Ella Berthoud is a professional ‘bibliotherapist‘ and is coming to Primadonna Festival in Stowmarket this weekend. But what is bibliotherapy? Here, Ella explains how it can transform lives
I grew up with my parents in the diplomatic service – I was born in South Africa, we lived in Iran, Finland, Australia, Trinidad and Suffolk! We travelled extensively in all those countries, camped in the outback of Australia and the deserts of Iran, and explored, all the time with a book in hand. I have three brothers, my parents were glamorous and in love with each other, and it was a pretty idyllic childhood. Then I was lucky enough to study English Literature at Cambridge, followed by Fine Art at University of East London, and I have ever since combined my twin passions of art and literature to spend my time painting, writing and doing bibliotherapy. I have a lovely husband, three children and a vizsla hound who takes me running every day.
How have things been for you over these past couple of years?
Difficult! Work for my husband has been intermittent, and that impacts all of us. However, for bibliotherapy it’s been burgeoning, as people really turned to books when in lockdown, and since then too. People have realised increasingly that their mental health is vastly improved by reading, and that it’s a wonderfully effective therapy, relatively cheap (after the investment of a bibliotherapy session, then it’s just the books, which keep you going for a long time – and if you use your local library, they are free!). So, I’ve seen a lot of people around the world for bibliotherapy sessions and got to know all kinds of clients and heard their stories, which has been fascinating. I love my job as I get to virtually travel when I have my sessions.
What led you to becoming a bibliotherapist?
I studied English Lit at Cambridge, met my great friend Susan Elderkin who lived in the room next door, and we started talking about being book doctors then – we loved the idea of helping people through life’s ups and downs by using fiction. I then went to art school and became an artist, she became a novelist, but we always talked about our dream of working with books as medicine. Then we bumped into Alain de Botton when he was starting The School of Life and talked to him about the idea. He embraced it, and together we developed the idea into a one-to-one service. I love being able to do this alongside my artistic career.
What is bibliotherapy, to the uninitiated? How can it transform people’s lives?
Bibliotherapy is the art of prescribing fiction to cure life’s ailments. Fiction can transform people from within in a unique way, because when you read a good book, you are transported and you become the characters in the book, so you go through their struggles, their ups and downs, and learn from what they go through. You have cathartic experiences by feeling strong emotions that are vicarious, so you relate to what they feel but don’t live through the actual traumas and highs that they are living through. This works for both highs and lows, as when you read a joyful passage you are transformed by that, just as much as when you read a tragic passage. Think of all the great books you’ve read and wept over – there’s something so cathartic about crying over a book! But also, the books with happy endings give you a massive mood boost! It’s a much deeper experience than watching a movie, as you live with the book for a long time while reading it, and your own imagination is brought in much more as you have to visualise the people and events yourself, rather than having it all given to you on a plate like it is in a film.
What will happen when you come to Primadonna Festival? what can people expect on the day?
People will come to me and have a short bibliotherapy session, (normally they take an hour, but here they will be twenty minutes each) when I will ask them all about their reading habits, what they read, what they love reading, what they hate reading, if they love any particular genres, whether they like reading or listening to audiobooks and so on. I will also ask them about their life situation, what’s currently going on in their lives, do they have any major preoccupations, anything preying on their mind, or are they in a state of peace of mind. After getting to know them a bit, I will then prescribe the perfect books for them to read right now, which I will write down on a prescription card to take away with them. At Primadonna visitors will also be able to browse my oil portraits of authors including Kit de Waal, Louis de Bernieres and Rachel Joyce.
What is it that appeals about this Festival in particular?
I love the Primadonna Festival because it’s full of amazing authors and speakers. It’s fantastic to have a festival that promotes female writers and inspirational talkers, as in many other festivals the men get more talking space! I met Kit de Waal years ago in the Gladstone Library, and ever since then I’ve been a huge fan of her and her books.
What is top of your reading list at the moment?
Top of my reading list right now is Jessie Burton’s new book, The House of Fortune. I love her books and can’t wait to get started on it!
Following a summer of festivals, what’s next for you? Do you take this all around the world?
I do take bibliotherapy all over the world, and I love travelling! It’s in the blood from my childhood wanderings with my family. I’m going to a bibliotherapy conference in Malaysia in September, organised by a charity called UAEBBY who work with young people and refugees to help them get books. Then I will be back to my virtual travels, doing bibliotherapy sessions on Zoom, which take me to America, Singapore, Australia, Brazil, Israel and more…
Primadonna Festival runs from Friday July 29 to Sunday July 31 at the Food Museum in Stowmarket. Full details are at www.primadonnafestival.com. Visitors to Primadonna Festival can benefit from Ella’s bibliotherapy expertise on Friday and Saturday (sessions at Primadonna are FREE of charge). If you’ve never heard of bibliotherapy and are curious, or you want to read Ella Berthoud’s biog, read Bibliotherapy – The School Of Life.
Featured image of Ella Berthoud, by Carl Thomas