(HOBAR) Open University History of Books and Reading Seminar

(HOBAR) Open University History of Books and Reading Seminar
17 February 2020, 5.30pm - 7.00pm
Room 243, Second Floor, Senate House, Malet Street, London WC1E 7HU
Paul Stenner (The Open University)
Hamlet in a Liminal Hotspot

Why might reading and mental health and/or wellbeing be intimately connected? If indeed they are connected, it would be rash to assume any simple explanation (it enhances mental flexibility? It detaches one from life’s immediate worries? It teaches perspective taking and boosts empathy? It provides catharsis for bottled up emotions?, etc). Browsing the Reading Experience Database, for instance, I find it reported that Samuel Johnson read Hamlet when 9 years old and, terrified by the ghost scene, ‘hurried up to the shop door that he might see folks about him’. Who knows what damage was done! Indeed, a tragedy like Hamlet poses an extreme case for anyone aiming to link reading with enhanced mental health. Why should a gut-wrenching tragedy featuring mass murder, betrayal and revenge, morbid reflection on death, suicide and florid insanity… enhance mental health? I will suggest that if and when a reading experience genuinely transforms a life, this is likely to relate to an alteration afforded by the book in the reader’s capacity for sense-making. The book, we might say, serves as a symbolic resource to guide and enhance – under unusual circumstances that are abstracted from daily life – the reader’s sense-making in a manner that is transferable back to their daily life. From this perspective we might surmise that certain books might become particularly ‘influential’ under conditions when sense-making is unusually challenged, and when new sense needs to be made (because existing modes of thought, imagination and feeling will no longer suffice). But the book, of course, must be written in a way that can rise to the challenge, and by an author who has relevant experience and talent. If Shakespeare’s Hamlet rises to this challenge, this may be because it precisely thematises the situation of a man facing a catastrophe which destroys his prior means of making sense of the world, and takes the reader/viewer through the liminal process that follows, staying – as it were – with the trouble. In making this case it is necessary to show how the play incites and acts upon the sense-making and affectivity of the reader. Here, the prior work of psychologists like Vygotsky and Winnicott may prove useful, especially since both were inspired by Hamlet.

Paul Stenner is Professor of Social Psychology at The Open University. His recent work has centered on affectivity and varieties of liminal experience. His most recent book is Liminality and experience: A transdisciplinary approach to the psychosocial (Palgrave, 2017). He is a fellow of the Academy for Social Sciences and Past President of the International Society for Theoretical Psychology.

Unless stated otherwise, all our events are free of charge and anyone interested in the topic is welcome to attend. Registration is required for all events. Please sign up using the booking form below.


IES Events
020 7862 8683