BY ERIC MARKOWSKY
[In this new series (idea copped from High Fidelity), our contributors put together a “top 5” list of books on a theme of their choosing.]
Pretty much every night before I turn off the light, I read in bed for a while first. It’s a way of focusing myself for sleep, a way of driving off the stray concerns of day by replacing them with a singular voice. Mostly, this works for me, but I’ve learned over the years that reading in bed can be a dangerous proposition. I come from a line of pretty adept insomniacs to begin with, so put a good book in my hands and I’m apt to forget why I was in bed in the first place until it’s already 3 am. If the book isn’t good enough, though, then it just doesn’t do the trick. I lay my head down still full of whatever was hassling my mind during the day.
To that end, I’ve identified a certain kind of book that puts me to sleep in the best possible way. Each of these books comes doled out in small doses of strangeness, short, experimental pieces I can finish in a few minutes while I’m winding down and still take away something worth dreaming about.
Five Books to Take to Bed
This collection of “poetic inventions” presents one of America’s greatest living poets at his most nimble. It includes literary criticism, personal essays, prose poems, and fictional encounters with Jorge Luis Borges and a President who likes to read Chekhov to his cabinet. In whatever form it takes, Strand’s voice is always confident and compelling. He could write for the IRS and probably manage to make the tax code riveting reading. Thankfully, he has a lot more imagination than that.
Strolling out of an offhand reference in #5 and straight into the #4 spot, we’ve got Jorge Luis Borges with Labyrinths, a selection of short fiction, essays, and parables that will all stretch your dreaming muscles. These pieces mix content and form, melding science fiction with literary criticism and hiding a murder mystery in a work of philosophy. In the first story of the collection, “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” Borges describes the work of the inhabitants of Tlön, a planet invented by a vast conspiracy of intellectuals:
The metaphysicians of Tlön do not seek for truth or even verisimilitude, but rather for the astounding. They judge that metaphysics is a branch of fantastic literature.
I don’t think I could describe the effect of reading Labyrinths better than that. These stories will astound you.
Even more condensed strangeness. Most Borges stories clock in at under fifteen pages; many Barthelme stories rocket by in five or fewer. Each one is a self-contained dream, proceeding by a logic all its own, only to be overthrown by the start of the next piece. “The Educational Experience” takes readers on a quick tour through a museum of all of human trivia; in “Some of Us Had Been Threatening Our Friend Colby,” the narrator and other friends ask Colby to help plan his own hanging; and an entire heard of porcupines tries to enroll in the same university in “Porcupines at the University.” These stories are so strange and so divergent, that the only way I could really tell you what they’re all about would be to go on describing each one individually, so I’ll stop now and let you find out what they’re about for yourself.
This one breaks the mold a little bit. While it is composed in a series of short descriptions of fantastic cities, the sum presents a complexly patterned vision of the empire of Kublai Kahn through the eyes of the great explorer Marco Polo. The book certainly merits some consideration as a whole, but the individual pieces still stand alone like brightly polished artifacts from the ancient world. Take Isidora, for example:
A city where the buildings have spiral staircases encrusted with spiral seashells, where perfect telescopes and violins are made, where the foreigner hesitating between two women always encounters a third, where cockfights degenerate into bloody brawls among the bettors.
Without a doubt, my favorite book to read before bed. A novel only in the loosest sense of the word, these 30 stories follow the dreams of a young clerk working in a Swiss patent office during the same year he’s developing a new theory of time. (Sound like someone you’ve heard of before?) Each one is a separate meditation on a universe governed by different temporal laws. Time is a loop, repeated endlessly; time is a liquid, diverted by bends and obstacles in space; time has a perimeter, where it flies past at the speed of light, and a center, where it stops completely.
You might think Time would be too heavy a topic to ponder right before bed, but each of these dreams is only a few pages long, the prose is simple and direct, and the ideas are lighter than air. If this book doesn’t put you in a slower, more contemplative state of mind, then I don’t know what will.