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Can books save us?

The writers and devoted readers who populate a literary festival may not be the most objective observers when it comes to this question, but they certainly seemed to embrace the “Bibliotherapy” theme of last week’s Sydney Writers’ Festival.

The idea was books as therapy: as instruments not only for entertainment or understanding but for healing, even rescue. At Friday night’s gala, titled “The Book That Saved Me”, the evidence given was mixed.

“It didn’t save but it certainly clarified my life”, Vivian Gornick explained of George Gissing’s The Odd Women.

Marlon James went so far as to divide his own story into “before Sula” and “after Sula” – identifying everything good in his life from the time of reading Toni Morrison’s novel onwards.

“No book has ever saved me”, declared Andrew Denton, “except the Complete Guide to Australian Fishing, which I once used to crush a huntsman.” (Bravo … but would he have our international guests believe that huntsmen belong to the crowded ranks of Australian Animals That Can Kill You? Tsk.)

And Jeanette Winterson: “Books for me have always been the way out.”

Of course, if books are potential saviours, that must make them potential destroyers as well. The dangers of story-telling were not neglected by the festival’s stellar cast of writers either: Hanya Yanagihara’s stunning closing address delicately handled the experience of being manipulated by literature – and offered an impassioned defence of the brutality of her book A Little Life, which so many readers have put down midway, shellshocked by the sufferings of her protagonist.

Franz Kafka famously wrote that “we ought to read only the kind of books that wound or stab us … we need books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.” Perhaps destruction and salvation are not unconnected processes.

I belong to those called “people of the book” by the Qur’an – those who most certainly believe in the power of words, who believe, in fact, in a divine Word, and its (his) power to transform. I’m also still an English student at heart (you can take the girl out of the university … ), so if anybody’s going to be inclined to hyperbole about the capacity of books to change the world and the self, I’m a prime candidate.

Reading, at its best, is exhilarating, dangerous, liberating – and at least a possible contributor to the salvific process.

But even the most fanatical bookworm must concede the distinction – while strenuously disputing the opposition – between reading and living. Jesus himself, in prefacing what would become one of the world’s most quoted sayings, told his disciples that if you do what he says, “then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free”. Sometimes doing is a pre-requisite for knowing.

The arguments for literature as an engine for empathy, self-knowledge, and moral motivation are long-rehearsed. But few would argue that the process of transformation-by-book is straightforward, a matter of take two novellas and call me in the morning.

Susan Elderkin and Ella Berthoud’s book The Novel Cure: An A-Z of Literary Remedies, though, takes this idea and runs with it delightfully. Entries like “accused, being” or “birthday blues” propose clear-cut cures (Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang and Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children respectively). Elderkin was offering “bibliotherapy” sessions at the writers’ festival last weekend, diagnosing patients and prescribing reading material. But The Novel Cure is of course much more a celebration of literature and the human condition than a contribution to medical practice.

Reading, at its best, is exhilarating, dangerous, liberating – and at least a possible contributor to the salvific process. Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote beautifully of the perils and promise of books in the voice of her verse-novel heroine, Aurora Leigh:

The world of books is still the world, I write,
And both worlds have God’s providence, thank God,
To keep and hearten: with some struggle, indeed,
Among the breakers, some hard swimming through
The deeps – I lost breath in my soul sometimes
And cried “God save me if there’s any God.”
But even so, God saved me; and, being dashed
From error on to error, every turn
Still brought me nearer to the central truth.

Can books save us? Yes, and of course not. But the yes is more interesting.

Natasha Moore is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity, and has a PhD in English literature from the University of Cambridge.