By Leah Harris

Bibliotherapy is a practice dating back to ancient times, acknowledging the healing properties of engagement with books. In the UK, reading is currently being “prescribed” in a pilot program for the treatment of behavioral health conditions and chronic pain. And according to a recent article in The Boston Globe: “Bibliotherapy can show people how characters in similar circumstances overcome difficult situations. Books can also provide readers with the vocabulary to articulate what they’re feeling. Giving names to experiences that seem haphazard, confusing, or inexplicable can boost a reader’s sense of security and mastery.”

In a recent essay in Salon, Jeannine Hall Gailey discusses how reading has helped her to survive both physical and mental health conditions during the pandemic. One of the books she discussed in the essay was Octavia Butler’s 1993 Parable of the Sower. Butler is known as the “mother of Afrofuturism” and her work has received notable acclaim as of late, having made the New York Times’ bestseller list for the first time in 2020, 14 years after her death.

Parable of the Sower, and its sequel, Parable of the Talents, set in California just 4 years from now, depict a world that Butler sensed was on its way if things did not change significantly. The book describes a society in which gated communities, defended by armed guards, keep some people protected (to a degree) from a state beset with the effects of climate change including fires, shortages of drinkable water, and violence. The book’s main character, Lauren Olamina, is a 15-year-old Black girl living in one such gated community. She suffers from a condition called “hyperempathy,” in which she physically feels the pain of people around her. Forced from her gated community, Olamina rises to the occasion, despite the sometimes debilitating nature of her condition. As Gailey says of the book’s heroine, “The oppressive sense of suffering all around her – as oppressive as wildfire smoke – spurs her to become a leader, taking action in what appears to be hopeless circumstances. It serves as a timely reminder for us to take action to reduce suffering in the world.”

While reading has considerable therapeutic benefits, not everyone can maintain the concentration to read at this time, as the stress of the pandemic has interfered with the ability of many people to focus. But Parable of the Sower can be found on audiobook. There is also Octavia’s Parables, a podcast launched in 2020 by Adrienne Maree Brown and Toshi Reagon. In this podcast, a chapter of Butler’s work is discussed each week, along with ways for listeners to internalize the ideas in each chapter and to incorporate them into their lives. The podcast will run through the 2020 election in November. 

Reading is by definition a solitary venture, but online book clubs provide a sense of connection and camaraderie among groups of readers. There are countless virtual book clubs happening across the country. Climate Reads, sponsored by the Brooklyn Public Library and open to anyone in the world, will continue through August 2021. The book club kicked off with Parable of the Sower last month and will read a new book each month connected to the climate emergency. 

Whether you access books on your own or via a virtual book club, may reading the words of others expand your imagination, provide nurturing and solace, and give you hope for what is possible, even in the grimmest of times. Butler’s Parable of the Sower is an excellent place to start on your bibliotherapeutic journey. Additional resources can be found below.

For further exploration:

Leah Harris is a non-binary, queer, neurodivergent, disabled Jewish writer, facilitator, and organizer working in the service of truth-telling, justice-doing, and liberation. They’ve had work published in the New York Times, CNN, and Pacific Standard. You can learn more about their work at their website and follow them on Instagram.