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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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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