Wednesday, April 29, 2015

What literature can teach us about sleep

"I never met a man who was quite wide awake," Thoreau wrote in "Walden." The sketch shows the cabin where he withdrew from society.

By Maria Lameiras, Emory Report

As a winner of the prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship for 2015, Emory English professor Benjamin Reiss will spend the upcoming academic year working on his third book, a cultural and literary study of modern sleep and its almost-obsessive management by society and the medical profession.

Reiss's Guggenheim project is "Thoreau's Bed: How Sleep Became a Problem in the Modern World," a book whose idea germinated in a course Reiss co-taught with Emory neurologist David Rye on "Sleep in Science and Culture." The book "asks how sleep became a nightly ordeal in need of micromanagement, medical attention and pervasive worry."

In his Guggenheim proposal, Reiss states, "Far from a simple biological constant, sleep actually is one of the most rule-bound and tightly regimented activities of our society — and yet the rules we adhere to (sleep in one unbroken stretch for roughly eight hours; do so in a private, sealed room with at most one other consenting adult; train your children to sleep alone through the night from a very young age) seem particularly maladaptive to the waking worlds we inhabit."

While teaching a course on Thoreau's "Walden," Reiss says he realized the book was "a rich record of sleeping and waking." "When I began to pull out that thread of sleep in his writing, his understanding of what had gone wrong with sleep seemed very contemporary to me," Reiss says.

"In 'Walden,' there is a famous chapter, 'Where I Lived and What I Lived For,' in which he says 'I have never met a man who was quite wide awake.' He also talks about people being addicted to news and gossip, writing 'Hardly a man takes a half-hour's nap after dinner, but when he wakes he holds up his head and asks, 'What's the news?' as if the rest of mankind had stood his sentinels.'

"Part of what he was witnessing was the birth of the modern world and he was recording how that affected people's rhythms."

"Thoreau's Bed" is scheduled to be published in 2017, the 200th anniversary of Thoreau's birth.

Read more in Emory Report.

Some eye-opening thoughts on sleep
Shedding light on a pre-electric sleep culture
How a sleep walker stumbled into an asylum nightmare

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