My mother-in-law, Dorothy, is showing me the red spiral notebook that’s almost as precious to her as my husband’s baby pictures. Inside, in Dorothy’s distinctive script, is a list of every book she has read since 2007. For some people waking up in the middle of the night is a terrible curse; unable to drift back to sleep, they’re confronted with a big gaping hole that represents hours of lost time. For my mother-in-law, that time is a gift. At 87, she is acquiring the education she never had by working her way through the canon of great literature. She has now read close to 100 books, including every single novel by Anthony Trollope, Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Edith Wharton, Henry James and Thomas Mann.
My mother-in-law discusses her newfound passion with the enthusiasm of a young girl, although she can also be a very tough critic, writing “VG” for “very good” in the margins next to her favorites. Thus far, only a handful of books have received the top prize. Though she “loves” Mr. Darcy, especially after seeing the Masterpiece Theater version with the dashing Colin Firth, she didn’t award Jane Austen a single “VG.” “I can’t explain it,” she says. “I like her a lot and I wish she’d written more – was she sickly? I can’t remember – but she just doesn’t hold a candle to Thomas Mann (three ‘VG’s’). Everybody should read ‘Buddenbrooks.’ Where were those books when I was growing up?”
Born in Ridgefield, Conn., Dorothy was the youngest daughter of an Italian gardener who taught himself English by reading The New York Times. Eager to come to Manhattan, she became a nurse, married a dentist and spent the next several decades keeping house and raising a family. In her later years, she put her nursing skills to good use taking care of my father-in-law, who had lung cancer, heart disease and kidney failure. There were multiple trips to the emergency room in the middle of the night and then a prolonged hospital stay. She kept vigil 15 hours a day. Always a light sleeper, she developed insomnia as a result of the acute stress. It worsened after he died. Deep in mourning and alone for the first time in her life, she began waking up around 2 a.m. — and staying up. Her doctor prescribed valium, but Julian and Sylvia, the elderly couple next door, had another idea: reading. And so Julian, a clarinetist and a great lover of literature, became my mother-in-law’s “professor,” delivering books from his extensive library. Suddenly the terrifying hole in the middle of the night opened onto a world of amazing characters — the Pallisers, Little Nell, Elizabeth Bennet and, of course, Mr. Darcy.
A cognitive behavioral therapist would probably advise Dorothy not to stimulate her mind at night, but she’d miss out on so much. Still, sleep problems in the elderly can lead to decreased memory and increased risk of accidents. My mother-in-law is lucky in that she’s still in good health and cobbles together sufficient sleep to suit her needs.
The quality and quantity of a person’s sleep changes over time. Just as our skin loses its suppleness and our joints begin to creak, our “sleep architecture,” which refers to the overall pattern of a person’s sleep, becomes increasingly more fragile. It develops wrinkles in a way. If we could hold a mirror to it, we’d probably say, “How did my sleep come to look like this?”
Some experts believe that seniors require just as much sleep as younger adults but simply aren’t getting it, although a study at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and the Harvard Medical School showed that seniors (ages 60 to 72) needed 1.5 hours less sleep than their younger (18-to-32) counterparts. Both physiological and lifestyle changes contribute to the problems, from failing to get sufficient exercise and light to secreting lesser amounts of chemicals that play a critical role in the sleep/wake cycle. The elderly tend to fall asleep and wake up earlier, which puts them out of sync with our normal 24-hour cycle. Teenagers have the opposite problem, falling asleep later and then having difficulty getting up – a pattern that makes early morning classes a real challenge.
Carol Worthman, an anthropologist at Emory University, interviewed a group of researchers who had studied the nighttime patterns of ten non-Western populations, including the Ache foragers in Paraguay and the Swat Pathan herders in Pakistan. She draws a picture that has little in common with our own rigid notions of what constitutes perfect sleep. While we engage in what she calls the “lie down and die model,” confined to our beds for a fixed block of time, people in traditional societies sleep in groups and drift in and out of slumber depending on what’s happening around them. That could be anything from listening to an impromptu concert to engaging in a ritual dance. Worthman speculates that age-related variations in sleep may have been vital to survival; by staggering sleep throughout the night, someone was always on guard.
That was certainly the case in my house. My maternal grandfather, who lived with us, fell asleep around 9 p.m. and by 2 a.m. he was wide awake. Often he’d come down to breakfast with something he’d written, like new lyrics to “America the Beautiful” or a re-worked “Madame Butterfly,” where Cio-Cio-San decides not to commit suicide but sails off with Pinkerton to New York, where he runs for mayor and she teaches Japanese to society ladies. Once in the middle of a sweltering August night – we had no air-conditioning then – I found him working on a decorative Christmas mantelpiece that he’d seen in one of my mother’s old magazines. Across the kitchen table, he’d spread rows of green and white felt cloth, a pot of glue, scissors, a box of gold stars and a plastic tray filled with blue and red sequins. Over a period of several nights he managed to create a wondrous winter scene with angels and snowmen; my mother still drapes it across the mantle every Christmas. My grandfather didn’t view his insomnia as a problem. It gave him what he wanted most: more life.
For my mother-in-law it’s more books. Having worked her way up through James Joyce’s shorter works — next to Darcy, she’s crazy about Stephen Dedalus — she has recently embarked on ‘Ulysses.’ “Since all the action takes place over the course of one day, I do think it probably should be a little shorter,” she says. “One thousand pages for 24 hours? What’s Bloom doing that’s so interesting?” At the moment, she has only reached page 12, because she’s determined to look up and record every unfamiliar word in a separate yellow notebook. Two pages are already filled up.
Along with her dictionary, she’s reading a critical survey on Joyce to put his writing in perspective. At this rate, it’s going to be a long “slog” (“to walk or progress at a slow heavy pace”) but she’s determined to finish it. “Sylvia wants me to try ‘Finnegans Wake’ next,” she says. “But Julian thinks I should vary my reading so maybe I’ll do something totally different. Like sleep… or ‘War and Peace.’”