An eyes-wide-open look at the penumbral world of sleep, where we spend so much of our time without quite knowing why.
“We inhabit a culture that keeps people on the brink of falling asleep and yet inhibits them from doing it properly,” writes McGirr (Things You Get for Free, 2012, etc.), an Australian writer and former Jesuit priest who describes instances of tipping over that brink in the classroom, congregation, and nearly every other place where beleaguered people try to grab a few winks. Blame it on Thomas Edison, who worked 18 hours per day, enjoyed no social life to speak of, and led “a gang of assassins” who “murdered sleep” with his infernal electric lightbulb. However, as the author notes, we had been trying to extract light from darkness long before. In a lively though sometimes too centrifugal cultural history, he explores key moments, venturing the wise observation that “The Odyssey is a book about getting home to bed” and working in personal aperçus redolent of Proustian sentiment: “When I was a child, I often found myself unable to sleep.” If the overarching subject of the book is sleep, its villains are the agents of sleeplessness and irregular sleep: insomnia, nightmares, narcolepsy. On all of these points, McGirr has something interesting to say, and he observes that narcolepsy, though a shadowy ailment, still affects about as many people as Parkinson’s disease and, thus, is more common than we might suspect. Being a sometime Jesuit, the author fits theology into the discussion without much fanfare: “God is a creature of the night” who was content to create darkness first and only later thought to illuminate the scene. And speaking of God, Keith Richards has some catching up to do: though well-known for his three- and four-day bouts of going without sleep, the record-holder, in 1965, went a staggering 11 days without it.
A good book to curl up with while pondering the mysteries of Morpheus.