I was shocked a while ago to hear literary and cultural critic Stanley Fish say in a radio interview that he no longer reads poetry, except professionally. When I worked in the academy I loved reading for a living, but I didn’t want to lose my amateur enthusiasm for the printed word. In a busy life, my slim bulwark against that huge loss has always been a quarter-hour each night of plumping up a pillow and enjoying by a dim night light my bedtime book.
I expect that criteria for a good bedtime read vary from person to person, and that some people don’t distinguish at all between bedtime and daytime reading. For me, however, my bedtime book is cracked open only in the minutes before sleep, and the books that have kept reading for reading’s sake alive have had a pretty defined set of requirements. They have to be outside of my areas of professional interest (mostly rhetoric and American lit) so that my motivations for reading are pure and my critical faculties don’t perk up too much. They have to be interesting enough to keep me engaged at the end of a long day but soothing enough to settle me in for a good night’s sleep. And I need to be able to nibble away at them in fifteen-minute chunks without feeling like I’m always forgetting what I read yesterday or breaking things off just as they are getting interesting.
Ironically, the books that ended up satisfying these criteria have been the very books I would have tackled anyway to be a broadly-read academic: the classics. You’d think that short books would best lend themselves to short reading spurts, but longer works predominated. Over the years, in fifteen-minute chunks, I have read, among other books, David Copperfield, War and Peace, Montaigne’s Essays, Middlemarch, Don Quixote, and Anna Karenina. Consuming these books fifteen minutes at a time meant that their reading stretched out over a long span of time, sometimes exceeding a year. The ritualistic regularity of my reading time also meant that the books became integrated into my life in a way that other books did not—my day was divided into waking, sleep, and an in-between state that was sometimes infused with Cervantes, sometimes Tolstoy, sometimes Dickens or Eliot.
I know, I know. This sounds like rich fare to sleep on. “And why not wolf down some chocolate mousse or duck paté just before you turn back the sheets while you’re at it?” some may say. But somehow reading these books at the same period of the day that my parents would read fairy tales to me as a child makes them pleasure and not work. Franz Kafka wrote that literature should be an axe to break the frozen sea within us, and the crack of axe on ice shouldn’t be an easy sound to fall asleep to. Yet there is something soothing about reading literature in particular at the end of a harried day, even if the adventures within the books are far from soothing for the books’ characters. No matter what vicissitudes my day, or the world’s day, presents, it is comforting to know that the world contained (and contains) minds who can produce such works—that I am joining a silent audience of readers who have enjoyed the books long before me, and that after I’ve turned the last page these books will always be waiting patiently for whomever else might be fortunate enough to discover them. And so, after dreaming that shared dream, I slip off peacefully into my own.