Our Reading Lives

On the (Unsurprising) Connection Between Books and Insomnia

I am an insomniac—I have been for as long as I can remember.

I’ve tried it all: breathing exercises, warm baths, white noise machine, fixed schedule. It’s all futile. No matter what I do—or don’t do—I still take hours to fall asleep. On some nights, I don’t sleep at all. It’s a horrible thing, not sleeping—though it is considerably less horrible if you have a good book.

And I usually do.


This, however, comes with its own set of problems. A good book has the power to keep anyone up at night—insomniac or not—and I cannot have my bedtime reading contributing to my sleeplessness. Which is why I’ve developed three nighttime bookish habits.

I begin with substance over form (not just an accounting principle). In other words: what I read. I am a compulsive person, and nothing triggers my compulsion quite like a good story. And because I still haven’t learned how to function on no sleep (#goals) I came up with a solution: after 10pm, I stick to nonfiction. This is because I enjoy all forms of good writing—but fiction is my obsession. Which means that on the nights that I feel my eyelids finally succumbing to slumber, I can usually put a nonfiction book aside.

Now, I move on to form. Meaning how I read. Personally, I remain unconvinced on the supposed connection between extended screen time and insomnia, at least for me. The reason: my insomnia predates ebooks…by decades. Not to mention that I am a huge fan of ebooks—and not just because they allow me to carry an entire library in my bag. Still, beggars can’t be choosers (or, I should say, non-sleepers can’t be skeptics), which means that, after 11pm, I stick to paper books. Unfortunately, this means that I often go to bed with a pencil and a veritable rainbow of sticky notes. Alas, I can (temporarily) live without ebooks, but not without annotating.

The what and the how are important, of course, but I’ve saved the most important habit for last: the when. As in: when to hold myself to these habits. It’s a judgement call that requires self-awareness and self-compassion. The biological need for sleep has to do with relaxation, with respite. And that cannot happen in a stressful environment. Which brings me to a lesson I’ve learned after years of tossing and turning: failure is inescapable. It will happen. Not all the time. Hopefully, not even often. But sometimes. No matter how many rules and rituals I follow, there are times when sleep eludes me. I wish it weren’t the case, but it is—and I have the dark circles to prove it. And instead of feeling angry with myself (which has happened countless times) or at my husband (whose only crime is being able to fall asleep like a normal person—infuriating, I know) or even Babaganoush (my English Bulldog—he mostly ignores my huffing and puffing), the best thing to do is this: embrace the insomnia. Make it your best friend, at least for that night.

And, when that happens, I read whatever and however I want.