At the public library today, I picked up A Passion for Books, a collection of short pieces on reading, collecting, exchanging and appreciating books. Among them is a delightful essay called Pillow Books by Clifton Fadiman. As someone who has been reading at bedtime since school, I was very eager about the kinds of books that Fadiman would recommend. In his words:
In sum, for me, the best books are those that deny the existence of tomorrow. To read in bed is to draw around us, invisible, noiseless curtains. Then at last we are in a room of our own, and are ready to burrow back, back, back to that private life of the imagination we all led as children, and to whose secret satisfactions so many of us have mislaid the key.
Amidst recommendations made with playful humor and wisdom, Fadiman requires that bedtime books be gentle, neither too profound, nor too lucid; neither too dull nor too wild. In this scheme of things, newspapers are out, so are stock quotes, political pieces, war reports. He recommends, along with several writers, Trollope (honorable mention as the “perfect novelist for the bedside”), Maugham’s short stories, Dorothy Sayers, Rachel Carson, H.G. Wells.
All this is fine for someone who has a choice of reading times and can allocate his to-read list accordingly. Like many readers though, I do not have that luxury. Thus, any and all reading happens at night, most of it in bed. Picking up a book before becoming horizontal is often automatic, but the idea of choosing what to read often does not come automatically. Indeed, one reads what one is most interested in at the moment. This is unlike any of the two prototypes that Fadiman singles out for ridicule: those that read in order to sleep, and those that read to ward off sleep. I read because I have to read, knowing also that I have to sleep at some point. Sleep usually wins the battle with the book, which is good, or else the whole schedule of the next day is thrown out of gear. Sometimes though, there is that intruder, that engaging book which banishes sleep, destroys the next day and promptly begs to be continued the next night. The serial bedside reader is, it seems to me, ocassionally doomed by an exciting book to a loss of perspective, a loss of appetite, and more seriously a loss of sound health. What defense does he have against the supreme novel that has already destroyed what remains of his self-control and common sense?