Michael McGirr probably had The Lost Art of Sleep in his mind while he had the insomnia suffered by any parent of young babies.
The Lost Art of Sleep
Michael McGirr probably had The Lost Art of Sleep in his mind while he had the insomnia suffered by any parent of young babies. I don’t think he actually wrote it while suffering from sleep deprivation, it is far too happy a book for that. But the notion for the book must have hit him in that horrid state of mind where any flat surface looks inviting; where any quiet five minutes was wasted, if not spent with eyes closed inviting just a little rest.
Most of us do spend between a quarter and a third of our lives sleeping, or trying to sleep. It is surprising that there is so little really known about the subject. No one knows exactly why we sleep, there are many theories, but no single theory explains all the puzzles. We all think we know something about sleep, many of us moan about our lack of sleep, but it is rare that to have a Plain English and in depth discussion of it. McGirr takes a tour of sleep clinics and neurologists rooms to find and explain what is known and perhaps, more interestingly what is not known on the subject. He talks to sleep scientists about the problems of sleep apnoea. Then he discusses the history of Collin Sullivan and a rather important Australian invention, the Continuous Positive Air Pressure, or CPAP machine. It has more, much more, than I want to know about the microbiology of my mattress and pillows. Then he worries with pharmacist Geraldine Moses about the side effects night time sedation, especially of some of the newer types of drugs such as zolpidem and the Z-class drugs which are can cause real problems. He writes of William Dennett, a sleep studies pioneer, who answers the question of what sleep is, with another question, what is wakefulness? Certainly, this is a question that philosophers have been working on since Plato. McGirr brings him into the discussion too.
It is a happy book. It is a compendium of anecdote about living with small, sleepless children and of moving house. He has a few reflections on the stories Homer and Virgil tell about sleep, and sleeping in the wrong beds. He looks at the visit of the Pope to Sydney in 2008, and at the need for creativity in science, providing us with a subtle definition of creativity.
McGirr writes kindly about some of the more eccentric sleepers or non sleepers of the world; Charles Dickens, Thomas Eddison and Florence Nightingale get a section of their own. He also mentions some politicians. Not many writers can bring all of these people into one book without strain.
Although this book is about insomnia and sleep, it will not send the reader off to sleep. It does have a couple of artfully hidden pieces of advice for the insomniac, but it is not a book of sleep hygiene. It is, as the blurb says, ‘an exploration of one of life’s true constraints.’
The Lost Art of Sleep
by Michael McGirr, 2009 Picador Australia
ISBN:978 0 330 42491 2