For the past few weeks, I have been reading a book about the nesting habits of tree swallows.
I read it at night, in bed, for 20 or 30 minutes before falling asleep. This is why it’s taking me weeks to get through it.
The book is oddly fascinating — it’s by a scientist who grew curious as to why swallows line their nests with white feathers, so he set about studying them. (The book is “White Feathers” by Bernd Heinrich.)
Every spring from 2010 to 2018 he studied the swallows near his cabin in Maine. Each chapter covers one spring, and each chapter, frankly, is a lot like the chapter before it — starting with the swallows’ return, then observations of their behavior, their mating (prodigious!), nest building, egg-laying, and finally the fledgling of the young.
Heinrich performs experiments — Will the swallows use black feathers if no white feathers are available? What about white feathers on a white background — will they see those? What happens if he removes the feathers from the nest when they are not looking? Will they replace them? What, he wonders, are the feathers actually for?
This is the perfect bedtime book for me. It’s soothing. It’s interesting, but not enthralling. It involves nature and cheeping birds.
I don’t know about you, but I love to read in bed before falling asleep, and what I read at that time is very different from what I read during daylight hours.
During the day, I read for work. I read books that I am reviewing, or books to help me prepare for interviews, or books that I am judging for the annual National Book Critics Circle awards. I need to think about what I read, and I need to take notes. And so I sit upright, I have a yellow highlighter and a pack of Post-it notes at the ready, and often a cup of hot tea. On the bus (I do a lot of reading on the bus) I take up too much room with all my gear.
But at night I read in an entirely different way. I crawl into my nest and I look for something both engaging and calming. Nothing I need to pay close attention to. Nothing I have to think about too hard. Nothing disturbing. Nothing heart-pounding, exciting, can’t-put-it-down. Because that, of course, would be counterproductive.
Here at the Star Tribune we are deep into our monthlong series examining how we sleep and how we can get better sleep (startribune.com/sleep). This series made me think about my habit of reading in bed.
Readers have offered a lot of advice on the subject. Don’t read on a tablet or a phone, they caution — the light will interfere with sleep.
Choose books that are, as one reader put it, “interesting but not activating (for me this means subjects that are interesting without being scary/troubling etc.).”
Someone else suggested reading with a flashlight to limit the amount of light in the room, or using an audiobook — just drift off to the sound of the narrator’s voice.
Others have said, rather sternly, do not read in bed at all — the bedroom is for sleeping. Do your reading on the couch or somewhere else and when you get tired, go to bed. (This would never work for me. Just the act of getting up and walking to the bedroom would wake me up.)
No, I’m happiest with the window cracked, the duvet tucked up around my chin, the reading light set to “nighttime,” and a gentle book — a story collection, a light novel, a book that is purely for pleasure.
Nesting tree sparrows are just my speed.
And if I end up dreaming about birds and feathers? So much the better.
Do you read in bed? What do you read then? Write me at email@example.com and I’ll use your thoughts in a follow-up column.
Laurie Hertzel is the Star Tribune’s senior editor for books and the president of the National Book Critics Circle. On Facebook: facebook.com/startribunebooks. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.