From Montaigne to Nabokov to Emerson, writers have extolled the pleasures of reading in bed. And why not? Reading in bed rolls two of life’s enjoyments into a single uber-pleasure, without the need for the military organisational abilities – not to say the waterproof books – that go with reading in the bath.
The primary skill required for reading in bed is lying down. Putting aside all false modesty, I am exceptionally good at the art of lying down. If there were a lying down Olympics, I’d be top of the class at the AIS, eating a specially designed diet of soporific nutrients. Given my interest in horizontal literary activity, I’ve devoted some thought to its proper optimisation.
I prefer to read while lying on my back, propped up by an assortment of carefully selected pillows. I am very short-sighted, so a book is never very far from my nose. This makes large books a problem. On the one hand, my brachioradialis muscle, which aids in flexing the elbow, gets an excellent work-out. On the other, I risk concussion when the book falls from my nerveless hand and lands on my face if, as sometimes happen, I fall asleep mid-sentence.
This rules out tomes like Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate or Anna Pavord’s gigantic history of the tulip (The Tulip) or any hardback editions of our more enthusiastic fantasy authors. These books, for health and safety reasons, must be read while fully conscious and upright.
But this elides a deeper fact. Some books should not be read in bed at all, no matter what their size. One of the worst bedtime reading decisions I ever made was Yukio Mishima’s collection of short stories, Death in Midsummer. It contains a story called Patriotism which is an imagining of the ritual suicides of Lieutenant Shinji Takeyama and his wife Reiko after the failure of an attempted 1936 coup known as the February 26 Incident.
Written with Mishima’s vivid sensuality, the story lovingly details every gesture, every gout of blood, every spasm, every piercing, every smell, every physical and emotional nuance of his imagined characters. Mishima’s erotic fascination with violent death is deeply disturbing, all the more for the opulence of his writing. It lodges the realities it describes where it hurts, sliding into the subconscious. My dreams that night were unspeakable.
For similar reasons, Kathy Acker’s books – say, Blood and Guts in High School – are best read in a state of vertical alertness; say, at a lectern. On the other hand, de Sade’s volumes, for all their ingenious permutations of orifices, descriptions of fantastic cruelty and endless philosophical arguments, might be on the cusp. They are too fat to read in bed, so are disqualified on one count; but on the other, the sheer weight of their repetitions is as effective a sleeping aid as a dose of valerian. I’ve often suspected the Marquis’ true radicality is in his grinding tedium.
Despite the Mishima incident, I do sometimes end up reading books in bed that should be tackled in the daylight hours, simply because that’s the only time I have for uninterrupted reading. It’s always a mistake.
The books that are worst for bedtime reading are in fact the ones that matter most to me. These are the books which change me and illuminate my world. I enjoy them more than any other writing, although, as with all profound pleasures, they are far from comfortable experiences.
Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, for example, cost me a fortnight of insomnia. This is a pitilessly beautiful, deeply complex novel which is simply impossible to describe in a paragraph. Its middle section is structured around a series of forensic reports that detail the murders of women in a Mexican town called Santa Teresa, itself a fictionalised version of Ciudad Juárez, which became notorious for the unsolved killings of hundreds of women over several years in the 1990s.
The reports stud sequences of hallucinatory suppleness, the lyric splendour of which betray that Bolaño was a poet before he was a novelist. He notes every killing of women in the town, from open-and-shut domestic murders to the unsolved crimes of the putative serial killer (or killers). As the Santa Teresa sequence evolves through its spiralling narratives, its metaphor reaches far beyond its specific place. I have read no text which so delicately dissects the endemic nature of misogyny and its naked relationship to social, political and physical power. It’s horrifying, like opening your eyes to a hell that you always knew you lived in.
Such novels don’t offer distraction or consolation or instruction, but they do remind me how fiction can matter. They are the truthful books, in which a generous imagination opens up the dangerous beauty of the world in all its fragility and tenderness. These books are for waking up.