The Lost Art Of Sleep

The Lost Art Of SleepSpeaking of good books I haven’t quite been able to bring myself to finish…Michael McGirr’s The Lost Art of Sleep is another casualty in the polygamy disaster. It’s not that it’s not a good read—it is. It’s just that I’ve needed something with a bit stronger pull of late—something that shoves the rest of the world away and forces you to concentrate on nothing but the words on the page.

McGirr’s book, which muses on the history of sleep through time and marries it to his own experiences of sleeplessness brought on by the arrival of three young children, is fascinating and well wrought. Perhaps, though, my own unhappiness at not being able to sleep (which is also what compelled me to pick the book up) also prevented me from being able to fully finish it (I cheated, skipped about a third, and lobbed back in a few chapters from the end).

Anyone who’s had the (mis)pleasure of speaking with me in recent times will know I’ve developed something of an obsession with sleep. Specifically, obtaining sleep, which is eluding me not because I suffer from insomnia but because I suffer from shrieking, serial-killer neighbours.

They’re not literally serial killers, of course, but for reasons that are too long to go into here and that involve, of all things, a former neighbour who was a butcher, who kept toothy, rabidly angry dogs, and who would crack out and crank up the whipper snipper when his housemates locked him out at 3am, the term ‘the serial killers next door’ has effectively become shorthand for ‘neighbours you’d really, really, really rather not have’.

Sigh. The first line of McGirr’s book sums up my experience entirely: ‘Fatigue fatigue is when you’re tired of being tired.’ I’m not a grump or a bore, honest. I’m simply zombie-walking proof that sleep deprivation temporarily makes you both.

McGirr’s simple yet previously unstated ‘aha’ (to quote Oprah) observations are perhaps what most impressed me about his book. They include that ‘a horse at sleep is a statue of itself’, that giraffes sleep with their eyes open and that ‘the only rule of thumb for the uninitiated is that if a giraffe looks like it is asleep, then it almost certainly isn’t’, as well as the astute note that the ugly coffee mugs are the ones that never break.

Likewise, I practically said ‘amen’ his observation that people will play almost anything for a decent night’s sleep. Why yes, they will. I’ve recently, sadly, entered the vast and complicated world of sleeping tablets not—I feel it’s important to note—because I have trouble sleeping, but because with neighbours like mine it’s impossible to either get to sleep or to stay there.

McGirr necessarily charts the awful accidents that have befallen some people who’ve taken sleeping tablets in recent times and who’ve had sleepwalking reactions. He also notes the bemusing side effect for those of us who haven’t had such horrific experiences on them—the speed with which those suckers take effect.

He writes about a woman who wasn’t in bed at the time she took the tablet and woke up the next day with her head on her alarm clock. I can personally attest that one shouldn’t take a tablet then attempt to pack a bag for a three-day work trip. Fortunately for me, Melbourne has stores that sell crucial things like underpants.

McGirr takes too the obligatory look at famous insomniacs throughout history, but also kyboshes that oft-peddled martyrdom of only sleeping [insert ridiculously small figure here] hours a night. He also includes a bunch of facts that I mentally attempted to store away for trivia nights and first-date small talk. Say, for example, that ‘mortgage’, a word of French origin, literally and fittingly means ‘death grip’.

Thanks to McGirr, I now know that James Barry, AKA he of Peter Pan authorship fame, likely invented the character as he himself became stuck in a kind of perpetual boyhood—his grieving mother mistook him for his deceased brother and he took on that persona rather than disappoint her.

I now also know that caffeine is actually a naturally occurring kind of insecticide and we humans are the only creatures who seem to find it palatable; so much so, that there’s caffeine in the water courtesy of what we excrete that gets flushed into the oceans.

McGirr’s wry observations and the out-of-the-mouths-of-babes moments, of which there are many and many of which made me smile, are the subtle gold of this book and why it’s well worth a read. For example, his son’s response to their encouragement that he make his bed: ‘“If God made the world,” he asked, “why can’t he make my bed?”’

Sure, I struggled to finish this book and cast it slightly aside for some others, but I’d still recommend it. Something tells me my inability to wholly concentrate on it had less to do with its content and more to do with my current (seemingly perpetual) state of sleep deprivation.

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Fiona Crawford

Fiona Crawford is a freelance writer, editor, blogger, proofreader, and voracious reader. She regularly appears as a book reviewer in Australian BOOKSELLER+PUBLISHER magazine. Fiona is also (unfairly) known as the Book Burglar due to her penchant for buying family members—then permanently borrowing—books she wants to read herself.