Our Souls at Night

  • By Art Taylor
  • June 4, 2018

Nothing replenishes like nocturnal reading

Our Souls at Night

After our son was born, my wife and I divided up our schedules pretty rigorously, specifically to avoid having to put Dashiell in daycare immediately, but also to maintain sanity generally, to avoid our days spiraling into a mess.

Tara worked then and still works more conventional hours, but being a professor gave me a more adaptable schedule. I’m still grateful for all that the English Department at George Mason University did to adjust my hours effectively: evening classes instead of day, for example, so Tara and I could trade off our son in the late afternoon and have a quick dinner before I headed to campus.

I even taught a few online classes, which kept me from having to be anywhere in person at a specific time — allowing me to check in on students whenever Dash took a nap or evenings after Tara got home or late nights after the two of them went to bed.

Tara was sometimes asleep by the time I got home from classes at 10:30 p.m. or later, but because I was often still a little wired (always hard to just switch off after having been “on” for students), I usually found myself in charge of Dash’s last feeding of the day.

I’d get home, prep his bottle, walk into his darkened room, lift him from his crib — still sleeping — and tuck him into the crook of my arm for that twilight feeding (or dream feeding, as it’s called).

I’m not always a fan of the Kindle — I like the feel of a real book — but I appreciated it those nights. Holding the bottle, and with Dash nestled in the other arm, I still had one hand free to hold the Kindle, its small light just enough for me to read by but not enough to disturb his slumber.

Those nights, those months, marked the most reading I’d done in years — and so many of the books I read continue to hold a special place in my memory because of the associations with Dash: Elizabeth Peters’ Crocodile on a Sandbank, Jess Lourey’s May Day, Laura Ellen Scott’s Death Wishing, Martin Cruz Smith’s Gorky Park, Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending.

When I found out I’d be having lunch with Peter Lovesey at Malice Domestic a year or so after Dash was born, I tried to articulate all the feelings I had for his novel Wobble to Death, all the associations with the scene I just painted above. I’m sure I fumbled trying to explain it, but he was gracious as always. I had tracked down a first edition of the book before that lunch just so he could sign it, and I’m sure I teared up a little thinking about it all.

There are a couple of places this column could go here — one of them about how we connect books with certain times and places and people, drawing joy not just from what’s inside those pages, but from the associations the book as object can carry as well. I’ve got a whole list of those, still building it.

But, instead, I want to talk briefly about reading late at night and even in the middle of the night.

I read throughout the day in various ways — all of us do: the constant barrage of emails, social media, articles, blog posts, and more, more, more. Most of my daily reading focuses on pushing through prep for classes. But sustained attention to a book that’s just for me? That rarely happens during daylight hours. While I usually have at least one book going, I’m nearly always reading it in quick bites and grabs where I can, when I can.

The exception is late at night, which is why those times in Dash’s room seemed so magical. While everyone slept, I was awake and alert and, even with a baby across me, alone with a book, reading well past the time that he’d finished eating, relishing the luxury.     

I continue to try to read a bit before turning in each night — and recently finished Louise Penny’s first novel, Still Life, covering a chapter each night, lingering over that poignant, existentially charged chapter seven in the wee, thoughtful hours, and finishing the last 75 pages in a burst, sitting with a book light on a dark screened porch.

Because I often struggle with insomnia in the middle of the night, I’ve learned not to fight it anymore but just to get up, go downstairs, and pick up a book, savoring the 3 a.m. quiet and stillness and the opportunities there. 

(A small aside: I felt better about doing this after reading articles about how it used to be the norm to sleep in two shifts with a waking break of an hour or two past midnight; see At Day's Close: Night in Times Past by Virginia Tech historian Roger Ekirch.)

In this era when our attention gets hijacked throughout the day by alerts for every new email or twitter mention or text from a friend, the still of night has its allures and benefits.

Let a good book light the darkness.

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