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Is Reading a Medicine for the Body? One Book Puts It Just So


A “manual of literary remedies” offers a totally unexpected perspective on the benefits of reading.

For most of us, reading is essentially an intellectual activity. If we read, it’s mostly because we find some reward related to the mind and to thinking. Such rewards can range from the more elementary benefits of keeping the mind active, of being informed, and of acquiring knowledge on a given subject, to more personal benefits like the pleasure experienced in reading a well-written text, or in the aesthetic gifts from literature in all its various forms. When we read, we actually take into account very few of the effects beyond what happens and remains in our mind in doing so.

It may be that this perspective on reading is a consequence of the division between mind and body that’s so deeply rooted in the West. For centuries within our cultures and societies, a current of thought has been established that separates the qualities of consciousness from the physical “support” where they’re located. From Plato to Descartes (at least), and not even to mention the many Catholic philosophers and theologians, the idea that the mind has some pre-eminence over the body has been fostered in the Western human being. It’s therefore more important to cultivate the mind, even to the neglect of the body, because after all the body is only finite matter, while the mind and the fruits of the mind aspire to permanence.

This idea, however, deserves at least one serious interrogation. Although it’s true that we’re beings of a particular intelligence when compared with other animals, some form of life runs through our bodies. In other words: without bodies, no intelligence can exist.

We can think that what happens in our minds is not in any way disconnected from the bodies we inhabit. Both are part of the same unit: what we call “I.” Thus, it’s not that we have a body, but that we are a body, and therefore, everything which configures our lives has an effect on our bodies, always.

How do such premises relate to reading? The initial possibility of considering the activity of reading beyond its intellectual contributions, have been sufficiently examined. Maybe it’s not so much to think of reading a book as a physical activity, because of course, reading is usually done at rest and when we’re nearly immobile. In certain sense, we’re asking you to reflect on the effect that reading can have on the wellbeing of the body.

A few months ago, English authors Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin published a book which “cures.” We might immediately think of those volumes in the Arabian Nights and from certain folkloric traditions of Europe, or perhaps of a manual of natural remedies such as those written in many of the cultures of antiquity.

It’s not a book like that. ​​Berthoud and Elderkin’s idea is at one and the same time both more literal and more figurative. On the one hand, both authors are convinced that literature is able to provoke therapeutic effects in the reader. Indeed, reading may even cure readers of some ailments. In The Novel Cure, Berthoud and Elderkin gathered texts to help a person to cope with adverse circumstances, among them adversities such as breaking a leg, for which they prescribe the novel Cleave by Nikki Gemmell. A loss of sexual appetite can be remedied by Mario Vargas Llosa’s In Praise of the Stepmother, or a true disaster in love may be treated by reading Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, at least according to the authors.

As to the figurative aspect of these remarkable ideas, we need to talk about another of the unique qualities of the human condition. If, as was mentioned above, the mind and the body can seem divided, this is also because people don’t experience reality uniquely in its immediate physical dimension, but also on another symbolic register. This allows us to understand reality and, thus, to inhabit it. This register is symbolized in language.

Why, even in works of fiction, novels and poems, are we moved, filled with doubt, or incited to reflection? To some large extent, it’s because language structures our experience of reality to such an extent that we confuse it. For the human mind, a scene narrated in a book can be just as real as a scene which occurs before our own eyes.

This is why reading can cure, and in effect, Berthoud and Elderkin have a good idea in their book. To listen to certain words, to witness a certain story, to feel certain emotions shaken: mind and body participate equally in such actions and, to both, the effects of literature are presented.

The next time you feel some affliction, why not give a cure with words a chance?

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