Be careful about reading health books. You may die of a misprint. –Mark Twain
The Novel Cure: An A to Z of Literary Remedies, to give it its full title in the UK—its full US title is The Novel Cure: From Abandonment to Zestlessness: 751 Books to Cure What Ails You—is an odd book. It has the look of an old-fashioned medical textbook. My father owned such a tome and it was one of the two books in the house I coveted following his death (the other was his annotated Bible) despite the fact that the art of self-misdiagnosis had moved on in leaps and bounds since then and we can now easily go online and convince ourselves we’re suffering from all kinds of life-threatening maladies but it is a book for which I hold a great sentimental attachment; if nothing else, it taught me the rudiments of sex. On the surface then that is indeed what The Novel Cure is, a medical textbook, although an odd one indeed because it extols the therapeutic benefits of reading books … well, novels (apparently short stories and nonfiction don’t do anyone any good) ... and almost completely ignores established treatments like cold compresses, hot chicken soup and daily doses of castor oil.
I’m not a hypochondriac (says he trying to keep a straight face) but I am a man and as such have suffered from the dreaded man flu on more than one occasion and the actual flu once. (And I thought man flu was bad!) For some unknown reason considering the epidemicity of the condition it was not one of the many ailments commented upon in my dad’s medical textbook and so what’s a man to do but suffer in silence? (Yeah, right.) If only at the time I had in my sweaty paws a copy of The Novel Cure: An A to Z of Literary Remedies because on page 262 of that very book the authors propose a remedy: massive doses of Victor Hugo! Specifically Les Misérables—both volumes—although not necessarily in the original French and only after “a great deal of sympathy … soft pillows … mugs of tea, hot water bottles, meals on trays, a TV with a remote control, and messages of support and commiseration from family and friends” has not proven up to the task in hand. Then it’s time for the big guns. The book goes on:
Our ‘cure’ – and this is one of the occasions in this book where we must use the term most loosely – is a two-volume edition of Victor Hugo’s classic novel of human torment and suffering, Les Misérables. Your patient might consider himself too ill for the application of a novel cure – and in fact urge you to turn to the entry in this book on dying. However, it is important to have a firm hand in administering it, despite his resistance. We assure both you and he that within a few pages he will have lost himself completely in the woes of Jean Valjean and Fantine, Cosette and Monsieur Marius, Éponine and police inspector Javert, recognising his own suffering in theirs, and taking great comfort as a result.
Those responsible for nursing the victim, a round-the-clock job, will find him to be less talkative while taking the cure, thus giving everybody a chance to recover and delve more deeply within themselves to find unending supplies of love and sympathy. In the most effective cases, the cure might even enable the sufferer to forget about his symptoms completely, and bring about a return to good humour, vivacity and pleasure in life – even interest in others – which will seem quite miraculous when it occurs.
So, you get the idea. Once you strip away the veneer all this book is is a recommended reading list and as such open to debate. If you handed me a book of that length whilst in the throes of man flu the only thing stopping me hurling it straight back at you would be the wasted condition I would obviously be in. (You women have no idea!) Even once I was fighting fit I still wouldn’t thank you for it, me being the megabibliophobe that I am.
But what if I really was dying? What would The Novel Cure recommend then? Surely there’s no cure for death. Well, no, and the authors acknowledge this:
Death cannot be deferred forever, and when the time comes, we need to be ready. In the West we have a tendency to avoid thoughts of death, and to more or less obliterate the fact of death in our everyday lives. Gone are the days of the memento mori, a daily reminder that we must die. It is however, essential both to live in the presence of death – and be sure we are always fully alive – and to prepare ourselves with appropriate literary companions.
To that end they suggest Pearl by The Gawain Poet and Metamorphoses by Ovid which, okay, are poems but they’re damn long poems (fifteen volumes in Ovid’s case). Again I’m not sure if I was dying I’d could be jugged wasting what little time I had left wading through fifteen volumes of ancient Latin verse. Give me Death of a Superhero instead. Or Death: The High Cost of Living. Or Reaper Man. But what if it’s not you that’s dying? What if you have to cope with the death of a loved one? Well one book I would’ve expected to see would’ve been Shadow Child by P.F. Thomése but it gets excluded as it’s a memoir rather than fiction. Instead they have After You’d Gone by Maggie O’Farrell, Incendiary by Chris Cleave and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer, three 21st century takes on death. Since we’ve been popping our clogs since, like, forever I would’ve thought someone, somewhere along the line might have pretty much said everything that needed to be said about death long before now. Also since terminally ill people tend to want to cut to the chase what about the great poems on death like ‘Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night’?
No one is ever going to be able to create a 751-books-to-read-before-you-die-list that is going to suit everyone or even anyone if it comes to that. But there will be books that should be on everyone’s list especially if that list is 751 books long. And 751 books is not that long a list. I reckon I’ve got another thousand in me before I kick the bucket—easily—which is why it’s handy that The Guardian back in 2009 provided a list of 1000 novels everyone must read although only one of the books mentioned so far in this article (Les Misérables—but I’m still not reading it) made it onto their list.
So, what books would I say you should have on your list? These are some of the books that had a major impact on me. Billy Liar. Not mentioned. A Time of Changes. Not mentioned. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. Not mentioned. That would definitely go in my ten best novels to read whilst in prison list. They have a few such lists: ten best novels for teenagers, ten best novels to cheer you up, ten best novels to read on the loo. Here’s one for me:
The TEN BEST NOVELLAS
To the Wedding JOHN BERGER
Breakfast at Tiffany’s TRUMAN CAPOTE
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? PHILIP K DICK
The Good Soldier FORD MADOX FORD
The Children’s Bach HELEN GARNER
Train Dreams DENIS JOHNSON
An Imaginary Life DAVID MALOUF
I was Amelia Earhart JANE MENDELSOHN
Flush VIRGINIA WOOLF
Chess Story STEFAN ZWEIG
Okay, a book 62,000 words long (which the Philip K Dick is) is not by any stretch of the imagination a novella. But even putting that aside for the moment there are so many other great novellas that I can think of that aren’t here. Of Mice and Men for one. That said the book does include Of Mice and Men under hope, loss of and I can see why it’s there. I thought perhaps they had a rule where a book could only get mentioned once but that’s not the case because The Great Gatsby is listed under cures for broke, being; the ten best audio books and the ten best novels for seeming well-read.
There are some glaring omissions like Everyman by Philip Roth which traces a man’s life by reference to his life’s illnesses leading up to his death and Too Loud a Solitude by Bohumil Hrabal which deals with the therapeutic affects books can have in a way no other novel—novella actually—does. There are also some obvious choices. What do you think the recommended reading is if you’re suffering from hunger? That would be Knut Hamsun’s Hunger and yet if you have a problem with gambling surely you’d reach for the Dostoyevsky—and why wasn’t that in the novella list?—before Luke Rhinehart’s The Dice Man, after all Dostoyevsky wrote the The Gambler to pay off gambling debts. And there are some peculiar sicknesses too like housewife, being a (and although maybe not great literature but surely Irma Bombeck was in with a shout there); coffee, can’t find a decent cup of; traffic warden, being a; missing your flight and DIY. DIY, of course, is not an ailment but as “[i]n the UK, six hundred people are injured every day in their own homes” due to fool heartedly thinking that hanging a shelf or assembling an IKEA bookcase is within their capabilities it is definitely a causal factor and prevention is better than cure. I’m also not sure that being foreign counts as an illness but the first book that I would reach for under those circumstances would be Stranger in a Strange Land and not Everything is Illuminated. Science Fiction authors are not ignored in the book and that’s good to see because there’s a lot of great literature out there hiding under often gaudy (or at least inappropriate) covers. There’s a nice entry in the book under sci-fi, fear of too as well as helpful advice on live instead of read, tendency to; skim, tendency to, non-reading partner, having a and tome, put off by a. (No, I’m still not going to read Les Mis.)
There was no entry for masturbation—but with entries for adultery; libido, loss of; coming too soon; orgasms, not enough; lust; sex, too little; sex, too much and seduction skills they probably reckoned they’d said enough on the subject but that also means that Portnoy’s Complaint is not one of their Top 751 reads although if they’d widened the scope a little and allowed in some nonfiction then Dick, A User’s Guide would probably have been a better choice. (I’m being facetious.) Dementia was also missing and although they do have entries for aging, horror of; old age, horror of and senile, going I think I would’ve preferred to see it get its own entry even if no great fiction—none that jumps to mind—has been written on the subject. And who says we’re only allowed to read fiction? Keeper by Andrea Gillies is a great memoir, a real eye-opener on the subject. And that’s part of the authors’ problem here. Their goals are lofty—one might even say idealistic—but they are commendable:
The fact is, one simply cannot hope to read every book that exists. Or even every good book. If thinking about the size of the reading mountain out there sends you into a blind panic, breathe deep. Extreme selectivity is the only solution. Reading time is hard to come by, and you don’t want to waste any of it on even a mediocre book. Reach for excellence every time.
The Novel Cure is a good place to start when picking a more discerning path through the literary jungle. Consider also booking a consultation with a bibliotherapist, who will analyse your reading habits and yearnings as well as where you’re at in your personal and professional life, then create a reading list tailored especially for you.
Bibliotherapy is a real thing by the way. When I first read this section I thought they had their tongues firmly in their cheeks but they’re deadly serious. Reading is therapeutic. At the very least it provides distraction; it takes our mind off ourselves. When we’ve just broken up with our boy or girlfriend what do we do? We slouch off home and listen to some mournful music—Leonard Cohen or the The Smiths on repeat or something—and let it wash over us and when we’re happy we stick on The Best Punk Album in the World … Ever!, roll up our sleeves and get stuck into the housework. If it works with music then why not books? Okay, the authors of this book present their case in a light-hearted and occasionally downright flippant manner but they do have a point and a good one. Their list has some gaping—dare I say ‘unforgiveable’?—holes in it but there’s also a lot of good stuff here.
Who the target demographic is is another matter. When I was nineteen I only read books by writers who’d won the Nobel Prize or, since I was also into science fiction at the time, a Hugo or Nebula award. That did me no harm whatsoever and I wish I’d kept at it because one of the things that I did realise as I flicked through the index at the back—not that I was ignorant of the fact—was how many great books I’ve never got round to. It’s frankly embarrassing. Personally I would give this book to a young bibliophile. My wife has a granddaughter who’s nearly seventeen and I’ll probably pass my copy onto her; her needs are greater than mine and she’s got more time than me, a good seventy years most likely. You can get a lotta reading done in seventy years.
There’s a handy website to go with book. You can find it here and it addresses some of my concerns with the book itself because it affords ‘patients’ the opportunity to submit their ‘ailments’ and receive a personal consultation. For example:
Dear Ella and Suze I thought I was going to do something that would make a huge difference in the world but, heading towards 50, any impact I have had on anything has been pretty local rather than global and I feel I've missed the boat-of-greatness. Regards, Low Wattage
Dear Low Wattage, Don't underestimate the importance of the local impact you have made! Read The Mystic Masseur by VS Naipaul for an illustration of a man making a huge difference to the people in his immediate vicinity, which is just as important as the wider influence you have. But 50 is the new 30! You still have decades in which to blow your fuse and go out with a bang. Read Requiem for a Dream by Hubert Selby Junior to galvanise you into making your dreams a reality, not letting them slip through your fingers. Yours, Ella and Suse
We prescribe – The Mystic Masseur by VS Naipaul, Requiem for a Dream by Hubert Selby Junior
If you click on REMEDIES you can read a number of excerpts from the book itself.
I like the idea of this book. It’s isn’t perfect—it never had a snowball’s chance in hell of being perfect—but as a template it works: ten out of ten for presentation. It aims to make people think about books differently: they’re not just for entertainment; they have real power. I have to agree. When I first picked up the book I thought there’d be excerpts from novels rather than reasons to read these novels but that works too. So the books—and the poems, the stories and the plays—that changed my life were mostly missing. So what. Not every piece of writing is going to have the same effect on everyone. I read Billy Liar when I was about thirteen or fourteen and it had a powerful effect on me even more so than Catcher in the Rye. And, actually, it’s a book I’ve never grown too old for. It was the right thing at the right time and it continues to be the right thing. It’s a wonderful thing when a book meets its ideal reader. For some people The Novel Cure will be one of those books.
Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin met as English Literature students at Cambridge University, where they began giving novels to each other whenever one of them seemed in need of a boost. Ella went on to study fine art and become a painter and art teacher. Susan became a novelist (Sunset Over Chocolate Mountains and The Voices, both Fourth Estate) and in 2003 was listed by Granta as one of the Twenty Best of Young British Novelists. She also teaches creative writing and writes travel pieces and book reviews for various newspapers. In 2008 they set up a bibliotherapy service through The School of Life in London, and since then have been prescribing books either virtually or in person to clients all over the world. Though they are now divided by an ocean (Ella lives in England and Susan lives in the States) they still regularly send each other fictional cures to keep them on the straight and narrow and ensure that they are living life to the full. The Novel Cure is their first book together.