book, so let’s see. Thank you for your thoughts, Dr. Stein!

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    • Well, here is a start, Nancy. Something I wrote some time ago: https://drgeraldstein.wordpress.com/2013/09/04/what-memory-would-you-take-to-eternity/

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      • Oh Dr. Stein…what a lovely and heartfelt piece you have written! I like your recollections in deciding upon what your moment would be in all eternity. I am glad you chose a poignant moment with your wife, as I would choose a moment with my husband. He was out photographing and I was running errands, when I decided to visit where I thought he was to say hello. When we both saw one another, (he did not expect me) the thrill we experienced was a moment we both will cherish and still talk about. If we could both experience this as our moment in eternity, it would be pure bliss.

        If you do not mind me asking you this, but did your education and work as a psychologist help you in anyway with dealing with your mother who was ill mentally? It is hard to be targeted by a parent, even as an adult, and even if we worked in the field of mental illness. I am just curious on how you coped.

        Thank you for linking me to this most thoughtful piece and I fell that even the worst of us would choose a nice experience for eternity. Maybe people aren’t so awful in the end…maybe they are misguided.

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  8. I’m glad you enjoyed the essay and thank you for saying so, Nancy. As a child, I hadn’t yet been educated, of course. As a long time went on, yes, it helped. Although, I would say generally, that a surprising number of therapists have family issues, which they cope with less well than they do with their patients’ problems. We are all too human.

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    • Thank you for your thoughts on this, as I have beaten myself up over the years for reacting internally to my mother who was ill. I wish I had managed better and had been warmer towards her, but it was difficult for me. I cared for her at the end of her life and tried my best, and I did love her, so I get this is the best I could hope for. Love your blog Dr. Stein and your kindness. You are a good man and I bet you were a good son.

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  9. Thank you, Nancy.

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  10. I survived my childhood and adolescence through reading. Book after book, and always something to learn and contemplate.

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