Boyd Tonkin: Books as a tranquiliser

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Franz Kafka’s idea about the correct relationship of reading to happiness would not have found favour in today’s NHS.

“If the book we are reading does not wake us, as with a fist hammering on our skulls, then why do we read it?” the young Prague writer asked in a letter to fellow-student Oskar Pollak in 1904. “Good God, we also would be happy if we had no books and such books that make us happy we could, if need be, write ourselves... A book must be an ice axe to break the sea frozen inside us.”

Compare this exhilarating view of literature as revelation and emancipation to the dismal therapy-speak of the proposed “Books on Prescription” system. Even reading about it has a soporific effect. We learn that works will be supplied to patients “with mild to moderate mental health conditions for specific CBT [cognitive behaviour therapy]” as a sort of sedative by a scheme which will also offer “mood-boosting novels and poetry”. This is literature as “soma”, the happiness drug doled out by the state in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World to keep the citizenry quiet and meek.

What seems to have happened here is that a very good idea has been hijacked by the instrumental and utilitarian norms of a cash-strapped NHS to become a vehicle of cost-saving social control. When introduced to the right reader at the right time, of course books can often make the psychic earth move. They may electrify, inspire, enlighten or shock.

Above all, they can enhance a sense of personal freedom, and immeasurably raise anyone’s confidence in their ability not merely to understand the world but also to act upon it. That’s not what appears to motivate “Books on Prescription”, however. Its proponents see literature not as liberation but as Largactil without risky side-effects: as a cheap, low-level tranquilliser.