26 October 2022

Review: Insomnia by Marina Benjamin

Insomnia by Marina Benjamin book cover

Insomnia by Marina Benjamin is presented as a memoir, but it could be better described as a collection of vignettes exploring the topic of sleep and the author's insomnia.

A slim read, journalist and author Marina Benjamin takes the reader on a tour through her sleepless nights, as well as the thoughts and writings of famous poets and philosophers on the topic of sleep and insomnia. After a while, these mini-essays, observations, musings and ponderings begin to paint a literary mural about sleep - one of my favourite topics - and what it's like not being able to get it.

As a rule, I generally don't like reading books without chapters. However, the arc of Insomnia is more dreamlike and doesn't lend itself well to a specific structure and the lack of chapters here seemed logical. Each 'idea' is presented in a short/long paragraph with a decent break until the next one which allows the reader to stop - or keep going - without the mental interruption of a chapter break.

Here's one of the vignettes I enjoyed the most, thanks to her suggested collective noun:
"You would think that writing on insomnia has turned me into some kind of expert! Practically everyone I meet now tells me about their sleep troubles. It often turns out to be one of those earplug moments, since there is barely a story I have not heard, a pill I've not tried, or a method I haven't worked before. But it is the mathematics of insomnia that really kills me: the never-ending count of hours lost and gained logged in the ledger of sleep missed and unexpectedly found that every insomniac carries in their head as an account of their own sorry deficiency. Perhaps, after all, the collective noun that fits us best is a calculation of insomniacs." Page 52
As you can see, Benjamin has a personable writing style and her musings are relatable. In this slim book she talks about acquiring a nocturnal literacy and I think it's safe to say she's attained this.
"Besides, intrusive thinking is just one way the insomniac brain stokes itself. Harder to fathom (and to treat) is the freewheeling, seemingly autonomous tripping through utter banality, the night-time regurgitation of daytime crud - of the stuff that doesn't actually merit deliberation - that moves like an arm-linked chain of can-can dancers through a demi-wakefulness that exists beyond any conscious control, but (and this is the source of frustration) is conscious enough - kick, and kick, and kick - that you have to clock it." Page 85
Every reader can relate to bouts of sleeplessness or wakefulness, but Benjamin describes her insomnia so convincingly that I was able to understand her experience on a deeper level:
"Too often my insomniac mind is stuck in crud-chewing mode. It feeds me snippets of song, meshed with advertorial-type sloganising that might, in turn, trigger a memory from childhood before pinging back to a thought-of desire (a want) or to something I saw on the internet, or something someone told me - then on again, unpredictable, inconsequential, threading and worming inside my head. Nothing is more inimical to rest and yet I am powerless to stop it. It is like waterboarding the mind with meaningless overflow, a smothering drip, drip, drip of surplus thought." Page 85-86
I wonder how many writers feel the same way the author does in this passage:
"But then the fear that presses in on me is that my work might be fated never to transcend the neurotic. The very idea that this may be the case is so profoundly disturbing, so unsettling, it is as if the ground I walk on had begun to bubble and liquefy. Writing for me is both compass and anchor." Page 98
The idea that writing can be both a compass and an anchor really made me stop and consider.

Marina Benjamin is obviously well read and I enjoyed the snippets she shares on all manner of topics, including literature, art, history, psychology and philosophy. With an interest in sleep and insomnia, I enjoyed accompanying Benjamin on her self guided tour of famous writings about these topics, but the elements of memoir were far less enjoyable for me.

Insomnia by Marina Benjamin is recommended for insomniac readers who enjoy memoirs and essays and those interested in the topic of sleep and insomnia.

My Rating:

Would you like to comment?

  1. Those quotes certainly resonate. Thanks for sharing your thoughts


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