The light from the lamp casts no shadows. Your book is propped at the perfect angle. The pillows are fluffed just so under your shoulders and head. The sheets are freshly laundered. Is that a hint of lavender in the air? Rain patters at the window and on the street outside. The distant sound of car tires slicing through puddles reminds you of an early Tom Waits song. A mug of tea or a glass of whiskey is close by. Your arms won’t get tired and your foot won’t go numb. You are cozy in bed with a book and you want it to last forever.
“There’s an intimacy in bedtime reading,” Howard Jacobson writes at The Guardian, “that might have something to do with the pillows and the sheets, but is more about what happens when you move your eyes across a page.”
Somehow that intimacy isn’t the same when you’re staring at your phone instead of a book. Or the TV. Or your laptop with Netflix playing, your eyes unblinking.
“Words keep any reader busy any time, but you feel you’ve earned your sleep when you’ve wrestled with the angel of meaning at the end of a long day,” Jacobsen continues. Is sleep truly better after reading a book rather than indulging in any of the various other pleasures one might enjoy in that rare and enticing moment of respite between day and night?
How to read in bed
Pretend you don’t have a million other things to do. Convince yourself you didn’t promise to get so many things done today that you didn’t. Forget about that meeting first thing in the morning, that call you need to make before the end of business day in Europe or whatever.
Put on your pajamas and get into bed at 8pm. 9pm if that’s what you can manage. Earlier if you can. Have a single book handy — perhaps one you absolutely must finish today before you sleep — or a stack of books to graze through at your pleasure, dipping into them one at a time. Be prepared to drift off into a daydream or to forget yourself completely. Before you sleep you’ll forget you have a body. Perhaps you’ll convince yourself, for a little while, that you’re someone else.
I try to keep the phone away, but it can help to have it nearby to take a note or look up a reference. I am seized with an idea for a new or existing story while reading in bed more often than any other time or place. However, I am often shortly thereafter seized with a desire to cycle through my apps for some shiny new bit of information to distract me. So maybe I should leave my phone in the other room.
Reading with your eyes closed
The greatest risk, of course, is falling asleep. What’s the point of reading in bed when it’s holding you back from the rest you so damn well deserve? While there is something soothing about falling asleep over an open book, it’s embarrassing to wake up hours later with your glasses hanging off your face covered in drool and the light is still on. It’s hard to recover from a scene like that. You might as well give up before you even crack the cover if that’s how your night will go.
But sometimes it’s worthwhile. Sometimes you can fall asleep just gently enough to be aware that you’re asleep, to feel like you’re still reading. Many times I’ve continued some character’s adventure, some relationship conflict, some worrisome story problem behind closed eyes.
Ideally I come gradually and gracefully awake, check the clock, decide it’s time to turn out the light. But usually I wake with a jerk, realizing that I’d been rewriting the book as I slept, and try to pick up the thread. But inevitably it’s time to turn out the light.