Forum — From the August 2013 issue

Segmented Sleep

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At first I dreaded having to investigate the history of sleep. Human slumber appeared impervious to time and place, stubbornly immune to the element of change animating most works of history. My own sleep was blissfully tranquil. No surprise, in my view, that historians, save for a few studies of dreams, had not explored a topic manifestly monotonous and uneventful. Samuel Johnson answered his own question when he wondered in 1753 why “so liberal and impartial a benefactor as Sleep should meet with so few historians.” But I had embarked on writing a book about nighttime in the centuries prior to the Industrial Revolution, and omitting sleep was unthinkable. “The brother of death exacteth a third part of our lives,” wrote Sir Thomas Browne. Death — traditionally the most common metaphor for sleep. Somehow I needed to fashion a chapter that would hold a reader’s interest, as well as my own.

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is the author of At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past (W. W. Norton). A former Guggenheim fellow, he is a professor of history at Virginia Tech.

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