IN ANCIENT Egypt, just over 3,200 years ago, an inscription was carved above the entrance to one of the royal chambers in a palace of King Ramses II. The inscription read: “The House of Healing for the Soul”.

Ramses II is said to be the most successful of Egypt’s pharaohs, and he lived to the ripe old age of around 90, after fighting many wars and ordering the construction of many temples, buildings and monuments.

So, what was this house of healing for the soul? Was it an early hospital or a temple to the gods? Neither. It was a room in which books were kept, in other words a library, one of the earliest recorded by history.

Not just anyone could use it, of course, only those with royal privilege would have been able to access it. It was a place that was revered, and the inscription conveys a concept that these days is called bibliotherapy.

This is the use of books for therapeutic purposes. Bibliotherapists use all kinds of books to support their therapeutic work. It can be any type of book but often it’s fictional work, in which the reader can relate to the struggles and challenges of a character in a story, and so experience and process the emotions, but within the safety of metaphor.

We all need this, especially at certain times, such as when we are in a crisis, experiencing change or loss. But even more generally, books, or rather what’s written in them, can guide us, impart understanding, and broaden our horizons and empathy.

Of course, it depends on what books are read, as some are full of hate and intolerance. But most books connect to our humanity, in all its emotional and cultural complexities. And so yes, they can, literally, help to heal our soul, not in a religious sense, but in a spiritual one.

The thing is you don’t need to be a bibliotherapist to experience the therapeutic power of a book. We can all do it, and many of us do. It’s when you read a book and get hooked. When you reach that moment when ‘you can’t put it down’, then the book is no longer just on the pages. You walk through a portal in your imagination and become part of the story, feeling it and seeing it. Your identification with the issues can help you understand and work through your own.

We can do this with loved ones, especially with children. A carefully chosen book can help them work through how they feel about a situation, a feeling or a challenge. You can read it to them or with them and discuss the story together. Or they can read by themselves and later talk about their impressions if they want to. Always keep your comments and questions focussed on the story and the characters in the book. That way they can explore difficult emotions without feeling vulnerable. Never change the focus onto the child’s personal experiences or feelings, unless they raise the issue first.

This is how reading books can be therapeutic.

Sadly, research shows that people are reading books much less than they used to, including children and adolescents. There are several reasons for this but, of course, our screen addiction is a significant factor. Social media is literally chipping away at our attention spans and having the opposite effect of healing.

Even stories in a book are now more likely accessed in a screen version. Movies are great, I love them too. But watching is passive. We hand over the imaginative creation of a story to someone else. It can be spectacular, with awe-inspiring special effects and great music.

But they are made and interpreted by someone else, and our emotions are manipulated.

A book only has words, so we must interpret them in our own way. It’s also a longer, deeper journey; we feel we have a companion, and that we are not alone even if we are a solitary reader. It’s an intimate relationship.

Thankfully, we no longer have to be a king to access a library. Just down the road from where we live, there is a wonderful welcoming one.

In winter, its windows light up the darkness, beckoning you in for a dose of therapy. A wide range of books are available, there are quiet and comfortable spaces to read, and an atmosphere to contemplate and think. It’s a place to feel cosy and safe, where your imagination can weave its magic.

We need our libraries more than ever. We talk about progress but our screen addiction is slicing away the ancestral wisdom that the ancient Egyptians had: that a library is a house of healing for the soul.

The one in my town is called a “cosy reading cave” by my younger kids. We do pop in regularly, but I don’t personally use it as much as I should.

But when I do visit, I always feel the privilege of having a free resource on my doorstep that was once the exclusive privilege of kings and rulers. It’s not just the books: it’s also the atmosphere, and the staff who are always on hand for friendly advice and help, or to just leave you be, as you browse or find a place to vanish into your imagination.

It does feel like a sacred place.

I admit I’ve often taken libraries for granted and I’m going to use them more, especially our own “cosy reading cave” nearby, or maybe I should call it “The Pans House of Healing for the Soul”.