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Distributed for Reaktion Books


A Cultural History

Distributed for Reaktion Books


A Cultural History

In today’s media-saturated and hyperconnected society, increasing numbers of people are finding it hard to switch off their overstimulated brains and escape the demands of daily life. We are becoming, it seems, a world of insomniacs. But this condition of perpetual unrest has plagued people for centuries. The roots and effects of insomnia are complex, Eluned Summers-Bremner reveals in this fascinating study, and humans have employed everything from art to science to understand, explain, and mitigate this problem.

The author begins her exploration of sleeplessness with the literature of ancient times, finding its sufferers in such prominent texts as the Iliad, the Mesopotamian epic Gilgamesh, and the Bible. Insomnia continued to figure large in Romantic and Gothic literature, as the advent of street lighting in the nineteenth century inspired the fantastical blurring of daytime reality and night specters, and authors connected insomnia to the ephemeral worlds of nightmares and the sublime. Meanwhile, throughout the ages insomnia has been variously categorized by the medical community as a symptom of deeper maladies: in medieval and early modern times, for example, physicians and philosophers saw insomnia as a sign of lovesickness, melancholy, or even demonic possession. As modern medicine and science evolved, insomnia emerged as a distinct symptom of such ailments as post-traumatic stress disorder after war. Today’s medical solutions tend to involve prescription drugs, and Insomnia ultimately raises important questions about the role of the pharmaceutical industry and the effectiveness of such treatments.

Bedside reading of the most useful sort, Insomnia won’t put you to sleep, but it will help you understand your problem and its surprisingly rich cultural legacy.

176 pages | 15 halftones | 5 3/4 x 8 1/4 | © 2008

History: General History

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"Summers-Bremner’s excellent account of insomnia shows that the consideration of our waking moments is indicative of the changing ways we think about life. As crime fiction and drug prescriptions will attest, the inability to sleep is also a condition of modernity—of capitalist cultures founded on protestant work ethics, on 18th-century slavery and on the subsequent devaluation of sleep as an important activity in our 24-hour wired-up world. Wasn’t it Margaret Thatcher who said that sleeping was ’for wimps?’"—Financial Times Magazine

Financial Times Magazine

"Her account of literary usages of insomnia, from Gilgamesh to Garcia Márquez, is a rich one, sufficient to make the case that insomnia is a recurrent theme in Western culture."

Andrew Stark | Wall Street Journal

"A fascinating study. . . . For the most part, she persuades with her central thesis: that the contemporary decline in ’nocturnal literacy’ is a result of our unwillingness to relinquish control."

Brian Dillon | Daily Telegraph

"A well-informed and important book."

Times Higher Education Supplement

Table of Contents


1  Sleeplessness in the Ancient World
2  Love, Labour, Anxiety
3  The Sleep of Reason
4  The Night of Empire
5  Cities That Never Sleep
6  Wired

Photo Acknowledgements

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