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Book Club February Pick: Insomnia, by Marina Benjamin

Insomnia, then, is not just a state of sleeplessness, a matter of negatives. It involves the active pursuit of sleep. It is a state of longing.

I was particularly excited to recommend this slim little piece of non-fiction for our book club for two reasons;

1. Insomnia is something that fascinates me. I make no secret of being an intense sleep lover, with the ability to buckle down for a nap most afternoons. The idea of not being able to do this bamboozles me, so a literary dive into the topic is overdue.

2. The beautiful cover. I mean ... just look at it!

Unfortunately it failed to deliver (on the first of those points anyway).

Benjamin has a very drifty, lyrical style to her writing. There are some decidedly beautiful sentences contained within this. With her extensive background in editing, Benjamin does an ample job of showcasing her prowess when it comes to all things grammar, tense and sentence structure.

The difficulty for me was that this got extremely tiresome, extremely quickly. I'm all for beautiful writing, but I picked this book up to learn more about insomnia from a personal perspective rather than a psychology textbook. Instead I got a bunch of paragraphs about Greek mythology and wafting sentences that filtered down to not very much apart from strings of nice words. Although I rarely struggle with sleep currently, I have gone through bouts of existence in managing the complex experience. When I did have insomnia I certainly wasn't thinking about "the gently shifting penumbra that heralds dawn."

Some parts of this were highly relatable: her jealousy at her partners and dog for their abilities to sleep so soundly. The rampant panicked thinking that emerges and how she likened this to a Formula One driver racing about the track.

But there was also something a little too egotistical around the writing. Benjamin seems to wear her insomnia as a badge of honour, as something that gives her an otherness or uniqueness. She did that icky thing of picking out a personality type (choleric personality) and exacting how she is very much like that - but only the good parts or the parts that are easy to be self-deprecating about. Nor did I care much for the whimsical reference to 'Zzz' - her partner? Husband? Lover? Child? Housekeeper? It seemed a bit childish. She navel-gazes over issues that I am sure she intended to demonstrate her 'depth of thoughts' but no one likes rushed paragraphs around slavery or colonialism. Do the subject justice or don't mention it at all (especially not in a book that has nothing to do with the subject matter).

This is an unconventional little book that ultimately came across as a bit too try-hard for me. It lacked the personal intimacy I was hoping for around the topic and just seemed to dance around as many unrelated ideas as possible. Perhaps it was Benjamin's intention to offer us some sort of semi-lucid, limbo-esque reading experience akin to how her mind works when she is trapped in the bubble of insomnia. If so, it didn't work for me.

If you are an insomniac, you may or may not love this love this book. If you want to understand insomnia better, you may or may not love this book.

It's pretty much on the fence.


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