Noreen Tomassi, interviewed by Tracy Young
The Center’s Executive Director talks about our popular bibliotherapy program: Based on a 45-minute personal conversation about your reading tastes, your lifestyle, and the issues you’re facing, you'll get a reading list of a dozen hand-picked novels to offer insight, solace, and inspiration.
When did you start to think, wow, bibliotherapy could work for people?
In October 2012, a board member suggested we try this, and I began to talk to people about the idea. So many people reacted enthusiastically that I thought it was worth a try and might be especially good to roll out in advance of the holidays with the option of giving it as a gift.
Were you surprised that it caught on so quickly?
Not really. I think people who read a great deal believe that books can have a real impact on their lives and will help them to navigate life more successfully. But people now seem to have endless choices, so they appreciate any recommendations or guidance that can help them sort through the barrage of information that confronts them.
What was your most gratifying session?
I enjoyed every one and think I learn as much as the “clients.” I did particularly enjoy finding appropriate books for a young woman newly embarked on a life of sobriety who also was very interested in Hollywood. Do you know how hard it is to find a good novel about Hollywood that doesn’t have a drunk in it?
Could you perform self-bibliotherapy?
I’m not sure. I could set a reading challenge for myself, focused on a particular issue, I guess, but what makes bibliotherapy work best is the “therapist’s” knowledge of the prescribed books.
What can you tell about a person from their reading habits?
A great deal--how conservative they are or how open to risk and experimentation becomes obvious; how much they read helps you to gauge how introverted or extroverted they are; you can get a sense of how romantic they are or alternately, how down to earth; you can see if they have a philosophical bent or a spiritual one, whether they are left-brain or right-brain types, and so on.
You’ve said that most people have four or five life-altering books, but do you think this is true only of “readers”? Or can almost anyone think of at least one book, even if it’s a children’s book, that had a profound impact?
I’m not sure, since I am a reader and I only talk to readers (and writers) about books. I’d like to think that the right book encountered at the right time could have a life-changing effect on anyone.
I am reminded of Buddhist instructions to pay attention. Also, science has shown us that mindfulness is a mood elevator. Is there some way, do you think, that this might tie in to the (therapeutic) pleasures of reading?
Yes, I generally think that writers—or at least the writers I admire--are living in the world, at least part of the time, at that level of attention. And reading allows you to enter that state—think of Salter’s description of the train ride at the beginning of A Sport and a Pastime, or the moment of revelation Marcel has as he steps on the uneven paving stones at the end of In Search of Lost Time. Good writers help you to enter more fully into the world, to “pay attention;” poor writers offer escape instead. And that is true across all genres.