A thorough probing into why sleep is such a problem for so many in contemporary society.
Reiss (English/Emory Univ.; Theaters of Madness: Insane Asylums and Nineteenth-Century American Culture, 2008, etc.) takes both a long and surprisingly wide view of sleep, looking back over the centuries to examine literature, cultures, and social and medical history. The author’s main thesis is that we have too rigid a sense of what sleep should be: a private experience of eight solid hours in a dark, quiet, comfortable setting. “Only over the past few hundred years,” he writes, “did sleep come to be privatized, packaged into one standard time slot, and removed from nature’s great rhythmic cycles of temperature and light.” Human sleep patterns, he writes, are remarkably flexible, and there is no single correct and healthy way to sleep. Before the industrialized and electrified age, sleep often came in segments throughout the day and night, and in many cases, groups—entire families—slept together. The author devotes an entire chapter to Thoreau, who in Walden showed his preoccupation with sleeping and waking on one’s own schedule. Reiss also cites a wide variety of other writers, including B.F. Skinner, Benjamin Spock, Maurice Sendak, and Arianna Huffington. He even considers the videos of Andy Warhol and Kanye West, and he includes sleep researchers’ studies, anecdotes of troubled sleepers, and the unhappy stories of frazzled parents struggling to put their children to sleep. In addition, Reiss takes readers to diverse locations, from utopian communities, such as the Shakers, to insane asylums and the holds of slave ships. In the final chapter, the author tackles the question of where sleep is heading and finds no clear answer; some people will perhaps find flexibility, but others will remain controlled by unforgiving schedules.
A fresh approach to a familiar phenomenon.