Reading for Health: Bibliotherapy and the Medicalized Humanities in the United States, 1930-1965
Dufour, Monique S.
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In this dissertation, I tell the story of midcentury attempts to establish, develop, and study bibliotherapy in the US. I follow three groups-hospital librarians, psychologists and psychiatrists, and language arts educators-from the 1930s to the 1960s, when each in its own ways expressed belief in the therapeutic power of reading and set out to enact that belief as a legitimate practice in the evolving contexts of its profession and in the broader culture. These professionals tried to learn what happened within people during and after reading, and they attempted to use what they learned to apply reading toward healthy ends. Today, therapeutic reading has become commonplace to the extent that it seems natural. In this dissertation, I aim to recover and explore the midcentury processes by which therapeutic reading came to seem at once natural, medical, and scientific. I argue that midcentury bibliotherapy functioned in concert with an evolving cultural narrative that I call "reading for health." The reading for health narrative gathers up into a coherent story various and deep beliefs and commonplaces about the power of books over our minds and our bodies. In midcentury bibliotherapy, reading for health was reinvigorated as a story about the marriage of science and culture, a unity narrative that claimed the iconic book-capable of swaying minds and societies alike, and burnished with all that western civilization signified-for the professions that applied reading toward their healthy ends. As I demonstrate, however, these narratives were not confined to discrete professions, but functioned as a part of a larger cultural movement set upon the shifting fault lines of the humanities and science. Each of the groups I follow took an avid interest in what I have called the embodied reader. Rather than viewing reading as an act of a disembodied mind, they understood the practice as a psychosomatic experience in which mind and body could not be disconnected. Moreover, they believed that reading could capitalize on the embodied nature of thought and affect, and engender healthy effects. In this way, the embodied reader was constructed as a new, modern locus of both the literary experience and the therapeutic ethos. By valuing above all else how reading could be used to achieve health, advocates of bibliotherapy fashioned a form of applied humanities, one that defined the meaning and judged the value of books in terms of their utility and efficacy. In so doing, they contributed to the development of a form of the medicalized humanities that now resonates in three contemporary sites: (1.) the study and use of bibliotherapy in clinical psychology; (2.) the dominant and naturalized approach to books known as therapeutic reading; and (3.) the medical humanities.
- Doctoral Dissertations