The importance of an “insomnia book”

Like many avid readers, I read more than one thing at a time, and one of those things is the “insomnia book.” This book remains at my bedside, and when I can’t sleep — perhaps I don’t feel well, perhaps something weighs too heavily on my mind — I open up that book.

Right now, it’s The Education of Henry Adams, the autobiography of Henry Adams (1838–1918). It won the 1919 Pulitzer Prize.

Four virtues make this a good insomnia book:

First, it’s calm and calming. Even when Adams shares his distress over the US Civil War or laments over all the time he wasted in his youth, he does so looking back with a mature, serene appraisal.

Second, it’s interesting but not enthralling. I want to turn the page, but I don’t feel compelled if I start to feel sleepy.

Third, it’s not complex. Adams does something, then next year he does something else. I don’t have to keep track of a large cast of characters or series of plot twists. I can go a couple of weeks without reading it (I usually sleep well) and not feel lost when I pick it up again.

Fourth, it’s distracting. The events occurred long ago and far away.

At other times, my insomnia book has been an explanation of the mathematics of game theory or a deep dive into English grammar. I find that non-fiction tends to work best.

I write this not to recommend Adams’ book but to recommend having an insomnia book. You should find an author who will help you feel that if you can’t sleep, reading this book is a good option — but if a little while later you can sleep, putting this book down is a good option, too. In fact, if you pick the right book, it will nudge you toward sleep.

I wish you sweet dreams.

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