Saturday 25 November 2017

Fine shelf-help library for all hypochondriacs

Soophie White


Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin

Canongate BOOKS, €25.99

I've long held a theory that the root causes of every hypochondriac's anxieties stem from spending too much time in the bathroom. In the bathroom, the hypochondriac is alone with his or her ailments, with nothing to distract from the ever more irrational self-diagnosis. Lengthy examinations of stool samples or mysterious growths inevitably lead to yet another visit to the long-suffering GP or worse, googling symptoms.

In Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin's A-Z anthology, The Novel Cure, the authors offer book recommendations for a wide selection of common and less common physical afflictions and psychological and emotional ailments.

Berthoud and Elderkin attended Cambridge together, and both studied English literature. As their friendship evolved, they began prescribing literary remedies for each other's everyday ailments.

Post-university, Berthoud pursued a career as an artist and teacher, while Elderkin went on to publish two novels (Sunset Over Chocolate Mountains and The Voices) and was named one of the 20 best young novelists of 2003 by Granta.

They took their "bibliotherapy" into a more formal setting in 2008 at The School of Life, where they aimed to show their "patients" the healing and transformative powers of the novel. These one-to-one bibliotherapy sessions can be arranged on the School of Life website and take place in person or remotely.

For more general diagnosis The Novel Cure is the perfect handbook for literary self-medicating, or shelf-help if you will. The physical ailments and psychological disorders are as far-reaching and idiosyncratic as the novels recommended.

Opening the book at random threw up the following complaints and recommendations; death of a loved one (Incendiary by Chris Cleave), arrogance (Mildred Pierce by James M Cain), man-flu (Les Miserables by Victor Hugo), being long-winded (The Road by Cormac McCarthy as being an "exemplary model of short windedness"), flatulence (A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole) and being a goody-goody (The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov) each accompanied by a wry explanation of the recommended literary tonic.

The talent of Berthoud and Elderkin lies in their acceptance of the scope and breath of the human experience. They indiscriminately explore the fun, the humour, the despair, the horror and the boredom that every one of us experiences at some point in our lives and with the lightest touch enlighten the reader not only with regard to what is good to read but how to approach life.

Some entries are witty and cutting, such as the listing for 'children, under pressure to have', which advises those sick of justifying their childlessness to send a copy of Lionel Shriver's We Need to Talk About Kevin to the next person who enquires after the pitter patter of tiny feet.

Other entries are as lyrical and beautifully written as the books they prescribe such as the recommendation for 'pain, being in', The Death of a Beekeeper, in which Lars Gustafsson reveals a fundamental truth about pain: that bearing pain is an art form. Berthoud and Elderkin go on to advise those in pain to "think of yourself as an artist practising something so demanding and hard that you are elevated to a master by the act of your endurance ... with the beekeeper you will discover a terrible but wonderful truth: that pain makes you more alive."

Berthoud and Elderkin even have listings dedicated to ailments specific to readers and reading such as 'non-reading partner, having a' where the cure is the succinct "convert or desert" and is accompanied by two 'ten best' his and her reading lists to turn your non-reading partner on to fiction including brilliant crowd-pleasers like Zadie Smith's White Teeth for her and William Boyd's Any Human Heart for him.

Another common reading ailment dealt with is the reading associated shame for those of us who occasionally veer into the vampire titillation genre or, feel free to insert your own low-brow guilty pleasure here.

Our bibliotherapists understand our need for some fictional fluff from time to time and you will find no judgment here. They advise going digital "Discretion is the e-reader's gift. Either that, or crochet a book cover" to remedy this common complaint.

In keeping with this pragmatic approach I also enjoyed their 'top 10 novels for the literary fake' (divided into 'essentials' and 'icing on the cake') as a cure for the desire to seem well-read.

The curious epilogue of The Novel Cure playfully tells of a meeting between two readers (the authors themselves perhaps) where one reader poses the question 'are books "a defence you set up to keep the outside world at a distance", "a dream into which you sink as if into a drug", or "bridges you cast towards ... the world that interests you so much that you want to multiply and extend its dimensions through books"?'

It's clear from The Novel Cure that Berthoud and Elderkin believe that the answer to this question is all three, and in inducting us into their shared knowledge and passion for reading, they have the power to extend and reinvigorate our own pleasure in books.

The Novel Cure is a must for hypochondriacs, bookworms and the as yet uninitiated, though be warned, if you keep The Novel Cure in your loo you may lose the hypochondriacs and all other guests to this room for good.

Sunday Independent

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