A Literary Companion for Insomniacs

Marina Benjamin’s new memoir aims to soothe the sleepless.

Marina Benjamin, a memoirist and an editor at Aeon magazine, has produced an insomniac’s ideal sleep aid—and that’s a compliment. With her collage of ruminations about sleeplessness, she promises no real cure. (Only a quack would.) What she offers instead is a rare kind of companionship to “other unseen insomniacs twisting awake in their own beds … imprisoned within these solitary cells of wakefulness.” In the bargain, she gives their slumbering bedmates (“Zzz,” she calls hers) a glimpse into “the strange things that can be seen and felt in insomnia.”


Benjamin has little patience for the pursuit of mindfulness. The “turbocharged” brain she knows well from writhing in the dark has primed her to seek insight in “mind wandering.” She ranges widely and suggestively, from Scheherazade’s all-night tale-spinning to the fascinating case of a patient awakened decades after an outbreak of sleeping sickness. She pauses many places in between, and returns often to long-suffering Penelope, waiting in Ithaca: As Odysseus’s wife nightly unravels her day’s weaving, she is the emblem of hope sustained amid uncertainty.

For sleepless readers familiar with the feeling of being trapped in anxious ruts, Benjamin’s celebration of mind wandering as “fleet and light and connective” may at times sound strained. But if her roaming induces fatigue now and then, her “border-crossing bravery” and curiosity prove highly contagious. Either way, her slim book is what the doctor ordered. (Plus, she shares a tip for the desperate: A plant called skullcap—a.k.a. mad-dog herb—delivers, she says, “the proverbial sleep of the dead.”)

This article appears in the November 2018 print edition with the headline “Cover to Cover: Insomnia.”