Is Reading At Night Terrible or Am I Terrible?

Here is an epiphany that I’m willing to bet most of us have during our adult lives, probably between the ages of 22 and 25, but maybe any time: If you get up earlier, you have more time in your day.

So simple. So utterly groundbreaking. If reading this is causing your epiphany right now, give yourself a minute before you continue.

Before I had this epiphany myself, at 23 (I was a medium bloomer), reading for fun was something I did mostly during the afternoon. Which meant I didn’t do that much of it—who, after all, regularly has uninterrupted afternoons? I was a weekend reader. I found time to read, yes, but without routine. For most of us, if reading is to be a daily habit it has to happen in the early morning or the late evening.

Once I realized I could add two hours of free time to my day by waking up at 7:00 instead of ten minutes before I absolutely had to be out of the house, I filled those hours with books. What a difference! I can now cruise through books with absolute regularity. I am, at least, as current with books as The New Yorker. (Bold, I know, but I stand by it.) No matter how many emails I write the rest of the day that begin with “I hope this note finds you well!” at least I got to spend some quality, pre-distractions time reading.

Which brings me to the question at hand. Recently, I began to wonder whether I could do the same thing with reading at night. Just a teensy bit more recently, I realized that’s utterly bananas.

The problem is, like everything else we’d like to do in life but don’t: distraction. As a population, we understand that, generally, we are losing our ability to focus. I buy that idea; I too own a smartphone. But I also believe that being able to sit down and read a book with a quiet mind is a skill that needs to be practiced to be maintained, like yoga or the ten push-ups I can do. I believe it’s a recoupable skill. That said, I have not found myself up to the task of using books to usher out the distraction as reliably as I have been able to use reading to forestall the distraction.

I can read peacefully for two hours in the morning because I make a point to leave my phone in a different room (or a different quadrant of my studio alcove as the current case may be). I don’t wake up with that every-five-minute urge to pick up my phone to see if someone texted me or, more likely, our country has committed some further unthinkable atrocity, but I feel that urge the minute I first light up my stupid screen every day.

In the evenings, my brain is still lit up by the onslaught—texts, news, tweets, emails, notifications, Venmo requests—that we’ve all incorporated into our daily lives. Even though some would argue that watching reruns of The Great British Baking Show and reading both aim to provide distraction, one requires much less input from me, the all-important decision-maker. By the end of the day, getting myself to actively reengage and participate in a book feels effortful. Watching other people make lions out of bread does not.

Part of the problem is that I don’t know if I’ll ever think of reading as passive, but I do think of TV as such. I believe reading requires engagement. If I could get myself to think of reading as something I’m simply consuming, I could probably get myself to read at night. But I always imagine myself an active participant in the text. The text is dynamic because I react to it. I am the center of my reading experience. In a way, I am the main character in every book I read.

I do sometimes read at night; let me not paint myself as a television zombie. Sometimes I have to read for my job, sometimes I’ll set aside books that require less attention for nighttime reading, sometimes the mood just strikes.

But almost without exception, the last thing I do before I fall asleep is watch a little bit of TV. (And not just any TV! Nothing even remotely evocative of the highly fraught world we live in!) It’s the only way I’ve successfully found I can re-quiet the noise in my mind from those texts, emails, news stories, Venmo requests enough to fall asleep. I think that’s okay. I am not overly troubled by my own reality, but I wonder: if I worked at it for a little while, could I get books to do the same thing?

I feel now, at the end of writing, that I have backed myself into a corner from which I can emerge only if I set myself to the task of answering the question of whether reading at night is terrible or I am terrible from trial and not simple conjecture. Please check back for part two of this piece, which will appear after I conduct a highly scientific, peer-reviewed experiment. (It will not be highly scientific and it will not be peer-reviewed except maybe by my fiancé who will read the result and say whether or not I should put it on the internet.) I set myself the task of going an entire week during which I make reading the last thing I do before I shut out the light. I will report back from the front lines of inquiry.

But for now, I say this: reading in the morning is the best and reading at night is terrible.