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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Yaffe

The Austen prescription

Jane Austen’s power to console during times of trauma is an established trope by now: cue mention of how British authorities prescribed her to shellshocked soldiers during World War I.

So perhaps it’s not surprising that Medicinal Austen should have a role to play in our current traumatic times, as something of an inspiration for a technologically updated version of that shellshock prescription.

According to the British news website, the three adult sons of coronavirus patient Geoff Woolf, a seventy-three-year-old lawyer, knew their father would need plenty of reading material to sustain him during a long, grueling hospital stay that has included two months on a ventilator, with no visitors allowed.

His sons bought Woolf a Kindle e-reader to keep him going and, as his condition worsened last month and they were finally allowed to see him, played the audiobook they knew would mean the most to him: Pride and Prejudice.

"This was the book Dad always read when he was ill and wanted to feel some comfort," twenty-eight-year-old Sam Woolf, an actor who has performed audiobooks, told the news site. "We hope he can hear it. There's evidence to suggest words can sometimes get through to unconscious patients. He had a little movement and has looked like he may have been reacting to it."

The staff at their father’s London hospital thought other virus-isolated patients would benefit from the same stimulation, and so the Woolf brothers have launched an effort to supply more recovering virus patients with audiobook-equipped Kindles. Partnering with the audiobook company Audible, they’ve obtained one hundred and fifty appropriately sanitized devices for four hospitals, along with single-use earphones donated by British Airways.

Now two of the Woolf sons hope to expand the effort to other British cities, with the help of a GoFundMe appeal that has already raised almost all of its £5,000 goal (about $6,200). They’re calling the project Books for Dad, in tribute to the man who read to them when they were children and taught them to love words.

Sadly, Geoff Woolf is unlikely to survive, but if Books for Dad succeeds in helping other patients, his children think, the loss of this Janeite won’t be in vain. "We wanted something positive to come from what's happened to Dad, a kind of legacy," Sam Woolf says.

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