Life getting you down? Turn a new leaf with 'bibliotherapy'

Amol Rajan
Friday 19 September 2008 00:00 BST

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Louise Thomas

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For those buckling under the pressures of modern life, help is at hand in the age-old form of books. A group of authors, including Alain de Botton, have established a shop in Bloomsbury, London's literary heartland, offering stressed-out readers therapeutic solutions.

There may only be 55 titles at a time, but they offer "prescriptions" for a way of life that is more fulfilling and less stressful. Okay, it may sound a bit New Age, but this is a serious venture with big-name backing and a commitment to addressing people's issues.

On offer at the School of Life: books; artwork; holidays; courses; food; sermons; and – most popular of all – "bibliotherapy". Split over ground floor and basement, the building offers a sanctuary where visitors can read, relax and think for themselves.

The store is the brainchild of Sophie Howarth, a 33-year-old former curator for public programmes at the Tate Modern. She set it up with private donations after concluding that a "snooty" cultural sector had turned its nose up at promoting personal development.

"I got frustrated at the refusal of the cultural world to deal with everyday problems," she said. "People who come here want to engage on subjects that they think about all the time, from their work to their family. The trouble with the cultural world is it doesn't really talk to people about those things".

The bookshop, which Howarth describes as "a cultural apothecary", is adorned with a leopard-skin sofa that seems incongruous amid the minimalist design. A small door leads to an underground classroom with red leather sofas and a black-and-white mural by the artist Charlotte Mann depicting daily life. Here professional thinkers coalesce with pupils round a small table for evening and weekend courses that cover five areas: work; play; family; politics; and love.

Involved in the project along with De Botton is the Cambridge academic Robert Macfarlane. Both authors' works feature in the catalogue upstairs. There are tomes from the psychologist Oliver James (They F*** You Up: How to Survive Family Life), Mark Vernon (After Atheism), the novelist Julian Barnes and the philosopher Simon Critchley. Geoff Dyer's Yoga for People Who Can't Be Bothered to Do It features prominently, alongside Bernard Crick's In Defence of Politics. Excerpts from Penguin's Great Ideas series are dotted along every shelf.

Macfarlane has been instrumental in designing the £50 "intellectual gift box". Customers who approach staff with a list of worries are given a box with six titles chosen by Macfarlane, together with an accompanying leaflet explaining the choices.

But the most intriguing feature is the weekend trip. De Botton, who six years ago published The Art of Travel, will take customers to Heathrow, where they can expect a guided tour of the new terminal, meet baggage staff and chat to plane spotters – all for £250. Another holiday will feature a tour of the "great tarmac institution" of the M1, promising meetings with "architects and historians, artists and truckers".

The writer Susan Elderkin, meanwhile, is acting as an in-house bibliotherapist, allowing customers to sign up to a five-month programme of regular phone or email consultations about their reading habits for £50.

The inaugural School of Life holiday takes place this weekend. For £500, pupils can "enter Martin Parr's world at your own risk", on a tour of the Isle of Wight. The celebrated photo-grapher, the School promises, will "train your eye to see the ugliness in beauty and the horror in leisure".

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