Why I shouldn’t read (for hours) before bed

When I was ten or eleven years old, if we were going on holiday, I would pack a book for each day we were planning to spend away from the house. We were going away for ten days? I packed ten books. I spent hours absorbed in fictional stories, and it was hard work getting me to take a break. I wanted to stay with the book, to finish it in one sitting if I could.

Nowadays, although I’m still a fast reader, I don’t have this kind of time to devote to reading (adulthood, eh?). I read less, and my reading patterns have become erratic; I spend a day or two with a book, stop halfway, come back to it a week later. There are, however, exceptions to this rule, as was the case recently with The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.

This novel has been out since 2008. My mum read it years ago, and recommended it; I’m not sure why I did not pick it up then. Maybe I didn’t want to do as I was told. For a while I entertained the idea that I didn’t like epistolary novels. Strange, since I had read Choderlos de Laclos’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses at school and enjoyed it. Regardless, I didn’t read The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, and the only reason it is in our flat is because my husband, some time ago, showed an interest in the epistolary genre. Remembering my mother’s recommendation, I bought the book for him. He read it, loved it, suggested that I would, too.

Months later, here I am, finally reading this novel. At times it makes me laugh out loud; at times, I wipe tears from my eyes. I want to know what happens next, so I keep turning the pages. On a particular day, I read for three or four hours, only putting the book down at ten thirty in the evening. I could not go to sleep after that. I lay on my right side; I lay on my left side; I lay on my back and listened to my husband’s even breathing (he’s a lot better than me at sleeping). My nose itched. I scratched it. Then my elbow itched. I scratched that, too.

After what seemed like an hour of scratching and turning while my thoughts jumped from one topic to the next, slowing and zooming and doing U-turns like crazed insects, I went to the loo. Then I sat in the dark and looked at our street. It’s rarely as quiet as it was then, at one in the morning. The problem, you see, is that reading doesn’t put me to sleep. It does the opposite. When I read – or, at least, when I read something I enjoy – my mind is completely engaged; I’m imagining the characters, the sound of the words they are saying, the way they might be standing or sitting. I’m taking in the words and pondering their meaning, the way they relate to the story as a whole. It’s like putting together the pieces of a jigsaw.

I went to bed with my mind reeling over the information I had learned, going over the story so far, what I knew of it, my understanding of the characters. From there, it was an easy leap to the short story idea I’ve been nurturing, and I spent some time writing it in my head (at this point, I should have got up and done the actual writing). Then my mind spiralled out to the time I spent in India, and particularly the weeks spent living on a campus outside of Bangalore, probably the loneliest in my life. Strange, the places our thoughts go in the darkness.

What I’m taking from this, I think, is that I have to pace myself. All things in good measure; isn’t that the saying? Yes, I might love a novel and want to know what happens, but I shouldn’t ask my brain to turn off after two and a half hours of reading in the evening. I can read more in the daytime, or give myself a time limit – read for an hour, then go do something else, so that my mind has time to digest the story. This way, it won’t be swimming with new information by the time I lay my head down on the pillow. I’m not eleven anymore, and that’s a good thing: why rush through a good book in one day when the author has spent such time and such care crafting their story?