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Image / Editorial

Books and poems can change your life. Really.


by Amanda Cassidy
11th Sep 2019
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We all remember that book or poem, the one that stayed with you, that sprang to mind when you needed it most. It turns out that finding healing in the restorative power of words is more popular that we think.


It was the best of so-called Feelings Twitter – the movement that saw the social media platform shift from a whiny, I’m-the-smartest critic to an indulgence of something positive, something emotive, for the better of the community. In this case, is was “words that move you” and it was delightful.

A long delicious thread of people sharing some of the most inspiring poems, rallying essays and paragraphs that spring tears.

“A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us”

And I felt great after it. Reams and reams of Desiderata, and Invictus and Wordsworth’s Character of the Happy Warrior warmed the cockles of my soul. Mary Oliver and Emily Dickinson restored my spark. Extracts from Lewis Carroll and Rudyard Kipling reignited my jaded imagination.

Related: Books to add to your bedside table this September 

I felt master of my own soul, wallowing happily as Ehrman encouraged me to be loving and peaceful not just to others, but also to myself.

“A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.” Frank Kafka wrote in 1903, aware aged just 20 of the concept of words as valuable therapy tools.

“I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for? Some books seem like a key to unfamiliar rooms in one’s own castle”.

Susan Sontag described reading as an instrument that allows us to cry “for those that are not us and are not our own”, and that ultimately, what lies in reading is freedom to live vicariously through other’s pain or joy or adventure.

Here in Ireland, the first bibliotherapy scheme was piloted over 10 years ago. It was led by Elaine Martin, HSE senior psychologist in collaboration with Dublin City libraries.

The objective of the scheme was to give GPs, mental health professionals and patients choice in the treatment approach to some mild and moderate mental health difficulties.

In this case, it was self-help books. The scheme provided GPs and other professionals with a list of high quality self-help books. Practitioners, in turn, brought these books to the attention of their patients and clients who were likely to benefit from their use. Now that list has been updated and includes many leading psychologists with clinical expertise on common psychological problems including depression, anxiety, eating disorders etc.

Self help

While self-help books are designed to well… help us, it is the phenomena of books unintentionally moving something inside of us that has seen huge growth in recent years.

“Acceptance is a small quiet room.”

Lucia Osborne-Crowley shared her experience of this in the Sunday Times Magazine. She wrote: “When I was 15 years old, I was raped by a stranger who held a knife to my throat in a dusty lavatory stall. I thought he was going to kill me. Some days, I wish he had.” Powerful words from a woman who then spent the next 10 years unable to think about, let alone talk about, her traumatic experience.

She explained: “there are somethings you cannot just live through. You have to feel them. Really, really feel them until the feelings run out.”

She described picking up a book her best friend had given her, a book called Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed – a collection of letters in which the author talks about life, love, heartbreak, betrayal, grief and sorrow. She found one particular passage that stopped her in her tracks: “Most things will be ok eventually, but not everything will be. Sometimes you’ll put up a good fight and lose. Sometimes you’ll hold on really hard and realise there is no choice but to let go. Acceptance is a small quiet room.”

The squat pen rests

Osborne-Crowley described how something inside of her stilled on reading those words. “I had never felt more connected to another human being than I did in that moment. Strayed understood something about me that I had been trying desperately to fun from: I can’t undo what had been done to me. I can try to live with it, but I can’t erase it. Most things will be ok eventually, but not everything will be.”

So she kept reading and found that other people were finding the words to describe things she was feeling. “Bibliotherapy is a type of therapy that uses reading to help people process unbearable emotions. I never knew it, but this is what I had been doing this whole time. Bibliotherapy saved my life.”

Maybe it is the voice that suggests that we’re all on the same side in the struggle, whatever struggle it is. Or maybe it is just the sheer beauty of certain words or descriptions that delight us so, the cadence of nostalgia or a quirky perception of nature.

Maybe it allows us a release, to surrender ourselves to melancholic words –  just like the way we enjoy a good cry at the movies.

Words that heal

For me, I always returned to poems rather than books. My favourite medicine, the gentle but mighty words of Seamus Heaney and his description of family rootedness.  And I’m not alone. “Scaffolding” is a popular Heaney poem read at most Irish weddings and ‘”Postscript” an Irish funeral favourite.

And who could forget “Mid-term break”  – a poem telling of the day a young Heaney was taken out of school when his little brother died.

His wife remembers the power of those words: “For years he didn’t read it in public. Maybe because his parents were still alive. But towards the end he introduced it and I once remember him say he was going to read it, and seeing a man in the audience reach over to hold his wife’s hand. I assume they too had lost a child.

There are countless examples of how the poetry has entered the everyday lives of people and some of the ways the work connects is very touching indeed.”

The axe to the frozen sea.

The whole story

We find what we want to find hidden among those higgledy-piggledy strokes on a page. Mary Oliver knew this too. She wrote ‘Breakage” about her morning walk – a metaphor for the hard work and eventual joy of reading itself. And perhaps of life too.

It’s like a schoolhouse
of little words,
thousands of words.
First you figure out what each one means by itself,
the jingle, the periwinkle, the scallop
full of moonlight.
Then you begin, slowly, to read the whole story.

Image via Unsplash.com


Read more: “Words that have saved lives” The amazing work of Mary Oliver

Read more: Beautiful poems for World Poetry Day

Read more: Five inspiring books that will change your life

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