When I take the time to actually think about it, I have always read and written stories and poems as a sort of therapy, a way to deal with the things I see, hear, and experience throughout life. As a small child, I loved mysteries (The Three Investigators, Hardy Boys). Life was a mystery that I was just beginning.
By the time I hit junior high, I realized I lived through things most kids my age hadn’t. My father was stationed in Europe during the Cold War, and my maternal grandparents lived in Germany. My family spent three years in Iceland and six months in Germany. Nothing quite like learning how to listen on the phone for someone tapping the line or watching your grandfather check the car each and every time for bombs to make a child wonder if this was normal life. That led me to adventure stories like The Call of the Wild and Lord of the Flies.
Then I hit my freshman year in high school and discovered my grandfather’s copies of The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien and Here Abide Monsters by Andre Norton. I was hooked on fantasy and science fiction. By the time I graduated high school, I had ventured into horror with Swan Song by Robert McCammon and Tengu by Graham Masterton.
In the Navy, I regressed and got into comic books (X-Men, New Mutants, Night Thrasher, and Moon Knight). I still read the occasional comic thirty years later. And in college, a friend’s mother who taught English, suggested I try poetry. That led me to Billy Collins and Ai Ogawa. After a professor at the University of Arkansas read some of my poetry, she suggested I try the latter. Seems that I was not the only person that expressed the pain and anguish I saw in the world around me through verse.
As the years have rolled by, and I am too quickly approaching half a century, I have grown both nostalgic and impatient in my reading selection. I have decided that each month, I must read at least one new author, one classic, and one non-fiction. Last month it was Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven (new author), Herman Melville’s Billy Budd (classic), and Bern Keating’s The Mosquito Fleet (non-fiction).
My writing life itself has been therapy: to exorcise the darkness and anguish through tales and verse. My wife asked me once if I would ever write a happy story. My answer was that I probably would not. I am not an especially dark or depressed person. My writing is, but not me personally. I get that junk all out on paper and deal with it. Get it out in the open where it cannot hide and fester.
Saying that, it was with some surprise that a writer friend shared this article in the New Yorker called “Can Reading Make You Happier” by Ceridwen Dovey. It came out on the ninth of June in 2015. Who knew that there is a such thing as bibliotherapy? And that it was even mentioned over a century ago in a 1916 article in The Atlantic? Then I learned that the ancient Greeks considered the entrance to a library in Thebes to be a “healing place for the soul.” Check out the link to the article below:
Who knew that my obsession with reading and writing dark poetry was therapeutic? Obviously, people as far back as the ancient Greeks. I’m just now catching up, I guess.
This passage is from the 1916 article: “A book may be a stimulant or a sedative or an irritant or a soporific. The point is that it must do something to you, and you ought to know what it is. A book may be of the nature of a soothing syrup or it may be of the nature of a mustard plaster.” The wisdom of the ancients, yes? According to the article, librarians after World War I were trained on the method of recommending and giving therapeutic books to veterans traumatized by the war. This was before PTSD diagnoses and support groups led by licensed therapists.
If reading can make you happier and is a form of therapy—one that is much less likely to cause physical and mental harm than self-medicating or developing an addiction—what things have I learned from reading?
Growing up as a military brat sits in my mind as one of the greatest experiences I ever went through. Some of my readings have pointed out that most military brats either love the life or hate the life. Think about it, your whole family and house is packed up and moved frequently. You spend one or two, maybe three years in one place. You learn quickly to cut through the chase and get to the meat of most matters.
That can be hard to make lasting friends. Your relationships burn fierce and bright, fading away at times almost as quickly as they burst into being. You learn passion. You learn to compartmentalize grief and sadness. What gave me my idea of what friendship should be? The story of Damon and Pthias. It taught me about loyalty and being true. I make friends quickly. But true friendship to me is marked by knowing whether or not I would die for that person.
When my son was in his teenage years and upset with me—as teenagers are wont to be—a family friend asked him to describe his father in one word. The word he chose floored me. Honorable. Something in the presentation of my life led my son to identify me with being honorable. He didn’t write me off as an asshole. His first thought of me was as an honorable being. That could only have come from my reading volumes of stories about shining knights of virtue. I didn’t learn about all the bad things knights did until much later in life.
Before my son went through his rebellious phaze, my daughter went through it as well. That same friend had asked her to name one thing she liked about your father. Her response? That I would never lie to her. One of my favorite books as a child was Cranberry Thanksgiving by Wende and Harry Devlín. A lying salesman causes angst and turmoil by attempting to steal grandma’s secret recipe for cranberry bread. I still make that bread from the recipe in the book every Thanksgiving. After reading the book as a child, I remember having the empathy to not want my words to cause that kind of turmoil for anyone.
After I learned my maternal grandfather had died and would never return from Germany, I took a book and read it on the porch swing. What book it was, I cannot tell you. But I remember my mother stepping onto the porch and checking on me several times that day. Back when I had cancer, I hid away with several books during my convalescence. Back when I had a blood clot from my groin to the tips of my toes, I read at least three books while in the hospital for two weeks.
I always knew reading could be cathartic. It shouldn’t be viewed so much as escapism. Rather, it should be seen as a way to focus the conscious mind while the subconscious organizes and gets everything settled in place. It is therapeutic. My life would be so chaotic without the ability to “escape” into words and page and characters.
The next time I am feeling blue, I will read. The next time I am feeling grief, I will read. Or I will more likely write and then read the words that I put down on paper (I still write the first draft of most poems, stories, and novels longhand). Afterall, it’s therapy.