October 2004

Veronica Bond

21st Century Fox

Bibliotherapy by Nancy Peske and Beverly West

If there’s one thing I think all of us Booksluts will agree we love, other than a good book, is a book about good books. This alone drew me to Nancy Peske’s and Beverly West’s Bibliotherapy: The Girl’s Guide to Books for Every Phase of Our Lives. The loopy, handwriting styled cover font and the image of a slender girl lying amidst open books might have normally driven me away, and, truthfully, the entire premise of the guide made me shudder just a little; as if women need another guide book to tell us how to run our lives. But, ultimately, I couldn’t resist the pull of another book about books and I only hoped that this one would do its purpose justice.

The reviews in this book are separated into sections corresponding to supposed stages of a woman’s life. The chapters have titles such as, “When You Discover That Clitoris is Not a Town in Greece: Exploring-Our-Sexuality Books,” and “When You Discover That Having It All Means Doing It All: Martyr Queen Books.” Each chapter features numerous books for review, proffering why that particular book and its author is important to a woman’s life. A sample of the books explored in these chapters: Delta of Venus by Anais Nin and Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown in the former, and The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James and The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman in the latter. The reviews are succinct, with quotes taken from each, and though they’re entertaining to read, they’re, unfortunately, not much more than that.

The great thing about Bibliotherapy is that it mentions a wealth of books that I’ve read and loved and wouldn’t hesitate to recommend to any one of my friends, the majority of the remaining books being ones that I’ve wanted to read for years. The not so great thing is that no review is particularly enticing and had I not already been excited about many of these books, I doubt I would have been convinced of the need to read them. Instead of a serious literary discussion, the tone of the book is more a conversation between two friends, complete with in-jokes that no one else really gets. There are notes from “Bev’s” and “Nancy’s Reading Journal,” which present the authors’ personal takes on some of the recommended reads. Again, these aren’t so much in depth descriptions of the authors’ connections with these books, but musings on the books’ superficial qualities. I’m additionally displeased by the “Points to Ponder” that follow several of the reviews. Like the reading group guides that are frequently published in contemporary novels, I’m always put off by the assumption that I’m unable to discuss books on my own. I assume that the “Points” are supposed to be cute, but when the review of Tropic of Cancer in the “Existential Crisis Books” section is followed by “What is the latitude and longitude that best describes your life?” I worry that some readers won’t even acknowledge sarcasm as a possibility.

What worries me further is the idea that there is a certain set of books that appeal specifically to women. The gendering of books has become more widespread with the advent of popular book clubs targeted toward a female audience and a book purporting to guide women through their lives using literary works to enforce the idea that reading is a feminine activity. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. I’m of the school of belief that anything that gets people to read is, inherently, a good thing, but I have to at least shake my head when these things somehow manage to simultaneously demean the pastime. In the case of Bibliotherapy, it’s the cutesy tone combined with the authors’ inability to provide any substantial material on their chosen works that detract from the meaningful pursuit of literary fulfillment. I might turn to Bilbiotherapy for some light entertainment, but I’d never crack this book if I were looking for a truly helpful review -- it’s just too weak. Hell, I can think of at least one literature devoted website that can undoubtedly kick this book’s ass.

The idea that we live our life through books is a very enticing one, especially to anyone who remembers periods of their life by the books they’ve read. Pages can be as potent as songs in terms of invoking memories of people and places. Rereading A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, a book included in the “Hearing Your Inner Voice” section, always makes me stop remember what’s important about my goals and myself; I make an effort to read it at least every other year. On the other end of the spectrum, despite it’s incredible story and the author’s talent with words, I know I’ll never be able to reopen the pages of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay because there are certain things I’d rather not remember about those months in which I was a part of that story. And for all of us lovers of books, I’m positive we could each name dozens of titles that have affected us in similar ways. There’s no doubt that what we read influences how we think and act; it shapes our actions and our emotions and makes us grow in ways we can’t ever predict. For some of us, books do guide our lives. But to authors Nancy Peske and Beverly West, don’t try to tell us, as women, how they should.

Bibliotherapy: The Girl’s Guide to Books for Every Phase of Our Lives by Nancy Peske and Beverly West
Dell Publishing
ISBN: 0440508975
246 pages