I spent a goodly portion of the latter half of my PhD staying up all night, every night storming through books fully unrelated to my dissertation. I’ve been dancing a weary turn with insomnia since 1986 or so, when TV ended every night at 1am and the internets were barely a gleam in William Gibson’s eye.
That sleepless stretch of the mid-80s was wholly unpleasant; there weren’t many good books laying around. Fortunately, by the time I was mired in the stress of trying to finish my dissertation, I was living in a home hard-packed with books, cats, peanut butter toast, and a husband who slept soundly through my midnight wandering between kitchen and office. I also, then, had a chair I could properly curl up in and a back that could handle it.
While I wanted very much to sleep and to finish grad school, I enjoyed those lost nights. A quiet house, a reading lamp with a soft light, general coziness, and a novel…Okay, the truth: I loved those nights. My readerly pleasure was somewhat tempered by the constant sense of being pursued by werewolves (which my thesis threatened to turn into when struck by light of any sort either actual or metaphorical); but I could absolutely block out that howling for minutes, and every once in a while, hours at a time.
Post-PhD, insomnia has remained an issue off and on. It is very much on right now; indeed, it’s been turned up to 11 for a fair chunk of the pandemic—happy two-year anniversary, you bastard!
I started writing this post on my phone very late one night/early in the witching hour. Yes, this is 100% precisely the sort of thing you’re not supposed to do when you can’t sleep. However, I never learned to touch type; there was a keyboarding class I could have taken in grade 12; my nerdy boyfriend and his nerdy friends took it; I declined, certain that such a skill would never be necessary, forgetting that my previous attempts at prophesying would have embarrassed Cassandra herself, e.g., when I declared scornfully at around age 9 that “One Night in Bangkok”* would never be a hit. The point is, I didn’t want to pound on my keyboard since Brook, Lyra, and Jones were sleeping but have also been wrangling with Covid sleeplessness.
I went downstairs and returned to my novel, which I’d put down earlier that evening at a key scene occurring in the dark and dead of night; this was an auspicious coincidence since this is novel is 2/3 cheerful and mildly satirical Victorian fiction: The Astonishing History of Troy Town. (Highly recommended for happy good times and fun drawrings [sic].)
It’s not a first-class Victorian door-stopper but it did the trick: it amused, it entertained, it distracted. Moreover and more importantly, it was a novel and I was reading it. Covid has done strange things to my reading; for almost the first year, I could not read novels at all.
Instead, I read short stories—thanks be to heaven and The Guardian’s “I wish more people would read…” feature for giving me the ever-living gift of Damon Runyon’s On Broadway. In early 2021, I came storming back and delighted in Thackeray’s super-fat The Newcomes. 2021’s novelistic revival ended not with a bang but with a whimper, though; Quiller-Couch was my first successful novel attempt in quite a while.
This wasn’t for a lack of options, of course; if I had a tonne of books during my PhD (and I did), I have a mega-tonne now. I’ve always bought books at a rate that outpaces my ability to read them by about 10:1; but during the pandemic, I have been buying books when I can go to actual bookstores the way we were all buying toilet paper and hand sanitizer in March 2020. In the brief lull in last winter’s 6-month lockdown, I went to Book City one sad Wednesday afternoon (hopefully dubbed Wellness Wednesday by my then employer), dropped $300 on books, then walked home clutching them to my chest and crying.
The danger of sleepless reading is two-fold: One, that I will fail to properly absorb some truly fine writing or an A+ plot; two, and I’m fortunate that this is what I “suffer” from most: becoming so immersed in a fantastic book that time disappears and all of a sudden the sun is rising and giving me stink-eye through the slats in the blind.
The superb words of Sybille Bedford have made me forget to go to sleep several times recently (and reminded me of how damn desperate I am to visit Central and South America!). A Visit to Don Otavio exercised its lovely magic on me and my sleep deprivation, making me re-visit this quotation (and many others) over and over to feel like I was sinking into the real, immediate mystery of Oaxaca: “The town now is rather lovely. The houses, one-storeyed against earthquake, have rustic Renaissance facades and are built of blocks of rough, greenish local stone. The plaza lies in speckled shade. On Saturdays a market spreads along every street; there is a special inn for donkeys, a baroque church covered every inch inside from niche to vaulting with a splendid absurdity of saints and angels in gilt and painted high-relief” (pp. 293-4).
The mad and dusky dreams of Franz Xaver von Schönwerth’s collected fairy and folk tales have also provided excellent companionship in my recent adventures in unwanted wakefulness. I’ve yet to meet a demented fairy tale I couldn’t instantly befriend; most of these are fully unhinged so I fell fully in love. (The Turnip Princess has turned out to be a prime example of the magic of bookstore roulette; my lovely mama-in-law, B., sent me an Indigo gift card for either Festivus or my birthday last year; I bought only books I’d never heard of and this was one of them.)
And where are we now? I’m alternating between the maniacal glory of Etgar Keret’s The Nimrod Flipout and the loving, smart, and painful beauty of Alicia Elliott’s A Mind Spread Out On the Ground. No novels on the go, but give me a minute: I’m going to be on an airplane relatively soon (I’ll be the one wearing N95 masks both over and under my hazmat suit); novels on airplanes are as necessary to my on-board safety as knowing where the nearest exit is. And I know there will be bookstores in the beloved land I’ll be visiting…
*That is one shockingly racist video, holy crap.