On Reading in Bed

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?

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10 thoughts on “On Reading in Bed”

  1. to me, a simple solution to your cliffhanger question is either have a back-up plan for next day’s schedule or change your reading moments. often when i am taken over to finish the book at all costs before sleeping, i would rearrange my next day’s schedule to make sure i can an extra hour of sleep, but that means i have to skip breakfast or my habitual early morning check on my blog.

    if that’s not possible, i find that taking the book to anywhere your destination is not a problem to squeeze in reading bits, like when you’re in the bus or waiting for the bus. i don’t know about you, but i have to wait for a lot of things whenever i’m out and i would be absolutely lost if i don’t have a book to read while waiting. i find it such a terrible waste of time to stare at the surroundings or making small talk while waiting. imagine how many pages you could cover throughout the waitings you have done in a day!

    and if that is still not possble, well… just don’t read it that night if you sense the climax is near.

  2. sulz: Welcome to Mirkwood! Yes, I agree with the idea of taking the book along to read while standing in queues or waiting in general. I do it often, in the Subway queue and at lunch.

    That last suggestion of yours is *really* hard to implement, though ;). When the novel’s climax is near, I usually want to gobble it up asap.

  3. I usually read for at least half an hour in bed every night. I always have done, since I was a child. Of course, if the book is good, it can be a lot longer than that, and I too have the problem of not wanting to put it down and switch off the light.

  4. I have read myself to sleep since childhood. Now that we share our bedroom with a baby, who prefers to sleep in darkness, I have removed my reading habit to the bath. While this is lovely, it means my reading time is restricted: either the water gets cold or I start to get uncomfortable. Also I can’t fall asleep there. I’m looking forward to the baby moving out and getting my pillow reading back!

  5. Cas: I am experimenting with reading the wilder and more fascinating books at lunch, and leaving the gentler paced novels for bedtime. Hasn’t worked well so far, because I still sleep rather late, and worse: I become a loner at lunch. It is wonderful on weekends though, because I can keep on reading even after lunch is over. I was discussing video cameras with a neighborhood Quizno’s franchise owner who was surprised that I was in engineering. He thought that I was a literature major, because he is used to always seeing me with a novel!

    Charlotte: I honestly thought reading in the tub only happened in the movies ;). Now that I think about it, it must be a very relaxing experience. BTW, have you had Akismet incorrectly classify your comment as spam before? I fished this one out of the spam blocker just now. I’m wondering why that should happen, given the content of your post.

  6. THanks so much for the nice comments on my blog. I took the opportunity to follow the link to your site and find it very interesting. I work for an adolescent literacy program and am also an avid reader, so of course any discussions on reading and books are exciting to find. Lately my bedtime reading mostly happens on my laptop catching up on interesting blogs, while my bedside table books wait patiently. I also like reading in the bathtub and have a great bath tray thingee that actually holds the book open so I don’t have to hold the book with wet hands!

  7. I did know people could read in their baths (I did not know about bath-book-rests, though – is it home-made or do they sell for real ?). I have been doing it for ages. Occasionally the book falls in the water, so I avoid reading borrowed books in my bath.
    As to reading in bed without the light, I have found this very interesting account by Lorelle on WordPress on how she reads ebooks from her handheld with minimum disruption to co-sleepers. I currently use my laptop for the same purpose, but I can hardly read myself to sleep, lest it should fall when I toss and turn.
    For me, the best bedtime reading author is Marcel Proust – a sweet lullaby of twined words and delicate feelings, tugging my mind out and away from under the burden of a full workday.

  8. “I have been doing it for ages. Occasionally the book falls in the water, so I avoid reading borrowed books in my bath.”
    Holy Space! I’m wondering what you would say to a book-lending friend, “I’m sorry about the crispy pages, it …um… fell into the bath-tub” 😉

    Lorelle’s idea is cool, and something I want to try out. The only problem is that my PDA is a battery hog. I would have to recharge it every day. Still, it sounds too cool not to try once.

  9. wouldn’t your eyes hurt from the glare after a while? that’s why i don’t read ebooks. that, and the nice books are usually not available in free ebook form. strange that i have no problems with reading blogs, though…

  10. Sulz: You can turn the backlighting level as low as you want, so I guess it is no more eye-hurting than an old paperback with a flashlight.
    And a really large lot of classics are available online as free dowloads (search the Gutenberg Project). Recent books are generally pay-per-view, but I say to myself I’ll turn to those when I’m done reading the free classics, by which time the recent ones will be either forgotten or free classics themselves.

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