Great Books for Bedtime Reading
The Water Dancer
Fleishman Is in Trouble
Such a Fun Age
The Starless Sea
Red at the Bone
Throughout my teenage years, I imagined that my 20s would bring me big-city adventures, an interesting career, and a colorful cast of friends who would make me laugh and learn alongside me about things like wine and real relationships.
For the most part, I got those things. I moved to New York, got a job in book publishing, and cultivated wonderful friendships with people who brought me out of my suburban Pennsylvania shell. My 20s brought me almost everything I expected.
But there was a twist, because I got something I never anticipated—and it certainly wasn’t something I wanted. When I was 23, I was hit with a crushing case of insomnia. To say that my sleeping issues developed overnight would not be an exaggeration. One night, I hit the pillow at my usual 10 p.m. and woke up at 6 the next morning after a solid eight hours of slumber. The next night, I quite literally never fell asleep.
At first, I figured it was a blip. I texted my roommates “lol was up all night,” got dressed for work, and pushed through my day with a little less energy than usual. It was the first time I truly regretted the fact that I’d never figured out how to overcome my distaste for coffee. I assumed I’d sleep well again that night and that my routine would resume as normal.
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Unfortunately, that wasn’t what happened, and a new normal—an exhausting, uncomfortable, often miserable normal—began. Over the next five years, my insomnia persisted. I was averaging about five hours of sleep in every three-day period. Doctors shrugged and suggested everything from melatonin to meditation, giving me little in the way of real answers or solutions. The melatonin gave me hives; the meditation helped my daytime anxiety but made no difference to my sleep schedule. I begged for medication and was denied. “We don’t like to put an otherwise healthy 20-something on an addictive prescription for sleep,” multiple doctors told me.
I knew they were right, but I was tired. And I was tired of being tired. This wasn’t part of my dream of my 20s.
Instead of sleeping, I spent many nights burning my way through full seasons of The Great British Baking Show and getting friendly with B-list reality stars through their Instagram feeds. These felt like reasonable alternatives to lying in the dark for hours, growing increasingly frustrated about my inability to get some shuteye. At least I understood the theories of making bread and pastry!
After a few years of this, though, it was clear that I had to do something different. Enough was enough.
I’ve been a book lover for as long as I can remember, and reading before bed has been part of my routine since I was in elementary school. At the height of my insomnia days, I read for an hour or so before turning off the lights, but typically closed my book at about the time I was beginning to get frustrated that I hadn’t fallen asleep yet. I assumed that I had a better shot of drifting off if the lights were off and I was doing something mindless, like binge-watching baking shows or scrolling social media.
Given the fact that I still wasn’t sleeping, I should have realized I had it all wrong. But it took me a while to get there.
I can’t remember what exactly changed things. I can only imagine that I was reading a really good book when it happened. Instead of giving in to my frustration and shutting my book in favor of my iPad, I kept reading—and I did that every night for a long stretch, even if it felt like it wasn’t going to make a difference. The first night, it didn’t make much of a difference, but the second night, I fell asleep at a more reasonable hour and slept for four hours. I still woke up ridiculously early, but it was progress.
It went on like this for a while. I made reading the core, nonnegotiable element of my bedtime routine, and I started to feel things improve. I wasn’t sleeping as much or as well as my friends, but for the first time in years, total exhaustion stopped being my default state.
If I’d done some of my own research when I was in the thick of my insomnia, I may have figured this out sooner. According to the Sleep Matters Club, reading before bed is beneficial for adults because it curbs stress. In fact, studies show that it decreases stress levels by a whopping 68 percent. I never quite got to the bottom of the root of my insomnia, but I’m sure the stresses of young adulthood had something to do with it.
It’s now been a few years since I started getting my sleep issues under control, and over the past few months, I’ve tried to get even more intentional about my bedtime routine. I tend to thrive on structure, in general, and Harvard Medical School confirms the importance of consistency when it comes to going to bed, more specifically. These days, I start actively getting ready for bed about 90 minutes before I’d really like to fall asleep (yes, even if it means that I can only watch the first half of The Bachelor in real-time). I do one last check of my phone (because it’s become increasingly clear that blue light is bad news for sleep patterns), grab my book, and cozy up.
I still can’t say that I’m a great sleeper—and I don’t know that I ever will be!—but it’s nice to be able to rely on a baseline level of sleep every night, to trust that my body will have the chance to reboot itself from one day to the next. My insomnia robbed me of those things when I was in my mid-20s, and I wouldn’t wish that on my worst enemy.
Today, I’ve lost touch with a lot of the B-list reality stars I once knew so well via Instagram, and my dreams of successfully making homemade puff pastry are more distant than ever. But there’s some serious upside, because in addition to actually sleeping, I’m reading a lot, too!
The irony of all of this is that back when I was an overachieving, teacher’s pet third grader, I thought it would be fun to go rogue and stay up all. night. reading… on a school night! My mom would never know. And the stories I would be able to tell after a wild all-nighter! It was my ultimate bad-to-the-bone fantasy, but every time I attempted it, I would conk out within an hour. When I was struggling the most with insomnia, I thought back on that version of myself and laughed. If only you knew how much you wish you would be able to sleep, I told her in my mind. All-night read-a-thons are much less glamorous than you think.
Like most adults, I’ve realized that the only thing truly worth an all-night marathon is, well, sleep. Still, I’ve compromised with my younger self, discovering the very real benefits of reading consistently to get to sleep.
For more great tips about using books to get to sleep faster, check out Penguin Random House’s Read to Sleep initiative.
Featured Photo by Penguin Random House; Illustrations by Kevon Nicholas