I find it mind-boggling to recall this now, but when I was in my twenties my bedtime reading was Hegel—auf Deutsch!
In my thirties, when I had gotten over this hyper-intellectualism, I moved into biographies for bedtime, enjoying the expansion of self into another’s life as I left my own for the night.
Then in my forties there was a phase of fiction of the darker sort: I particularly remember reading the novels of François Mauriac (with his overpowering vision of our human sinfulness) and Virginia Woolf (deep into the psyche’s fantasies and muddled projections).
When I learned Spanish in my early fifties and eventually began to read it comfortably, I’d read something in Spanish for bedtime. I got hooked especially on the works of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, whose One Hundred Years of Solitude had been a favorite since its 1970 publication in English. This is his classic of magical realism, with its comically upbeat vision (though its world does implode at the end).
Most of Garcia Marquez’s other works are darkly violent, and I’d sit with tense excitement in bed while engrossed in their worlds, Spanish-English dictionary at my side. I recall most vividly the horrors of Chronicle of a Death Foretold, The Autumn of the Patriarch, and News of a Kidnapping.
Now, in my sixties, facing the physical and emotional challenges of aging, none of this will do. For bedtime reading, I need a world that embraces hope, laughter, joy. No wrestling with our dark interior selves; no violence; no suffering by psychically damaged characters.
I also need a world large enough (that is, a book long enough) for it to stay available for many weeks of bedtimes. Lately I’ve been re-reading novels that I know do this.
The natural first choice was Vikram Seth’s marvelous novel of post-World War II India, A Suitable Boy. I’d read it with delight when it first came out in 1993. And it’s the ideal length for stretching out over weeks of bedtimes: 1500 pages. Since I usually have only about 30-40 minutes of reading time before turning out the light, the novel lasted me a couple months of recent bedtimes.
In the world that Seth creates as this novel, there is, yes, some violence and suffering. Those few bedtimes weren’t as peaceful as I like. But ultimately, as I knew, A Suitable Boy is a comedy in the classic sense of ending with harmonious life-affirming relations restored.
What I cared most about during those contented weeks of bedtimes with A Suitable Boy—what Vikram Seth wants us to care about most—is who Lata will end up marrying. Actually, I remembered from my prior reading whom she would choose, but I didn’t remember the minute steps of how Seth led her to her final choice in a way that feels right for the reader.
Something similar kept me eagerly turning pages with my next bedtime choice, Jane Austen’s Emma. I’ve read Emma countless times, but the previous time was long enough ago that—though I knew she’d end up with Mr. Knightly—I’d forgotten the beautifully crafted stages through which Austen brings about Emma’s moral growth.
Of course, there was tension in accompanying Emma through all the messes she keeps causing in other people’s lives almost right up to the novel’s end, but it wasn’t a tension that kept me awake. In fact, I was bereft when—reluctantly reaching the novel’s final page—I was cast out of its world.
I turned next to my stand-by author of novels that produce perfect bedtime worlds: Anne Tyler. She has a gift for creating worlds that are hope-filled but not at all sentimental: engaging, inventive, quirky without being weird.
My local library had A Patchwork Planet on the shelf, so that’s what I took next to bed with me. Again, as with A Suitable Boy, I remembered from previous readings who the endearing first person protagonist, Barnaby, ends up with as a mate. But, again, I’d (fortunately) lost the details of how Barnaby, just turned thirty years old, keeps struggling with how to re-define himself after an adolescence of petty crime.
I’d get into bed with my own current worries fussing in my mind; but they’d all dissolve as soon as I entered Barnaby’s world. I cared about him; I longed for his happiness.
The problem with Tyler’s novels, though, is that they’re too short. In a week their world has closed, and I’m left seeking another bedtime world to enter. How frustrating that the magnificent very long novels of Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy are so dark: so fraught with tense dramatics and destructively dysfunctional characters.
Dear reader, please tell me what novelist to put on the bedside table now!