What is it about the bedtime story that holds the heart and the imagination in such thrall? One never really commits to being a reader, to loving without condition the mystical, boundary-crossing spirit that inhabits the printed word. But it happens. The spell is cast early, in the story-haloed intimacy of beloved elder and young child. The intensity develops into something more complex and intriguing with time, and as it does we find, to our eternal delight, that books can be, um, great in bed. They give pleasure and have something to say. They amuse and enlighten; they comfort.
And so, a small child fears solitude, with its vague incipient monsters, until the voice of Mommy of Daddy, the words and pictures of, say, Sendak, conspire to haul those monsters out into the open, expose their fakeries and pretensions, and draw invisible rings of magic around the now-safe night. A slightly older child's more tangible concerns—a bully at school or in the upper bunk, a math test first thing the next morning—survive the night. But a visit to Neverland, Wonderland, Hogwarts or Oz can facilitate, if not solutions, at least some sort of temporary truce, and for an 8-year-old angst novice, that's better than teddy bears. Banished to bed, not tired, not ready to quit, another child extends the day's adventures with R.L. Stine, as yet others settle down with prolific reliquaries like Alcott, Dickens, and Grimm or factory-enhanced reissued series like Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, all of which will command significant space on bookstore shelves for as long as kids continue to read in bed.
When grownup monsters emerge, we discover the classics. A Great Book can unseat insomnia with time travel. No daylight visa can provide access to aristocratic 19th-century Russia, but Tolstoy will, and Hugo can organize the Paris leg of that journey. No tarmac traffic jams, either. The mystery and thriller industries thrive on adult audiences that not only can't get to sleep; they won't turn off the lights. They lie awake, minds littered like tidal strands with the flotsam of busy lives. Their hyped-up sense of duty and ponderous paranoia are soothed with mega-mayhem. They hover, dream reading, on the sleep's shore. Rocking in foamy breakers of surreal surrender, their dreams spill into stories which in turn inform their dreams. Float past the rocky shoals, reader-revenant, with your crime-solving shipmates; shape and reshape them as they explicate evil, and they will do the same for you.
Some books enhance the ennui factor. They succeed, I'm convinced, precisely because of their sleep-inducing qualities. They lead nowhere, say not much, and help the eyes glaze over. Grammar-as-salvation is a genre in point. Perky little tomes about the purposes of commas and the art of sentence diagramming sprint from bookshops like greyhounds at a dog track. But only the desperately sleepless would actually read them. Then there are self-help books and political autobiographies, all of which ought to bear the "Do not drive or operate machinery" warning. The pinnacle genre in this field is the work of one relentless producer, Dora Saint, ("Miss Read"). Her forty-some novels conjure up details of small lives in small English towns, and are quite simply Ambien in book form. For this contribution to humanity, Saint-Miss Read surely deserves a place on the next Queen's honors list.
A bedside library is the real spirit medium. It transmutes the spent soul out of one or another cramped little cage and into the life-giving realms of dream and rest. It energizes silence and lets night bring light to the day. These are the eternal bookends: reading to sleep, reading to awaken again.