Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

In the dozy hours: the joys of the bedside book

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People have been reading in bed ever since there were books, if not beds, but the essential idea of the bedside book was perhaps first articulated by Thackeray, who wrote in his essay “On Two Children in Black”:

Montaigne and Howell’s Letters are my bedside books. If I wake at night, I have one or other of them to prattle me to sleep again. They talk about themselves forever, and don’t weary me. I like to hear them tell their old stories over and over again. I read them in the dozy hours, and only half remember them.

Despite its informal tone, this strikes me as an important moment in the history of literary criticism, because it describes a kind of reading that we all intuitively recognize. Our libraries are filled with one kind of book, our nightstands another, and although most bedside books have certain things in common, above all else, they’re a reflection of the reader’s personality. In some ways, what we read just before going to bed, or in the middle of the night, expresses more about who we are than the books we display for others—or ourselves—during the day.

So what makes a good bedside book? Ideally, given its specialized role, it should be a book that you can pick up casually and put down after a couple of minutes. As such, bedside books tend to have a miscellaneous quality: they’re often collections of short pieces, anthologies, or essays, rather than sustained arguments or narratives. They’re also books that you can open at random in hopes of finding something interesting. As a result, they might be books that you’ve read before and enjoy revisiting, or reference books with entries that don’t need to be read in any particular order. Not surprisingly, there’s a lot of overlap between the bedside book and the bathroom book—although you may want to keep them in two separate stacks.

Apart from these considerations, the ideal bedside book tends to be whatever else you’re reading at the time, so there are often two levels of books on the nightstand. The pictures shown here, of my own bedside table, are uncharacteristically tidy: usually, along with the more or less permanent occupants, there’s another pile of books I’m currently reading. Since my move, though, I’ve had to reconstruct my own bedside library from scratch, so what you see here is something of an idealized version of my nightstand. Note, too, that these pictures are missing the best bedside book in the world, William S. Baring-Gould’s original Annotated Sherlock Holmes, which has been promoted, or apotheosized, to a permanent position on my desk.

Instead, we have Leslie Klinger’s more recent New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, which is a charmer in its own right, along with Baring-Gould’s Annotated Mother Goose. We also have books on film, including David Thomson’s Biographical Dictionary and Have You Seen? and Pauline Kael’s 5001 Nights at the Movies; anthologies, including The Limits of Art and the incomparable Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics; and, of course, books specifically designed to be read in bed, notably J. Bryan III’s Hodgepodge, Frank Muir’s Irreverent and Thoroughly Incomplete Social History of Almost Everything, and The People’s Almanac. These last three are resolutely old-school, but if you want something more contemporary and twee, Schott’s Original Miscellany will probably do.

The rest of the books reflect my own interests and tastes: A Pattern Language, one of the great books in the world, which I’m reading again as I settle into my new house; World Tales by Idries Shah; Dilys Winn’s classic Murder Ink; Sondheim’s Finishing the Hat, which I’m going to finish one of these days; Bill Simmons’s Book of Basketball, which is great bedside reading even if you aren’t a sports fan; The Essential Jesus by John Dominic Crossan; and the two volumes of Isaac Asimov’s original autobiography. (There should also be a copy of The Whole Earth Catalog here somewhere, along with The PreHistory of the Far Side, but these are still packed away.) And, of course, the iPad. You might think that the latter would make the rest obsolete, but that isn’t the case. Even after all this time, there’s something about reading a book in bed that technology can’t match, especially late at night, in Thackeray’s dozy hours.

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