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Logo of medhistThe Wellcome Trust Centre of the History of Medicine (UCL)Medical History
Med Hist. 2010 April; 54(2): 286–287.
PMCID: PMC2844272

Book Review

Insomnia: a cultural history
Reviewed by A Roger Ekirch

Eluned Summers-Bremner.
Insomnia: a cultural history,  London,  Reaktion Books,  2008, pp.  176, £19.95 (hardback  978-1-86189-317-8). 

In Insomnia: a cultural history, Eluned Summers-Bremner seeks to explore attitudes toward sleeplessness from ancient times to the present. Because her sources are drawn primarily from literature, the book makes little effort to probe popular beliefs, much less how people across time and space actually grappled with insomnia. Also slighted are the causes of sleeplessness and its consequences upon the cadences of daily life.

Summers-Bremner initially draws upon modern medicine to define insomnia “as the habitual inability to fall asleep or remain asleep when one wishes or needs to do so” (p. 7). So far, so good. But within several pages, we are off on a disjointed, at times perplexing tour that takes us, in the ensuing chapters, from Gilgamesh and the Odyssey to Charles Dickens and Gabriel García Márquez. Nor are references wanting to East Asian authors. In short, the author brings little rigour or discipline to her narrative. Making matters worse is that the topic of insomnia all but disappears amid metaphors and digressions that are at best tangential, involving such diverse matters as the European colonization of indigenous cultures, the prevalence of boredom in eighteenth-century England, and the Atlantic slave trade (“like insomnia, the slave trade was an actively dark state—dark because unseen, often distant from the site of investment and dealing—as well as a lack: the inability to see how to run an economy without it” [p. 12]).

Not that the narrative is devoid of interesting insights, particularly in its discussion of modern sleep research; but these are obscured by prose that is often impenetrable, a grab-bag of jargon that undercuts the book’s appeal to either non-specialists or historians of medicine. What are we to make of the following: “To wake from sleep is to be found in the world and to have been remade by it, and to experience insomnia is to be kept from seeing, most often by means of excessive thoughts, how the productions of consciousness forestall the arrival of an unconscious state” (p. 12)?

The principal thesis seems to be that insomnia has become a growing problem given the decreasing amount of sleep enjoyed by industrialized societies—what Summers-Bremner refers to as the increasing demands of a “wired world” that rarely pauses for rest or relaxation (p. 131). This, in turn, presumably fuels over-stimulation and anxiety that render sleep both troubled and brief. Fair enough; but in actuality, we have probably never slept so well, due to the problems that typically afflicted our forebears. Had Summers-Bremner relied less on literature and sought instead to incorporate a larger number of empirical sources, such as diaries, memoirs, legal records, and newspapers, she might have given greater credence to the impact of disease, hunger, frigid temperatures, noise, and lice, among myriad other sources of disturbed slumber—hence the chronic sleep deprivation that plagued labouring classes in pre-industrial western societies.

Such is the importance of the history of insomnia that it deserves systematic study in its own right rather than to serve as a device by which to reflect upon a disparate body of imaginative literature. An index might also have helped.

Articles from Medical History are provided here courtesy of Cambridge University Press