‘I’m Sonya Tsakalakis, and I’m a bibliotherapist’

Photo: Julian Kingma

Photo: Julian Kingma

My first language is Greek, but I picked up English quickly and learned to read in prep, where my school librarian, Mrs Bowen, introduced me to the wonder of reading. I had a hard time adjusting to school, and reading was a rescue. I could retreat somewhere with a book and find solace in a much more beautiful, magical, congenial world than the one I was experiencing.

Before becoming a bibliotherapist, I had a variety of other jobs, including as a genetic counsellor and community educator. In about 2009, I read an article in The Guardian about bibliotherapy called ‘The Reading Cure’. It’s a concept that hails from ancient Greece, literally meaning book therapy. Aristotle alluded to literature being a form of healing for the soul. Back then, libraries were positioned next to hospitals, so you’d go to hospital for physical healing, and the adjacent library to heal the soul. The article described the process of group bibliotherapy, run by an organisation called The Reader in London, where people read aloud, sharing stories and insights.

The idea resonated with me, and I wanted to learn more, so I went to the State Library to look it up. Then, I went to London to train with the Reader Organisation, and started running groups when I returned. Later, I trained with Ella Berthoud, who was one of the founders of bibliotherapy at The School Of Life in London, to conduct bibliotherapy, one on one.

When people book a bibliotherapy session with me, they’re sent a detailed preliminary questionnaire about their reading habits, choices and how often they read, to give me an idea about how reading features in their life. Then there’s a section that goes into more personal terrain, where they’re asked about personal interests, passions, what worries them, what preoccupies them, and what they’re yearning for. Next, we have a consultation in person or by Skype, which gives me a more expansive sense of what they hope to gain from the session.

Ultimately, I put together a literary “prescription” tailor made to their needs and challenges and aligned with their interests. It’s not just about, “oh, this is a great book, you’ll love it”. It’s about choosing the books that have resonance to uplift and nourish.

There’s a number of reasons people book a bibliotherapy session. Dissatisfaction at work, grief and loneliness are big ones.

Sometimes though, people just want to be inspired by reading again, or take a different reading direction, or have a need to feel a sense of adventure. Sometimes the issues are heavy, but my training and background in genetic counselling helps me to keep the session contained.

My prescriptions mostly contain fiction, but I do include a mix of translated works, classics, contemporary fiction and poetry. It’s important to give people a wide perspective: that’s what reading’s about – to help us to have more of a divergent view of the world and to look at things from a different angle.

I’ve always already read the books that I prescribe. I think it’d be dishonest of me if I didn’t. Generally, I aim to read two books a week. They’re not all huge, one might be a novella. I always go to bed early and read my books – it’s the high life.

As told to Meg Crawford

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