“A room without books is like a body without a soul.” Marcus Tullius Cicero
Reading books is good for our health. Particularly our mental health. Alongside improving literacy, knowledge about the world around us, emotional intelligence and providing relaxation, studies suggest that reading both fiction and non-fiction can help make us healthier. But access to books is getting increasingly difficult for those with less money who are reliant on libraries to provide access to a range of reading material.
A report from the Reading Agency states that non-readers are 28% more likely to report feelings of depression. Building on this, Boyes et al. (2016) report on a growing body of work showing that children with reading difficulties are more likely to develop mental health problems in later life, including depression and anxiety. In contrast, Mar et al (2009)found that those who read fiction were more able to show empathy and have access to social support. Another study found that those who read regularly for pleasure are better able to cope with stressful situations, have better sleep patterns and have higher levels of self-esteem than non-readers.
The healing power of books is well recognised, dating back to Ancient Greece. More recently the term ‘Bibliotherapy’ was coined to refer to the deliberate use of books in healing. Bibliotherapy initially referred predominantly to the use of narrative fiction or poetry suggested directly by doctors or psychologists in consultations. A study by Amer (1999) showed that in a clinical setting bibliotherapy was effective in helping children with short stature talk about feelings and experiences related to school and in facilitating discussions between children and their families. Other studies have shown the utility of this approach in combating bullying and books are often recommended when children need to undergo medical procedures or learn to live with impairments or disabilities.
More recently there is a focus on prescribing self-help books, either alongside or independently of clinical support. This approach has been adopted by the NHS in Wales where ‘Book Prescription Wales’ is a service linking medical practices with libraries and prescribing a range of self-help books for patients with mild to moderate emotional problems including anxiety, depression, low self-esteem and eating disorders. Similarly, Queen Mary’s University London highlights the range of self-help books carried in their libraries on their web pages as part of their focus on mental health and student wellbeing.
And it’s not just the general population, and patient groups that benefit from reading books. The rise of medical humanities, since the turn of the century, has brought with it an increased focus on the potential health benefits of reading and engaging with other creative activities. Alongside this is the suggestion that healthcare professionals can better understand the experiences of their patients if they read fiction as a way of engaging with lived experiences and developing health care as a humanitarian endeavour. As far back as 2003, Alan Beveridge suggested in a British Journal of Psychiatry Editorial that psychiatrists should read fiction because: it’s a way of knowing many more people than could be met; a good way of becoming familiar with emotional and existential aspects of other peoples’ lives; helps to develop empathy; helps to encounter and think through ethical dilemmas which may present in a consultation. In part this has led to the embedding of medical humanities into undergraduate medical degrees and, to a lesser extent, into nursing degrees. More recently medical humanities has also been introduced into the dental undergraduate curriculum in some dental schools in the UK.
The health, educational and social benefits of reading are clear. The Child Development Institute suggests that, amongst other things, reading helps children develop strong bonds with their parents or carers; deal with anxieties around specific events like sitting exams and develop language, cognitive and memory skills. They suggest that “Books, especially novels, provide a beneficial distraction from the stresses of daily life by transporting readers to wholly different worlds – that is, perhaps, their greatest value.”
But books are expensive, and access to books, amongst those who would arguably benefit most, is declining. By 2016 the BBC was reporting a 25% cut in library staff across the UK equating to about 8000 jobs. Increasingly libraries are reliant on volunteers at the expense of knowledgeable librarians, and opening hours and book stocks have been cut. In total 525 council run libraries had closed by 2016. Following on from this in December 2018 the Guardian reported a further 120+ libraries closing, just in 2018. And it’s not only public libraries that are being closed. The Telegraph reported this week that as many as 1 in 5 school libraries face closure, with many more losing their specialist librarians.
As John Harris has pointed out, libraries are about far more than just reading. Cutting libraries is an attack on the social fabric of communities, reducing access to knowledge, computers, information and the internet as well as to books. And it’s the very politicians who talk about social mobility and equality of opportunity who are cutting library services. In Harris’s words:
“These are the same people who are not only starving state schools of money, but who have now spent seven long years attacking a public service that is a byword for the education and opportunity they bang on about. Somewhere in the deepest recesses of their souls, they must know: you cannot talk about such things while depriving people of the chance to read.”
Reading books is good for our social, physical and mental health. This raises questions about the purpose behind ongoing policies to deliberately reduce access to books and reading material and reduce the likelihood of social mobility and challenge. These policies exacerbate the social reproduction of inequality whilst potentially removing tools which could be used to challenge it.