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Wild Nights: How Taming Sleep Created Our Restless World Hardcover – March 7, 2017
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"[Wild Nights] is a new cultural and anthropological examination of sleep through the ages.... Sleep remains a universal experience, but it's lived seven billion different ways. One finishes Wild Nights with the feeling that our modern-day anxieties about sleep are the symptom of another, more complicated disease."―Jacob Silverman, New Republic
"Sleep is a culturally fluid phenomenon, reveals Benjamin Reiss in this marvelous scientific and literary study."―Nature
"Get a solid eight hours in, no electronic screens in bed, wake up at the same time every morning, yeah, yeah. We modern fold have it all figured out, don't we? Maybe not, says Reiss, as he explores how getting a good night's sleep evolved and why it varies from one culture and era to the next."―Gemma Tarlach, Discover
"In his book on the mysteries of human sleep, [Reiss] looks for guidance to the latest scientific studies, yes, but he also ventures beyond the realm of the scientific, including insights from history and literature."―Science of Us
"[Wild Nights is] a great, collective blend of scientific, historical, and literary works that is as well-written and enjoyable as it is provocative and informative.... Undoubtedly, this book is an important contribution for everyone who sleeps, scientists and other citizens alike."―Sleep Health Journal
"[Wild Nights] is a captivating examination and Reiss gives readers much to ponder long into the night."―Publishers Weekly, starred review
"[Wild Nights is] a thorough probing into why sleep is such a problem for so many in contemporary society.... A fresh approach to a familiar phenomenon."―
"Reiss's interdisciplinary approach to the topic offers varied perspectives, compelling anecdotes, and a well-researched bibliography for readers interested in learning more about the global state of sleep affairs."―Library Journal
About the Author
Benjamin Reiss is a professor of English at Emory University. The author of The Showman and the Slave and Theaters of Madness, and the recipient of a Guggenheim fellowship, he lives in Atlanta, Georgia.
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Many tribal cultures and less heavily industrialized cultures haven't considered sleep a “problem” and haven't had the tussle of “putting children down” to sleep in their own separate compartments. Families often just lapse into a communal social recline when their members feel sleepy.
By contrast, from the Middle Ages through modern times in the West, sleep has been considered a problem. At first, restlessness/insomnia was largely cast as a religious problem, a potential attack by diabolical forces. More recently, disordered sleep has been turned into a medical issue. As sleep has become privatized (people sleep separately unless contemplating having sex), and standardized to accommodate the typical work/school day – any failure to achieve a consecutive eight hours at night has been seen as a personal physical problem that needs to be taken to a doctor. Doctors from Spock to current prescription-writers have answered the call for help, advancing a welter of often-conflicting ideas about how people should train themselves and their children to conform to the acceptable eight-hour pattern.
Readers will get some good perspective here on what other options have been entertained. Reiss offers interesting digressions about life in such diverse places as an Israeli kibbutz, Victorian utopian societies such as the Fourier society, and at Thoreau’s Walden Pond. There's a lot about Thoreau here. Thoreau's somewhat oxymoronic attempts to discipline himself to live according to the rhythms of nature weave their way through several chapters of this narrative.
I feel Reiss somewhat spoils his objectivity in his last chapters. These come off as what almost seems like a rant against capitalism. The author blames virtually all of our current tired, frazzled, insomniac state in Western cultures on the demands of the capitalist work-work-work machine. He recalls the sweatshops of the 19th-20th centuries in the West and the enforced long hours of work imposed today on children in many economically evolving countries such as China and Korea.
But this blanket condemnation of capitalism is at odds with the earlier points he makes about how the wealth of many of our modern cultures has released us from the need for edgy vigilance and discomfort at night. Many of us can enjoy unperturbed sleep, free of fear about predators and invaders and free from the sufferings of extreme heat, cold, rain, bugs, and scorpions. And the production machine of capitalism has contributed a lot to giving us that sort of freedom.
However, in general, this is a worthwhile book that suggests how certain “problems” we have with sleep don't necessarily have to be problems given some lifestyle and/or attitude changes. Since everyone sleeps, everyone should find something of interest here. But I think the book might be of special interest to people in the un-jobbing and homeschooling/life-learning movements. It will provide them with historical and cross-cultural rationales for releasing themselves and their children from strict work/school imposed routines of sleep.
Interesting to a point, well written. Some interesting perspectives, long winded at times. Comes across as somewhat academic which is not surprising as the author is an academician, but with a bit of a sense of humor.
There are 56 pages of notes and citations in case you want to check anything out.
I can't fault the research and thoroughness, but am looking at this book as a consumer of popular non fiction.
The point that keeps arising is that sleeping on a schedule, in a quiet dark place, with some degree of privacy is somewhat of a modern, western concept as is, I suppose, eating three meals a day and bathing regularly. (and getting the kids to bed)
Henry David Thoreau keeps popping up throughout the book. Apparently he was an insomniac, and wandering around Walden Pond may or may not have helped, we can't be sure, but listening to the crickets was nice.
This book doesn't really give much advice on how to sleep better, but I'm pretty sure it won't include sharing my bed with several of my fellow tribesmen who just want to make sure I'm not lonely.