Since 2008, Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin of the School of Life in London have been suggesting books to clients to alleviate various conditions. They wrote about this service, which they call bibliotherapy, in The Novel Cure.They point to those times when a novel has seemed to directly speak to our condition. They write:

"You have probably had the experience of feeling compelled to read a novel and then finding that it sweeps you off your feet by directly addressing a relationship, vocational, or spiritual problem that has been bothering you."

Novels can do that and there are plenty of them to choose from as we chart our yearnings and needs. Berthoud and Elderkin write:

"When you're engrossed in a novel, unable to tear yourself from the page, you are seeing what a character sees, touching what a character touches, learning what a character learns. . . . 'To read a writer is for me not merely to get an idea of what he says, but to go off with him and travel in his company,' said Andre Gide. No one comes back from such a journey quite the same."

We recalled Berthoud and Elderkin's bibliotherapy when we read an article on about scientific studies of the differences between people who read fiction and those who don't. It was found that reading novels enhances the connectivity of the brain and tends to make fiction readers more aware of other people's emotions.

Researchers also discovered that literary fiction more than pop fiction "enhanced participants' empathy because they had to work harder at fleshing out the characters. The process of trying to understand what those characters are feeling and the motives behind them is the same in our relationships with other people."

Winter is a perfect time to read fiction alone in the warmth of your home or with fellow travelers in a book club. Think of this as a spiritual exercise to firm up and strengthen your empathy muscles for encounters with others on the streets and elsewhere.

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