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Bedtime reading, from Plato to CBT…

Books by my bed | 4 minute read
A writer takes stock of his bedtime reading, from the new and unread to old, well-thumbed classics, in the first of our series of columns called 'Books by My Bed'

Like a lot of people, I have a pile of books by my bed. I have bookcases in my house filled with books, but those by my bed are different. These are books I am currently reading, was reading and still want to finish, new books I want to read next and others that made such an impact on me that I need to keep them close by in case of an emergency.

I am an impatient reader. I read lots of different books at the same time. If I lie in bed and read, I fall asleep almost immediately. This is why my bedside table is covered in so many books. Some half-read, with ideas in them that I haven’t yet fully squeezed out. They are there to be sucked of their goodness on a day when I’m too ill to go to work but not ill enough to be unable to read.

I have layers of books lying dormant in my house, like fossils itching to be remembered. The top layer is made up of the books by my bed. The next layer is made up of the books in the bookcases in the kitchen and the lounge that I have either already read (but haven’t yet moved upstairs) or that I haven’t read yet but know that one day I will get round to picking them up. And when I do, I will need to read them Immediately. That instant. I won’t be able to wait. Even though I have no idea when that urge will arrive.

There is another layer in the garden shed. The ones there have enough of a pull on me not to get rid of them. (I can’t seem to get rid of a book. Under any circumstances. Even though these ones smell too much to be allowed in the house.) There are other layers still: the books in the loft of my dad’s house; and the books in my mum’s house from when I was small, with my name written in bad handwriting that I show to my children when we visit her. Holding those books releases an echo of what it once meant to be myself far more effectively than if I see photographs of myself as a child.

When you’re young, writing your name in a book is like putting your flag in the ground of human imagination. You can’t believe you’re allowed to connect yourself to its pages. When I did it, it was the first time I consciously made a mark on the world. I wouldn’t write my name in a book of my own now. Even when someone asks me to sign a book I’ve written, it feels strange. I think it is because once a book is published, it doesn’t feel like it has anything to do with me anymore.

I suppose there is another layer beyond all the ones I’ve mentioned: the books I haven’t read – some won’t even have been written yet, but they are forming themselves in the minds of their authors right now and it makes me smile to think that one day I will stack them by my bedside.

So the books by my bed are the tip of my book iceberg. The books where I read aground.

Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is a book I haven’t read before, but I’m doing Cognitive Behavioural Therapy at the moment and the concept of ‘flow’ keeps coming up. It’s one of those books that suggests it can give you a path to happiness, which I’m quite sceptical about usually, but Flow makes more sense than most books that make this claim so far.

When I travel, I always read books set in, or by writers from, the country I’m visiting. I went to Sweden recently, which explains The Death of a Beekeeper by Lars Gustafsson and The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed out the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson. I’ve only read The Death of a Beekeeper so far. Reading it on the train between Stockholm and the airport reminded me that when you read a book in the country in which it was was written and set, the colour of the light and the smell of the air give you a depth of understanding that boosts your imagination and sense of empathy for what the author is trying to say.

The Lost Diary by Chris Yates is one I read when I miss the countryside, which I do often. Phaedo by Plato is one I need in existential emergencies. When I wake in the night full of dread. That hasn’t actually happened since I left it by my bed, though, so I think it must help me just to be near the way those words are organised. It will never be put away. I got Pops by Michael Chabon from my wife for Father’s Day, and I read it when I miss my kids, two of whom don’t live with me. Stefan Zweig’s collected short stories are ideal for someone who falls asleep as easily as me. Zweig is one of the few authors I can stay awake for.

I know The Sound of the Mountain by Yasunari Kawabata is brilliant but I’m not quite there with it yet. I haven’t got far enough into it to be able to tell you what it’s about, only that the idea that a mountain could have a sound was enough to grab me. I will keep trying. Perhaps I haven’t lived enough to decipher it yet. I will read it all the way through one day. Perhaps in Japan. I get the feeling that when I do finish it, it will become one of the books that gets to stay by my bedside. My friend Roman Krznaric’s book Empathy is one I go back to time and time again. And then there’s The Rainbow by D H Lawrence. It’s by my bed because there’s a chapter in it about a couple falling in love that reminds me of when I met my wife. I read it in a kind of blissful despair whenever she goes away.

Dan Kieran’s latest book is ‘The Surfboard’ (Unbound). Buy it here.

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