Meet the bibliotherapist...

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© Rob Greig
Posted: Wed Sep 8 2010

With too many books and too little time, Time Out 's Books editor Chris Moss turned to a bibliotherapist to make him a better reader - and a better man. Photography Rob Greig

I love books. I hate them. I enjoy finishing them. I feel pretty cool about abandoning them halfway. I am open-minded. Most of my books are by Anglophone white men. I love to lie back with a book, and to travel. I read to offset despair and to kill time, to educate myself and because we're told it's good for us. I know I should think about what I read and not just be guided by prejudices - but I don't really do short stories, or audiobooks, or gay lit…
With all these things in mind, and a few zillion more - such are neuroses - I contacted Ella Berthoud, a bibliotherapist at The School of Life in Bloomsbury. After an extensive interview about my passions, time problems, reading to date and reading habits, she came up with the following prescription.

'The Elephant's Journey' by José Saramago
'I'm prescribing this for you because of your itchy feet. This posthumously published book describes a mad and some would say pointless adventure with a pachyderm. Saramago follows the voyage of Solomon from Goa, to Lisbon, to Vienna: it's an epic ramble that the Nobel Prize-winning author saw as a metaphor for life.'

'The Various Flavours of Coffee' by Anthony Capella
'Two of your passions are food and sex [Chris: please note - 'sex' was named as a passion alongside pies, catsand train journeys], and Capella is famous for combining these elements in his novels. This book takes a young dandy into the service of a coffee merchant in the early years of the last century, where his job is to describe the flavours of coffee. Of course he falls in love with the merchant's daughter, and we follow his fortunes as he travels to Africa to grow more coffee, while his intended becomes more and more committed to the Suffragette cause. In Africa he is entangled with more romance, and this is where the passion enters the book. Capella has a light touch, and this is an enjoyable romp of a novel.'

'Old Filth', and 'The Man in the Wooden Hat' by Jane Gardam
'Old Filth is a judge who was born in Malaya to a mother who died at birth, and a father who is decidedly old-school (the story is loosely based on the life of the young Rudyard Kipling). His name is an acronym for Failed in London, Try Hong Kong; he is laughable, benevolent, popular, but mysterious. In “The Man in the Wooden Hat”, we hear his wife's view of the same events. Gardam excels in her ability to describe the secrets spouses keep from each other, even in a seemingly perfect marriage. I'm prescribing this because you need to read some more female authors, and I think these will be up your global street.'

'The Bride Stripped Bare' by Anonymous (aka Australian author Nikki Gemmell)
'This is a wonderful exposé of women's erotic fantasies in which a bored wife and her best friend embark on a series of affairs. Between ecstasy and betrayal, we live through the intricacies of hush-hush sex and risqué encounters, which lead the heroine to the re-awakening of love for her husband. Enjoyably erotic, it's a novel for both men and women to read, with many taboos broken. In the second person, this is fun to read either alone or with your partner - you will both be stimulated by the experience.'

'Legend of a Suicide' by David Vann
'Fantastically powerful and complex, this is a fictionalised memoir reworking Vann's father's suicide. The short stories that make up the book are set in Alaska; the landscape is beautifully observed and small details take on dark meanings. The central theme of suicide is never far away, the writing is at times raw and violent, but utterly compelling. I thought this would be a good one for you because you touched on reading as a means of offsetting despair; Vann is a bit of a miserable writer, but he pitches it right, to speak to your soul.'

'Pastoralia' by George Saunders
'I have included “Pastoralia” as a great example of how brilliant the comtemporary short story can be. This inventive collection of stories achieves a perfect balance between the familiar and the surreal. Saunders's bizarre stories about theme parks, computer-generated game shows and self-help gurus present a slightly skewed version of American society. Exuberantly weird and brilliantly funny, this work is a call for you to read more short stories.'

'The Go-Between' by LP Hartley
'I want you to listen to this one. It's such a fantastically sensual, hot, intense and brilliantly written book - and this is an excellent audiobook to start with. The words will be familiar to you, I'm sure, but the atmosphere and lyrical prose will all seem new when you hear it read by Edward Petherbridge. If you can't get hold of it, read it aloud with your partner. Reading is often a private thing, but I also think that reading aloud in itself can be an amorous experience.'

'The Bloody Chamber' by Angela Carter
'This is a perfect book for you to read aloud with your partner. It is beautifully written and brings classic fairy tales to adult ears. All the stories have erotic elements.'

'The Story of O' by Pauline Reage
'Another one to read together. Written to her lover to keep him interested in her and in living, this book certainly holds attention with its willing slave and total self-abnegation to the joys of sexuality. O happily gives herself to whole parties of men.'

BUT WILL IT HELPě
Will I be wiser, happier, better, after reading theseě Look out for an update once I've read through my script of books. If you want a face-to-face session with Ella, it'll cost £70, and a phone or Skype session is £40. Call her at The School of Life on 7833 1010 or visit www.theschooloflife.com or www.ellaberthoud.com.

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