Meritocracy and its Discontents   /   Summer 2016   /    Notes And Comments

Better Living Through Bibliotherapy

Chad Wellmon and Paul Reitter

Exploring the therapeutic potential of the humanities.

Of the power of art, history, and philosophy to change us there are few instances more straightforward than Rilke’s sonnet “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” in which a confrontation with classical sculpture ends with the injunction, “You must change your life.” It might seem, at first, a short step from that stern command to branding Rilke’s collected letters as The Poet’s Guide to Life: The Wisdom of Rilke, as the Modern Library did in 2005. Self-transformation has always been part of the promise of the humanities, after all.

But it’s also clear that advocacy for the humanities has moved beyond self-transformation. Majoring in English, the sales pitch now goes, will help you craft your soul. The humanities can not only change how we think but also provide extractable and consumable advice on better living.

Books arguing this case often use the author’s own inspirational story as evidence for the transformative power of the humanities. Witness William Deresiewicz’s A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me about Love, Friendship, and the Things That Really Matter, Joseph Luzzi’s In a Dark Wood: What Dante Taught Me about Grief, Healing, and the Mysteries of Life, or Alain de Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life. Similarly, A.O. Scott’s new book, Better Living Through Criticism: How to Think about Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth, frames interpretation as a means to life enhancement, an approach to winning friends and influencing people. Self-transformation is being rebranded as self-help.

And why not? Ours is the age of kale shakes, CrossFit, and mindfulness meditation, at least for certain highly educated and affluent circles. On one level, bibliotherapy of the kind Deresiewicz offers is merely the more cerebral counterpart to a host of contemporary wellness regimes. Although they may not be tasty or cheap, books about the value of the humanities promise to make self-improvement convenient. Is it any wonder that they would be created and marketed as commodities?

—Paul Reitter and Chad Wellmon

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