Saturday, December 15, 2012

In praise of wakefulness

I used to find my sleeplessness a cause of distress, but I have recently come to embrace insomnia as a boon to my reading
Woman reading in bed
Many compulsive readers are insomiacs … and most are pleased to be so. Photograph: Isopress/Rex Features

When I tell people that I read, on average, four books a week, many of them are incredulous, and seem to regard this as a sign of some inward dissipation, rather than devotion to the best of causes. Their concern, if I may call it that, is that there cannot be enough time in a week to do so. (And that, even if there were, my habit would waste most of it). I have, of course, more time than most people: my children are grown up, and I am no longer concerned to make my way in the world. But I have a full-time job, write bits of this and that, indulge myself in various projects.

Where do you find the time? There is a secret to this, and I find that many of my friends who are similarly compulsive readers share the same profile. So do the following: Burns, Charlotte and Emily Brontë, Churchill, Dickens, Emily Dickinson, Alexandre Dumas, Scott Fitzgerald, Kafka, Plath, Proust, Shakespeare, Shelley, Twain, Whitman, Wordsworth, Yeats. If you widen that category – famous writers – you could then add Catherine the Great, Edison, Franklin, Lincoln, John Stuart Mill, Napoleon, Newton, Van Gogh … Not to mention dear old Groucho Marx.

Quite a list. Whatever they're on, can I have some of it too? In fact, I do: we are all insomniacs. I used to find my sleeplessness – I usually fall off for a few hours, wake for maybe two, then sleep until morning – a cause of distress, and I have ground down more than a few teeth in gnashing protest. None of the manifold putative remedies – sheep, Bovril, breathing or visualisation exercises – have ever helped. I used to find this infuriating, and would stew in the dark next to my wife (who falls asleep in two minutes) exhorting myself: "Sleep! Sleep!"

This injunction, of course, makes things worse. Eventually it works, mostly because it is exhausting to chant inwardly for hours on end, desperate to drop off. But what a telling mismetaphor that is! Drop off what? The edge of a cliff? It's hardly a wonder one resists doing it, it's dangerous.

Often I would get up and write, which is a near-perfect remedy for sleep. But I have recently come to accept what I thought of as a malady, and to embrace it as a boon. The reason for this is my Kindle. Until I had one, I would turn on the lamp by the side of my bed, which could awaken even the soundly sleeping Belinda, who would inquire how long I intended to keep it on, and her awake? But my Kindle has a cutesy little light that protrudes from the leather cover like some bit of a praying mantis, and which now allows me to read without causing distress to my loved one. And this, I find, is absolutely dandy. Looked at coolly, I have not only extended my day by a couple of hours, but created a time in which the only thing I can do is read.

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