Shelf Help: An Exploration of Bibliotherapy

The patient refused to speak. He wouldn’t say a word to his therapist, or to anyone else for that matter, which was why he was in therapy in the first place. After several weeks of unrelenting silence, the therapist gave the patient a poem to read—Stone by Charles Simic.

From the outside the stone is a riddle: 
No one knows how to answer it. 
Yet within, it must be cool and quiet …

I have seen sparks fly out 
When two stones are rubbed, 
So perhaps it is not dark inside after all. 

The patient read the poem to himself. Then he wrote a poem of his own: “I am like this stone. I am broken. I once was great like a mountain. But now I’m broken.” And then he began to talk.

The therapist in question was a protégé of Dr. Sherry Reiter, who tells the story with pride even though she wasn’t there to witness it.  But perhaps, as one of the pioneers in the field of poetry therapy, Reiter (pronounced “writer”) has the right to lay claim to any stories that involve the successful use of poetry in the soothing of troubled minds and healing of heavy hearts. Reiter, a doctor of social work with a masters in creative arts therapy, is one of the founding members of The National Association for Poetry Therapy. She is also the director of “The Creative Righting Center,” a ten-month poetry-therapy certification program that operates out of a high-ceilinged loft in Chelsea. Sometimes, her students call her the Poetry Doctor, although she is quick to point out that this is not because she doctors poetry.

Poetry therapy falls under the umbrella of bibliotherapy, which can be broadly defined as a type of creative arts healing that uses directed reading to help patients work through psychological, social, and developmental issues. Or to put it more simply, bibliotherapists select works of literature that contain characters, tropes, imagery, or phrases that a patient might identify with and that might help the patient feel less alone, less frightened, less conflicted.

“It’s really just the use of words, which is the lifeblood of psychotherapy,” Reiter explained before one of her monthly training workshops. She has soft grey hair and chocolate eyes, and speaks in a hushed tone that makes you feel simultaneously secure and sleepy. “You have all the psychological mechanisms of dreams: you have condensation and displacement. You have projection. But at the heart of it is imagery and poetic device. Poetic device bypasses any resistance that the person may have.”

It was an icy, grey Sunday in early March, but the Chelsea loft was warm and cozy, its walls a soft aquamarine, its floor covered in a creamy, shaggy carpet. Underneath a row of hooks that line the entrance to the loft was a long, wooden plaque painted with the words, “Transform. Shout. Jump for Joy.” One by one, Reiter’s students filed in, all of them women, all of them hoping that within poetry lies a transcendent healing power.

“Poetry is revolutionary,” said one student, a social worker and published poet named Lora Tucker. “It’s made to do transformative work … And I think it’s teaching a lot of people compassion, empathy, a sense of family and community that’s so important now. I work with teenagers, and that’s one of the things that’s very lacking: their sense of compassion and community, and also their expository reaction to things. How are they thinking? How are they feeling? Can they put in words what they’re feeling?”

March’s Creative Righting workshop was, in fact, all about giving voice to the most difficult of emotions. The title of the session was “The Hole in the Heart: Bereavement, Grief, and Loss.” Reiter passed around a thick packet of poems that deal with the process of coming to terms with the death of a loved one, poems like Linda Pastan’s The Five Stages of Grief, which snakes through the phases of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. The group read the poems aloud, and discussed how each one might be helpful to patients who are grieving deeply, and grieving differently.

Then, because Reiter believes that her students can only successfully administer poetry therapy once they have experienced it, she had them write and recite their own poems about people they have lost, or people they do not want to lose. When one student, Rou, read a poem about her brother, who died of AIDS many years ago, her voice wavered and her eyes filled with tears.

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 Lora Tucker, the social worker who works with troubled teenagers, has been using Reiter’s class as a means of coping with her own AIDS diagnosis. “I look at the work that I do with Sherry as a part of the work that I do on myself,” she said. “I go to the workshops, even though I don’t right now have the money to pay for the supervision hours. It’s part of my wellness.”

Tucker is an African American woman with heavy-lidded eyes and a shock of buoyant, copper hair. She chortles at her own jokes and giggles when she shows off photos of a young, very handsome soldier who has been flirting with her online and who, by Tucker’s own admission, may very well be an MTV-style catfish.

But beneath Tucker’s smiles, there is sadness. She refers to her AIDS diagnosis as “my 9/11,” and though she has written poems about many different subjects, she was unable to write a single stanza about her illness for fifteen years. But then Tucker joined Reiter’s poetry therapy certification course, and felt an instant connection with Reiter and the other members of the Creative Righting group. Now, she is comfortable opening up about the fear and loneliness that have plagued her life since that summer’s day in 1997, when an ex-boyfriend called and told her she needed to take an HIV test.

“Poetry for me has always been the means in which I can have a voice,” Tucker told me, when we met at a Park Slope Diner several weeks after the Creative Righting workshop. She reached into her bag and pulled out a plastic folder, stuffed with her own work, and with poems that Reiter has handed out during different sessions. Tucker began to recite a poem that she wrote during one of Reiter’s class exercises:

Know my name as you continue

Utter the sounds that make it so

Your lips say to the air

That you’ll make me,

You’ll let me go …

Fill your soul with what once was mine

And utter my sounds

Remember my name.

“We all live to die, but I had a reality that I could have died sooner,” Tucker said, folding the page and slipping it back into her folder. “There’s still the fact that things might not go right, and things could turn around on me that quickly. Some people have the luxury of not having to worry about impending doom.”

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 That literature can be used for therapeutic purposes is not a new idea. As far back as the fourth century BCE, Aristotle was writing about the cathartic effect of dramatic poetry. Two 19th century American physicians independently noted that guided reading produced positive outcomes in the treatment of the mentally ill, and in the aftermath of WWI, librarians were recruited to carefully curate libraries at veterans’ hospitals because doctors believed that books were beneficial to soldiers’ psychological recovery. The term “bibliotherapy” appears to have been coined in 1916 by a preacher named Samuel M. Crothers, who wrote an article in the Atlantic Monthly about using books to help “troubled” individuals.

But the notion of bibliotherapy as a clinical discipline that can be taught in universities and carried out by certified professionals is relatively recent. When Reiter took a course in poetry therapy at the New School in the 1970s, not many psychotherapists had heard of the field, and poetry therapy was nowhere to be found in the majority of psychotherapy degree programs. Along with her fellow co-founders of the National Poetry Therapy Association, Reiter spent many years pitching poetry therapy to universities around the country. Now Hofstra University, Union Institute, Vermont College, and an organization devoted to “poetic medicine” offer certification courses in poetry therapy.

Though she likes to recount the story of her protégé’s breakthrough with the selectively mute patient, Reiter has plenty of success stories of her own. During recent session with a woman who was stricken by acute bouts of anxiety after the death of her husband, Reiter decided to try out a “bereavement ritual” inspired by a Thich Nhat Hahn poem that deals in assertive expressions of the self:

I asked the leaf whether it was frightened because it was autumn and the other leaves were falling …

I worked hard to help nourish the tree, and now much of me is in the tree.

I am not limited by this form.

I am also the whole tree.

“OK,” Reiter said to her patient. “I would like you to fill this in: ‘I am sorry that…’ ‘I feel bad that…’” And then, suddenly, the woman burst into tears. She confessed that she had once engaged in a brief, loveless affair while her husband was still alive. He had died without ever knowing of her infidelity, and until that point, she had been unable to bring herself to speak of the affair, unable to forgive herself for what she had done.

While bibliotherapy has come of age in recent years, it is not recognized by the broader mental health community. Talk therapy as a whole is, in fact, on the decline, with an increasing number of psychiatrists prescribing psychotropic medications instead of the therapist’s couch. Bibliotherapy also hasn’t been extensively studied, making it difficult for the field to gain acceptance within a medical culture that places overwhelming value on hard evidence and scientific facts.

“There’s a lot of emphasis now on empirical data,” said Jessica Greenbaum, a social worker who uses poems in group therapy sessions, but does not refer to herself as a “poetry therapist” because she is not certified in the field. “How do we empirically know bibliotherapy does help? That’s why that stuff might not be in the first tier of journals—my guess is there really aren’t empiric studies that can prove that.”

Another stumbling block in the way of bibliotherapy becoming a mainstream clinical discipline might be the fact that some “bibliotherapists” aren’t actually therapists at all. During her workshop, Reiter noted with some displeasure that bibliotherapy is “often used by people who may not have training.” While Reiter’s students receive that training, not all of her them are mental health professionals; among the social workers and psychologists who made up the bulk of the class were a middle school literacy coordinator and a writer by profession. Many fiction “therapists” have no certification whatsoever; they are often writers, who will dole out personalized reading recommendations for a fee.

“You can’t call yourself a dentist if you’re not a dentist,” Greenbaum noted during a phone interview. “I feel like people use poems the way they want. Unlike dentistry, which is considered a science, they just decide it’s their thing to use with a title like ‘therapist.’”

She paused for a moment, and then said: “Sometimes I wonder who needs the legitimacy. Who’s calling for it? Is it because people need grant money? Otherwise, do we really care?”

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Susan Elderkin has counseled clients through career crises, bad boyfriends, and deep depression. A succession of grieving parents recently sought out her services, looking for help in coping with the death of a child. Elderkin refers to herself as a “bibliotherapist,” but she is not a mental health professional; she is a novelist, the British author of Sunset Over Chocolate Mountains and Voice. 

“The best education a person can have to be a bibliotherapist is to be a huge reader,” Elderkin said during a phone interview. “We’re very obsessed with having scientific validation for things, and yet there’s been a sense of books as a quiet place to commune with your soul since the time of the Greeks.”

Elderkin studied English Literature at Cambridge, where she and a friend named Ella Berthound would playfully recommend books to one another when hearts got broken, or studies became stressful. In 2008, they took their idea for a bibliotherapy service to the School of Life, a London-based “social enterprise” that seeks to guide clients through various feelings of malaise with the help of courses like “How to Spend Time Alone,” “Have Better Conversations,” and “Getting Better At Online Dating.”

Elderkin and Berthound’s program was one of the first to apply fiction-based bibliotherapy to adults, and it quickly became one of the more popular services that the School of Life offers—so popular, in fact, that Elderkin and Berthound recently wrote a book on bibliotherapy called The Novel Cure. (Bibliotherapists, perhaps unsurprisingly, like puns).

The duo doesn’t see the sort of difficult patients that social workers like Reiter must contend with in their practice; clients of the School of Life’s bibliotherapy program are willing to be helped, and happy to pay the 130-odd dollars that Elderkin and Berthound charge for each consultation. Emily Hunt, a London-dwelling American expat, got in touch with the School of Life when she decided to take advantage of unused vacation days, and had some time on her hands to work through a personalized list of reading recommendations. Because Hunt is having a difficult time adjusting to life across the pond, Berthound recommended—among other things—several novels that are steeped in a rich and vibrant London. “The way that she was essentially prescribing books to either further my thinking or fill a gap in my thinking, or, honestly, to entertain or distract, was pretty spot on for what I was looking for,” Hunt said. “It was really helpful”

While Berthound continues to work from London, Elderkin is now based in New Haven, Connecticut. Her method of counseling is relatively simple; she asks her clients—either by e-mail, or phone, or in-person—about books they have loved, books they have hated, issues they are facing, and what they hope to get out of the therapy session. Then she will write up her “prescription,” as she calls it: a list of books that will teach her clients a lesson, that will inspire them to make a change in their life, that will help them feel less alone. Her approach can get a little cutesy; Elderkin refers to her online consultation forum as a “surgery,” and to books as “remedies.” The Novel Cure even goes so far as to provide recommendations for ailments like constipation, suggesting that those afflicted turn to Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts(“Read it for its lovely list of soft fruits that may loosen your small intestines like a lexical laxative.”)

But many of Elderkin’s private consultations are no joking matter. For grief-stricken parents, she has recommended The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion, and To the Wedding by John Berger, both of which deal with the death of a loved one. She has suggested that clients overcome with apathy read James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice because “it has a really lovely, rousing rhythm … and it just ups the energy in your body.” Somewhat surprisingly, her prescription for those suffering from depression is a dose of gloomy novels like The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. “We spoke to a lot of people with serious depression, and they said that when it’s really bad, you need books that show it like it is, that don’t jolly you out of it.”

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On a warm day in early May, five girls sat at desks that had been squished into a semi-circle in a math classroom on the sixth floor of the Casita Maria Center for Arts and Education. The tinkling music of an ice cream truck trickled in through open windows, and the late-afternoon sun splashed across colorful posters that broke down the steps of solving a quadratic function. But for now, math wasn’t on the agenda. Instead, the girls had gathered together to read poems under the guidance of the school’s literacy coordinator, Erienne Rojas.

The Casita Maria Center is a middle and high school in the South Bronx that places special emphasis on the arts. It is a colorful, vibrant place; students laugh as they lean against the bright yellow doors of the school, they toss balls around in the gym, they give their teachers hugs. But like any school where adolescents and teenagers roam the halls, Casita Maria has had its fair share of problems.

Teachers and administrators have been worrying for some time that many of the pre-teen girls seem confused by the physiological changes that are taking over their bodies. There are issues of bullying, low self-esteem, and fighting within and between different cliques. Some of the girls have started self-mutilating. One way that the school is trying to combat these problems is through a “girl empowerment workshop” for twelve and thirteen year olds, which uses poetry to help students identify and validate their emotions, thoughts, and fears.

Rojas, who is one of Sherry Reiter’s students, is the creator and facilitator of the workshop.  “I want the kids to experiment with poetry in a different way that they’re not used to, which is on a personal level,” she said. “I feel poetry reflects their stream of consciousness. They’re reading fiction and mostly informational texts with the curriculum. It’s that block passage that just shuts them out, they lose interest. Poetry is sparse.”

Erienne Rojas

Erienne Rojas

Every week, Rojas picks one poem that relates to a specific topic: puberty, stress, friends, academics, parental conflict. She will have the girls read the poem, talk about its main tropes, and identify phrases that speak to them. The workshop is not a counseling session; the therapeutic aspect lies in the identification of emotions that are difficult for the girls to express. “They don’t really know how to talk about themselves,” Rojas explained. “For me, the biggest goal here is self-awareness: get them to the point where they are aware what’s going on emotionally, socially, and physically as well.”

The topic of the first workshop in May was “transition,” specifically the transition from childhood to adolescence. Rojas handed out copies of a poem called “Hanging Fire” by Audre Lorde, which is told from the perspective of a fourteen-year-old girl:

I am fourteen

and my skin has betrayed me   

the boy I cannot live without   

still sucks his thumb

in secret

how come my knees are

always so ashy

what if I die

before morning

and momma’s in the bedroom  

with the door closed.

“In this poem, we have to ask the question: does the speaker really mean what she says?” Rojas told the students. “Is her mom really behind a door? Or is it that people just don’t understand her so she feels like the door is closed?”

“I thought maybe her mom won’t be able to see what’s happening to her,” said one of the students, a tall girl named Maria.

“Excellent point,” Rojas said with a nod. “Sometimes people can’t see outside of themselves, right? Maybe mom is there, but doesn’t see you, that you’re changing. How many of us can relate to that?”

All of the students raised their hands.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the speaker’s faltering self-esteem was an issue that resonated with the group. As the girls combed through the stanzas of the poem, noting the speaker’s discomfort with her ashy knees and changing skin, they began to open up about the challenges they are facing as their bodies change and their relationships become more complex. They expressed concerns about getting braces. They spoke about the insecurity they feel when other girls in the school tell them they aren’t pretty. One student, Amelia, told the group that she had wanted to try out for a talent show, but had been discouraged from doing so by a cousin. “She laughed at me,” Amelia said. “She was like, ‘You’re not going to be able to do that.’ She put me down, so that’s why I didn’t do it.”

Before she dismissed the group, Rojas asked the girls if they enjoyed reading “Hanging Fire.” “I felt like it spoke to me,” said a student named Jessica. “I could relate to it in a lot of different ways. There are some other poems, where I can read it, and I can see how someone might feel. Maybe I can take into consideration their feelings sometimes.” Another student noted that reading poetry makes her feel “relieved” because the poems that Rojas has given them “relate to people.”

And really, that’s all Rojas wants: to help her students feel a little less confused and a little less alone during a difficult time in their lives. She watched with a smile as the girls skipped out of the classroom, chatting with one another as they headed into the warm, spring sun, each one holding a poem in her hand.

The Best Niche Bookstores in NYC

It’s hard to image that someone might roam the sprawling stacks of Barnes and Nobel, or The Strand, or BookCourt and think, “Nope, nothing to read here.” But for diehard mystery fans looking for the latest Scandinavian detective novels, or sci-fi buffs on the hunt for vintage pulps, large, general interest bookshops don’t always do the trick. Enter the niche bookstore: small, indie shops that cater to the very specific interests of very specific subsets of the literary community. There are plenty of these little guys sprinkled throughout the city; here are five of the best that New York has to offer.

SINGULARITY & CO.

DUMBO

The Scoop: Like any nerd bookstore worth its salt, Singularity & Co. stocks staples like Dune, The Lord of the Rings, and Harry Potter. But the shop’s main focus is vintage and out-of-print sci-fi, fantasy, and pulp. Stacked neatly between steampunk-y tchotches and light-saber-wielding Mr. Potato heads are second-hand paperbacks from decades past, written by the likes of A.B. Guthrie and Henry Kuttner. Singularity & Co. also boasts an impressive selection of yellow-spine DAW Books and an entire section devoted to sci-fi smut (which, in case you were wondering, consists of books with epic titles like
Moorcock
and The King of the Sword).

Typical customer: “Everyone from hipster kids from Williamsburg to a family from the Upper West Side,” says Ashley Marie,one of the shop’s sales clerks. “They’re looking for rare stuff that’s out of print, something that they read in their childhood.”

Staff pick: Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age: Or, A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer. Marie says that after reading this novel, which is set in a highly stratified, highly technologized society of the future, she realized that not all sci-fi is “nerdy robot shit.”

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THE MYSTERIOUS BOOKSHOP

TriBeCa

The Scoop:  The Mysterious Bookshop is a paradise for lovers of detective fiction, but the store’s lush interior would make any IMG_0108 bibliophile drool. Three walls of the shop are lined top to bottom with beautiful mahogany bookcases, which customers can
navigate with the help of a rolling ladder. Said bookcases are packed with mysteries, crime fiction, and noir by both mainstream American authors (Grisham, Patterson, Evanovich) and lesser-known writers from around the globe (think Henning Mankell and Arnaldur Indridason). The entire back wall of the shop is dedicated to Sherlockiana, which ranges in scope from a 19th century edition of A Study in Scarlet to more, erm, contemporary titles, such as Benedict Cumberbatch in Transition. The crown jewel of the shop’s merchandise is a $10,000, first edition copy of The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett.

Typical customer:  “Very well-read in the field,” says Steven Viola, the shop’s bookseller. “They’re looking for more serious writers, stuff you’re not going to find in the average bookstore or airport.”

Staff pick: Voices by Arnaldur Indridason, in which an Icelandic detective investigates the unfortunate demise of a hotel Santa.

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JUMEL TERRACE BOOKS

Sugar Hill

The Scoop: Jumel Terrace Books is located across from the Morris-Jumel Mansion, in the heart of a neighborhood that was once a central hub of the Harlem Renaissance. The shop is housed in the basement of a creaky, three-story brownstone owned by Kurt Thometz, a private librarian and fashion retailer with a keen interest in local African American history. Thometz curates the shop’s books himself, which are organized according to subject: African folklore, colonialism, slavery, civil rights, jazz, dance, blaxploitation, street literature, and so on. So while the bookstore takes up just one tiny room of Thometz’s basement, its shelves contain everything from first-hand slave narratives to a bibliography on pimping. Select visitors to Jumel Terrace Books are graced with the affections of the shop’s resident cat, His Orangeness.

Typical customer: “There’s hardly a customer that comes in here,” Thometz says. “The store is for the community that I live in. They have no local history collection.”

Staff pick: Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, which, according to Thometz, is “arguably the most important novel by anyone in the second half of the 20th century.”

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BERL’S BROOKLYN POETRY SHOP

DUMBO

The Scoop: Since Berl’s Brooklyn Poetry Shop opened its doors in September, the store has played host to dozens of poetry readings and several art exhibits. With its large, sun-kissed storefront, Berl’s makes for a perfect event space and gallery, but the space was actually designed to showcase the small-press, poetry chapbooks that make up the bulk of Berl’s inventory. These vibrantly colored and intricately designed chapbooks are displayed in rows on long tables, and arranged neatly on sparse, wooden shelves. Most of the shop’s books are by American poets, and much of their work is experimental; among Berl’s collection are poetry comic books by Bianca Stone, and a “visual translation” of the Odyssey by Polly Duff Bresnik.

Typical customer: Poets. “They’ll be the ones who will stay for a while, pulling out boxes, and finding the most obscure things that we have,” says Jared White, who co-founded Berl’s with his wife, Farrah. Neighborhood locals stop by the shop pretty frequently too, as do European tourists. “They’re always really tuned into poetry,” White says of customers from abroad. “It’s exciting”

Staff pick: Heather Tone’s Gestures, a chapbook that contains a series of onelet lines exploring human movement and expression.


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DRAMA BOOKSHOP INC.

Midtown

IMG_0181 The Scoop: The Drama Bookshop Inc. is an oasis of calm amidst the loud, flashy rush of the city’s Theatre District. Plush chairs are crammed into little nooks throughout the low-ceilinged shop, so customers can kick up their feet and read through Hamlet, or A Doll’s House, or whatever it is that suits their dramatic sensibilities. The Drama Bookshop is packed with more plays and monologues than any other bookstore in the city, selling just about everything from Sophocles to Stoppard, Beaumarchais to Beckett. The shop also boasts a large selection of works by lesser-known, contemporary playwrights (such as Completeness by Itamar Moses, and the much goofier William Shakespeare’s Star Wars by Ian Doescher), along with a slew of guides on acting, directing, scene writing, and set and costume design.

Typical customer: “Acting students or theatre students,” says Stu Brynien, who has worked at the shop for fifteen years. “And lots of professionals—teachers, who are looking for stuff for their students.”

Staff pick: The Pavillion by Craig Wright, which, according to Brynien, is a contemporary drama “about first love and second chances.”

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On the occult, books, and the senses

“You want to ask about the penis candles now?”

Phillip English is sitting against the blood-red, back wall of Catland, an occult bookstore in Bushwick. He is partially obscured by a stack of vibrantly colored, limited edition books that have just arrived in a shipment from England.

“Not really,” I reply.

“OK, good.”

English, who is one of Catland’s three co-owners, is used to answering questions about the shop’s phallic paraphernalia. Most articles about Catland—of which there have been many since the store opened its doors last February—make at least passing mention of it, although Catland’s in-house tarot reader and midnight cleansing rituals have been stirring up a fair bit of buzz too. And thanks to a surprisingly zesty Internet debate over whether the folks at Catland should be seen as witches or hipsters (apparently they can’t be both), English has recently been fielding inquiries about the shop’s role in the gentrification of Bushwick. But what he really wants to talk about are books, specifically the lovingly crafted texts that line Catland’s walls and crowd the wooden display tables that are packed into the store.

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“We’re book nerds, so the books are here because it’s important to us,” he says. “It’s important to our DNA to be selling the coolest books.”

The books at Catland are indeed very cool, and very diverse. Dozens of paperbacks are stacked neatly on shelves that run the length of the store, many of them instructive books geared towards newcomers to the occult world: Tarot 101, Divination For Beginners, Buckland’s Complete Book of Witchcraft. There is more specified, less accessible literature, too. The Book of the Law, for example, is a book of esoteric poetry that acts as the central text of Thelema, a modern magical religion that is the focus of much of English’s spiritual practice (he calls himself a “Thelemite”).

 Then there are the beautiful, limited edition books that Catland received in the aforementioned shipment from England, the latest offerings of a small British publishing house called Scarlet Imprint. English refers to these books as “talismanic texts,” because they are thought to possess a magic of their own, a magic that is drawn from the consideration and artistry that goes into the books’ production. “There’s the belief that these books carry power that’s beyond the texts themselves,” English explains. He pauses for a moment. “And they look cool.”

English starts shifting through the stack of new Scarlet Imprint books, which are piled high on a display case at the back of the shop. “We got one I’m really excited about,” he said. “The St. Cyprian.”

Fred Jennings, another of Catland’s co-owners, pops out from the dusky event space that is connected to the shop. “The St. Cyprian?” he asks. “I want to put my mouth on it. Where is it?”

“Please don’t,” English says, as he unearths a midnight blue hard cover sprinkled with golden stars. It is called The Testament of Cyprian the Mage, and it explores the history of traditions associated with St. Cyprian of Antioch, a sorcerer who converted to Christianity but—according to legend—continued to write magical texts while he was serving as a Catholic bishop.

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“The color is chosen, the symbolism is chosen specifically dedicated to the subject matter,” English explains, running his fingers over the book’s dust jacket. St. Cyprian is associated with both lunar magic and the color indigo; because the cover of The Testament of Cyprian the Mage echoes these attributes, it can be used in rituals devoted to the saint. In fact, English recently placed the book on an altar that he is building to the spirit of Saint Cyprian.

“I’m putting nice things on it that are resonant with his vibe,” he explains. “This is part of focusing in that type of ritualistic magic.”

Next, English shows me two new Scarlet Imprint hard covers bound in shimmering silks, the first one red, the second black. The books are companion volumes devoted to Pumba Gira and Exu, spirits of an Afro-Brazilian tradition called Quimbanda. These are pragmatic texts, rife with instructions for various spells and incantations (one spell in the Pumba Gira book promises “to break a couple or make a couple”; among the required ingredients for the rite are popcorn and cigars). But according to English, the books themselves can be considered talismans and incorporated into rituals, just like The Testament of Cyprian the Mage.

“Pumba Gira is very much fire, and women’s sexuality and carnality,” he says, picking up the red volume. “Even in her rites, there are a lot of offerings and red dresses. This book is instruction, but it’s also meant to have spirit in it … The binding itself is within the nature of Pumba Gira.”

He places his hand on the black volume. “Similarly, we have Exu. Exu is dark, male carnality and vice, amongst other things.”

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The talismanic nature of occult literature doesn’t only derive from the beauty of a given book. Sometimes, occult publishing houses will print only a specific number of books because that number is sacred to the spirit or deity that is the subject of the text. One of the texts that arrived in Catland’s new shipment is a lushly bound book called Howlings, a turquoise hardcover stamped with an intricate, gilded pattern of interlocking pentagons and diamonds. Howlings deals specifically with diabolical spirits, so Scarlet Imprint produced exactly 666 copies.

Occult revivals that are bubbling up in Brooklyn and in other pockets across the country have ushered in something of a Golden Age for small-press, metaphysical publishing houses. “That’s sort of the new wave of occult books: a re-evaluation of occult book as tome, and as talisman.” English tells me. “Occultists or magicians, they tend to be collectors … They can appreciate the sort of art and magic that went into the work itself.” Which isn’t to say that all members of the occult community buy into the idea of book-as-talisman. Phil Hine, a British occultist who has written several books on a practice called Chaos Magic, is among the witches and magicians who have questioned the value of ornately bound hard covers to magical rites. “Generally, I buy books because of the content,” he writes on his blog. “Presentation is a secondary consideration.”

Books like Howlings or the Testament of St. Cyprian the Mage are expensive, too. A small-press text can run anywhere from $45-$80, and some of the shop’s more elusive books are sold for several hundred dollars. But English is quick to suggest that any book can be considered “talismanic,” as long as it is special to the person who owns it (“You can have non-religious people who are like, ‘This is the copy of Dostoyevsky that I have, and it’s important to me.’”). In his eyes, and in the eyes of the customers who come to Catland looking for thoughtfully-crafted texts, beautiful books simply add another dimension to rituals that are already preoccupied with engaging the senses through color, incense, dance, and song.

“Magic ritual is a sensual experience,” English says. “There’s something to be said about books having a smell, and touch, and feeling that the Kindle won’t have. For me, if I’m doing ritual, I want to feel like a wizard.”

Totally rad: an interview with Jenna Freedman, activist librarian

Pinned above Jenna Freedman’s desk is bright red sticker stamped with the words “Library Punk.” It’s a pretty apt description of Freedman, who is the zine librarian at Barnard College’s Lehman Library and seems to have zero qualms when it comes to shattering expectations and shaking up the status quo. She has blue and purple hair, for the most part refuses to read books by men, and spends her free time petitioning the Library of Congress to make its subject headings more accessible to the average user. Freedman, 47, is also the co-founder of Radical Reference, an association of activist library workers who refer to themselves as “radical librarians.”

Jenna Freedman, in front of Barnard's zine collection.

Jenna Freedman, in front of Barnard’s zine collection.

 BK: Your father was a librarian. As a kid, did you dream of following in his footsteps?

JF: No, I resisted. I worked in theater for a long time after undergrad, and at one point, I was like, “This is so stupid.” In theater, everything was urgent and nothing mattered. I felt like in librarianship, everything mattered, but nothing was urgent.

BK: What makes a radical librarian different from a regular librarian?

JF: It’s just who we’re serving, and maybe our own personal politics. Radical Reference recently conducted a workshop called “Know Your Dossier: FBI Files and FOIA Requests” in Brooklyn. There wasn’t anything inherently radical about it. The population we were serving were radicals, who have a certain expectation of privacy, and need to process why you would or should request your file in a different way than Joe Schmoe … or José Schmosé. Through the years, we’ve really become champions of two things: privacy and openness. Privacy for our patrons, but openness of information.

BK: Is that why Radical Reference’s first project involved handing out information to activists and journalists at the 2004 Republican National Convention?

JF: Yeah. We had what we called “Ready Reference Kits.” In the kit, we had a schedule of events, where all the delegates were staying, the jail phone number, information about the Patriot Act, and all sorts of stuff like that.

BK: Let’s say somebody wrote to you and said, “I’m an anti-gay marriage activist and I need help finding sources to support my position.” Would you help them?

JF: Generally, librarians really like to help, and we really like people to know that we know things. So it’s very hard for us not to respond to an information request. We would probably answer that in a way that involves some critical thinking. To answer a question like that, the sources might be some weird, not reality-based, Fox-newish kind of resources that I wouldn’t find particularly credible myself. It was important to all of us to deal with sources that were credible.

BK: You’re the zine librarian here at Barnard. What do you like about zines, and why do you think it’s important to preserve them in a library setting?

JF: Zines are the ultimate embodiment of the personal as political. I have learned so much about race, and gender, transgender, all sorts of things, through reading zines. I think it’s important to include zines in the library because for one, it’s people controlling their own content and style. In most libraries, you aren’t going to find the voices that are represented in our zine collection in anything but case studies, which is a completely different way of presenting a person. It’s also people with radical points of view. Zines come out of an anarcho-punk sensibility.

BK: Your Tumblr blog, The Lower East Side Librarian, contains plenty of zine and activist content, but you also post a lot of stuff about cats.

JF: Yeah, I know, I friggin’ love cats so much, and I love my cats so much. It’s just … There’s a certain kind of crazy cat lady that I’m happy to be, but people have started giving me cat socks, and cat mugs, and cat shirts, and I sort of feel like that’s not OK.

BK: Do you think cats are kind of similar to librarians, in that they’re smart, quiet, and really good at giving the stink eye?

JF: Ooooh, I like that. Although I think librarians are a lot more other-centric than cats. We’re probably much more like dogs, because we’ll chase after you with another book if we think you need it.

BK: You make your own zines, one of which is called Lower East Side Librarian and Friends Menstruating: Librarians and Archivists Keep the Information Flowing. Is the zine purely tongue and cheek, or does it explore a connection between women and librarianship?

JF: Oh, there’s no connection between librarianship and women. It was not an intellectual exercise. I just really like to talk about my period.

BK: Why is that?

JF: I don’t know! Don’t you find your cycle interesting?

BK: Yes?

JF: I totally do.

BK: A group of former students recently filmed a feminist pornography in Columbia’s Butler Library. Should sex in libraries always be restricted to the pages of books, or can exceptions be made for activist projects?

JF: Well, I just really hope they cleaned up after themselves.  I think it’s really labor-hostile if they left all those eggs and stuff on the ground.

Is a New York start-up bringing back the literary salon?

A recently launched start-up called Book the Writer is connecting notable authors with reading groups in Manhattan and Brooklyn, promising book clubbers a literary experience that is “truly special and utterly memorable.” The cost of Book the Writer’s services is pretty memorable too. Julie Bosman of the New York Times reports that a small Upper West Side book club recently shelled out $750 to entice Alexandra Styron (as in, the daughter of William Styron) to their group, where she spoke about her memoir, Reading My Father. More than sixty authors – including Pulitzer Prize winners Michael Cunningham and Sheri Fink – have agreed to participate in the venture. For each book club appearance, writers score $400 (the rest of the $750 goes to the venture), and an opportunity to promote their latest work among the city’s bibliophiles.

Now, there isn’t anything wrong with authors cashing in on publicity appearances. As Bosman mentions in her Times piece, publishing houses often make writers Skype into book clubs without compensating them for their time, which doesn’t seem particularly reasonable or fair. But there’s something slightly off-putting about Book the Writer, perhaps because it promotes a rather blatantly elitist version of the modern-day reading group. Should the venture take off, it may very well prove to be the start of an interesting, retrograde shift in the evolution of the book club.

Today’s book lovers have hundreds of reading groups at their fingertips, maybe even thousands, now that book clubs are starting to shift to online forums. While a lot of these clubs focus on relatively highbrow stuff — literary classics, award-winning novels, political biographies, what have you — there are just as many groups devoted to literature that will never see a Pulitzer Prize. Or any prize, for that matter. In Manhattan alone,  readers can get together and chat about chick lit, “smutty books” (chick lit, plus bondage), YA novels, and horror fiction. There are oodles of fantasy and sci-fi reading groups too, for those who are in the know about the goings-on of Middle-earth and Winterfell. Which is to say that book clubs have become wonderfully democratic institutions, catering to a wide range of interests and open to anyone with the ability to read and the inclination to discuss their favourite  genre.

But that wasn’t always the case. In the 1700s, before literacy began to permeate class boundaries, the literary “salon” was the exclusive purview of the social upper crust (and usually dominated by women). Discussion in these salons tended to concentrate on broad literary concepts rather than a single book, and notable intellectuals were invited to preside over the conversation in order to bolster the prestige of the gathering. Smaller reading groups that focused on specific works of literature began to crop up in the 19th century, and membership was often restricted to women of leisure who had inherited a spot in the group. The ancestor of the modern book club was, in other words, quite the marker of wealth and status.

Fast forward 200 years, and Book the Writer seems to be encouraging a return to the aristocratic reading group of the Victorian era; the venture offers wealthy New Yorkers the opportunity to host literary gatherings that are graced by the presence of well-known authors, whose company is acquired for a price that most readers can’t afford. And New York is the perfect place for this trend to take off; as Bosman puts it, the city “has a glut of … devoted readers, many of them with unusually deep pockets.” As for the rest of us … well, we can be grateful for our author-free book clubs, which at the very least are conducive to spirited reader discussion. After all, you can’t trash a book’s plot trajectory if its author is sitting within earshot, snacking on the same platter of cheese and crackers. And if you happen to have particularly strong feelings about Fifty Shades of Grey or A Game of Thrones, here are links to some of the groups that I refer to in this post:

Chick Lit Book Club: http://www.meetup.com/bookclub-1243/

Smutty Book Club: http://www.meetup.com/Smutty-Book-Club/

NYC Fantasy and Sci-Fi Book Club: http://www.meetup.com/fsfbookclub/

Forever Young Adult book club: http://foreveryoungadult.com/fya-book-club-locations

Arkham Horror Book Club: http://nerdnyc.com/phpBB3/viewtopic.php?f=3&t=54512

Happy Clubbing!

Holmes Is Where the Heart Is: The Sherlockians of NYC

Susan Rice is an expert on the post-retirement pursuits of a man who never existed.

In “His Last Bow,” one of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s last stories about Sherlock Holmes, the great detective withdraws from a life of deducing and sleuthing in London to keep bees on a small farm in the English countryside. The detective’s beekeeping exploits have become a scholarly obsession for Rice, who is a leading member of the Adventuresses of Sherlock Holmes, a New York-based, co-educational literary society devoted to Conan Doyle’s detective fiction.

“Part of my Sherlockian expertise is on beekeeping, because Holmes retired to be a beekeeper,” says Rice, who is sixty-five and a former wholesale travel representative. She rolls up her sleeve and shows me a bracelet that is made of interlocking pendants, each one shaped like a bee. “I’ve written a book, and a lot of articles, and given presentations on this topic.”

It is the first Wednesday of October. Rice and I are sitting at a long, chestnut table on the top floor of a pub in Midtown Manhattan. The Adventuresses of Sherlock Holmes, also known as ASH, are hosting one of their monthly meet-ups, which members of the group affectionately call “ASH Wednesdays.” Twice a year, in the spring and in the fall, ASH hosts formal events that adhere to a packed schedule of lectures, discussions, and toasts to obscure characters. But tonight, the atmosphere is fluid and relaxed. ASH Wednesdays are simply an opportunity for the Sherlockians of New York City to eat, drink, and schmooze.

 As members of ASH trickle into the pub and order their dinners, I turn to the young woman who has settled into a chair next to mine. Her name is Tiffany Knight, and she is a twenty-five year old theatre actress. She tells me that she likes coming to the ASH Wednesday meet-ups because they are “a good way of meeting other Sherlockians.”

“What makes someone a Sherlockian?” I ask.

Knight blinks hard, revealing swaths of sparkly purple eye shadow. “I think as long as you have a real love of Sherlock Holmes, in whatever incarnation, I think that could make you a Sherlockian.”

Evelyn and John

Evelyn and John

The men and women who turn up at the pub for the ASH Wednesday dinner certainly do have a real love of Sherlock Holmes, although even that may be something of an understatement. These are not one-time readers of The Hounds of the Baskerville, or swooning fan girls who don’t realize that Sherlock Holmes existed before Benedict Cumberbatch came to the BBC. (Although it is not entirely relevant, I would like to point out that the actor’s legions of female admirers refer to themselves as “ Cumberbitches”). The Sherlockians at the ASH dinner are relentlessly passionate about Conan Doyle’s detective fiction. Throughout the evening, I hear the group describe the Sherlock Holmes stories in terminology that verges on devout; the complete set of Conan Doyle’s works is the “The Canon,” Holmes and Watson are “The Masters,” and to trips to Holmes’ address on Baker Street are nothing less than “pilgrimages.”

Were it not for their common love of Sherlock Holmes, the assembled crowd of Sherlockians would be an unlikely group of friends. Some are in their twenties, others are middle aged, and still others are well into their retirement. The Sherlockians also boast a remarkably diverse range of occupations; two actors, a chemist, a computer programmer, a publisher, a police officer, a former Wall Street  financier, and a retired lawyer are among the twenty-odd men and women who have come to the pub for the ASH Wednesday dinner.

Also present at the event is Evelyn Herzog, who claims the honor of being the “Principle Unprincipled Adventuress” of ASH. She and a group of female friends founded the Adventuresses of Sherlock Holmes in the 1960s, while they were students at Albert Magnus College. Herzog had loved Conan Doyle’s detective stories since she was a child, and while reading a fictional biography of Sherlock Holmes by the scholar William S. Bering Gould, she learned about the existence of formal organizations of Sherlock Holmes fans.

“I about lost my mind,” says Herzog, who is sixty-five and a retired legal secretary. “I was in high school, so there was certainly no question of my going anywhere and finding them, but I was able to subscribe to the Baker Street Journal right away.”

The Baker Street Journal is the official publication of The Baker Street Irregulars, also known as the BSI. Founded in New York City in 1934, the Baker Street Irregulars remains the preeminent Sherlockian society to this day. But the Irregulars can be a shadowy, exclusive bunch. They meet once a year, in January, to celebrate the detective’s birthday. Membership to the group is by invitation only, and comes if and when an established Sherlockian is vouched for by a an existing BSI member, whom the Sherlockians refer to as a “godfather.” And back when Evelyn Herzog began to dip her toes into the world of Sherlock Holmes fandom, the Irregulars did not allow women to join the society.

“It was kind of sad that there were few groups that we would have entry to, and that we could never hope to attain membership to the Baker Street Irregulars,” Herzog says, recalling the early days of the Adventuresses of Sherlock Holmes. “In 1968, in January, we picketed the BSI dinner. Somehow we felt if we only brought it to their attention that they were doing what was wrong, they would change their minds and do what was right.”

It took twenty-three years and the death of a leading Irregular for the BSI to open its doors to female Sherlockians. In the meantime, Herzog met her husband while protesting at an all-male Sherlock Holmes society in Philadelphia, and the Adventuresses of Sherlock Holmes became a popular New York “scion” (as the Sherlockians prefer their groups to be called). Women were finally invested into the BSI in 1991, and that same year, the first men officially joined the Adventuresses of Sherlock Holmes (or, in the words of the scion’s website, were “allowed to make an ASH of themselves”).

 The gender tensions among the Sherlockian groups of America may have dissipated, but an uncomfortable truth about the character of Sherlock Holmes still remains: the great detective does not usually hold women in particularly high regard. “The motives of women are so inscrutable,” complains Holmes in “The Adventure of the Second Stain. “Their most trivial action may mean volumes, or their most extraordinary conduct may depend upon a hairpin or a curling-tongs.”

That kind of statement makes Holmes an odd hero for ASH, a literary society that was once comprised entirely of women. Actually, Holmes is a pretty strange hero for any literary group to latch onto. If Conan Doyle’s stories had been written in recent times, Holmes in all likelihood would have been slapped with some sort of diagnosis. (Psychology Today once ran an article titled “Does Sherlock Holmes have Asperger Syndrome?”). The character is beyond brilliant, but he is curmudgeonly, socially obtuse, and a hopeless drug addict. As Watson writes in “A Scandal in Bohemia”: “Holmes, who loathed every form of society … remained in our lodgings in Baker Street, alternating from week to week between cocaine and ambition”

But Holmes’ humanity in the face of his genius seems to be precisely what makes him so appealing to leagues of Sherlockians.

“He’s better than us, but also incredibly flawed,” explains Kelsey Hercs, a twenty-four year old sales representative, who also dabbles in theatre. “So we can see ourselves in him. I like that he almost has a magic power, but is not magical at all. My favourite thing is when he’s able to deduce a lot of things about people instantly… I love the mysteries too, but that moment is just the best.”

The Sherlockians seated around Hercs nod in agreement, and then begin to chat about their favorite Sherlock Holmes villain. Conan Doyle’s stories are certainly the topic of many discussions that I overhear during ASH dinner, but I also catch snippets of conversations about such diverse topics as George Harrison, pasteurization, and the HBO series Girls. At one point, a Sherlockian named Nick Martorelli stands up and announces that he has been offered a new job at Random House. The other Sherlockians cheer and raise a toast to his success.

With its informal structure and lack of required readings (there are quizzes at other Sherlockian events), the ASH Wednesday meet-up is clearly an opportunity for a group of friends with a common interest to get together and catch up. Yet John Baesch, who is married to Evelyn Herzog (the one and only Principle Unprincipled Adventuress of ASH), explains that the function of all Sherlockian scions is as much social as it is intellectual.

“What generally happens is you start off enjoying the Sherlock Holmes stories,” he says, and then drops his voice to a theatrical rumble. “Then there comes this blinding moment … when you are confronted with the evidence and the reality that there are others. You are not alone. And these others each have their own story and each bring an awful lot with them … It all starts with Sherlock Holmes, but it’s about the people, the people, the people.”

For Sherlockians looking to find other devotees of Holmes, Watson and Co., New York is definitely the place to be. There are over one thousand Sherlock Holmes societies in America, but New York has become the epicenter of Sherlockian culture in the United States. New York City is, of course, home to the Baker Street Irregulars, that pillar of all Sherlockian scions. Manhattan boasts the Adventuresses of Sherlock Holmes and a recently revived group called the Priory Scholars. Then there are The Montague Street Lodgers in Brooklyn, The Three Garridebs in Westchester, The Altamont’s Agents in Albany, and many more societies sprinkled across the state.

Christopher Zordan, who is forty-three and works as a pharmaceutical chemist, tells me that after he received his graduate degree from the University of Delaware, he decided to take a job in New Jersey so he could be close to all the Sherlockian goings-on in New York.

 “I schedule a large portion of my calendar around these events,” he tells me. “I had known about BSI and the scion societies for a long, long time. When I finished grad school, one of the opportunities I had was to move closer to New York and start participating actively in this world … This is something that really sparks your fancy at some point – being able to meet people who have that same passion.”

 I ask him which Sherlockian meeting I should check out next.

“The next one you should check out is all of them,” he answers. “If nobody has told you, there’s a Sherlockian calendar online.”

New York has become a hub of Sherlockian activity, but the connection between New York and Conan Doyle’s fiction is not necessarily an intuitive one. The Sherlock Holmes stories are rooted firmly in Victorian London; the narratives are rife with depictions of swirling London fogs and narrow streets, with the drudgery and the beauty of the city. “Outside, the stars were shining coldly in a cloudless sky, and the breath of the passers-by blew out into smoke like so many pistol shots, writes Watson in “The Blue Carbuncle.” Our footfalls rang out crisply and loudly as we swung through the doctors’ quarter, Wimpole Street, Harley Street, and so through Wigmore Street into Oxford Street.”

 According to Jeanne Thelwell, a retired lawyer who joined ASH in 1978, it is precisely the vividness of Conan Doyle’s writing that makes it possible for the Sherlockians of New York to transport themselves into the world of their literary hero.

“You can smell London, you can hear it, when you read the stories,” she says. “Also, New York has its own bits and places and corners that you can kind of imagine yourself into – if you go to places like Keanes , with all the pipes and the smoke. There have always been these places you could go that felt like it was some hundred years ago.”

photo (3)

Christopher and Nick

 But there is more to Sherlockian culture in New York than the fact that it is not based in London. Because Sherlock Holmes fandom has taken off in the city in such a big way, these days, being a Sherlockian in New York means having access to an instant community of like-minded friends. And in this large, bustling city where it is so easy to feel lonely or overwhelmed, a good friend can be a very valuable thing.

“Imagine a city that’s this big and this confusing,” says Susan Rice, ASH’s resident expert on Holmes’ beekeeping endeavours. “This is where I found all of the people who were important to me.”

She points to her wife, Mickey Fromkin, who is sitting a few seats away from us. The couple was introduced in 1980 by a mutual friend, who is a member of the Baker Street Irregulars. When Rice and Fromkin got married several years ago, only fifteen of the one hundred and thirty guests at their wedding were not part of the Sherlockian community.

“Sherlockians get together and they are of every different everything you can imagine: age group, economic pattern, education level,” Rice tells me. “And whatever brings us all together is so much bigger than all those differences that Sherlockians become a sort of family.”

 As the ASH Wednesday dinner concludes, the Sherlockians pay their cheques and begin to say their goodbyes. This has been my first interaction with Sherlock Holmes super fans and it will probably turn out to be my last one, but I find myself feeling glad that I stumbled upon this tightly knit community. Somehow, the Sherlockians’ friendship lends a pleasant circularity to Conan Doyle’s fiction and the people who love it so very much, almost one hundred years later. After all, at the heart of the suspense and excitement that drives the Sherlock Holmes stories is the relationship of an eccentric detective and his dear friend, John Watson.