Falling Asleep While Reading

Aaron Gilbreath
September 19, 2016
Comments 0

The greatest enemy of print publishing might not be digital media or the widespread expectation that reading material be free. It might be the human body. A lot of people can’t stay awake while reading, including myself. While it feels good to have company, it’s not a club I want membership in. I want to read. My eyes just get so heavy at night.

On the couch, the street quiet outside and neighboring houses dark, it’s such a pleasure to curl up with a good book, as they say. Then a page or two in, the problems begin. The slumping. The nodding. Realizing you just blurred through a paragraph and can’t remember any of it, or worse, that you reread the same sentence ten or so times and still couldn’t get through it. You’re asleep! Go to bed! Just accept it and crawl under the covers with your partner already! Why resist? Because you want to read goddamit, that’s why. This was supposed to be your time. Booktime, not bedtime. You aren’t giving in so easily.

So you press on, straightening your posture in the delusional hope that a different “blood-flow pattern” will rouse you, or that a more studious upright position will send a clear message to your stupid brain that it’s time to wake up. Nope. You continue nodding. The book falls from your limp hand. The problem’s in your blood, man. It’s so deep in you that no small adjustments can get it out: fatigue. You’re an adult, and life exhausts you. You can’t will this away. You want this to be a case of mind over matter, that if you don’t mind being tired at work tomorrow, then staying up late reading won’t matter, but the body has certain priorities, and reading isn’t one of them. So sometime past midnight, after battling your open book, you finally set it on the table, turn off the living room lights, and slip into bed, admitting defeat. As the fiction writer Amber Sparks put it, “It SUCKS.”

There seems to be a certain narrow window where people are old enough to want to read voraciously and young enough to have the energy to. That sweet spot between middle age and undergraduate age—that should be publishing’s target demographic. Any of us older than thirty-five, with an exhausting job and some kids—no way. We buy books like we did at twenty-five. We often buy them out of habit. Then we pass out on them.

We get up early to water the plants and pack the lunch and walk the critter and make the coffee before racing off to work through some crazy freeway pileup car maze bullshit while trying to reply to texts and emails and listen to the news, and after that we have to work. Our nighttime reading time is the finish line of a marathon run on a battery that’s already been drained. By the time our ass hits that couch we have—maybe—three solid minutes to read. After that we’re not reading. We’re holding a book, priming for bed. We just won’t accept it.

Life is cruel. The necessary factors align. We have the kickass home library. We have the snippet of free time. We have the couch and nightcap and silence, finally. And we can’t keep our eyes open long enough to utilize them.

This cruel fact is related to the realization that at a certain point, you own more books than you’ll ever be able to read. Meaning, you don’t have enough days left on this planet to read everything you wanted to, even if you had the strength to stay awake. All things considered, if you live to be eighty, you’ll still never read them all. There’s too many of them and not enough of you. Entropy trumps literacy. Mitochondria break down faster than paper. But you still can’t quit. Life requires hunger and drive, and a near-foolish resolve to take it all in despite your tragic destiny. At least that’s how I feel when I fight sleep alone at 11:30 at night. I’m reaching, and sometimes, I get a hold of something good.

If you also fall asleep while reading, rest assured (wink), you’re in good company. I did the usual informal Facebook poll and asked friends, acquaintances, old MFA classmates, in-laws, writers and people I’ve never met, whether they suffered the same affliction. If so, did it irritate them? Anger, even? And how many books have they bought but never finished because their body wouldn’t cooperate with their mind? Here’s what they said (first names only, for privacy):

Renée: “I fall asleep so often, that I have started dedicating time in the morning to read! :)”

Jane: “The only way I ever get more than the same 2 pages read over and over is by reading books at breakfast, lunch, and in the bath. The books rarely survive the ordeal.”

Molly: “My main chance for reading is at night before bed, so in that case, always :), and I like that it helps me get to sleep. It seems to let the dwelling, planning, inventorying parts of my brain turn off. Sometimes it does feel like I am reading only a few pages of a book at a time, which bugs me when it’s a library book and I have a deadline! Otherwise it doesn’t bother me. I also pretty much exclusively read novels these days. I don’t nod off if I read during the day.”

Alexis: “I fall asleep reading *almost* every night. It’s the rare book that keeps me up reading (but when I’ve got one, I just go for it and read all night, because it’s so rare). I always have to go back a page or two and reread because each time I pick the book up again, I realize that I was mostly asleep for the last many minutes of ‘reading’ and didn’t retain much (it usually ends with the book falling on my face). Still, I do most of my reading in bed. I just go to bed really early to get more reading time in.”

Caroline: “Yes. I nod off even while reading books I am very excited to read. I usually beat myself up over it and convince myself I am not a model writer.”

Dave: “I try not to read in bed. The exceptions are Wodehouse and deliberate page turners. Lately at night, I’ve been propping my book on a dresser and read standing up. It works but I miss the dogs.”

Sharon: “I nearly always fall asleep while reading, especially in the evening, and yes, it ticks me off! I’m not able to read a tenth of what I’d like to on a regular basis.”

Jessie: “Since I was a young child, I have been in the habit of reading before bed, and often read myself to sleep. It’s a lovely way to disconnect my brain from the rest of the world in those moments before dreaming. It does usually require re-reading certain passages the next day, but always worth it. An obvious frequent side effect is sleeplessness due to not being able to stop reading. But again, worth it!” Then she added: “It also leads to waking up with a book on my face and the lamp still on at 4 a.m.”

Scott: “I’ve dropped my phone (kindle app) or my kindle on my face while laying in bed reading and rubbing the wife’s back more times than I can count.”

My mother-in-law Ann: “Always. Then I have to go back and re-read what I read.”

Her sister Judy: “I read a lot while in the bathroom, eventually my legs fall asleep.”

Will: “When reading in the evening, I almost always fall asleep within 1-2 pages…if it’s an actual hard copy book; however, since I’ve switched to kindle, I’ve found I can read much longer. Not sure why, maybe the backlit screen? It seems easier on the eyes and I don’t have to work nearly so hard to read it. At 45, I’m at an age where I need bifocals, but I don’t need them with the kindle; I just make the font larger. I’m a book collector. I love real books, but I prefer reading on a kindle. (Ps. I do not work for Amazon).”

Jay: “Love reading in bed – but I can stay awake 30 minutes, tops. I can stay awake if the material is rather light – say, a music biography or a breezy history of something-or-other – but not fiction, nor well-told nonfiction….”

Hey, are you awake?


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