The Reading Cure: How Books Restored My Appetite by Laura Freeman, London: W&N, 2018.
Reviewed by Sarah Ahmed, King’s College London
Almost ten years after being diagnosed with anorexia, after a decade of eating because she had to, not because she wanted to, Freeman found herself reading Siegfried Sassoon’s Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man. His description of an early morning pre-hunt breakfast is what encouraged Freeman to stray from her rigid food rules and eat her first (boiled) egg in many years.
Freeman’s book is a lyrical read. She combines honest internal exploration with metaphor, using the image of her mind as a library razed by anorexia as the common thread throughout. Freeman is literary by nature; it was natural that books should be her means of recovery. As a child she read avidly. Even when she was at her most ill she read “with a ravening appetite that I was missing in all other respects” (11), finding comfort, humour and escape in the pages. She graduated in art history from Cambridge and now works as a freelance writer, having published in a vast range of publications from The Sunday Times to The Spectator.
The premise of The Reading Cure isn’t as simple as “eat what you read”; Freeman wouldn’t write anything as twee. Instead what she explores is how books opened her mind to new possibilities, encouraging her to recreate not necessarily the food that she read but the associated feelings: the warmth of a cup of tea after a long walk, the companionship and love associated with a shared meal, the sense that “hearty, warming food might lead to a richer life than the mean, restricted one I had been living” (13).
When reading The Reading Cure it’s hard not to think about the role of bibliotherapy in disease recovery. The NHS launched its own bibliotherapy scheme, in association with The Reading Agency charity, in 2013. “Reading Well: Books on Prescription” has received mixed reviews but its yearly evaluations show significant success; the scheme even expanded its mental health section earlier this year. Although Freeman garnered help from reading she never mentions the term in her book; neither does she touch on the evidence base behind bibliotherapy. This is honestly a delight. Instead of focussing on the science of reading, or the use of the self-help books most bibliotherapy schemes recommend, Freeman takes us through the journey of learning what works for her, of her own personal recovery, as she reads a variety of genres including fiction, memoir and food-writing. She doesn’t start said journey with the intent of recovery, she doesn’t choose books for specific therapeutic purposes. She simply reads, and what follows follows.
As such, Freeman is quick to acknowledge that what worked for her will not work for everyone. The true message of the book comes from T. H. White’s Merlyn, and that is that one should “Learn something. It is the best medicine. It is the only thing that never fails” (240). For Freeman that meant reading but for others it could mean learning a new language, or how to bake bread, or memorising county cricket scores, “anything that takes you out of yourself” (240). It is only a shame that this message comes so late in the book, but I think it’s important to remember that this is Freeman’s story; it is only right that she focusses on what works for her, rather than suggesting what might work for everyone else. After all, this isn’t the kind of self-help book she so derides. It is her narrative, and it’s an inspiring one. Books really can save a life.