Wednesday 31 August 2005

"An inability to sleep"

With those four simple words is how the always-excellent WordWeb describes insomnia, and you certainly couldn't argue with the accuracy of the definition. It's just that somehow that brief, almost dismissive description hardly seems to do insomnia justice. This is, after all, a "condition" (or, as I prefer to think of it, "experience", since conditions quite often have cures) that can have a phenomenal and debilitating affect on a sufferer. And yes, I am on the kind of bad run at the moment where three hours sleep is considered a very good night.

Don't worry, I'm not going to drone on about all the obvious problems of insomnia: lethargy, irritability, sallow eyes, stifled yawns, the loneliness of 4am... and oh, did I mention the lethargy? STOP!!! I said I wouldn't drone on. After all, I am resigned to how insomnia affects me, and am truly grateful that I can go weeks or sometimes even months without a problem. What riles me though, particularly when (as now) I am having a prolonged period of "an inability to sleep", is other people's reaction. As you might imagine, the insomniac is familiar with a lot of trite responses, from "have you tried counting sheep?" and "just close your eyes and try to relax" right the way through to "you're not switching off your mind properly" (yes, really) and "I've got one of those airline eye-masks you can try if it helps". Yes, so have I. I've got a whole drawer of the sodding things, none of which helps in the slightest. But it's not the trite responses that rankle either - however inane, such comments are only meant to help.

What really rattles my chain is those people who feel they have to jump on the bandwagon, and regale you with tales of their "bad night". Night! Singular! And "bad" as in "I went to bed at two o'clock and had to be up again at 7.30." And as if that wasn't bad enough, such people often feel the need to say something along the lines of "I haven't been sleeping very well lately..." and then just let their voice tail off, as if this allusion to insomnia somehow makes them interesting or mysterious. Or, as is the case with one of my colleagues who is about as much an insomniac as I am the Prime Minister, some feel that a claim of insomnia gives them an excuse for being irritable, stroppy and unfocused at work. The aforementioned colleague also plays the insomnia card because he associates it with eccentricity and genius, and that is how he is desperate to be perceived.

Sigh. It's 4am. I would say "I'm off to get some sleep" but instead I'll just say that I'm going back to bed. Good night all.

Wednesday 10 August 2005

Book snobbery

The release of the latest Harry Potter book has inevitably rekindled the debate about adults reading children's books. Ask yourself, quickly before you read any further, what's your view on this matter?

As a younger man, I felt almost obliged to read serious fiction, the intellectually challenging themes of which I viewed as some form of self-improvement. I still hold the self-improvement aspect to be a truism... I just no longer feel obliged to plough through weighty tomes. The turning point for me was Whatever Love Means by David Baddiel. Now this is a brilliantly written, adult book with adult themes of love, adultery, betrayal, illness and death. Although I found it to be a real page-turner, I wondered if I was reading it out of morbid fascination. Despite Baddiel's roots in the world of comedy, I found myself feeling depressed after reading this - it is not a funny book. Shortly after that I gave the first Harry Potter a try, just because I wanted to read something that was fun and had an optimistic last chapter (okay, I admit it, I wanted to see what all the fuss was about too).

And that's the point, surely; reading books should be fun, regardless of what age the reader is. So what if that middle-aged, suit-and-boots opposite you on the train has his head stuck in Harry Potter and the Next Derivative Installment? Even if he does feel the need to buy the adult-cover edition, he's enjoying himself - who has the right to criticise that?

That said, if you are an adult who has taken to browsing their children's bookshelves, you needn't constrain yourself to the latest offerings from J.K. Rowling or Philip Pulman. Seek out The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon. Read that and tell me where you draw the line between adult and children's literature.

Equally, there are those books that we read when children that we can enjoy again, not only because they are well-written, engaging stories but also because of the memories they evoke in us - reading the Chronicles of Narnia or most (but not all) of Roald Dahl's work certainly transports me back to a simpler time. Maybe that's the truth behind the phenomenon of adults reading kid's books - sure, the book has to be good enough to keep the pages turning, but the real appeal is in being, for that half an hour on the train at least, a child again. Life was so much simpler and happier then - who wouldn't want to pop back for a while?

Speaking of books as we are, I'll conclude with a couple of recommendations - for adults who prefer "grown-up" books, try Rough Music by Patrick Gale, easily the best book I have read this year and superior even to the similarly-themed and much-lauded The Corrections by Jonathan Frenzen. And if you're a kid who's starting to find that you can read Rowling et al on auto-pilot, try Watership Down by Richard Adams which you can read again and again and again and again and again... and get more from it every time.