Date of Completion


Embargo Period



Bibliotherapy, psychiatry, history, reading, poetry, personality, therapy

Major Advisor

Christopher Clark

Associate Advisor

Sylvia Schafer

Associate Advisor

Micki McElya

Field of Study



Doctor of Philosophy

Open Access

Open Access


This dissertation examines the history of the idea that books can serve as medicine. Focusing on the Anglophone world from 1800 to 1940, it traces the emergence of what became known as “bibliotherapy.” Readers have long conceived of their reading as therapeutic, but this dissertation examines the moment when experts inserted themselves between reader and book in the name of health and debated what books could treat, which books made the best medicine, and who should decide. Through a series of case studies, this dissertation explores the use of therapeutic reading to treat diseases of imagination in nineteenth-century asylums, the act of restricting reading as part of the rest cure to treat neurasthenia, and the use of books as medicine in the burgeoning mind-body medical experimentation that coalesced in Boston at the turn of the twentieth-century. In these early experiments with therapeutic reading in medical spaces, experts often directed or censored readers’ selections to support health and recovery. By the early twentieth century, librarians, physicians and social workers began to create programs that actively prescribed books to heal. This dissertation demonstrates the significance of World War I and the Library War Service to the development of what would become bibliotherapy after the war. Librarians and physicians experimented to match the right book to the right patient, believing the war presented them with the opportunity to develop a new specialty which could play an important role in modern hospitals. However, attempts to make a science of bibliotherapy in the interwar period faltered, I argue, because it could not meet the standards of science in proving its value, or create replicable standards of use. Critics derided the proof of bibliotherapy’s value as reported by practitioners as mere storytelling that lacked what Freud would call the “serious stamp of science.” In fact, bibliotherapy continues to play a meaningful role in clinical practice, schools and prisons precisely because of its ability to offer readers a language for their own experiences. This history demonstrates the challenges facing the integration of the humanities and sciences in medical humanities and offers meaningful contributions to histories of medicine, reading, and selfhood.

Available for download on Monday, May 20, 2024