Bedtime Stories: June 2021

  • June 22, 2021

What do book lovers have queued up on their nightstands and ready to read before lights-out? We asked one of them, and here’s what he said.


Kevin McIlvoy:

A hypothesis from neuroscientist Erik Hoel that is both very new and quite old proposes that our reading experiences might serve as “dream substitutions…they could perhaps even be designed to help delay the cognitive effects of sleep deprivation.” In a recent article in Science Daily, Hoel continues, “Dreams are there to keep you from becoming too fitted to the model of the world.”

When my wife and I read to each other in the evening before sleeping, almost every page places us in different kinds of dream states. The passages have, with certainty, disrupted our illusions of fitting the world.

Over a period of 200 days, we have read one page a night of the large-format book An Introduction to Nature: Birds, Wild Flowers, Trees. The author, John Kiernan, understands that we wish to learn the gifts of animal and vegetal life, our companions in this world that is theirs and ours (not, after all, ours and theirs).

He reminds us of the birdlife near us yet so often ignored, as with the Baltimore oriole’s “wonderful woven nests in the outer foliage of our dooryard elms and our pasture-land maples and hickories.” Kiernan’s favorite expression is “You might be surprised to know” whenever he surprises us by describing natural phenomena to which we are too often oblivious.

We have read The Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart, the poetry anthology compiled by editors Robert Bly, James Hillman, and Michael Meade. The volume reminds me of how poetry offers what Linda Greggerson calls “repeatable surprise” through the age of Heraclitus and Rumi and Goethe and Chippewa music, and including such 20th-century figures as Ruth Stone and Sharon Olds and Etheridge Knight. The book’s selections from William Butler Yeats’ “A Dialogue of Self and Soul” enact the essential human struggle represented throughout the anthology: to “follow to its source / every event in action or in thought” that would rehumanize us.

We are now reading The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis, the master of imperturbable close observation. Our thoughts, Davis reminds us in every brief piece, seek astonishment. If we have dulled this wonder-seeking capacity of thought, she will help us recover it with a single sentence. “Hand” is a typical instance of constructive “dream substitution.” I offer the story here in its entirety: “Beyond the hand holding this book that I’m reading, I see another hand lying idly and slightly out of focus — my other hand.”

Kevin McIlvoy’s eighth book, One Kind Favor, a novel, has been published recently by WTAW Press.

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