Speeches or words both separate and connect people at the gates of the possible alternative perspectives. In a genuine dialogue, all participants allow meanings to flow so that those involved in the dialogue are willing to give up their own absolute views and open their beliefs, judgments, and assumptions to emerging and shared meanings. To understand the meanings of the others, their speeches and words must be listened to (or read) thoroughly. How to openly receive the other without projecting one’s unconscious resistance on the other is the crucial question demanding empathic attention.

Dialogical and Monological Reading

As Orly Vaknin and Yafit Dunsky (2020) researched the way 20 female psychotherapists read David Grossman’s miniature novel from 2002, Her Body Knows, they noticed two different ways of reading, which they called monological and dialogical. Monological reading is monotonous and limited, for example, to the interpretation of a text and its characters or events from the unchanging truth perspective that is stereotypical and roughly divisive into good and evil. Dialogical reading leaves the text open to different subjective perspectives on interpretation, making the readers aware of the relativity of their chosen perspective and the fictional characters’ ambiguity, motives, and actions without trying to find the “culprit.” The dialogical reader is curious to recognize the otherness of the text and its characters. They try to understand the various motives for action so that human contradictions and problems are not assumed to have simple solutions but are seen as having multidimensional possible solutions that still contain something enigmatic and undecidable. However, the monological reader objectifies his or her own reading experience while simultaneously coloring the text with his or her own truth fantasies and defense mechanisms, which can range from repression to black-and-white splitting, from idealization to devaluation, and from projection to rationalization.

Dialogical reading is not without defenses or transferences, but the attitude toward human life and its contradictions is more conscious, insightful, and accepting. Transfers from the past are

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more creative than monological reading. Vaknin and Dunsky (2020) state that such an attitude is essential in the work of psychotherapists where all parties in the relationship network must be taken equally into account so that the therapeutic and dialogical process can proceed favorably, and the perspectives can change in the direction of multifaceted understanding and empathy. If the training of the psychotherapists were further promoted in literary and other artistic expressions, empathy, playful imagination, mentalization, and awareness skills could also play a more decisive role in the professional and personal development of the psychotherapists. In this case, the psychotherapist’s involvement and witnessing in a situation of human expression would prove to be open to all kinds of life stories and their interpretations.

I claim that the same training attitude as the one suitable for dialogically engaging the psychotherapists and the other nursing staff applies to the psychohistorians and their training as well to enhance their literary, artful, playful, empathic, and creative explorations of historical motivations. Art or book objects, like the research objects of the psychohistorians, are not static objects but moving transformative and transference-based self-objects (objects not experienced as independent and separate from the self) on different forums. They become enacted and re-enacted via emergent, immersive, shared, and transformative readings. Reading consists of participating in the transitional experience of being, in the moments of meeting between the conscious and the unconscious realms. Psychohistorical poetry, as practiced, for instance, by Howard F. Stein and Peter Petschauer, is an apt example of the transference-sensitive and poetic-empathic approach to historical issues. Such poetry trusts that “There must be some redeeming value / In trying, even if no word is enough. / The unspeakable must be spoken” so that a poet’s voice “Bears witness to the erasure / Of all meaning and hope” (Stein, 2015, p. 58). Being present in what has happened, poetry evokes autobiographical and embodied memories, extending beyond the verbal field to the web of visual, auditive, motor, and tactile perceptions.

Reading in Biblio/Poetry Therapy

I have been involved in biblio/poetry therapy where dialogical and co-reflective reading and writing with emotions and cognitions is central. In biblio/poetry therapy, both the participants and the facilitator or the therapist approach each other imaginatively. Writers can also test their readers’ reading skills on many levels of

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intentions and push them outside their “comfort zone.” By reading outside of such an area, the readers can recognize and closely explore their own mental processes and mentalization skills as well as their possibilities and limitations. Fictional texts cannot exhaustively describe the world of experience in the reader’s mind. It is the porous and metaphorical nature of the texts that entice the readers to supplement the texts with the help of their active imagination. In this way, readers can expand their horizons of experience by challenging and testing their own comfort zones so that they can view the world in fresh and personally meaningful ways.

Reading proceeds with interpretive dialogues and symbolic meaning formation. Dialogical and interactive reading is an individual (intrapsychic), intersubjective, and social-cultural process in which meanings are always intertwined. In such reading, meanings, as well as different ways of perceiving, experiencing, and interpreting are shared and explored. By participating in reading and discussing together with others, one’s identities can be transformed; life histories, situations, and events can be seen and experienced differently in the light of others’ words, perspectives, and voices. Readers contextualize and re-read themselves, their experiential histories, and life stories connected with personal goals, projects, and action strategies.

The state of literature is not ready-made but a vortex of co-constructed arguments and counter-arguments, experiencing and otherwise experiencing, texts approaching each other and withdrawing from each other. Poetry therapy conversations lead to rereading and rewriting. Therapeutically transformative literary space manifests in the present but extends over the entire life span. The places of the mind and the memory of literature review and reposition nostalgia and refer to the dawns of the future. In terms of personal and cultural development, literature provides the readers with a new means of coping through transitions, fostering reflections and re-assessments that can be mentalized individually and collectively through discussions, dialogues, and negotiations between the readers. Literature helps keep others in one’s mind.

Dialogical reading includes the instantaneous merging of two or more reading waves, interference into a common wave, which in the continuous flow of reading can be uplifting or paralyzing, moving or stabilizing meanings (Ihanus, 1998). Shared reading experiences include going back to the past (retrospection, remembrance), reactions to the present, and orientation to the future.

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Shared words, as well as reflections and discussions, explore the textually-mentally constructed meanings that guide poetry therapy work. Words offer not only the analytical and intellectual communication of knowledge, but also the acceptance of the limits of our knowledge and the search for reciprocal sensitive, nurturing, and encouraging relationships, the mapping of the spectrum of human resources.

I have called “transformative” those transferences and countertransferences that enhance the surprise, creative tensions, and playful leaps—the excitement of the unknown amid the interactive flow of changing narratives and intertextual selves (Ihanus, 1998). Creative reading and writing searches curiously for unacknowledged and unsuspected fantasy realities, the “unthought known” (Bollas, 1987), not yet articulated but already anticipated, like in a dream or reverie: “what if…” The inflexibly defensive or ritualized ways of reading are tied to static transferences and countertransferences; they resist the intersubjective exchange of meanings and maintain a monological stalemate.

Logic-analytical reading rationally separates the object from the subject while emotionally toned and experiential reading follows the “bi-logic” of merging the object and the subject, according to which the mother is the child is the mother. Reflective reading bridges knowledge and emotion and moves the reader from the object position to self-observation and further toward the relatively autonomous subject position, as a change in the psychotherapy process has been described. Reading shifts back and forth between different positions, overlapping bound positions so that ambiguity and polyphony can enrich and transform settings that have been thought to be stable.

Reading and Emotions

The complex interactions between emotions and reading fiction have been examined in many studies. Even the choice of reading is influenced by assessments, attitudes, perceptions, and moods that anticipate possible emotions resulting from reading. When reading, fictional characters and situations evoke varying emotions that are modulated by reading and the personal memories associated with it. Emotions also affect how the reader evaluates and interprets their reading experiences and what the consequences of reading are for the reader’s later state of mind. If necessary, the reader can maintain an emotional distance from the text and regulate their pace of reading. For example, texts written by somebody

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else are, for the reader, primarily word objects, and secondarily, to a certain extent, self-objects to be attuned to. However, one’s own written texts, fictional or non-fictional, are primarily self-objects and secondarily word objects. The more intensive the sharing of one’s own texts becomes, for instance, in a poetry therapy process or any feedback situation, the more active the self-object proneness to narcissistic wounding but also joyous affirmation becomes. In this regard, texts as self-objects are realized in the continuous acts of transformative rereading and rewriting.

Emotions that arise in the reader of fiction have been called narrative emotions. Cognitive psychologist and author Keith Oatley (2004) has characterized five different narrative emotions and related psychological processes. The first narrative emotion is sympathy, which includes the need to help the fictional character and the concern of an outside witness but not a deeper sense of identification, the second narrative emotion. As the third narrative emotion separate from sympathy and identification, empathy arises through imagination, that is, by imagining the feelings, thoughts, goals, and actions of a fictional character (often the protagonist) and thereby recognizing the qualities that evoke empathy.

Both the sense of identification and empathy directed at fictional characters are essential in the mentalization and simulation of the social world. However, in empathy, the reader does not consider the feelings, thoughts, goals, and actions of the fictional character to be their own but can empathize with another individual whose movements and perspectives of the mind they can imagine for planning their own actions. The other deserves to be read openly and appreciatively. Reading testifies to the other’s emotional states and provides a unique opportunity to hear the other relationally and empathetically. Experiences of strangeness, such as when reading groups reflect on them, can turn from alienating to those of closeness and still unique and fascinatingly different.

The fourth narrative emotion can be considered a relived emotion that partially (but not completely) overlaps with autobiographical memories, such as in the case of loss, shameful failures, or traumatic experiences. The dissociations and recollections of risks and the accompanying negative emotions are thus also woven into the enlivening effect of the text. Fiction provides an opportunity to shape, internalize, and understand the “unfinished” feelings and experiences seemingly left behind. The fifth narrative emotion is called a remembered emotion that has autobiographical

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starting points but extends beyond them to the wider socially and culturally shared experiences.

All five narrative emotions in reading processes can interact with each other in many ways, complementing each other or opposing each other. An example would be how identification can increase sympathy and empathy, and remembered emotions can increase identification. It would be interesting to examine further whether emotions toward fictional characters are mainly related to pleasure-centered motives and a pleasant transition of the self to the world of narratives, and whether relived and remembered emotions lead mainly to introspection, reflection, appreciation, and insight (Mar et al., 2011). The more detailed, emotional, and metareflective imaginative work is involved in remembering the past, the better the prerequisites for flexible imagination and simulation of the future. The interplay of narrative emotions can also occur in non-fictional genres such as essays and biographies. Especially in psychohistorical research, analysis and interpretation of the historical documentation are transference-oriented; the aim is “to set a new way of writing history, always directed to the emotions,” as expressed by deMause (Ihanus, 2021, p. 4).

Therapeutic reading has promising opportunities for the development of empathy education and the awareness of emotion-regulation skills, among other things. In the future, interactive reading therapy may establish closer links not only with other expressive therapies but also with mentalization-based integrative psychotherapy, which is related to attachment theory. Reading has implications specifically for the mentalization of regulated and spontaneous action, the self-other relationships, and internal-external dynamics.

Changing Reading Environments

Reading environments are not limited to physical environments, but reading has its diverse psychological, social, cultural, historical, and virtual environments—embedded, for example, in the digital platforms and the kaleidoscopic clouds. The future “simulator” of reading is likely to include social robots and pets that are compassionate in assisting reading. Adopted social and cultural frameworks for reading and perspectives on interpretation are in a state of constant change. The text and the context, the work and its frameworks, slide into each other, making the environments and experiences of reading and interpreting meanings unpredictable. Based on quantum theory, Karen Barad (2007), physicist,

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historian of consciousness, and feminist philosopher, has concluded that the universe is made up of changing “entanglements,” which do not involve independent units but relationships that momentarily appear to us as individual objects. When applied to reading, this notion suggests that texts do not have an independent existence but in the process of reading texts are intermediate spaces of horizontal (spatial) and vertical (temporal) intertwining, in which history, place, materiality, consciousness, action, life, and artifact are momentarily condensed.

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  • Barad, Karen (2007). Meeting the universe halfway: Quantum physics and the entanglement of matter and meaning. Duke University Press.
  • Bollas, Christopher (1987). The shadow of the object: Psychoanalysis and the unthought known. Free Association Books.
  • Ihanus, Juhani (1998). Dancing with words: Transference and countertransference in biblio-poetry therapy. Journal of Poetry Therapy, 12(2), pp. 85-93.
  • Ihanus, Juhani (2021). “…to set a new way of writing history, always directed to the emotions”: Excerpts from Lloyd deMause’s letters to Aurel Ende (Part 2). Journal of Psychohistory, 49(1), pp. 2-11.
  • Mar, Raymond A.; Oatley, Keith; Djikic, Maja; & Mullin, Justin (2011). Emotion and narrative fiction: Interactive influences before, during, and after reading. Cognition and Emotion, 25(5), pp. 818-833.
  • Oatley, Keith (2004). Emotions: A brief history. Blackwell.
  • Stein, Howard (2015). Reply to Adorno. In David Beisel (Ed.), Wounded centuries: A selection of poems (p. 58). Grolier Poetry Press & Circumstantial Productions.
  • Vaknin, Orly & Dunsky, Yafit (2020). Monological vs. dialogical reading: reading processes as a space for therapists’ development. Journal of Poetry Therapy, 33(1), pp. 8-19.


Juhani Ihanus

Juhani Ihanus, PhD, is Associate Professor of Cultural Psychology at the University of Helsinki, and Associate Professor of the History of Science and Ideas at the University of Oulu. He is also an international member of the Psychohistory Forum who has published books and articles on psychohistory, cultural and clinical psychology, and the history of psychology. Dr. Ihanus may be reached at juhani.ihanus@helsinki.fi.

How to Cite This:

Ihanus, J. (2022). The transformative nature of books. Clio’s Psyche, 29(1), 35-42.

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