Ralph Gardner Jr: An Insomnia Cure

Dec 29, 2018

Leo Tolstoy
Credit Public Domain / Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons

I’ve been sleeping with a woman named Anna. She’s even cured my insomnia. And my wife approves.

Anna can cure yours, too. Not to be cast aspersions on her reputation, but she’s in the public domain.

She’s Anna Karenina. By Leo Tolstoy.

Actually, my daughter’s the one who came up with the idea. When she heard me complaining about waking up in the middle of the night and not being able to go back to sleep she suggested I listen to something that would distract me from thoughts of impending doom – economic, personal, political, existential – that were preventing me from returning to peaceful slumber.

And what do you know… it worked!

I’ve never had trouble falling asleep. The problems arise only at around three or four a.m. So now I plug in my headphones – actually only one depending on which side of my head I lay – and return to Tsarist Russia and a microscopically observed world of romantic intrigue.

The method isn’t foolproof. The story is so compelling that sometimes I can’t stop listening. For those who haven’t read it yet it’s the tragic love story of Anna Karenina, a beautiful and very married woman, to a high government official, who falls in love with Count Alexei Vronsky, an affluent, single cavalry officer.

There’s also the anxiety caused because I’m trying to write a novel myself and Tolstoy sets an impossibly high bar. Indeed, some consider it the greatest novel ever written.

I’d read it for the first time many years ago and what always stayed with me was the precision of the emotional world the novel depicts. In particular an early scene at a ball where Kitty, a young princess making her social debut, realizes that Vronsky, with whom she and her mother hope of making a spectacular match, has become infatuated instead with Anna.

If you’ve ever experienced a situation where you’re attracted to someone but lose out to a competitor, experiencing the profundity of your powerlessness to forces far greater than yourself, you’ll recognize it all in Anna Karenina.

The Russian novel isn’t the first one that’s lulled me back to sleep. Prior masterpieces I’ve listened to include Moby Dick, Huckleberry Finn and Ulysses by James Joyce.

I’ve toyed around with the question about whether I deserve credit for consuming a book if I’ve listened to it on earphones instead of reading it on the printed page.

I’m not sure I do. There’s an immediacy, something intimate and even tactile about the physical act of reading, a compact, a connection between author and reader that listening to a book can’t quite replicate.

Also, I like to reread certain sentences and paragraphs – either because they’re especially eloquent, or confusing, or I’m distracted. That sense of control is harder to achieve when you’re listening to a book. It’s like trying to catch a moving train.

A further complication is that I might get through the first chapter or two – Anna Karenina famously begins, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” – only to wake up several hours later to discover that fifty or a hundred pages and a dozen chapters of the novel have lapsed, throwing me into a state of confusion.

So I have to return – the next night or the one after that – to the approximate place in the book where I think I lost consciousness.

That presents a challenge in particularly ambitious novels, such as Ulysses, where even under the best circumstances – which often means an annotated text and preferably a full semester course taught by a passionate and inspired literature professor – it’s hard to tell what’s happening.

So why don’t I set my sights a little lower? And listen to, say, a James Patterson page-turner or better yet waves lapping the shore or just white noise?

For starters, I’m ambitious even while dozing off. For another thing I’m cheap. As I mentioned all these novels are in the public domain. Which means they’re free for the listening.

And classics become classics for a reason. Ulysses perhaps aside, it’s because they’re accessible, insightful and often highly entertaining. There’s also something stress-reducing about tucking into the timeless cadences of Mark Twain’s Mississippi River or taking a crash course in Nantucket whaling.

By the way, even though I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit it, I’ve never read Moby Dick in printed form. So I was under the impression it was a dour tome filled with religious allusions.

In fact, it’s a really witty book.

Of course, I’m basing that on reading, or rather hearing chapters one through four, and maybe forty-one through sixty-four. I can never be sure.

But hopefully my exposure to the works, parts of them only subliminally, will persuade me eventually to return to the real thing.

In the meantime, I’m sleeping better than ever, even though I doubt that was Tolstoy or Twain’s goal when they devoted superhuman toil to creating entire worlds from scratch.

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.