Reading Such as Charmeth Sleep

Reading

Often I settle in for an afternoon of reading and studying on the couch in our common room only to find myself, ten minutes later, drowsily attempting to focus on a sentence while the warm, slanted sunshine washes over my face. Lunch sits heavy in my stomach. The second hand on my watch ticks hypnotically. I finally give in and nod off—no one told me they have naptime in college. The last sentence, cackling maniacally, escapes.

Reading is a basically soporific exercise. It is best and easiest done alone, in quiet places with gentle lighting. You may play music, but only music carefully chosen so as not to be intrusive—instrumental, if you have it—and without surprising, distracting, or otherwise interesting features. There may be warm and calming drinks involved, along with comfortable pillows, and maybe even a blanket. In short, with the possible omission of brushing your teeth, the ideal reading environment resembles nothing so much as going to bed.

Thanks to the ritual of the bedtime story, most of us have associated reading with sleeping from infancy. You may even have once insisted, like the orphan girls in “Despicable Me,” that it was impossible to go to sleep without one. There’s nothing more distracting—and therefore relaxing—than immersing yourself in a fictional universe. It accomplishes the sometimes challenging trick of getting you to stop thinking about your own life long enough for sleep to slip in. Primetime and late night television programming provide, essentially, bedtime stories for grown-ups.

But at the same time, reading is also work. It may not be particularly strenuous, but it’s just demanding enough to push you from wornness into fatigue. This makes it difficult to do reading for class close to bedtime. Like trying to carry a heavy piece of furniture, the feeling of exhaustion increases the longer you’re at it. The quality of your reading goes down; you end up reading the same paragraph three times; and, when you wake up the next morning, glasses still on and textbook mashed under your side, you won’t remember a word of it. When reading is work, drowsy reading is about as unproductive as drinking at the office.

Bedtime reading as a separate category, though, is an entirely different world. Books that move episodically or in chunks, like “the collected letters of so-and-so,” work well; I’ve been working through Virginia Woolf’s on-and-off for a while. The back cover of “The Stanford Companion to Victorian Fiction” announces itself, in the words of the Times Literary Supplement, to be “an invaluable tool for understanding the Victorian literary milieu, and a first-rate bedside book as well.” One of my friends makes a goal of reading at least a couple pages a night—the incentive to finish being that she buys a new book as a treat for herself when she’s done.

We are at our potentially most vulnerable, in terms of taste, when it comes to bedtime reading—at our least inclined to suffer the dignified, the pretentious, and the boring. This is the moment when any reader is their innermost self—geekiest, most enthusiastic, most off-guard, most earnest. After all, it is probably the most childlike hour of the day, and, for lifelong readers, the Freudian moment when the deepest level of the individual as reader was forged. E.M. Forster speaks, in “Aspects of the Novel,” of having an irrationally strong attachment to “The Swiss Family Robinson” from childhood onward. He was a little embarrassed of this, but the key is to admit your first favorites with pride. One of my most distinct bedtime memories is of having Laura Ingalls Wilder’s entire “Little House” series read to me and my sister, a chapter at a time, over many nights. It’s no wonder I’ve ended up studying the nineteenth century; it set me to sleep and filled my dreams since before I could even read.

There is a very strong association between reading and the dream-state—surrendering yourself to a flow of words and images that are not wholly your own, but are nevertheless generated in your mind. Part of the spell of the first words of “Swann’s Way”—“For a long time, I put myself to bed early”—is that they launch us into the novel as though it’s simply one enormous dream­­—which, in a sense, it is. And, at its most sincere, this is how reading feels. Much of what we read for class cannot be dreaming; we have to pay attention to it, to work at it—it’s too hard for that. But that’s why bedtime reading, even at school, is so important to the life of the reader. It keeps reading what it should be: a species of dream.

—Columnist Spencer B.L. Lenfield can be reached at lenfield@college.harvard.edu.

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