Reading As A Soporific
( Originally Published 1914 )
THE principal object of those suffering from insomnia being to purge the mind of the thoughts that are parading up and down through it, frequently with martial accompaniment, and to saturate it with gentle, peaceful, serene, impersonal thought that will depict the idyls of life without strife and passion, books are what most of them turn to in order to accomplish this end.
There are books and books. Obviously the seeker after sleep will not choose for an opiate a stirring tale of battle or adventure. Rather will he select a lulling work of ponderous philosophy or of monotonous description or soothing charm, which he may read without being impelled to understand, and without being intellectually or emotionally stimulated or excited Choice will vary, too, with the ate, sex, education, and personal tastes of the individual.
There are books that put one to sleep by boring and tiring the reader. He sleeps from sheer fatigue and desperation. They excite no thought, they arouse no emotion, they conjure up no imagery. They are the apotheosis of the commonplace, the fountain-head of all ennui, the limbo of all joy. By their very nature they are ideal for the treatment of insomnia through the eyes. Each insomniac must find these for himself. He will not have to seek for them long. If this be too severe a discipline, he may come upon books that, while neither boring nor fatiguing, will yet lead to sleep. Such books pre-pare the mind for sleep as rain prepares the soil for vegetation. When an insomniac finds one, he should hold fast to it, for its efficacy is not impaired by use. I have known Sir Thomas Browne's Religio Medici to operate as well the hundreth time as the first, and the Psalms are an unfailing help in time of trouble.
There are those who have forced their way to oblivion by reading the sermons of Jonathan Edwards, but these discourses can hardly be recommended with confidence. To most people they lead to distressing questionings, such as an attempt to discover the kindliness and justice of afflicting poor wretches with a scourge like hysteria, and then impelling their God-fearing neighbours to persecute and torture them. Let us suggest, rather, the gentle, delightful Amiel, for example; the humble, trusting, resigned St. Francis of Assisi; the placid, melancholy A. C. Benson; the revered Sir Thomas Browne. Each of these has written books that can be recommended to the casual and confirmed insomniac without fear of perverting their literary taste, or endangering the much-desired mental and emotional equanimity. As a sleep-producer, however, the palm should perhaps be awarded to the Familiar Letters (Epistolae Ho-Eliance) of James Howell. Few, I fancy, can read these epistles concerned with the Copernican Theory, Presbyterianism, or what not, without experiencing drowsiness.
I am sure that I have the gratitude of many a poor sleeper, too, for having recommended to him A Poet at Grass, which, I have somewhere read, is autobiographical of George Gissing. The book breathes serenity and contentment, and depicts the charm of life in the country and the spiritual peace of one who had kept his soul meek and his disposition sweet despite the pangs of penury and the struggles of adversity.
For some insomniacs, Emerson's Essays and Poems have proved good night reading, and excellent as a mental tranquiliser. For this same reason, most of the ancient philosophers are excellent sleep-producers. Plato's dialogues have, in my experience, proved helpful; Carlyle's Sartor Resartus highly effective, and William James' Value of Pragmatism of almost instantaneous effect, though many will find them too provocative of thought or too apt to kindle ,to active antagonism. Charles Lamb and Oliver Wendell Holmes have paved the way to the house of Morpheus for many, and might well be sampled by sleep-questing night readers.
Heroic treatment may be self-administered by the reading of law books, government reports, the dictionary, or the telephone book, but here again, what is one man's meat is another man's poison, and individual tastes and peculiarities must determine the choice. In a general way, the principle may be laid down that any book is helpful to the insomniac which occupies his mind sufficiently to displace vagrant, insistent, and harassing thoughts, and yet does not spur it into restless activity.
Of course, when the insomniac is wooing sleep through a book, he will have made all preparations for surrendering his physical self to sleep when it does come. It will avail him nothing if after attaining the period of drowsiness he arouse himself by physical activity co-incident with disrobing. Before beginning his reading he will have stripped himself of clothing down to his night habiliments. Then, when he feels his senses dulled and his eyelids grown heavy, he will have but to put out the light and abandon himself to the peaceful and refreshing slumber, which, it is the author's hope, this little volume may have helped him to capture.