People read for various reasons. They read to educate themselves, as entertainment, as an escape, for relaxation or to improve their language skills . . . Nor is it unusual for people to read to heal and develop themselves, body, mind and soul.

When I am asked something about a certain topic, I usually respond as follows: “Wait, I think I have a book about that. Let me get it for you!” Somehow, from a young age, I have had a deep-seated belief that where there is a problem, a book can help solve it.

This is not only in terms of having the resources to complete a school assignment or similar, but what of being able to read books to help us solve our own personal life problems?

In 2015, reporter Ceridwen Dovey wrote an article, “Is reading the new therapy?” (read it here), for The New Yorker. In it she tells about an unconventional type of therapy session she attended while in London. During her session she was given a “reading prescription” to “help her deal with the daily emotional challenges of existence”. This was her introduction to what is called bibliotherapy, a concept with a rather long history but only recently offered as an actual service by the School of Life in London.

In 2013, two bibliotherapists from the School of Life, Ella Bethoud and Susan Elderkin, published a book called The novel cure: From abandonment to zestlessness. It is a guide to books that can help us live life better. We can look up our specific existential dilemma (retirement, being single, bereavement, being diagnosed with cancer or dealing with chronic pain) and then find a recommended book that might help us deal with the matter. This is then also the form of the bibliotherapy service that Ella and Susan provide.

But they weren’t the first to introduce the concept of bibliotherapy. In fact, in ancient times people built libraries which they called “Houses of healing for the soul”. The very first hospital, the Sanctuary Asclepeion, was a Roman Spa with a medical library. Thus what an anonymous writer once said is then true: “Libraries are the hospitals for the mind.”

From 1900 onwards, libraries became a prominent part of European hospitals and psychiatric institutions, and bibliotherapy techniques were very much used along with medical and psychological treatment.

However, it was only in August 1916 that Samuel Crothers first used the word “bibliotherapy” in an article he wrote after encountering a priest who listened to people’s problems and then recommended a book that could possibly help them. Today we don’t need to consult a priest to help us find appropriate reading material. We have been “self-medicating” through books for some time now. We call them “self-help” books. Ella and Susan, however, prefer using works of fiction as the ultimate cure because they provide a unique “transformational experience”.

How is it then that certain books can actually change our lives? How can they be therapeutic? One of the major roles of a therapist is to challenge a client’s subconscious beliefs that have a negative effect on that client’s approach to life or some aspect of their life. The therapist opens the client’s mind to new perspectives and helps them to achieve better insight. This helps the client to change their behaviour and live a happier, more productive, more fulfilling life. This all takes place in a non-judgemental, safe space.

The same goes for books: they inspire change by introducing us to new approaches to human existence. They confront us and challenge our ways of being in the world. This might not always be comfortable, but it should inspire growth in our lives.

In South Africa, bibliotherapy seems to be used in primary schools mostly and appears to be particularly powerful in communities where children have to deal with gang-related violence and other social problems instead of enjoying a carefree childhood. For example, after a visit from Toronto bibliotherapist Natalia Tukhareli, the Nkosi’s Haven Project in South Africa has started a bibliotherapy service to enhance support for mothers and children or orphans diagnosed with HIV or Aids. I am not currently aware of any services for adults like the one in London, nor have I met a bibliotherapist where I live.

Bibliotherapy seems to belong to the information and knowledge sciences, so there may actually be a number of librarians practising bibliotherapy. However, there is a difference between a reading adviser like a librarian or bookshop assistant who recommends books for your leisure and a bibliotherapist. A bibliotherapist certainly takes account of your interests, but also asks where you currently find yourself with regard to your life: is your career fulfilling; do you feel supported by meaningful relationships; are you undergoing some sort of transition; what are some of the issues you are currently struggling with? The book that the bibliotherapist then recommends is meant to alleviate some of these issues by offering you new or different perspectives which lead to insight and awareness that makes change possible.

Books are powerful conduits of ideas and meaning. They can bring sense into a world that seems senseless. They can change our minds by helping us view things from a different perspective.

By seeing ourselves and others differently, books help us to create better relationships. By reading about people who struggle with the same issues we face, we identify with them and their problems. And by empathising with them, we realise that we are not the only people who face specific challenges – others do too. We are all in this thing called life.

People across the ages have struggled with this beautiful, complex thing called life. By writing books about their feelings and perceptions they have tried to make sense of it all, and have made it possible for us to learn from their experiences. We can learn from their mistakes, be inspired by their triumphs and imagine the possibility of a different outcome for our challenges. And so books became our best mentors in life.

Check out some of the books that have changed my life for the better here. Want to know more about bibliotherapy? Listen to Susan Elderkin talk about bibliotherapy in this video: