The Unacknowledged Obstacle of Literary Sleepiness

Reading (and writing) is exhausting. Here's why.

The first thing people notice when they enter my apartment are my books, both because I have a great deal of them and because, besides basic furniture and a spattering of artwork, they’re pretty much all I have. Now, I’m fully aware that a home almost exclusively festooned with bookshelves can appear self-congratulatory and pretentious, as if each spine were a trophy—and I’ll admit to being partly guilty of these motivations—but it’s also just true that I fucking love books and want to be surrounded by them always. I want my life—and, as a corollary, my apartment—to literally teem with them, because it is within a nest of books that I feel safest, surest, truest.

Whatever my reasons are for the amount of books I own notwithstanding, the result is that upon seeing them, people often feel compelled to justify (to me or to themselves) why they don’t read as much as they assume I do (which is always way more than I actually read). The four most common explanations for not reading as much as one would like (or, just as common, as much as one used to): too busy with work, family, social life, etc.; unable to retain attention for long(er)-term activities; some euphemistic variation of too-dumb, too-not-intellectual, too-simple, or too-incapable; and reading (particularly prolonged reading) induces drowsiness. 

Of course, I don’t ask this question of guests to my home, nor would I think any less of someone who never read at all. Plenty of my closest friends don’t actively read very often. But I don’t give a shit; they’re still rad. And anyway, the first three reasons given are pretty universal obstacles for any non-essential pursuit: finding the time, maintaining your interest; and feeling self-confident and capable enough to accomplish the task. These relate, in one way or another, to personal discipline and degree of dedication. As Stephen King has noted about reading: if one really wants to find the time, one will find the time. And the same goes with attention span or concentration; reading is not, as we all know but don’t often admit, super fun all the time. In fact, it can be quite boring. Thus any ambition for erudition must recognize the inherently tedious aspects of reading and suffer through them when necessary (because obviously being a good reader does not require finishing every book you start; in fact I think the opposite is true).

Regarding intelligence—when it comes down to it, nobody is naturally inclined to reading. It is a learned skill, like anything, and that includes more abstract things like tolerating ambiguity, deducing word definitions contextually, and useful close reading. To adopt and adapt to these kinds of skills necessitates an honest (and sometimes a horribly and, of course, negatively skewed perception) of your own intelligence, and set against the pillars of fiction and poetry most of us fail to measure up. This is why people often fault themselves for not liking a book they feel they’re supposed to like, as if the worth and the value of so-called canonical texts are objective and unquestionable. This is complete bullshit, but my ire is aimed not as those susceptible to inferiority but to the notion itself, and to the fact that it’s been perpetuated no doubt by those who claim to love literature the most. No book is smarter than you; they can only be unfit to your present sensibilities (because these change all the time and a book you had no interest in a year ago can suddenly become a sacred volume).

All of which is to say that reasons one-through-three represent pervasive notions about books and self-doubt and our culture’s versions of what signifies intelligence. But reason number four is different because it is physiological. And even more interestingly, one that is not often discussed or included in our appraisal of reading. To put it another way: people for whom reading (and, I wish to note, writing) is a daily activity and especially those for whom reading is a necessary (i.e., a part of your job or your general livelihood), the battle of sleepiness and the tools used to fight it are just as ubiquitous in our minds as the books themselves. But because the struggle to stay awake isn’t something talked about in non-excusatory language, the degree to which it affects us (and the ways we try to curb it) isn’t fully understood.

So I want to throw my two cents into this non-conversation and try to elucidate how sleepiness is a regular part of my reading (and thus professional) life, and see what that means, if anything. Of course it’s different for everyone, and I can imagine there are some readers for whom maintaining energy isn’t a problem at all. I’m only talking about my own experience—which from talking to numerous literary types seems at least relatable, if not universal—and I don’t presume to speak for anyone else other than myself.

Here’s the thing: reading and writing exhaust. They expend my intellect, deplete my creative capabilities, and tire my body. These are not, though, inherently bad things; in fact the only reason reading and writing have those effects is because they are both extraordinarily operative—it is difficult, then, to engage with them half-heartedly, because it’s basically the equivalent of not engaging at all. It would be like exercising without a rising heart rate: you may look like you’re doing the same thing as everyone else at Planet Fitness, but you aren’t getting any thinner or any healthier.

In other words, the exhaustion comes from the challenging nature of great writing and is thus a consequence of literature’s benefits. But unlike physical activities—in which actual exhaustion is inevitable and represents the power of the workout—the sleepiness that reading can induce isn’t developmental. It doesn’t work out muscles; it only exercises the brain. And although the immersive experience of reading can seem all-encompassing (i.e., that it’s working out the body as well as the mind), it really comes down to nothing more than sitting (or, as is frequent for me, lying down) and staring at an object. Moreover, exercising can actually yield more energy, our bodies functioning with a kind of perpetual motion.

Which is why writers and readers often need an active hobby. Haruki Murakami is a runner. David Foster Wallace played tennis. And of course there are plenty of people in the literary community who exercise, do yoga, take long walks, or live in big cities where walking is a regular (and strenuous) part of life. They enjoy these activities, obviously, but it seems like the motivation is less about counteracting the physical inertia of reading than it is about sustaining energy for reading. Otherwise finishing a book would take them way too long.

Because this is why sleepiness is a big deal for me: I can’t take forever reading a book, because I’ve got to review it, or interview its author, or cite it in an essay. And I have to do this regularly enough to earn my living. If I indulge the drowsiness too often, it’s not just that I’ll get behind or feel unaccomplished—I’ll literally go broke. And then, of course, in addition to all the reading, there is the complementary undertaking of writing about the reading, which pretty much doubles the problem. A novelist, poet, playwright, etc., must continually engage with books as a means to develop their craft, but if they don’t for any period of time, it doesn’t mean they can’t produce creative work (it might empty them of inspiration or comparative assessment but won’t necessarily obstruct them practically). I have no choice but to read, and to read a lot. So the challenge of literary sleepiness is especially hard on a critic.

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Here, then, are the ways that I try to stay awake. Like many writers I ingest a ludicrous amount of caffeine. Coffee, soda, energy drinks—hell, I’d probably snort it if such a variation existed. I’m a hopeless caffeine junkie. Also, I deliberately incorporate napping into my work routine. There is a certain point in my day, after a certain amount of work has been accomplished, when I will lie down and read with the express intention of falling asleep. By doing this, my hope is to bottle up all the tiredness from the day and release it in one somnambulant swoop. It doesn’t always work, but it can help, at the very least because napping allows me to be productive afterwards, if only for a short window. My physical activities were always skateboarding and walking my dog, but skating can be brutal and as I’ve aged, it’s become more and more difficult to even push around, let alone have a full session. The little jaunts with my dog are not, by themselves, enough. So in that department, I recognize I need some new hobbies.

The point, though, is that I’m always aware of the relationship between reading and sleepiness, but I rarely acknowledge it. Non-readers, on the other hand, are quick to cite it as an obstacle in the way of erudition. Does this mean then that I unconsciously categorize literary drowsiness as an exclusively non-literary reaction? Do I somehow believe that admitting the degree to which reading puts me to sleep would cause people to lose some of their respect for me (assuming, of course, that there are people who exist in this world who do, in fact, have respect for me to begin with)? Would it be like a stunt performer admitting how frightened they are? Or something more like an art historian confessing to interpretive bewilderment? Maybe there isn’t a useful comparison, but there is something to this line of thought: what is it about drowsiness (as opposed to the numerous other peculiarities of the reading and writing life) that lets it go unremarked by people whose sole objective is to locate and describe those aspects of life that are both hyper-specific and widely recognizable? It’s like a filter over our vision we’ve become so accustomed to, that we forget that what we’re seeing isn’t wholly accurate.

Or maybe there’s a laziness component to this, too. Maybe my daily war with sleeping seems, to those with office jobs or positions at universities, an incredibly privileged predicament. Like: “Oh, you’re tired? From what, exactly? Sitting around your house all day, reading and writing and napping? What a horrible existence!” And they’d be right: most people have to keep themselves awake in environments where a) they’re explicitly prohibited from sleeping in; b) strict time restrictions are imposed upon them; and c) there are just as many, if not more, soporific tasks required of them that are, like books for me, attached to their financial livelihood. And also it’s not like blue-collar jobs are any less tedious or tranquilizing. Shit, there are occupations in which the primary activity is sitting in the same spot for eight or more hours. When I was younger, I delivered pizza for nearly four years; sleepiness during work was worse than obstructive or irksome, it was dangerous. It wasn’t my financial livelihood at risk but my actual livelihood. Those nights ended up a cocktail of endurance, will power, and suffering, because ultimately I had no choice—or, at least, if I suddenly stopped working, it would be affecting more than just me: the customers, my bosses and co-workers, and my significant other. I was a part of something larger, from which it’s much more complicated to remove yourself.

As a predominantly freelance literary critic, I rarely have people looking over my shoulder, waiting for my work. Even when I’m facing strict deadlines, editors don’t have anything on the Big Brother watchfulness of some my minimum-wage bosses. With freelancing, my essays or reviews are rarely at the top of a publication’s hierarchy of needs; if I never turn in my piece, they’ll barely notice or care. My productivity must be self-generating. And when I’m struggling with depression or anxiety or extreme self-doubt and/or –loathing, sleep is especially tempting. Oh, how easy it would be to give in to the comfort of closed eyes and supine body! What a wonderful contrast, after all, between the concentrated effort of literary analysis and the palliative coziness of dreaming. Moments repeatedly arise when I’m stuck on a vexing section of a novel or I’m unable to articulate a nuanced idea, times when the allure of uncomplicated unconsciousness is almost irresistible.

This temptation, for me, represents the larger appeal of giving up. I could rid myself of myriad stresses if I just stopped—stopped reading, writing, pitching, following up, editing, and altogether participating in the colossal conversation of literature. No one would notice, really, and I’d no longer be risking myself in public. I wouldn’t worry over books read or fret about deadlines. I might find a more dependable income, or, hell, a job that involves other people, like IRL, and maybe I’d make some friends. Freelancing is a game of tippy toes—its capriciousness and volubility puts you in a constant state of anxious anticipation—and the moment I relax and fall back onto the heels of my feet, a wave of inviting exhaustion nudges me to bed. The pleasure it promises seems almost unfair.

But I can’t give in; I can’t sleep through my life. The restorative power of sleep is, of course, necessary and unavoidable, but like many medicines it is toxic in large doses. The fight to stay awake while reading and writing is not simply a practical concern, an obstacle to be gotten over—rather, it becomes entangled with my entire literary enterprise, a microcosm for the Sisyphean pursuit of a career as a critic, as, basically, a professional reader. This grander ambition daunts and its progress is impossible to measure, so the lesser daily battles that I win stand in for development I can’t see or even guarantee is there at all. Every day I stay awake, every day I push past the easiest solution, the quickest way out—every day I read and write and publish and try, against much larger enemies than sleep and against stultifying odds, to make reading the purpose of my life. After all, literature is the reason I get out of bed in the morning, but counterintuitively I have to find, again and again, ways for it to also be the reason I don’t return to it.

Featured image: Lemberg Vector studio/

About Jonathan Russell Clark

JONATHAN RUSSELL CLARK is a literary critic and the author of An Oasis of Horror in a Desert of Boredom. His work has appeared in The New York Times Book Review, the San Francisco Chronicle, Rolling Stone, The Atlantic, Tin House, The Georgia Review, and numerous others.

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