From the Spring 2015 Newsletter
In a 1916 Atlantic Monthly article, Samuel Crothers coined the term “bibliotherapy.” In 1970s America the use of books as therapy for prisoners became fashionable among rehabilitationists. Reading is always good, but researchers carried out few studies for outcomes. From the 1980s affective bibliotherapy caught on, especially among cognitive behavioralists, who based their practice mainly on the reading of moral fiction and self-help books with stories or models that could improve behavior among prisoners, the mentally ill, addicts, and others. In truth, the concept of reading for therapeutic behavioral modification reached back at least to the Middle Ages and even beyond.
A recent addition to Sealy Library’s Special Collections offers a prime example of bibliotherapy in early 19th century France. In 1819, French King Louis XVIII founded the Society for the Improvement of Prisoners. One of the Society’s first actions was to hold a competition for authors to write edifying fictional literature to distribute among prisoners. An anonymous donor provided 1000 francs as a prize for the winning novel. In 1821, the contest ended with a mere ten books passing the first cut. After further examination, only two novels were in competition: Antoine et Maurice (Paris, 1821) by Laurent de Jussieu (nephew of the famous French botanist) and Laurent, ou les Prisonniers by Jean-Marie Achard-James (Paris, 1821). Jussieu’s novel won the prize, perhaps because the protagonists in the novel were not already incarcerated, but received the light and reformed before their criminal behavior put them in prison. In Laurent, however, the protagonist was a convicted criminal and his moral actions while behind bars had an ameliorating effect on his imprisoned colleagues.
We were fortunate to obtain a first edition of Laurent, the only copy outside of France where one resides in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France and another in the Bibliothèque de Lyon. This most rare book once again showcases our international reputation for criminal justice materials.