Books to sleep by

As an insomniac, I’m often asked, “what do you do when you wake up in the middle of the night —get up and work?” Work? Ha! People have this notion that insomnia gives you all this extra time to get things done. No way. I’m braindead on 2-3-4 hours sleep.

Experts tell us to get out of bed, go to another room, and do something else. But it’s depressing to out of bed in the middle of the night, and not all of us have a comfy extra room to go to. Besides, if I get up and start doing anything, if I even turn on a light, it wakes me up more and destroys all chances of getting back to sleep. But the experts are right, lying in the dark listening to the sound of your wheels spinning is no good, either. I may wake up without a thing on my mind, but if I lie there long enough, my mind will find something, and at that hour, it’s not likely to be good.

So I reach for my walkman and earphones and put on a book on tape (and I do mean tape, not CD or iPod, which are useless for this kind of listening). Just knowing there’s a novel or memoir to listen to makes the waking less grim. Some of these books are so marvelously performed that they become like a theater in my head. Worlds open up, scenes play themselves out, and since my day job is teaching literature, it’s a way of keeping up. But more than useful, it’s a pleasure, and sometimes even a way of getting back to sleep.
Listening to books may work as well those punishing measures sleep experts advise. Research suggests it does. One study instructed subjects who couldn’t fall back asleep after 10 minutes to sit up in bed and read or listen to the radio or watch television. It found that their sleep was significantly improved after four weeks and remained better a year later—and they didn’t have to get out of bed. The key was, they got their minds off their own thoughts. I prefer listening to reading because it lets me stay under the covers, warm, snug, and in the dark, which keeps the melatonin and other restful hormones flowing.

But it’s not easy to find a book that’s good for sleep. It takes just the right kind of story, interesting enough to engage the mind but not so interesting that I need to stay awake to see how it comes out. No pageturners or cliffhangers, nothing too exciting (Seabiscuit got transferred to the car). Nothing with violence or physical awfulness. But it can’t be boring, or my mind slips back to my own story. The reader must have a soothing voice and not rush through. And no shouts or songs or that dumb mood-setting music—that startles me awake. Those tapes get moved to the car, or ditched, if the music’s obnoxious enough.

Novelists who work especially well for me are Jane Austen, Anita Brookner, Penelope Lively, Ian McEwan. Memoirs work beautifully because they’re not plot-driven: Nuala O’Faolain’s Are You Somebody? Russell Baker’s Growing Up, Alexandra Fuller’s Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight. The language is interesting, the characters are engaging, and if I fall asleep and miss a scene, I just wind the tape back the next night and find where I left (which is why tapes are better than the new technologies). If the writing is good, I’m happy to listen again.

I get to know some of these books quite well, though in a lopsided sort of way: the first part of a tape, I hear over and over; the last part, I may never hear at all. My friend Carol Neely listens to books to sleep by, too, and we’ve talked about writing blurbs: “this book is great for putting you to sleep.” It doesn’t sound like a compliment, but it is. It means the book is sufficiently interesting moment to moment to keep the mind engaged, so you’re not hanging on to find out what comes next. Carol loves biographies, Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Franklin and Eleanor and David McCullough’s Truman— “they go on forever,” she says, “they’re well written and interesting and you know how it turns out, so there’s no suspense.” But there are so many different kinds of things recorded— histories, romances, inspirational— that there’s something for everyone.

Eric Zorn, columnist for the Chicago Tribune, uses cassette recordings of talk-radio programs to fall asleep to. “I find those meditation thingys very distracting—‘think of a peaceful beach…’—and too much work. Try something that truly takes your mind away, like a big screaming match on immigration or abortion or gun control.” He says, “I try to pay attention the conversation, follow it carefully, engage in the topic. The next thing I know it’s morning and I am rested and refreshed.” A respondent to Zorn says, “Nature programs work, too. I have a tape about backyard birdwatching that I’ve never seen more than five minutes of.” One man swears by the Golf Channel. Not me: I need a story.

I’ve scandalized purists, defending listening like this—an English professor, letting down the cause of reading! But I’m not letting it down. Western literature began as an aural form, with Homer reciting The Iliad. Shakespeare’s plays were written for the stage, not the page— most of his audience didn’t even know how to read. Surely it’s the prejudice of a print-bound culture to imagine that reading is superior, when aural forms have this long and illustrious tradition, and the sounds and rhythms of words have a far more elemental power than print on a page.

“There’s not a parent who doesn’t know the value of a good snoozy story to help lull the little ones to sleep (or make that cranky transition a little easier),” writes a New York Times reviewer of children’s books. It’s a primal pleasure, being read to—it evokes what Anne Lamott calls “the listening child.” I’m hooked—and it’s a technique for coping with insomnia that I can recommend unequivocally. It can’t hurt you, unless you blunder onto a page-turner and lie awake all night to find out who dunnit; then you’ll curse me. Otherwise, it’s harmless; no side effects.

Let other people be bookworms, I’ll be a tapeworm. (I wish I could claim that line, but it’s David Sedaris’. Can’t tell you where he said it, though—I heard it on tape.)

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  1. Yah, when you’re lying there like a zombie at 3 a.m., in that awful state of being three-quarters awake, one-quarter asleep, waiting for a sleep that may or may not come, your brain just ain’t functioning properly. You’re not really awake, you’re merely concious. I’m sure most insomniacs can relate to this state of existence. It doesn’t lend itself to getting work done, or even reading.

  2. Many years ago, I tried using tapes and found that I was either waiting to hear the ‘click’ of the tape ending or, in fact, being jolted when it did. I’d love to know if there a silent tape recorder available.

  3. This is similar to a theory I’ve had over the last few years. Like what you explained. When you try to sleep, your thoughts tend to go a bit haywire and you can’t really shut them off.

    Because night time tends to be extremely quiet with nothing going on, my theory was that sensory deprivation causes my thoughts to go a mile a minute.

    So the lack of external senses causes the mind to go inward to find it’s sensory stimulation.

    Bearing in mind, it’s just a theory but what you wrote reminded me of it. Sorry if it didn’t make much sense or I rambled a bit, I’m a bit sleep deprived.

  4. I have found two ways to cure my insomnia. First, meditation. I don’t have to get out of bed either to just meditate. Secondly, I say a short ‘pray’ to the Universe asking for it to help with any problems, trusting it 100% to find the answers when I awake. Tried the books and tapes but just got so involved I was past sleeping:).

  5. The RADIO is my distraction of choice.

    Long ago, I turned to it to alleviate those long nightly periods of torturous wakefulness. I’ll listen to just about any talk (fortunately, because there’s sure not much selection). I keep it just low enough to hear and I can easily mentally tune in or out. Most nights I think that following a plot line of any kind would require too much linear thinking. I know I would be more hard-core conscious if I didn’t take sleep meds, so maybe I COULD listen to stories in that case. I certainly do like oral stories in the daytime!

    I don’t know if I get more sleep from this, but I KNOW I am far less miserable. The sheer boredom from having one’s mind fully-conscious, but EXHAUSTED (and blank, in my case) is truly intolerable. Listening to talk about angels, UFOs, psychic predictions of our catastrophic futures…even credible news talk…all those are easy-listening to me and sometimes quite amusing. I think maybe Cerius (sp?) radio subscription would be a good investment.

    AlSmith, I like your theory about total quiet being sensory deprivation triggering our own internal chatter. Makes sense to me. In my earlier years I had terrible nightly episodes of “rushing thoughts” that made my nights mentally busier than my days! At 60, I believe I’ve worn that part of my brain out and my mind is pretty blank at night. Not blank as in peaceful Zen, just as in boredom that I believe would cause me to get out of bed otherwise, and I KNOW that I need that bed-rest if not sleep.

  6. I read Gayle’s book after a 5 month stretch of particularly extreme chronic “psychophysiological” insomnia. I was a wreck and looking for answers. Well, the big takeaway from the book (for me) was the suggestion to use books on tape. (!) So, I bought a little ipod nano because it has a good programmable sleep timer in it and it’s very easy to use, even in the dark. And I got a subscription to and started “auditioning” various narrators and books to see if they could provide the right combination of engagement (to keep from thinking about anything else) and somnolence (to allow my brain to synch up with the narrator and ‘turn off’ so I could get to sleep). Well! I went from taking .5mg xanax every night to only taking it 3-4 nights/week within just a few weeks, and within a few months was off the X 100%. Here are the top 8 books that I found work best for me:

    The Empress Orchid (narrator Alexandra O’Karma)
    Breathing Lessons (narrator Alexandra O’Karma)
    Autobiography of a Yogi (narrator Ben Kingsley)
    The Last Empress (narrator Alexandra O’Karma)
    Pontoon (narrator Garrison Keilor)
    Liberty (narrator Garrison Keilor)
    The Diamond in Your Pocket (narrator Gangaji)
    Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim (narrator David Sedaris)

    In actuality I almost always use the books narrated by O’Karma because her voice works so perfectly for me. But sometime I need a switch so go to the others (and I have about 10 more on my ipod that I can switch to). In addition to curing my sleep-onset insomnia, it also puts me right back to sleep when my sleep-latency problem arises. I’m an early riser so now I’ve trained myself to get to bed at 9pm-ish and read a hardcopy book with a little booklight (James Michener works for me) for 30-40min and then kill the light and turn on the ipod. And when I wake up between 3-5am I just turn the ipod on again and off I go, within minutes.

    In years past I’d always used a little radio for this and listened to NPR but over the last 10 years NPR has become unusable for many reasons, the top one being that they use a lot more music now and various interruptions, volumes, etc, and the key to this technique working is absolute monotonic reading (and I use a very low volume… just above audible level). Some audiobooks also have musical interludes between chapters, and those won’t work either (all of mine in the above list are sans-music).

    Hey, the solution isn’t very expensive (you probably already have an ipod lying around, but the nano is perfect cause it’s so small easy to use) and there are no scary side-effects!

    Thanks Gayle for inspiring me to find this benign and very effective treatment. I learned a lot from your book, but this suggestion was priceless.

  7. Thanks for the information on listening to tapes. I happened on this during an eye operation making reading impossible.
    I found I could go to sleep but woke up and had to take medication (clonopin) which I know I’m addicted to. But at least I’m taking less.
    I KNOW this is a neurological problem and wish research would work on this problem instead of pills that don’t work long-term.

  8. Yah, when you’re lying there like a zombie at 3 a.m., in that awful state of being three-quarters awake, one-quarter asleep, waiting for a sleep that may or may not come, your brain just ain’t functioning properly. You’re not really awake, you’re merely concious. I’m sure most insomniacs can relate to this state of existence. It doesn’t lend itself to getting work done, or even reading.

  9. Yes it’s true, everything I read about insomnia hasn’t changed much in the last 20 years.

    At times I do sleep and it’s a total mystery why sometimes I do and other times I don’t. One of the things that worked for me was cannabis leaf, not the bud, made into cookies so I can be precise about how much I am eating. I eat my dose at 6:PM with my meal and by midnight I can sleep. The object is to not eat so much that I get high. I think it just wears me out or something.

    The other thing I started doing, after reading that our brains are mostly fat…….Sally Fallon “Eat Fat, Lose Fat” was to introduce Cod Liver Oil along with Cocoanut Oil. This seemed to really work great because it gave me lots of energy and then with the cannabis at night I was sleeping 8 hours sometimes. I was in heaven. I was thinking, “Wow, maybe now I can loose weight and have a life!”

    That lasted about a month. Then I started getting heart palpitations. So which was the problem? The fat or the cannabis? So I quit the cannabis because it felt like it was wearing down my Chi and I still have the palpitations so maybe it’s the fat. Needless to say I haven’t really slept since I quit the pot. Heart problems start with the Kidneys according to Chinese medicine and I think I may just need more potassium. Who knows?

    I know more than a few people who self medicate with pot. They don’t get heart palpitations. They seem to live carefree lives because they sleep so well. Sometimes I think insomnia is a karmic burden.

    Anyway, that’s my story.


  10. I am just so glad to have found this page. Sleep experts say, get up after 15 minutes… are they crazy?? I would never sleep if I did that. I have tried books on tape… you have to very particular with the genre and type or you can get caught up in the story or just be waiting for the click of it turning off…

  11. I just started reading Insomniac and I’m so excited about it. I really haven’t ever read anything very intelligent about sleep disorders; just the “go to sleep at the same time every night, exercise more” type of things. Reading is the best thing for me to fall asleep, but sometimes my mind just won’t let me do it, and in those times I turn on the TV. However, TV is way too engaging for me a lot of the time, and I think the artificial light wakes me up. Internet is the worst; I can stay up for hours with it. Books on tape are a good idea that I have not tried yet. I think this is because I had that attitude that stories should be read to be enjoyed…but that is pretty silly 🙂 I’m excited to try this.

  12. Fantastic and inspiring to see how diverse, individual, unpredictable are ways in which books (audio or not) may be helpful. Then again – the same holds true for almost any other measure ever recommended for insomnia!

    Practically speaking: don´t believe any rigid “expert advice”. The behaviorist commandment “do not stay in bed if you can’t sleep” (or: “bedroom for sleep and sex only”; or whatever other flavor you might have encountered)is absolutely not a universally valid truth. I have read several cognitive sleep therapy papers advancing this claim. I also came across a paper mentioning a study, in which such instruction was given to one group of people, with another group being told exactly the opposite (I think they were supposed to watch TV in bed, if awake after few hours of sleep). This (little referenced) study found no difference between the effects of the two regimes. Which I am sure agrees well with the experience of many of us visiting this site.
    I don’t think that the cognitive therapy approach is generally invalid. I do think, however, that much of such research is simply of poor quality, in effect corrupting and simplifying an enormously complicated and diverse issue. To large extent, I believe, such pseudotherapy thrives on the lack of good, long-term effective insomnia drugs. Einstein, who contributed fundamentally to chemistry, supposedly remarked that “Chemistry is too complicated for the chemists”. Well, I am merely an experienced insomniac, but I think that insomnia seems too often too complicated for researchers! We need to fend for ourselves, in an informed and sceptical way. So again, thanks for this site, Gayle!

  13. The first chapter in the book Persuasion by Jane Austen for some reason made me sleepy for some time. Trying to find more sleepy reading material. Thanks for the other reading material.

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