Even so, sometimes my recommendations flat-out bomb. Once I suggested a book with a character that seemed to be exactly like the mother my patient described. “That’s nothing like my mother!” she said after giving it a read. “Don’t you understand my childhood at all?” It was, admittedly, an unsettling portrait of the mother, and I wondered if perhaps the suggestion was more disturbing than cathartic. But the patient said that wasn’t the issue at all. In fact, the portrayal was too compassionate — like the best novels, it allowed for nuance and provided a window into the mother’s humanity, but for this patient, compassion for her mom wasn’t something she was ready to consider. My recommendation was premature, and she felt injured and profoundly misunderstood — just as she had by, well, her mother.
I too have the occasional adverse reaction to the books my patients bring up. The men I treat overwhelmingly talk about either nonfiction titles with subjects I find dull — politics or business — or light, funny books about fatherhood that I tend to find cloying. Still, I’ve become better at finding something interesting within these books, as entry points into something I care deeply about: what these men are grappling with, i.e. achievement, self-worth, parenthood, vulnerability.
One time, though, a male patient who struck me as kind and empathetic told me he was exhausted because he’d stayed up far too late the night before reading “the best book I’ve read in a long time.” A writer himself, he read poetry and novels I liked, so I eagerly awaited the title. But when he said it, I tried not to cringe.
The book was violent and misogynistic, and if this was a reflection of his inner life, I hadn’t expected it. As I sat there listening to him talk about why he liked the book, though, I asked myself: Shouldn’t I be open-minded? Isn’t that what I encourage my patients to do in their own lives — consider a different perspective, or at least try to understand it, whether or not I agreed? Talking about this book helped me to understand this man’s marriage and childhood in a way I otherwise might not have.
Then there are the book references I read too much into. There was the woman who kept bringing up Marie Kondo’s “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up,” leaving me to wonder what she thought of my cluttered desk. Or the mother who mentioned that seeing her son read “Fahrenheit 451” reminded her of the pleasure she got from reading that novel at his age, and I immediately thought of my own son, the same age as my patient’s, with his “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” series stacked on his nightstand. Should I buy him more challenging books? I wondered.
It’s in moments like these that I notice how much the books my patients and I talk about don’t just reveal something about them; they also reveal something about me. My feelings when someone finds deep meaning in a book that I consider to be commercial schlock says far more about the emotional work I need to do than it does about his or her therapeutic progress. Sometimes I even wonder if the books I recommend are too revealing of me. When I suggested “Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine” to a patient who felt socially awkward, did the patient deduce (correctly) that I had gone through a period in my life when I saw myself in the protagonist’s profound isolation?
Talking about books with my patients is never as simple as I once imagined it would be. If sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, a book is rarely just a book. Ultimately, though, that’s what makes them perfect for the therapy room.