Life

Why Bibliotherapy and Other Forms of Art-Matching Are a Natural Evolution of the Advice Column

A man looking tired and sad reading a book.
Not all advice need come in the form of a pithy solution.
g-stockstudio/Thinkstock

The humble advice column has been one of few features of media that continues to stand the test of time. From the first columns in the 1600s that fielded questions we’d now google to Slate’s own Dear Prudence, the endurance of these columns reveals a fundamental feature of humanity: We all want a stranger to fix our problems. A recent New Yorker piece on the newest iteration of advice columns—those that prescribe literature rather than the straightforward counsel we’re accustomed to—indicate that the draw of these forums for many of us may not be no-nonsense advice, but rather comforting congruity. Katy Waldman notes that “a field of advice columns that lob texts at people’s troubles has flowered recently,” popping up in publications like the New York Times, Lit Hub, and the Paris Review Daily.

The lit-vice columns vary in function, if not in form. For example, Poetry Rx requests that their readers write in with a very specific emotion (“like ‘when you love someone so much you want to rip them apart and live inside them’”) and one of their three resident poets will prescribe an appropriate remedy-in-verse. “Instead of instrumentalizing the work, it instrumentalizes the reader questions,” Waldman writes. “Using them as pretexts to meditate on beloved poems.” Dear Book Therapist takes the form of a more conventional advice column with licensed therapist Rosalie Knecht doling out guidance on how to deal with stubborn self-loathing alongside a recommendation to read Lynda Barry’s “One! Hundred! Demons!” The Times’ Match Book is simpler, doing exactly what its name suggests: Match books to its readers’ criteria.

According to Waldman, the recent spate of lit-vice columns can be largely traced back to culture writer Josephine Livingstone’s “Dr. Jo’s Rx,” which she began publishing on Tumblr in January, a solid two months before the inaugural columns of Dear Book Therapist and Poetry Rx. The genre of literary self-help, however, goes back to at least the early 20th century. As Ceridwen Dovey wrote in the New Yorker in 2015, although the term bibliotherapy is most often traced back to the year 1916 when it appeared in an issue of the Atlantic Monthly, the actual “practice of encouraging reading for therapeutic effect” is quite old. “Today,” Dovey writes, “bibliotherapy takes many different forms, from literature courses run for prison inmates to reading circles for elderly people suffering from dementia.” And now we can add advice columns to that list.

The recent rise of lit-vice suggests that as much as we love Dear Prudence and Ask a Boss, the fundamental voyeurism of reading about people’s personal problems isn’t quite doing it. It’s no longer enough for us to adamantly nod our heads along as Prudie says that it’s certainly not normal for your best friend to propose in the middle of your wedding. Rather than practical advice to real-life problems, lit-vice columns provide us a gentle literary balm for our decidedly non-literary lives, a chance to divert into a book or poem that is somewhat analogous to our situation but has just enough distance for comfort. Because literature is more open to interpretation than straightforward advice, bibliotherapy allows us to come to our own conclusions—or perhaps no conclusion at all. The goal is more resonance than resolution.

Of course, there’s also something beautiful and universalizing about bibliotherapy that perhaps makes it ripe for a sociopolitical moment where many feel more and more isolated. We live in a time where many of us are caught in the toxic cycle of seeking out connection and validation online, while simultaneously finding ourselves disengaged from our own offline experiences because of the lure of social media. Art, at its best, has always helped us feel less alone. It’s much harder for traditional advice columns to do that, as the questions chosen to be answered are often the most interesting rather than the most common. When Livingstone prescribes one of her own translations of “a beautiful medieval springtime lyric” to a reader who feels unmoored without the anchors of close friends or family, her rationale suggested something that might be more helpful than specific counsel. “Inside this little lyric is a message from people who lived long, long ago, but who felt all the things that we have felt,” she writes. “So many of my advice posts are about this idea—that there’s comfort in knowing that everything that tears at your heart has torn at a heart who beat in the past.”