Reading Remedy: books to battle sleepless nights

From practical guides to beating insomnia to novels exploring sleeplessness, these books offer valuable perspectives on the hours you spend awake when you wish you were not. 


Those deep, dark hours of the morning when it feels as if everyone else is asleep can be staggeringly lonely. Even in the heart of the city, the silence is heavy, interrupted only by the eerie wail of a passing siren. With the world held in the grip of a pandemic, many of us are finding sleep even harder to grasp than usual. Days have lost their shape, routines fall out of place. Beds aren’t just places to sleep, but work and think and eat.

They’re also, though, places to read. And the elusiveness of sleep has long inspired those who write. Of course, there are the practical guides: Paul McKenna's instructional I Can Make You Sleep, or The Magic of Sleep, Michael Acton Smith's bedside book to encourage drifting off. Then there are those which interrogate the science behind snoozing, such as Matthew Walker’s fascinating Why We Sleep.

Then there are the words that have come from sleepless nights themselves. The poetry of nightmares and daydreams, of thoughts that creep into the moments between night and day. The 2004 compilation Poems of Sleep and Dreams holds many of them, from Yeats to Thom Gunn, and makes a helpful bedside tome.

If you’d rather stick to fiction, try skewing towards the 20th century and Jean Rhys’s renowned meditation on solitude, Good Morning, Midnight. There’s more melancholy than resolution to be found in this artful portrayal of a fragile woman spending sleepless hours, during the twilight of her life, reflecting on where it all went wrong, but don’t let the common dismissal of this novel – summed up in one contemporary review as ‘well-written, but too depressing’ – put you off. There is perspective and strange beauty to be found in Rhys’s nocturnal examination.  

Good Morning, Midnight was semi-autobiographical, and the strange telescoping of time that can come from insomnia is something best known to those who have experienced it. Samantha Harvey’s The Shapeless Unease, A Year of Not Sleeping immaculately pin-points what it is to be awake because of the news during the past decade.

'There is perspective and strange beauty to be found in Rhys’s nocturnal examination'

A combination of family tragedy, home relocation and the EU referendum result transformed Harvey from a solid, take-it-for-granted sleeper into a chronic insomniac. Her memoir, released in January, explores not only the brutality of operating on no rest but also its impact on creativity. And there is solace in The Shapeless Unease, too: while there’s no such thing as a neat ‘cure’ for insomnia, Harvey does find a way to gain sleep, which brings its own hope.

Alternatively, comfort may lie in delirium: the vicarious kind, of course. Thomas De Quincy’s Confessions of an Opium Eater spirals through visions, waking dreams and foggy sleeplessness induced by the author’s fondness for eating inadvisably large portions of laudanum, paving the way for future drug-fuelled missives from Burroughs and Baudelaire.

And if all else fails, and you find yourself fitful and furrow-browed in the small hours of the morning, never underestimate the power of an open window, the cool side of a freshly plumped pillow and a podcast on something you really, truly struggle to engage with, playing quietly into the night.

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