7 Books To Read When You Can't Sleep, Because We All Know Counting Sheep Is Useless
Sleep is a cruel and fickle mistress, and most of us experience nights when no matter how high your pillow’s thread count, how thick your blackout blinds, or how unusually quiet next door’s perma-howling dog is, you remain resolutely and infuriatingly awake. Most of us, too, have been confidently encouraged to count sheep when such an evening strikes, only to wind up with 8749 sheep and not a single second of sleep to show for it. Tempting as it may be to reach for your phone, why not try one of these books to read when you can’t sleep?
It's important to note that chronic insomnia won't be cured by even the greatest of novels, and I've got no intention of minimising the misery of sleep deprivation by suggesting otherwise. But if your sleeplessness is more of a fleeting affair, please, pull up a chair: I've curated a collection of books for exactly those infuriating midnight hours. From poetry to essays, science-fiction to science writing, there's something here that's bound to suit even the fussiest of wide awake readers. Go forth and read, my sleepless friends (but please don't hold me accountable if you abandon sleep altogether to finish the lot).
'England: Poems From A School' edited by Kate Clanchy
Where's the best place to read poetry? In a punt on a river, you might answer, being gently guided through the water by your dreamy lover. Or on a swing seat in a verdant country garden, the singing of the birds harmonising pleasantly with the cadence of the verse. Well, you're wrong — the answer is obviously in bed, lit by a single Ikea desk lamp, free of any other visual or auditory distraction. And this collection is a luminous one, written by students at an Oxford state school who came to England via Syria, Nigeria, Bangladesh, Poland, and more. The poets write about home, trauma, family, racism, with emotive, urgent beauty. "Look up, the sky is blue. Here, the same/clouds appear, but nothing is the same," writes Rukiya Khatun, aged 16.
'Dark Tales' by Shirley Jackson
As someone who listens to true crime podcasts to relax, I might be somewhat biased with this take, but I firmly believe that scary stories are an excellent tonic for the sleepless. I'm not, of course, suggesting that you plunge into The Exorcist at 3 a.m. — but stories on the unsettlingly ambiguous side, ones that leave the reader with a whole bunch full of questions to answer, are ideal to read if you need a distraction to fall asleep. As someone with OCD, for example, my extremely uncooperative brain crowds with intrusive thoughts the second I turn off the lights — so Shirley Jackson's subversive domestic tales are the perfect antidote to block them out a little. Jackson writes about gentle, familiar suburbia with poison at its heart; try Louisa, Please Come Home or The Honeymoon of Mrs Smith if you want a more thought-provoking alternative to counting sheep.
'The King Is Always Above the People' by Daniel Alarcón
Here's another plus of the bedtime short story: they're perfectly packaged to fill a sleepless half hour, without compelling you to finish an entire novel and thus fall asleep twenty minutes before you need to get up. And if you’re going for short stories, journalist and podcaster Alarcón’s collection is a pretty fantastic choice. The Guardian writes, “the stories here take on huge issues such as migration, isolation, poverty and war through personal, lived experience rather than using broad brushstrokes” — and it’s the deep, often funny, always empathetic humanity in Alarcón’s stories that renders them so profoundly memorable.
'Her Body & Other Parties' by Carmen Maria Machado
More short stories, because I really do think they’re perfect for the unwillingly awake. This debut collection is currently circulating at pace around my friendship group, and only partially because I keep buying it for everyone. Roxane Gay says the book "vibrates with originality, queerness, sensuality and the strange. Her voracious imagination and extraordinary voice beautifully bind these stories" — and if that doesn't sell it to you, I'm at a loss as to what will. Machado blends science fiction with romance, horror with fantasy, and dystopia with all of the above, in a book that's thoroughly unlike anything I've read before (a cliche that Machado would absolutely not stoop to.) Start with Inventory, a catalogue of lovers that gradually exposes a bleaker context behind it.
'Why We Sleep' by Matthew Walker
I recommend this eagerly, but with caution: Why We Sleep gets deep into the injurious effects of sleep deprivation, so if you're already anxious about being unable to nod off, it's probably one to skip. (According to the Guardian, it's "not a book you should even be thinking about in bed, let alone reading", and I feel acutely judged.) But if you're interested in the science of sleep, or the social attitudes towards it, or if you just want reassurance that you're not the only one struggling to get those eight hours, sleep scientist Matthew Walker's book is a thoroughly illuminating one.
'Another Brooklyn' by Jacqueline Woodson
Another Brooklyn is a short novel, one that could easily be finished in the twilight hours if sleep’s not looking like a prospect. But that’s not the primary reason for its inclusion. Brown Girl Dreaming author Woodson’s take on a 1970s Brooklyn childhood is without question one of the most unrelentingly beautiful pieces of writing committed to print — a bold claim, you might think, until you read it yourself. The novel follows the adolescence, and later adulthood, of narrator August and her three best friends Gigi, Angela, and Sylvia; it’s a meditation on memory, on loss, on poverty, on trauma and on joy. You’ll finish it in a single sleepless night, and wake up wishing you had more to read.
'Feel Free' by Zadie Smith
It's almost insulting, at this point, to attempt to introduce Zadie Smith. If you haven't yet read NW, or White Teeth, or Swing Time, or On Beauty, get on it immediately, before I revoke your book lover status. Feel Free is a 2018 essay collection from Smith (2009's Changing My Mind is also astonishing) that reveals the broad purview of the writer's perceptive gaze. She writes on Brexit, London, Jay-Z, Hanif Kureishi; autobiographical writing, identity, Key & Peele and her dancing idols. Smith is an obvious genius (can you tell I love her?), but her writing never feels exclusive or condescending; instead, it feels like a privilege to momentarily see art and politics and much more through her eyes. Plus, on a simpler note, each essay is the perfect length to pass a sleepless hour or two. Read it!
I urge you, friends, to stock up on one — or all — of these perfectly tailored nighttime reads. The sheep can wait.