Thursday, July 2, 2009

Insomnia Books

For most of my life, I was a literary monogamist, which is to say that I liked to read just one book at a time. But things have gotten, well, more complicated lately. There was a time when, if you’d asked me what I was reading, I could have replied with the name of a single book and that would have been the end of it. But now I’ve become a slightly more promiscuous reader, carrying on with three, four, five books at a time. I’ve had to develop a whole taxonomy of bedtime books. There’s the book I read with my son at night (right now, Bertrand Brinley’s Mad Scientists’ Club). There’s the book I read in bed just before the lights go out (Colson Whitehead’s Sag Harbor). And there’s my insomnia book.

The insomnia book might be the most difficult niche of all to fill. It’s the book I open in the middle of the night after I’ve given up on counting sheep or naming state capitals or reciting the starting lineup (with uniform number) of the 1977 Chicago White Sox. The insomnia book has to be turgid and sedative enough to put me to sleep, but not so awful that it will make me feel worse than I already do about being up in the middle of the night trying to remember what number Jack Brohamer wore. (10.) Nineteenth-century nonfiction, with its stiffly formal presentations, does nicely. Francis Parkman’s Montcalm and Wolfe is a wonderful insomnia book. The antique prose ends up making me grin even as it puts me to sleep. Even at the height of insomniac irritability I have to appreciate a sentence like: “In the tomb-like silence of the winter forest, with breath frozen on his beard, the ranger strode on snow-shoes over the spotless drifts; and, like Durer’s knight, a a ghastly death stalked ever at his side.” He may be a masterful prose stylist, but I don’t think I’ve ever gotten through more than two pages of Parkman without nodding off.

My current insomnia book is almost too much fun to be an insomnia book. I keep wanting to pick it up in the middle of the day, which defeats the whole purpose. It’s George R. Stewart’s Names on the Land, an idiosyncratically ambitious account of how American places got their names. It was published in 1945 (and reissued last year by New York Review Books) so it’s not as old as some insomnia books, but its patient deployment of anecdote and folk history enhance its vintage authority and charm. An insomnia book really shouldn’t be this engaging. I’ve had to fight the urge to wake up my wife and tell her that New Jersey was very nearly called Albania or why Applebachsville in Pennsylvania combines English, German and French in one word.

So far, I haven’t bothered her. But Stewart really hasn’t been doing his job of getting me back to sleep. I may have to reassign Names on the Land to lights-out reading--which means I’ll have an opening for a new insomnia book. Any nominations?


  1. Anatomy of Melancholy, Burton
    The Message in the Bottle, Percy

  2. Jeanne, thanks for two excellent suggestions. I think The A of M would make a particularly good insomnia book--idiosyncratic, hard to categorize and lots of discussion of "humours." And, like Names on the Land it's in a NYRB reissue. Maybe that's the go-to publisher for insomnia books.

  3. Lately I've been relying on "A Year's Turning," Michael Viney's journal of life on a remote seaside farm in County Mayo, Ireland. Lovingly crafted prose, but it's chock full of sleep-inducing references to mysterious flora and fauna like "peewits," "cocksfoot," and "janthnia," and unpronounceable place names such as "Ait-shuidhe a' Phearsuin." It feels like I've been reading it at a pace of about one sentence per night.

  4. Tony, that sounds like another winner. If it is doing its job right, an insomnia book should last a really long time.

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