Books, Minds, and Bodies

Project summary

The Books, Minds, and Bodies project will investigate links between fiction-reading and mental health. Researchers from the cognitive, medical, and neurosciences, and from anthropology, literary studies, and psychiatry will join with members of the public to share the experience of reading aloud and discussing a novel in order to explore the therapeutic benefits of reading fiction. Data collected from the reading group will be analysed and built upon by the Co-Investigators and other colleagues in research seminars and workshops, with the aim of advancing interdisciplinary research and furthering knowledge exchange between academia and the charity and public health sectors.

Our weekly reading and discussion groups in Michaelmas 2015 and Hilary 2016 were an invaluable source of rich verbal data, which we are using to investigate: the role the fictional text plays in discussion (a springboard for talking about personal experience; an opportunity for literary analysis; a mode of evading more intimate talk; etc.); the way self-orientated discussion occurs and its (non)prominence within the group; changes in group dynamics; whether or not the vocabulary used opens conversation and interaction; how each of these develops over time. We are currently exploring complementary qualitative and quantitative methods – and ways of combining them – to assess the role of these and other factors in the interactions between the individual readers, the group, and the text being read. Detailed feedback forms are being analysed for the way participants talk about their experience after the end of the sequence of meetings and how this tallies with the discussions themselves.

We held an afternoon workshop in Trinity 2016, involving researchers, healthcare professionals, and the organisers of community reading and drama groups. The day was extremely stimulating, and yielded useful feedback regarding possible theoretical underpinnings of the mechanisms of ‘bibliotherapy’, as well as input into current data analysis as well as future methodologies.

Further reading

Billington, Josie. 2011. ‘“Reading for Life”: Prison Reading Groups in Practice and Theory.’ Critical Survey 23(3).

Billington, Josie, Christopher Dowrick, Andrew Hamer, Jude Robinson, and Clare Williams. 2010. ‘An Investigation into the Therapeutic Benefits of Reading in Relation to Depression and Well-Being.’ Liverpool Health Inequalities Research Institute.

Brewster, Elizabeth. 2011. An Investigation of Experiences of Reading for Mental Health and Well-Being and Their Relation to Models of Bibliotherapy. PhD thesis, U of Sheffield.

Tukhareli, Natalia. 2011. ‘Bibliotherapy in a Library Setting: Reaching out to Vulnerable Youth.’ Partnership: the Canadian Journal of Library and Information Practice and Research 6.


Lead investigator

Emily Holman, Faculty of English and Balliol College, University of Oxford

Research team

Emily Troscianko, Faculty of Medieval and Modern Languages, University of Oxford

James Carney, Experimental Psychology Department and Linacre College, University of Oxford

Nela Cicmil, Department of Physiology, Anatomy, and Genetics, University of Oxford

Karin Eli, Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology and St. Hilda’s College, University of Oxford

Contact details for enquiries

Please email the lead investigator, Emily Holman for any queries regarding this project.