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Oliver Pritchett on the etiquette of bedtime

Pillow Talk

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Oliver Pritchett shares some thoughts on the do’s and don’ts of reading in bed before he turns out the light.

The etiquette of bedtime reading is such a delicate matter that we must approach it on tiptoe. In fact, before we get to the bed, let us pause and consider the bedside table – or, more accurately, the pile of books on the bedside table.

Our current reading is on the top of the pile, but in the layers below we can find a display of our good intentions: books we have resolved to finish one day. Some of these may even have been there for years, some perhaps were on the Booker Prize shortlist in 2002. One may be there because of a distant New Year resolution to try Turgenev, say. Another may have been borrowed a shamingly long time ago.

There are also some permanent fixtures in this pile, like the incomprehensible instruction manual for the bedside digital clock radio and also a volume on folkloric ways of predicting the weather and a copy of Weirdest Proverbs from Around the World – both presents from distant relations at far-off Christmases.

Rule number one about this pile is: don’t show off. Don’t leave some dauntingly impressive work on the top just to impress some guest who may stray into the bedroom to leave a coat or to find a paracetamol.

Rule number two: don’t leave an unfinished book on the bedside table for more than six months. Put it back on the shelves and try again in three months’ time.

While we are here at the bedside table, I’d like to say something about the bedside light, which is fundamental to any discussion of bedtime-reading etiquette. The arrival of the compulsory low energy light bulb has had a profound effect on the way we read in bed. At first it led to a mass outbreak of restlessness and lampshade tilting and then to the realization that the rule book had to be rewritten. What are the proprieties of reading in inadequate light? Two simple

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Oliver Pritchett shares some thoughts on the do’s and don’ts of reading in bed before he turns out the light.

The etiquette of bedtime reading is such a delicate matter that we must approach it on tiptoe. In fact, before we get to the bed, let us pause and consider the bedside table – or, more accurately, the pile of books on the bedside table.

Our current reading is on the top of the pile, but in the layers below we can find a display of our good intentions: books we have resolved to finish one day. Some of these may even have been there for years, some perhaps were on the Booker Prize shortlist in 2002. One may be there because of a distant New Year resolution to try Turgenev, say. Another may have been borrowed a shamingly long time ago. There are also some permanent fixtures in this pile, like the incomprehensible instruction manual for the bedside digital clock radio and also a volume on folkloric ways of predicting the weather and a copy of Weirdest Proverbs from Around the World – both presents from distant relations at far-off Christmases. Rule number one about this pile is: don’t show off. Don’t leave some dauntingly impressive work on the top just to impress some guest who may stray into the bedroom to leave a coat or to find a paracetamol. Rule number two: don’t leave an unfinished book on the bedside table for more than six months. Put it back on the shelves and try again in three months’ time. While we are here at the bedside table, I’d like to say something about the bedside light, which is fundamental to any discussion of bedtime-reading etiquette. The arrival of the compulsory low energy light bulb has had a profound effect on the way we read in bed. At first it led to a mass outbreak of restlessness and lampshade tilting and then to the realization that the rule book had to be rewritten. What are the proprieties of reading in inadequate light? Two simple rules to start with: the first is that it is not good form to attempt to read your hardback by the light of your partner’s iPad. The second is that if you choose to wear a head torch or to use one of those neat little lights that clip on to the book itself it can appear unfriendly and you should remember that reading in bed is best when it is a companionable experience and a shared pleasure. There is, however, a limit to how much pleasure you can share. Try to avoid reading aloud so many passages from your book that you ruin it for your partner when he or she has a turn at reading it; avoid reading out a witty phrase or a telling observation if it means you will have to take fifteen minutes to set the scene with an explanation of the plot and description of the characters involved. When reading Dickens (say Pickwick Papers) aloud in bed, do not, on any account, attempt to do all the voices. Chuckling is acceptable, provided it is not excessive, and it is a sign of good breeding to explain – as briefly as possible – what is amusing you. The crucial issue in a bedtime-reading partnership is timing – that is the timing of switching out the light. You know what can happen –just as Phoebe, the long-lost daughter of Lord and Lady Hardcover is about to the reveal the appalling secret of Tome Hall, and as the dashing Octavo Quarto is pulling up his horse in the village of Little Binding, after galloping all night through a thunderstorm to prevent the marriage of Emily Endpaper to the unscrupulous Count Festschrift, and exactly at the moment when Mrs Verso is on the point of realizing that the letter from her Australian godson Jason Index is a clever forgery . . . click . . . your partner switches out the light. What is the best way of deciding when the lights go out? A simple rule is to say that the person reading the most serious book has the final say. So, for example, Gabriel García Márquez trumps P. G. Wodehouse and Mrs Gaskell overrules Jeffrey Archer. Great dangers lurk behind those words, ‘Just let me get to the end of this chapter.’ Sometimes ‘this chapter’ is the early part of the memoirs of a politician and deals with his childhood (with detailed information about how his nanny was a great influence), takes in his schooldays (and extremely long school holidays), includes his time at Oxford and the friends he made (a great deal of name-dropping here), and goes on to describe a period of agonized indecision before he took the plunge into politics because he wanted to change the world for the better. By the time we have reached this point in his life the birds are beginning to clear their throats for the dawn chorus. I suppose it might be possible to agree, in advance, on the time when the lights will go out, but it’s unlikely that both of you will stick to the deadline. There is another complication if your bedtime reading partner is a ‘slammer’ – this is someone who very suddenly and decisively slams the book shut and, in one movement, switches off the bedside light, turns over and lurches sideways in the bed, grabbing an extra armful of duvet, and crashes off to sleep. The best defence against a slammer is to make sure your bedside reading is a book with short chapters (Michael Frayn’s wonderful Skios, for example), or a collection of (non-epic) poems, or a volume of pithy letters. Somebody once said – and I think it was me, actually – the secret of a happy marriage is a good bookmark. It can never be considered civilized behaviour to engage in competitive bedtime reading – seeing who can get through the most pages, giving frequent sideways glances to keep score and turning pages with a little too much eagerness. There is also a condition known as competitive insomnia; this is a tendency among some couples for both partners to claim to be the worst sleeper. This can lead to the use of underhand tactics, such as switching on the light at 2.30 a.m. to read another chapter of Middlemarch. These contests should be stopped before they get out of hand and somebody reaches for Gibbon’s Decline and Fall. Of course, switching on the light in the early hours to read a few more pages is acceptable within reason and can be a tactful way of indicating to your partner that he – or, perish the thought, she – is snoring. Surely nobody needs reminding that only a cad reads the newspaper in bed, except first thing in the morning. There has been endless debate about the optimum number of pillows required for two people reading in bed. Various formulae have been devised, taking into account the temperature of the room, the weight of the books being read, size of print and angle of bedside light. A simple rule of thumb is that a total of eight pillows is just about adequate and thirteen is getting close to being excessive. As for the way the pillows are shared out, clearly the person with the thickest volume is entitled to the fattest ones – and the most. Sometimes I have done without pillows altogether and tried reading while lying flat on my back. This can be dangerous and is not to be recommended with a heavy volume. So, it’s well worth remembering, uneasy lies the head that reads Wolf Hall in bed.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 37 © Oliver Pritchett 2013


About the contributor

In bed, Oliver Pritchett prefers a hard mattress and a hard pillow to go with his hardback of Dickens’s Hard Times.

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