Books by Design: Good Reads for Insomniacs
Wide Awake at 3am: two approaches
Okay, what to do? This depends on whether getting back to sleep is a high priority. If naps are easy to come by, you can reach for a book that requires more focus, or that is otherwise less likely to suck you back under. If your alarm is due to go ballistic in three hours, you might want something a little more dry and decidedly less engaging. This list has it all: short stories, philosophy, compendiums, historical anthologies, and maybe some poetry if I haven't lent that volume out. While they're meant to cover a wide variety of insomnia-related needs, you will find that they can all be picked up and read from any point - and that not a one of them involves anything remotely scary. Because you're in bed, and god only knows what's under there at this time of night.
Onwards, valiant reader! Screw your circadian rhythm!
What to Read When You Aren't Overly Concerned About Getting Back to Sleep
Maybe this is because you're a bit of a fatalist, or because you don't have class until mid-afternoon, but whatever the reason, have I got a pile of books for you!
A good friend of the Esteemed M. Borges, Alberto Manguel's ambient knowledge is predictably vast and varied -making him among the most fascinating people you'll probably never get meet. Next best thing: a loosely structured stroll through his cavernous mind, which is exactly what you'll find in The Library at Night . It's a decidedly non-linear book that you can begin from any point, making it a perfect late-night date. And clearly the theme is suitably nocturnal. If you're really wide awake, you'll be treated to fascinating anecdotes, contemporary and historical - and if you do fall asleep in the middle of a sentence, you're bound to have amazingly stimulating dreams. You simply can't lose.
My other go-to for late night/early morning quiet reflection is John Burrow's A History of Histories. Initially acquired for its meta cleverness, this particularly well-researched compendium hasn't left its spot on the floor near my bed in ages (where it inevitably falls after being shoved under my pillow some hours later) - except when my husband ran off with it, which I suppose speaks to its broad appeal. You know what's really comforting at 4am? A broad-stroke world where everything flows neatly from its predecessor and there never was any insane fragmentation of the humanities and all is as it should be. This is the world I want to wake up to Every Single Day. And I can, if I keep this book close.
Like Manguel, you can pretty much pick your topic for the night - the contents are immaculately ordered and each subsection self-explanatory. Just what every Type-A Organizer needs in her life. The writing can, occasionally, run a leeetle dry, so if you wouldn't mind falling asleep in an hour or so this is a good pick. But steer clear of it if you need to fall asleep, 'cause the story can get gripping. It's like Russian Roulette with your next day's sanity.
If you have absolutely no intention of going back to sleep (awww, nightmares can be really scary, can't they?), I strongly recommend the following well-written plot-driven stories:
The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell: a dark, futuristic first-encounter with alien culture. Jesuits in space! And also some really heavy theology. Don't worry, there's a sequel.
The Year of the Flood and Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood: a two-part post- and sliiiightly pre-apocalyptic thought experiment/Green Party call to action.
Anything from the Lymond of Crawford series by Dorothy Dunnett: Stunningly complex historical fiction from which I learned more history, not to mention French, than I ever did in high school. When I run some country's educational ministry, history will be taught exclusively through historical fiction. Think that will get me on the ballot? The main character will absolutely ruin you for other men though, so proceed with caution. And incidentally, some clever people organize historical tours of the places featured in the books. I believe 2013 is Istanbul, guys, so save your pennies!
Okay, so I think that should keep you for now. Let me know if you blow through these and I'll post a Pt 2.
Other Possible Avenues
Book-shaped Ambien, but without the sleep walking side effect
Okay, it's 3am and you really do need to go back to sleep. It's cool - we're all (theoretically) human. And who wants to be like Margaret Thatcher anyway? So what to read...
Well, my first suggestion is to go the auditory rather than visual route, which greatly increases the chances of falling asleep. Of course, this requires the consent of any bed-sharing entities and may not be appropriate for everyone. I'll go ahead and recommend the following, all of which are available for free on itunes.
- G. K. Chesterton's Orthodoxy and Heretics : superbly well-written, you will definitely not be jolted awake by any grammatical misstep (although the discerning listener will be disturbed by one or two misspoken lines by the otherwise melodious Mr. David "Grizzly" Smith). Seriously though, the aptly-named bear-man who reads Orthodoxy is a pleasure to listen to, crooning in at the most calming of all possible auditory registers. And if you aren't immediately rendered unconscious, I imagine you'll enjoy the infamous wit of the good Mistah C.
- The History of Law (out of Yale University): While the introductory music is a bit loud to be considered ideal, each of the speakers in this series has a pleasing voice and speaks well. We have generally had to listen to each twice or three times, as the previous night we had fallen asleep before the end.
- Literary Theory with Paul Fry (also out of Yale): Very interesting lectures, although the man's voice takes some getting used to. What it lacks in pitch and general dulcetness, it makes up for in consistency of volume.
- International Law (also Yale - sheesh.): If you try this one, for the love of god, skip Amy Chua's installment. My husband and I were so enraged by her talk that it took two hours of Chesterton to calm us down, and Husbee is still trying to get me to denounce any university that would allow her to consume its funds. Emphatically not the desired effect.
And for those of you who share a bed with a light sleeper or would just rather read a book, get yourself a history of the old-fashioned sort (before historians were encouraged to write "for their audience"). I have a nice history of the Arab world that is dry as all get-out, but you really have to pick something out for yourself. It should be vaguely interesting (so you'll read it) and not so poorly written that you just get pissed off. If anyone cares to share their go-to, please do.
Short Stuff: for when you just need a little push
Borges! For heaven's sake - just pick a collection of fiction: it's guaranteed to be short, involved, educational, thought-provoking... and also short. Promises excellent dreams.
At Large and at small by Anne Fadiman: A superbly effortless collection of familiar essays full of magnificent words to learn, use, and know.
Cabinet Magazine: I've mentioned these guys before, and for good reason. But no, I'm not a shill (though not opposed to shilling for you, Cabinetmakers take note!). Articles are invariably interesting, well researched, well-written, and on a wide variety of topics. Like History of Histories and The Library at Night, each issue is a microcosm of a well-ordered world. Bless their clever hearts.
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Don't Let the Bed Bugs Bite
Fo' real, friends. Bedbugs are awful. Even metaphorical ones can become a plague. (I was going to say "especially metaphorical ones" but I know some Londoners and New Yorkers who would vociferously beg to differ.) Please don't stress out about sleep. It's just about the very worst thing you can do.
You know what? In the olden days, when there was no unemployment and women all died in childbirth, people's natural sleep cycles had two waves: first sleep and second sleep. In between there was a period of watchfulness (so's the bears wouldn't come and eat the babies, I guess), during which people reportedly prayed or engaged in sportive bed-play. So if you're waking up at 3 or 4am, go ahead and shake your fist at the sky - but think of it as some nice quiet time to yourself, so very rare these days, that even fluorescent lighting hasn't completely eradicated from our precious genes. You're okay, kid.