Under my byline

Bedside books

Posted in Books, Living by Rrishi on 20 December 2008

Reading in bed (c) me


A while ago, I met an Indian corporate raja for a profile on these pages, and was invited into his book-lined study. Unlike many chief executives, this man actually reads the books he owns. Naturally it was uplifting to see excellent books on history and economy rubbing shoulders with literary novels, biographies and translations, and to watch this powerful man browsing along the shelves with the absent-minded ease of the habitué.

So I asked him one of my favourite questions: What books are on your bedside table? The great man vanished into his bedroom and came back with two names: a translation of Nizami’s Laila-Majnu and a slim volume of William Blake’s poetry.

But, he added firmly, I was not to quote him on this.

Why? I asked — how could such fine taste ever reflect poorly on him?

Reluctantly he confessed that he didn’t want people to think he was showing off.

But I believe he was also reluctant for another reason. There’s something intensely personal about one’s bedtime reading. Exactly what reading matter you pick reveals something about your personality and intellectual habits, even your weaknesses — especially as your choice happens with as little deliberate planning as a response to one of those suggestive inkblots on a Rorschach test. So it is a little awkward to share this information with strangers.

The book you choose to settle under your quilt with, in the warm pool of light cast by your lamp, washed, brushed and freshly pajama-clad for the night, often reflects the day that went before. It’s likely that most of your working hours were spent reading — five to eight hours a day for the typical white-collar worker, according to Steven Roger Fischer’s A History of Reading (2004) — but you have turned to a book even after hours.

At bedtime you read to redress imbalance, or for closure. If it was a tense and fretful day at work, a soothingly bucolic Miss Read, the long-running series about life in the fictional English village of Fairacre, may be what you need. Children’s literature of the old-fashioned variety also works well for me.

Majnu in the wilderness, 1507 manuscriptOr, like the aforementioned executive, you can choose poetry, which will exercise parts of your mind you haven’t used for some time and give the overworked bits a rest.

If the day was languid, then perhaps it has whetted your appetite for the next chapter of a detective novel, or perhaps you wish to round the day off with a flip through the glossies.

At bedtime you also read to still and focus the mind. If that’s your purpose, you need literary fiction or narrative non-fiction that can be absorbed in small doses, night after night. Then you will fall asleep as after a full meal, with your mind sated — and fuelled, for sleep is not unconsciousness. While you sleep, scientists tell us, your brain, freed from its regular duties, works hard to lay down the day’s new memories and to create usable patterns out of the jumble of new facts and notions you have collected. Therefore, give your brain something good to play with.

I suggest — although this is entirely a personal matter — keeping several books at hand, so that you don’t have to wander disconsolate in search of the right thing. For example: I like Gore Vidal for beautiful prose with a punch, Robert Graves for his dense but entertaining short stories, the great travel writers for exciting dreams, popular history, even Shobhaa De for lulling flow. I stay away from current-affairs non-fiction (it gets me worked up). Sometimes I read a few lines aloud, without understanding much, from the little Sukhmani Sahib my nani told me to keep under my pillow. It’s a perfectly fulfilling way to end the day.


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