03 December 2009

The Lost Art of Sleep

by Michael McGirr

Picador. Australian, Adult Non-Fiction. Paperback rrp $32.99

Reviewed by Anastasia Gonis

McGirr is the author of the brilliantly entertaining, Things You Get for Free. His writing is never only about the theme he has chosen. It encompasses all the nooks and crannies of the subject, engaging the reader with his humorous and entertaining narrative style, which speaks of life and the many encounters along the roads travelled. Since the birth of their first child Benny, followed by twins soon after, McGirr and wife Jenny have searched for that lost treasure, sleep. The subject of sleep, or the lack of it, is the thread that binds all the chapters together in this exceptional book.

Woven into the many stories and reflections, are factors connected to sleep such as beds and other places of rest, sleeplessness, sleep apnoea, narcolepsy, the drugs prescribed, and documented stories about these points. There are quirky stories of where and how people slept or what kept them awake (like the story of coffee), and the famous people that lived and functioned with very little sleep either by choice or the lack of options.

These cover the story of Colin Sullivan, a leader in the field of sleep medicine and his discovery of the breathing masks that saved thousands of lives. He also delves into history and the life and writings of the ancient philosophers for examples; into Shakespeare’s work and sleeping arrangements right up to uncovering the bed he willed to Anne Hathaway; the sleep habits of Thomas Edison, Charles Dickens, John Milton, Mark Twain, R.L. Stevenson and Winston Churchill, amongst others. Added is the fascinating story of Florence Nightingale who took to her bed after the Crimean War and stayed there for fifty-four years, dying at ninety.

Each chapter is a magic box that is filled with entertainment, surprise, and the unexpected. At times moving and compassionate, and at other times filled with humour and laughter, it is always brilliant, clear and precise. A gifted writer, McGirr was a former Jesuit priest who left that calling in 2000, and answered the writing call which has benefited the world.

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