The Dangerous Practice of Reading in Bed

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“The Bed-Time Book, written by Helen Hay and illustrated by Jessie Willcox Smith. Photo by Plum Leaves, CC BY 2.0 via Flickr (unedited)

Do you like to read in bed? I do. Most of the time, I only read a few pages before nodding off. Usually my wife comes to bed after I do and turns out the light, and I usually wake up just enough to mark my place and put the book aside. Pretty harmless, huh? It wouldn’t have been thought so at one time.

I recently came across a blog on the evils of reading in bed, by Kristen Wardowski, who posts some great stuff about books, reading and writing. She, in turn points to an article in The Atlantic by Nika Mavrody. The gist of both posts is that there were two dangers, one very real and one feared.

The very real danger had to do with how people were able to read in bed. They did so by candlelight. Readers falling asleep could be the cause of fires as candles burned down, or set fire to flammables like curtains in the vicinity. This was the equivalent of smoking in bed, and was considered a form of negligence.

The other danger reflects a shift in the nature of reading from communal to solitary. Sleeping arrangements also shifted in the same way from a time when a family shared a bed or slept in a common room to greater privacy in sleeping arrangements. Reading at one time was something done aloud, in the family circle, and of course needed to be suitable for the various members of the family. Often, it was the Bible that was read (although sex and violence are hardly absent from its pages).

Private, silent reading was feared to lead to private fantasies that distracted one from household duties, particularly those of women. It sounds obsessive that there was societal concern over what someone thought about in solitude. Yet is this so far from concern over what can be viewed on screens which may be obliterated with a swipe or a mouse click, but not erased from our minds?

These days we don’t condemn reading in bed with a broad brush, and that’s an advance. But does what we read in our last waking moments matter? I think of a somewhat humorous incident from early in our married life. I was reading Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and had dozed off and my wife came in, and I turned to her with a scowl and not fully awake and asked her, “why did you kill all those Indians?” She was not sure she wanted to join me that night.

What we read in bed can entertain us and relax us. But it can also anger us, disturb us, arouse us, or keep us awake far after we should be sleeping. A while back I was reading Kirsten Hannah’s The Nightingale, one of the best books I read last year. But the horrors of the Nazi occupation of France were profoundly disturbing, and not the best things to consider right before I wanted to sleep. This was good reading–for another time of day–at least for me. I would not dictate for anyone else, but I’m coming to realize that some types of reading in bed aren’t helpful.

One type of reading that has been helpful are to read some of the prayers that have been prayed by many others as they close their days. I love these words from the Wednesday compline of the Northumbria Community:

Calm me, O Lord, as You stilled the storm.
Still me, O Lord, keep me from harm.
Let all the tumult within me cease.
Enfold me, Lord, in Your peace.

The prayer concludes with these words:

 The peace of God
be over me to shelter me,

under me to uphold me,

 about me to protect me,

 behind me to direct me,

 ever with me to save me.

I love to think of being enfolded in the peace of God before slipping into the oblivion and helplessness of sleep. To read, and pray, and turn these words over in my mind is good reading. Sometimes it is all the reading I have energy left to do. If that is dangerous, then bring it on. That’s reading I can live with…and sleep with.

5 thoughts on “The Dangerous Practice of Reading in Bed

    • I do think it possible to choose types of reading that calm, rather than stimulate the brain. But preparing for sleep, especially as we get older, seems important. Thanks for your comments!

  1. I recently learned in other books read (The Shallows, etc) about history of reading – and that it was traditionally done out loud – and not silently, privately. I was surprised by this fact! Times change. I ALWAYS read before bed – even if just for 3 minutes. I have a nice selection at bedside, so can pick what seems “best.” It can relax and calm and de-stimulate your brain – depending on what you choose. But it can have opposite effect too, if complex or upsetting content, etc. Or the book pulls you in with interest and you end up reading for hours!

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