Recently my husband and I decorated our bedroom. We’ve lived in our house for 12 years, a house we bought new, and in all that time we have never decorated our bedroom. Part of the reason was the fact that we have a waterbed, which makes it difficult to do (you have to deconstruct the bed to move it) and part of the reason was apathy. Then we decided to do it. We chose a week when I would be away, and before that week I did most of the painting and during the week my husband deconstructed the bed, a carpet was fitted, he finished the painting and moved things around. And now we have a lovely room, cosy and warm, to sleep in.
What does this have to do with the book, you might be wondering? Well it’s this: decorating the room got me thinking about sleep and what is so wonderful (and disturbing) about sleep, and I realised I had this book sitting on my shelf and it’s about time I read it. Also the book has a lovely cover, all blue and white with falling feathers on it, and it so happens that onto my (now) heather coloured walls I stencilled a lovely feather motif in gold, and where the feather breaks up it turns into a flock of birds and it is quite beautiful. Links and connections, and all of that.
Anyway, The Secret Life of Sleep is a book all about sleep, about our troubled relationship with sleep, sleep through the centuries, sleep in literature and the value and importance of sleep. The book follows the pathway of sleep, starting with the preparations for sleep, falling asleep, sleep difficulties and interruptions and running all the way through until morning when we awake and start the cycle again. Each chapter covers a different stage, and a different experience in the sleep cycle.
It is always a good sign, I think, of the quality of a non-fiction book how often I rise from behind the pages to exclaim ‘listen to this’ and recite some fascinating fact that the book has imparted. This book has lots of those moments. In pulling together this examination of sleep, Duff has woven science with literature and culture to create a fascinatingly blended view. Consulting philosophy from the Upanishads to Liezi, literature from Nabokov to Wen-siang, this really is a sweeping and inclusive view of sleep.
For me the power of this book was how it made me think about sleep differently, and in particular the way Western culture has both diminshed and commercialised our sleep experience. I’m familiar with the idea that ‘I’ll sleep when I’m dead’, the perception that sleeping is an unfortunate necessity that keeps us from a forever active life; and it was soothing, somehow, to read about different cultural experiences where sleep is valued as an activity in itself (not just a function which makes us more productive), where that drifting space between conscious and unconscious is actively sought out. I often have to travel for work and I often have more difficulty sleeping the night before I travel, but after reading this book I actively sought to enjoy and relax into that non-sleeping space and it transformed the experience entirely.
What was shocking to me was how dependent so many people (myself included) have become in artificially controlled hours of sleeping and waking. I have never taken a sleeping pill, but it is perhaps not a surprise that I’m in the minority with millions taking them regularly to enforce a sleep cycle that keeps them working. On the waking end we medicate with caffeine, at the sleeping end with pills or alcohol. What the book made me realise, quite forcefully, was how our natural connection with sleep has been lost. I consider myself a good sleeper, but I am still a long way from achieving a natural sleep cycle. Something I am both surprised and concerned by.
Another surprise was the idea that our conception of a ‘good night’s sleep’ is also likely to be unnatural; a state created, perhaps, by the medical industry who have (possibly) engendered a whole plethora of sleep ‘disorders’ which are just natural sleep cycles which struggle to match the ordered labour requirements of an industrialised society. People then seek cures where there is no real ill (halitosis sprang to mind). Interestingly sleep studies have shown that it is quite normal to sleep for a time, wake for a time, sleep again and that when societal interventions are removed (unnatural light, clocks, alarms) most people will sleep in this way. Yet periods of wakefulness in the night would often be interpreted as a sleep disorder; and I wondered how many people are suffering under the illusion of wrongness when in fact it is just that the live in a culture which will not allow them to sleep as nature intended.
I could go on. This is an excellent book, weaving experience with science, literature with philosophy. It is a restful book which has, I think, forever altered my perception of sleep and, as a result, strangely I sleep more easily. I haven’t yet managed to seed my lucid dream (I have lucid dreamed once and it was the most powerful, revelatory experience. My husband, however, can lucid dream at will. Am I jealous? Well, yes I am!) but I am working on it, and when I am lying in bed unable to sleep I see it now as an opportunity. A testament to the transformative nature of Kat Duff’s excellent study into the secrets of sleep (and how to unlock them, I think).
P.S. for those that are interested, this is a picture of my lovely cosy bedroom