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The Slumbering Masses: Sleep, Medicine, and Modern American Life (A Quadrant Book) Hardcover – September 10, 2012

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Editorial Reviews


Winner of the 2013 New Millennium Book Award from the Society for Medical Anthropology

"A scholarly treatment of a fascinating subject" -- Kirkus Reviews

'Ambitious....Wolf-Meyer's message is that society should bend to accommodate, even celebrate, diversity in sleeping behaviour, rather than branding nonconformism pathological.' - Nature

"A great primer on the history and variability of sleep patterns, this book points to more flexible, realistic expectations of sleep to avoid both the drugs and the nights of insomnia." -- ForeWord

"A fascinating scholarly approach that will cause readers to question some of the givens regarding sleep habits in American culture." -- Library Journal

"A groundbreaking contribution to our understanding of sleep and its manifold discontents. With scrupulous care, Matthew Wolf-Meyer probes the current state of sleep medicine as well as its absorbing history. At a time when modern society’s dependence on sleeping pills and plush bedding has never been greater, The Slumbering Masses is all the more welcome for its ambitious compass and penetrating insights." —A. Roger Ekirch, author of At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past

"The Slumbering Masses is a fascinating account of the ordering and disordering of sleep as an institutional and individual phenomenon in modern America. Wolf-Meyer brings us into the lives of people struggling—at work, at home, and in clinics—to align their nights and days with the abstract demands of sleep as a biomedical form and social norm. He takes us into the past, too—expertly laying to rest fantasies of a prelapsarian agrarian lifestyle—and into the future—investigating how global sleep patterns have started to stagger and syncopate in response to advanced capitalism. Wolf-Meyer teaches us that sleep has a social life, and a restless one at that." —Stefan Helmreich, MIT

About the Author

Matthew Wolf-Meyer is associate professor of anthropology at the University of California, Santa Cruz.
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Product Details

  • Series: A Quadrant Book
  • Hardcover: 312 pages
  • Publisher: Univ Of Minnesota Press; 1st edition (September 10, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0816674744
  • ISBN-13: 978-0816674749
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.2 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (5 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #416,306 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Matthew Wolf-Meyer is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. His work focuses on medicine, science and media in the United States, and draws on history, contemporary experiences and popular representations of health and illness. The Slumbering Masses is the first book-length social scientific study of sleep in the United States, and offers insight into the complex lived realities of disorderly sleepers, the long history of sleep science, and the global impacts of the exportation of American sleep. Wolf-Meyer holds degrees from the University of Minnesota (PhD, Anthropology, 2007), Bowling Green State University (MA, American Cultural Studies, 2002), the University of Liverpool (MA, Science Fiction Studies, 2000), and Oakland University (BA, Literature 1998).

Wolf-Meyer originally became interested in sleep as an undergraduate, when he worked third shift for three years. Throughout high school, he had been a late riser, and would often need naps after school; during college, he decided to fit his schedule to his sleep pattern, and would take late classes and work through the night. While many of his co-workers experienced difficulties with night work, Wolf-Meyer enjoyed it. However, it made sustaining relationships with night-sleepers difficult, and he eventually abandoned night work for a daytime schedule. He returned to thinking about night work and sleep for his dissertation, which led him to his interests in the contemporary experiences of disorderly sleep and the practice of sleep medicine in the United States.

His work has appeared in Current Anthropology, Comparative Studies of Society and History, Medical Anthropology, Biosocieties, Body & Society, PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review, Extrapolation, Foundation, and the Journal of Popular Culture.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

9 of 10 people found the following review helpful By Sam Man on December 6, 2012
Format: Hardcover
Proust, on writing about falling asleep, required 30 pages to discuss merely tossing and turning. Matthew Wolf-Meyer, set out to debunk the notion that consolidated sleep is a scientific fact and norm in fewer than 300 pages. Wolf-Meyer undertakes a substantial project, at times, made evident by single sentences (that take on a fourth or more of a page). I have now read the book twice and am still weary of summing it up and before I attempt to I would like to point out that Wolf-Meyer's The Slumbering Masses does exactly what an anthropological ethnographic critique of a scientific notion should. It provides very in depth historical data as well as numerous theories to draw on. The fieldwork is comprehensive as well as engaging. Finally, although Wolf-Meyer provides a kind of solution to the problem namely that there is not a singular right way to sleep because there are not singular biologies, he also posses rhetorical questions that may raise potential problems in the future.
There are many claims integral to Wolf-Meyer's premise. I will not address all of them. However, I will suggest that if you--as a reader and learner-- are intrigued by the subject of this book namely sleep, but don't think you'll be able to get through the language within it, do some research about both what science studies are and what a medical anthropologists (who is writing an academic book) should achieve within an ethnography. A simple Wikipedia search will suffice.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By BLehner on September 29, 2012
Format: Hardcover
Oh to sleep! Oh to nap! Oh to be restless and unable to fall asleep! In his book The Slumbering Masses Matthew J. Wolf-Meyer, anthropologist of medicine and science, explores sleep in all its facets - from sleep medicine to the rise of solitary sleepers, from workplace naps to sleepwalking murders.
How could I, a big fan of taking an afternoon nap, resist such a promising read? Sleep doesn't come easy and I was amazed at the diversity and complexity of sleep disorders, as well as intrigued by the social formations of sleep. What is healthy sleep? What is disordered sleep? Even though in condensed form, it certainly shows that several years of extensive research went into this book. And amidst the historical and clinical data, there are also lots of interesting facts to be found.
While fascinating, unfortunately I also found the book a bit slow going in places, and admittedly I had to struggle through some parts. While I wouldn't go so far as to say this book isn't for the general public, I found the execution a tad too scholastic for my taste. This is the kind of book which you'd expect on your college reading list; it might not be accessible to anyone, but is definitely worth a read for those genuinely interested in a serious and deep discussion of the topic.
In short: An extensive survey on everything you ever wanted to know about sleep!

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the NetGalley book review program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Paige on April 8, 2013
Format: Hardcover
Everybody knows at least one person that claims to have--or they themselves experience--a sleep problem. Our everyday lives are inundated with commercials for sleep medicine, advertisements for the perfect bed, and constant marketing for energy drinks that will keep you going when you don't have time to rest.

Matthew J. Wolf-Meyer's book The Slumbering Masses: Sleep, Medicine, and Modern American Life addresses almost every aspect of sleep and how its boundaries structure our waking life. This review will focus on the aspect of his book that looks at how our society has come to be dependent on pharmaceuticals to sleep, stimulants to stay awake, and the many implications this dichotomy has on modern American society. The Slumbering Masses is a must read for anyone that is in the field of medical anthropology and for any person that is currently dealing with or thinks they may have a sleeping "problem." The goal of this review is to inspire everyone to read this book--the need to sleep is something we all share, and understanding how we have come to understand sleep sheds light on the ways we and the people around us interact with their environment. I hope this review will complement the previous review by Stella Manukyan.

For those of you that aren't used to reading books based on academic theory and written with scholarly language, I recommend looking at a blog post the author wrote in order to help guide one through the book with ease:

In regards to medical anthropology, Wolf-Meyer's book should be considered an essential stepping-stone towards understanding modern American life's rhythm and structure. As explained in this book, sleep was not always consolidated to a solid 8-hours during the night.
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