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Reading Therapy

What is Reading Therapy?

Reading therapy is a form of expressive therapy focusing on specific reading material with the intent of healing individuals. The idea behind this is to use a person’s connection to the content of a book, piece of poetry or other written text as an additional form of therapy. Results from this type of therapy, particularly when combined with other therapies such as writing therapy, have proven to have long-lasting effects in recovery. As of today, there are no programs that use only reading therapy as a treatment plan, however many different programs utilize reading therapy in addition to other treatment options to maximize the success of recovery.

The idea behind reading therapy is to select reading material that the reader can relate to: essentially, the character in the book is experiencing a similar life event as the individual reading it. This can help in a number of ways:

  • The individual reads the story, identifies with the character and draws life lessons and experiences from the character’s struggles and findings throughout the book.
  • Reading certain material may help reduce and alleviate stress.
  • This type of therapy is highly flexible and because of that, it is extremely customizable to the person who is utilizing it.


While just reading a book is unlikely to bring someone through to a full recovery from substance abuse, reading is an excellent step toward developing a healthy new habit. It can be an excellent outlet during rehabilitation and something that will stay with you years later. Joseph Addison said “Reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body.”


A History of Reading

Although this form of therapy isn’t as widely talked about as some, the concept behind reading therapies date back as far as 1272 when people being hospitalized in Cairo were prescribed reading the Koran as a form of medical treatment. This continued to grow in popularity and has been used across numerous age-ranges, cultures and circumstances. Diodorus Siculus, a Greek historian, writes about a phrase above the royal chamber that Ramses II of Egypt stored all of his books in. It is considered to be the oldest library motto in known history and translates to: “The House of Healing for the Soul”.

During World War I, the American Library Association was tasked with the management of over ten million different publications and established thirty-six war camp libraries throughout the US and Europe with one mission: to provide a book for every man. They shipped hundreds of thousands of books overseas over the course of the war. Smaller military camps, naval outposts and marine stations also had book collections to fill out their own libraries. Reading was considered by many in the military as a way to pass the time, keep up to speed with the most current processes and procedures so they could re-enter the workforce at the end of their enlistment or as a way to assist in combating depression in military hospitals. No matter their station, every man was given equal and free access to any reading material the American Library Association was able to provide. After the war ended, many returning medical staff pushed hard for reading therapy in hospitals around the world. This practice was well received and picked up quickly in the United States and the United Kingdom.

Reading Therapy in Recovery

When being used in a therapeutic setting there is no wrong way to utilize reading therapy. Some individuals respond better with fiction while others show more progress with non-fiction. The selection of book is important as there are many different options available on the market.

Fictional literature can be very beneficial in the sense that it is not cut and dry like non-fiction material would be. Rather than having the approach based on what someone else tells you to do, fictional characters allow the individual to actively interpret the context based on their own circumstances. This offers the reader a chance to identify with the character, empathize with their situation and ultimately gain insight from the character’s experiences.

By identifying with the character in the material, the recovering individual has an opportunity to acknowledge their issues from an alternative point of view. Empathizing with the fictional character also allows the individual to reach an almost cathartic state of mind by gaining hope from the character’s successes and releasing emotional tension. As a result, this will usually lead to deeper insight into their own situation and will help develop the desire for behavioral change. Further, by having the story of the fictional character to base discussion off of, a client may be more willing to discuss their own issues with a group or therapy facilitator by pretending to discuss the issues of the character in their book.

Another option for literature in addiction recovery are graphic novels. These read more like a comic book and can be extremely effective for those that are struggling with literacy or are better stimulated by visual aids that are not commonly offered in most novels. With depression, drug abuse and PTSD on the rise, there are a decent number of graphic novels available that address these public health issues in a way that still allows the reader to gain insight and relatability from the material.

Non-fiction reading material is comprised of the author’s factual data (to the best of their ability). This may include personal experiences, statistics or self-help advice. While this material also offers an opportunity for the reader to empathize with the author, it is less likely to offer them the chance to come to their own conclusions. For some, however, a directional approach is easier to maintain than coming to their own solution based on their feelings. For them, having a roadmap laid out in the material is easier to follow and the potential for feeling overwhelmed by where to start their recovery is negated with the objective of starting with the self-help’s step one. Knowing where to begin and what they have to achieve before moving on to the next step is just as cathartic as empathizing with a fictional character.

Whatever the preference, there is no wrong way to implement reading therapy into addiction recovery. It can be an excellent way to pass the time, gain insights, release negative thoughts or help put someone in the right frame of mind to begin taking those first steps or maintain the progress they’ve already achieved. “Books are the quietest and most constant of friends; they are the most accessible and wisest of counselors, and the most patient of teachers.” – Charles William Elliot


One of the most effective steps for making reading therapy successful in overcoming the issues that an addict is facing is to develop support, trust and confidence in the person facilitating their therapy. The facilitator should also help the individual seeking sobriety to identify others in their lives that could aid them in implementing this therapy in their daily lives. Defining the overall or underlying issue the client is facing will help both parties work to overcome the issue by suggesting books or other material that would help them identify with their specific struggles.

The material should also be introduced to anyone else that may be involved in the recovery process. This ensures that everyone can proceed forward with a better understanding of the issue and armed with knowledge that can help better evaluate and understand the effects or success of the material on their loved one. In his book “I Can Read With My Eyes Shut”,  Dr. Seuss wrote: “The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.”  Reading therapy is an excellent example of these words being put into action.