There is a battle I engage in each night: whether to go to sleep, or read. I get up pretty early. Usually I’m awake between 5:15 and 5:30a, and I am out on my morning walk between 5:50 and 6:00a. During the summers, the kids don’t go to bed until 10p and I usually start to drag around 8p. If I could, I’d probably go to bed around 8p each night. Usually, I end up going to bed closer to 10p.
By the time I get into bed, I am usually tired. I have a small window in which I can fall asleep quickly and if I miss that window for some reason, it usually takes me much longer to settle down and fall asleep. The problem, for me, if the constant battle that goes on in my head between reading and sleeping. There is rarely a time that I don’t want to continue reading for as long as I can. At the same time, I can often feel myself slipping outside the boundaries of that sleep window. So: do I continue to read, knowing it will be difficult to fall asleep? Or do I set aside the book knowing I’ll fall asleep quickly and feel well-rested in the morning.
As much as I need a good night’s sleep, I almost always opt to continue reading. Usually, when I am on the fence, the thought that goes through my head is: At the end of my life, I’m not going to say, “I wish I’d slept more.” And then I imagine that I am on the verge of reading a book I’ve been looking forward to for a long time when the lights go out. That usually puts off sleep for a time. Some nights I’ll read for a while, and the book will keep sleep at bay. Other nights, I’ll get another 15 minutes before the laws of physics make it impossible for me to keep my eyes open any longer.
On some nights, much more rare, I just can’t put a book down. I’ll keep reading and reading, past midnight, past one o’clock, two o’clock… I know that I will regret this in the morning, but some books are just so good I can’t put them down.
Occasionally, I will give in to my need for sleep. I’ll get into bed with the thought that maybe I’ll read for a few minutes, and then reconsider, close my eyes, and be right off to sleep. Usually when this happen I tell myself that I’ll pick up the book first thing in the morning, or in the middle of the night, if I wake up and can’t get back to sleep. That never happens, probably because I am so tired from reading late in the first place.
When I really want to read, but am just too tired to keep my eyes open, I become envious of the “sleepless” in Nancy Kress’s “Beggars in Spain,” people who have been genetically modified so that they don’t need sleep. I wonder just how much more reading I could get done if I didn’t need to sleep between 6-8 hours each night?
Actually, it wouldn’t be that hard to estimate. Say it takes me 10 hours, on average, to read a book. And suppose that, by being sleepless, I could get in an additional 5 hours of reading per day. (I say 5 because even at my best, I can’t read for 7 hours straight without breaks.) That would mean an additional 35 hours of reading per week, or about 3-1/2 books. There are 52 weeks in a year so I would read an additional 182 books a year. Without that time, in my best year, I read 130 books. Usually I am for 100 books/year. Being genetically modified to not require sleep would increase my reading by 182%. If I lived to be 90, I might be able to read an additional 4,000 – 5,000 books in my life. Without sleep, that number jumps to an additional 7,300 – 8,300 books in the last 40 years of my life.
I know that people are wary of genetic modification, but being able to go without sleep sounds like a real superpower when I consider how much more reading I could do. I wonder if this is something Jennifer Doudna is looking into?
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