The night before I stopped sleeping, I slept. This is something I try to explain to any well-meaning person who asks about my mysterious, pigheaded, yearslong case of insomnia. It came on abruptly. It was precipitated by no crisis I could discern. It was not the culmination of many years of poor or varied sleep. One day, I simply closed my eyes and nothing happened. It was as if I’d been poisoned.
Whenever a self-help book about sleep crosses my desk, I toss it. I already know what it says. Not getting enough: Bad. Pills: Avoid. Sunlight: Essential. But when I saw Benjamin Reiss’ “Wild Nights: How Taming Sleep Created Our Restless World,” I lunged for it, and it wouldn’t surprise me if my fellow travelers in exhaustion had the same response. Certainly, strangers reacted favorably to Reiss while the book was still in progress. As he writes in his epilogue: “Something about becoming the Sleep Guy seems to have made me a magnet for interesting divulgences and unusual conversations.”
Most people, even those who sleep well, have at least one story about a brutal cage match with Morpheus.
What makes “Wild Nights” so liberating is that it is descriptive, not prescriptive. It does not hector. It barely engages with the science of slumber at all. It aims, rather, to describe the social history and evolving culture of sleep – through literature (Reiss is an English professor at Emory University), through ethnographies, through old diaries and memoirs and medical texts.
I wish the quality of this book didn’t jiggle like a sine curve. Only every other chapter, or thereabouts, pops with insight. The others stray too far from the subject or hew too closely to the familiar. I already know that the 24/7 demands of the information economy conspire against sleep. I certainly do not need his analysis of Kanye West’s video “Famous,” which includes this spoonful of jargon-flavored goo: “This particular bit of public, collective sleeping practically sacralizes fame.”
But let’s focus on what’s eye-opening about “Wild Nights,” including Reiss’ very premise: “Virtually nothing about our standard model of sleep existed as we know it two centuries ago.”
Sleep was once social. Families slept in common rooms; traveling strangers often shared the same bed. The 18th-century diarist Samuel Pepys went so far as to rank his favorite bedmates. (Fine conversation generally put a fellow in good stead.) Only after the Industrial Revolution, when reformers expressed concerns over the cleanliness of crowded living arrangements, did sleep become a “privatized” affair.
Yet solitary sleeping generated problems of its own. Moralists panicked over masturbation. (During the 19th century, a small market of appliances discouraging it, like erection alarms and penis cases, bloomed.) Neurotic worries over children’s sleep grew. Dr. Benjamin Spock, the cuddly child-rearing eminence of the mid-20th century, recommended securing kids in bed with a loop of badminton net.
The worst problem of all? Insomnia. According to Reiss, writers in the 19th century remarked repeatedly on a rise in sleeplessness. “As nations advance in civilization and refinement, affections of the nervous system become more frequent,” wrote neurologist William Alexander Hammond in his 1872 book, “Sleep and Its Derangements.” (The titles of the old medical texts cited in “Wild Nights” are splendid.)
Industrialization did not just privatize sleep. It also consolidated it and then shoehorned it into rhythms better suited to commerce and railway travel than the rhythms of the seasons – or our bodies’ own needs. We know that before the machine age people slept in a variety of ways, including (famously) “segmented sleep,” or sleep in two shifts. But with industrialization, we became servants of clock time, “a time newly homogeneous across season, region or profession.”
The most harrowing parts of “Wild Nights,” however, are not about the great loss of sleep diversity. They’re about sleep inequality, for want of a better term. Sleep is supposedly a great equalizer – “th’indifferent judge between the high and low,” as the Elizabethan poet Philip Sidney once wrote – but Reiss makes it achingly clear that sleep is anything but democratically distributed. Or interpreted.
Nowhere was this more evident than in the institution of slavery. Frederick Douglass wrote that “more slaves are whipped for oversleeping than any other fault.” Slaves slept in squalor and were never permitted sufficient rest; yet somehow, Thomas Jefferson took a slave’s tendency to fall instantly asleep as evidence not of bone-weariness, but intellectual inferiority – the slave lacked introspection.
Reiss has a fine eye for quotes, whether it’s Marcel Proust remembering his childhood loneliness at bedtime or Henry David Thoreau, afflicted with terrible insomnia, lamenting the freneticism of the industrialized world: “Hardly a man takes a half-hour’s nap after dinner, but when he wakes he holds up his head and asks, ‘What’s the news?' as if the rest of mankind had stood his sentinels.”
This, more than 150 years before Twitter.
Yet sometimes Reiss overindulges his penchant for literary analysis, simply using sleep as an excuse to riff on authors he loves. Embedded throughout “Wild Nights” is also a nostalgia, no doubt influenced by Thoreau (whom he calls the book’s “guiding spirit”), for a time when our bodies were synchronized with the seasons, unchained from the adamantine demands of the clock.
But the days of candles and oil lamps didn’t necessarily guarantee a good night’s rest. As the author acknowledges, insomnia is an ancient problem, for which there have been a staggering variety of proposed cures over the centuries – including the strategic application of one sheep lung to each side of the head.
And on occasion, Reiss’ perspective becomes so narrow it brings to mind that old aphorism “To a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” To a writer about sleep, everything looks like an uncomfortable bed. At one point Reiss declares that “it’s not too much to speculate” whether the solitary confinement of children to their own rooms was “one of the hidden sources of the rebellious youth movements that marked the late 20th century.”
Actually, it is too much to speculate.
What does remain certain is that humans will continue to try to subdue sleep. If putting children to bed by themselves was once unfathomable to us, what might the next unthinkable development be? Reiss writes about a NASA-financed project that explored inducing astronauts into a “prolonged torpor” for a mission to Mars. It didn’t make much headway. But researchers are still working on the possibilities of human hibernation, and maybe even losing sleep over it.
Wild Nights: How Taming Sleep Created Our Restless World
By Benjamin Reiss
Basic Books, $28, 305 pages