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Mind and body

A good book could lift sagging spirits

A good book is like good medicine.

This is the message that comes to us from assorted British health professionals, and was reiterated recently by the U.K.'s leading librarians.

Why take a pill when you can pop open a metaphor? Why sit in line at your doctor's office when you can be soothed by an uplifting story?

In the wake of a study showing that "self-help reading can help people with common mental health conditions," the Society of Chief Librarians and the nonprofit Reading Agency came up with a list of 27 books to make you feel better (

"It is hoped those with 'mild to moderate' mental health conditions will try out the idea before turning to prescription drugs — many of which can have unpleasant side effects," the Daily Mail writes.

Most of the books on the list, however, are not "self-help" books at all, but works of fiction, history and memoir that have strong literary qualities and that are especially hopeful in their portrayal of the human condition.

There is, for example, Bill Bryson's travelogue through the U.K., Notes From a Small Island, Armistead Maupin's collection of novels, Tales of the City, and Salman Rushdie's children's book Haroun and the Sea of Stories. And there's E.H. Gombrich's wonderful 1935 book A Little History of the World, which retells the story of several millennia of the human experience. The Austrian art historian began the book as a series of letters to his granddaughter explaining his work. It's a book that's approachable, illuminating and, yes, comforting.

Going back in history, Gombrich writes, to the time of "grandfather's grandfather's grandfather," is like falling into a bottomless well. "So let's light a scrap of paper, and drop it down into that well. It will fall slowly, deeper and deeper. And as it burns it will light up the sides of the well. Our memory is like that burning scrap of paper. We use it to light up the past."

Like many other books on the Brits' feel-good list, Gombrich makes great use of metaphor and simile to take us to a simpler place — his tone throughout the book is explicitly that of an elder speaking to a young person.

But just about any excellent work of narrative art can transport us away from tedium and sorrow, as Annie Murphy Paul wrote in the New York Times last year. She described how scientific researchers, using brain scans, have documented the power of evocative descriptions and vivid metaphors on the mind.

"Stories, this research is showing, stimulate the brain and even change how we act in life," Paul wrote.

A good book could lift sagging spirits 03/08/13 [Last modified: Thursday, March 7, 2013 2:33pm]
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