One night years ago, I closed my eyes and nothing happened. It was as if I’d been poisoned, and my mysterious, pigheaded case of insomnia has lasted ever since. So 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. 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), old diaries 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.
What’s eye-opening about ‘‘Wild Nights’’ is Reiss’ 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 a bed. Only after the Industrial Revolution, when reformers expressed concerns over the cleanliness of crowded living arrangements, did sleep become a ‘‘privatized’’ affair.
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 consolidated sleep and shoehorned it into rhythms better suited to commerce and railway travel than our bodies’ needs.
Another striking part of ‘‘Wild Nights’’ is about sleep inequality, for want of a better term. Reiss makes it 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 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.