January 16, 2015

Bedtime Books

I generally keep a few books at hand near my bed, to help ease the transition from this waking world to the comfort of my twitchy, disjointed, anxiety-ridden slumber.

I advocate a gradual transition, not an extreme phase shift, but that is a personal preference.  Weldon Kees' protagonist Robinson used reading as a straight-up soporific, his Toynbee interchangeable with a bottle of luminol.  Perelman, on his own testimony, skipped the reading altogether and employed a cocktail of "allonal and Vat 69".  But I will stand up for reading as a transitional device, not an anesthetic or knock-out drop.  And to achieve this effect, the selected book must be special.

First and foremost it must be at least somewhat modular - one must be able to put it down at almost any point.  Gripping page turners have no place here.  Moreover, it must be somewhat tepid, lest a hyperbolic paragraph thrust the reader fully back into a waking state.  It does not hurt if the material is a little light - some narrative perhaps - but nothing requiring strenuous effort to comprehend.  Lightness can misfire as well - Wodehouse generally will not suit, given his occasional weakness for lunacy and monkey-shooting.  If humor is employed it must be quiet and droll, inducing chuckles rather than knee-slapping.

But our volume cannot be too light or trite, or it will not hold the attention sufficiently to allow the reader to settle in and enjoy those few minutes of calming communion.  And yet, it must be interesting in some way, although it should not touch on topics hinting at some kind of academic rigor.

Most importantly, however, it must be trustworthy.  This is not the time for tricky plot twists, or mysteries where the narrator is the murderer, or comedies that turn into tragedies, or vice versa.  One does not welcome nasty surprises at bedtime.  This is no time to learn that the author has the ethics of a Moorish assassin.

So, with some trepidation, here are some of the books that have served over the years:
  • Kevin Brownlow, The Parade's Gone By...  (link)
  • David Hackett Fischer, Historian's Fallacies:  Toward a Logic of Historical Thought  (link)
  • G.H. Fleming, The Unforgettable Season (link)
  • Tom Furstenberg and David Bronstein, The Sorcerer's Apprentice (link)
  • Dean King, with John B. Hattendorf, Harbors and High Seas:  An Atlas and Geographical Guide to the Aubrey-Maturin Novels of PATRICK O'BRIAN  (link)
  • Every Bill James Baseball Abstract, and especially the Historical Baseball Abstract  (link)
  • A.T. Mahan, The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660-1783  (link)
  • Frank Muir, An irreverent and thoroughly incomplete social history of almost everything (link)
  • Royal Geographic Society, Heroic Climbs  (link)


Blogger Laird of Madrona said...

Are those all made up books?

January 17, 2015 at 12:57 PM  
Blogger The Other Front said...

Don't start. I know for a fact that #7 was in your bathroom for half a decade.

But yes, all real, and I endorse each one for light nocturnal scanning.

I might have added Safire's Political Dictionary, but I find that, despite his diligent and comprehensive modern revision, it invariably transports me to an imagined 1970s east coast newsroom, where mustachioed young men, cynical and fatalistic, compete to expose one scandal or another despite the specter of imminent nuclear war. It is diverting in its way, but not, I have found, conducive to restful slumber.

This book is also marvelous, but I have never been able to make much headway with it. I find it is too good to be read at bedtime, and impossible to take seriously in daylight.

January 17, 2015 at 4:31 PM  
Blogger The Other Front said...

Er, I mean #8, which probably explains why you have not challenged the British fleet at Jutland or attacked Pearl Harbor, at least so far as we know.

January 17, 2015 at 5:12 PM  

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