RM Vaughan, 129 pages, Coach House Books, chbooks.com, $14.95
It’s a little ironic for me to review a book by an insomniac about insomnia, because for me, reading, no matter how engaged or interested I am, tends to put me to sleep. And based on the amount I read, I am safely defended against insomnia. RM Vaughan, however, is a lifelong insomniac, and this long essay/short book explores insomnia culture, filtered through his own experience and/as research.
Put simply, RM’s argument is that our society does not value sleep, and in fact conspires against it through technologies and work, or generally what he dubs “insomnia culture”. He predicts that insomnia is on its way to becoming a public health crisis, and warns of a coming “commodification of sleep”. His argument is generally convincing, especially as it is strengthened by his own experience and numerous testimonials from friends of his, interspersed throughout the book.
One highlight is his amazingly failed interview with the author Douglas Coupland, who disagrees completely with his theories about insomnia as a social phenomenon and problem. He graciously includes it in its entirety in the aptly-named chapter “Counterpoint”. Of course, lots more people do agree with him, like a certain Dr. Karlsson, an Icelandic scientist who studies the effects of sleeplessness on schools of fish, or Dr. Dang-Vu, a Montreal neuroscientist and medical doctor, who acknowledges class and other sociological influences on sleep patterns and valuation.
A short book at 129 small-sized pages, I still found that it could have been honed in. At times I felt that Vaughan was repeating himself, and the enormity of the issue was being muddied by the short format, which restricted his ability to fully explore certain facets of insomnia culture. It’s a good thing RM is a witty, engaging writer, because despite these faults, this is a good introduction to the cultural phenomenon and the far-reaching effects of mass insomnia.