I spend a lot of time in bed. Not as much as I used to, but I have a bad habit of slinking away from family gatherings to meet up with a book that waits for me on the blankets, splayed open to where the two of us last left off. It used to be any book. I had no sense and no self control.
Tenth grade, for example, was Gone with the Wind. I crawled into my bed with that behemoth on a Monday after school. I read for 26 hours straight, skipped classes the next day and every meal. (When I told my mother I was sick, she believed me. I certainly looked afflicted.) I absorbed the whole civil war, reconstruction and Scarlett’s obliteration of Rhett’s love in one binge. I nodded off at times like a soldier on a watch, jerking awake to turn a page, hoping Scarlett would relent before it was too late.
I was so deliciously depressed at the end of that novel I spent another whole day with a blanket over my head recovering.
After that I welcomed Holden Caulfield into my bed, then Becky Sharpe and later, much later than most girls, Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester.
By the time I got to Jane Austen I was in college, and I knew within the first two paragraphs of Emma I had found the ultimate bed writer. These were tales of repressed love and dreams delayed until the last minute. Sisters in Austen whisper in bed, pushed together for warmth. Mothers take to their couches. Females everywhere hang suspended, waiting and dreaming. It’s pathetic and wonderful.
I met a young diva of bed reading during graduate school. A consumer of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, she lay prone on her mammoth duvet and tumble of pillows, her shade drawn, gone so far into Anna Karenina or Crime and Punishment that she might as well be dead to the world. It was maddening and impressive–how disheveled her state, how rude she could be if interrupted. She became a professor of Russian literature. I imagine she has slept her way across Russia back and forth by now.
What is it to sleep with a book? Not as comfortable as you would think. The pillows are never the right softness, the sheets inevitably twisted. I usually have to pee during the good parts. My hands are cold in the winter. The truth is I never sleep well for all that time on the mattress, but I still can’t lie down without a book within reach.
I have tried to break the habit over the years, or at the least to limit the time I am allowed to read in bed. Healthy people run or take up rowing or tennis. When they go to bed with a book they nod off in five minutes. But once a bed reader always a bed reader, I guess.
I do rule out some books now. No Stephen King or the like in bed. No nonfiction about war or human rights or illness. Those I must take sitting up, preferably at a table, because they are meant to wake one from the dream. Recently I made the mistake of reading in bed a devastatingly good essay on cancer and end of life decisions by Atul Gawande. It was after midnight when I finished, and I suffered for it that night and several after. There was no pleasure in what I learned, but the information may change for the better my life and the lives of those I love.
A word about reading poetry in bed, because I’ve tried, seduced by the images and music. The problem with poetry is that some of the lines are so exciting I have to read them aloud to my husband, who often lies beside me doing the crossword puzzle. A “wordie” himself, he’ll pause to listen and even hang with me for a stanza or two. Then it will occur to him that a woman is under the blankets reading poetry to him. Like any sensible man he tosses the crossword and my book on to the floor and moves on to other things.
I might as well be reading erotica when it comes to poetry in bed. But that’s for a whole ‘nother blog entry.
My favorite authors to have between the sheets these days are Louise Erdrich and Alice Munro, not only because their short fiction is simply brilliant but because stories are the most mature of bed reading. You can consume three or four and still get in eight hours of sleep before morning.
Recently, however, I fell off the wagon. Or more precisely I fell into bed with The Lonely Polygamist, Brady Udall’s 599 page novel about a man with too much. I felt again the overwhelming hunger for a book not good for me, the gnawing angst of frustrated love, the ravenous impulse to hang too close to a character driven by his own dissatisfaction. I let myself travel deep into the core of someone else’s life. I was ruined for days afterwards. But I felt alive, too, because I had discovered another book that could take me that far.
My oldest daughter, not yet 11, shows signs of the same affliction: The addictive reading after lights out, the covert sliding of the book down her bed to the exact spot where the slice of light comes in from the hallway. In the morning she hunches over her cereal, eyes inflamed, spacey and gone. I always want to say to her, “Oh, Honey, you are in for it now. The curse of the floating life.”
Emily Bronte wrote, “I’ve dreamt in my life dreams that have stayed with me ever after, and changed my ideas; they’ve gone through and through me like wine through water, and altered the colour of my mind.”
You just know that when Emily wasn’t walking the moors with her gun or writing at the dining table with her sisters, she lay in bed, reading.