I suppose it says something, possibly profound, about the state of the world, that there are now so many apps available which promise stories that will send the reader or listener to sleep. You can choose to listen to stories from the boring to the beautiful, from the fantastic to the hypnotic: or to find collections containing pieces only five minutes long, to ones where the average listening time is an hour.
However, the reader’s voice may be mellifluous, and the story un-alarming, but I have to concentrate too hard on those fleeting words to relax into sleep. So I have always been, and will remain, a bedtime reader, preferably of real books, though sometimes I do resort to the library on my iPad.
I am careful about what sort of books I allow on my reading list. I give high priority to old favourites, some from my youth, or occasionally my childhood. The novels of Jane Austen, J.R Tolkien, Mrs. Gaskell, the short stories of Rudyard Kipling or the historical novels of Rosemary Sutcliffe, can often be found in the pile of books on my bedside table. When I read at night I like to know that the ending will not only be satisfying, but also not too harrowing. So classical whodunits and mysteries are also acceptable; we know that the murder/mystery will be solved, the innocent proven not guilty, the world of the novel righted and that the protagonist will survive to investigate again. And of course a well-written, complex or humorous romance never comes amiss. I keep new fiction with suspenseful plots and dark characterizations for daytime reading.
On other nights, I sometimes pick through a nice, fat anthology of poetry, from Beowulf to poems written yesterday or thereabouts. Though it will be heavy to hold, there will be something to fit my every mood and maybe one piece to prompt me to look out the “Collected Poems” or a biography of a favourite author tomorrow. Autobiographies and memoirs are also a fruitful source of bedtime reading, giving us, if carefully chosen, beautifully told and constructed accounts of the author’s experience of life and not always accurate memories. Who can resist Laurie Lee’s, Cider with Rosieor As I Walked out One Midsummer Morning? There are so many wonderful books of this kind; one which is always on my re-read list is Flora Thompson’s, From Lark Rise to Candleford.
There are contemporary, sometimes very new books too, which I enjoy reading at night. I have a library of books about writing and editing, some inspirational like Pat Schneider’s, Writing Alone and with others,some by passionate punctuators or grammarians like Lynne Truss, author of Eats Shoots and Leaves, others by editors whose advice has guided both writers and editors for many years. My newest purchase is Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style, by Benjamin Dreyer, long-time chief copyeditor at Random House and released this month by that publisher. These authors’ passion for order and clarity is engaging and they are adept at providing amusing examples as evidence for their argument and usually manage to spice their discussions with funny anecdotes. I often find myself laughing out loud when reading them. When I was young I also loved browsing dictionaries, especially, those which gave the etymology of words. Actually using the words I came across became a private game.
Laughter before sleeping helps me to good dreams and I think deeper sleep. Becoming immersed in the lives and experiences of others can also change our perspectives and broaden our view of the world. If the writer is describing times past we can enjoy being transported to that environment. Maybe in the morning, we will both question or regret the loss of the values and ideas of that time and let our conclusions change our perceptions of the world today. The intellectual puzzles of the traditional mystery set in its customary framework, also give a sleepy reader, a renewed sense of balance and order.
It’s not that I have given up on present day literature but as the late, great writer, Ursula le Guin pointed out in an often quoted comment, “Hard times are coming, when we’ll be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine real grounds for hope. We’ll need writers who can remember freedom — poets, visionaries — realists of a larger reality.” Perhaps, too much of present day literature reflects our fears, our obsession with technology and can only paint a dystopian future. Let’s hope that among the many new writers emerging today there are those who can fulfil this need to imagine real grounds for hope in a larger reality.
Meanwhile, I shut out intrusive voices however they arrive in my house and stick to the beautiful silence of books, to which I have my own key and can unlock or lock them as I choose.