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.)