Bedtime Stories

As I grow older, it is often more difficult to fall asleep. I know I’m not alone in this. Age brings with it more anxieties and activities than the sheep we might otherwise be counting and, honestly, the only cure I’ve found (aside from melatonin) is to return to reading bedtime stories.

As I recently realized, reading a bedtime story is quite a distinct practice from simply reading until one can no longer keep one’s eyes open. You see, I recently finished Donna Tart’s Pulitzer-winning novel, The Goldfinch, a gripping and well-crafted work of art. However, while it was sure to keep me reading until I fell by necessity into sleep, The Goldfinch was a terrible choice for a bedtime story.

Somewhere in-between being unable to fall asleep, reading novels that produced restless sleep, and using other distractions (my phone, Amazon Video, etc.) to avoid sleep, I fell to pondering these words from the Psalms:

When I remember you upon my bed, and meditate on you in the watches of the night; for you have been my help, and in the shadow of your wings I will sing for joy. My soul clings to you; your right hand upholds me.

Psalm 63:6-8

To rest well throughout the night, my soul first needed to rest in truth and hope, in the simplicity of biblical salvation and the enduring delight that it promises. Fraught with despair, drugs, and deceit, The Goldfinch is an excellent commentary on the human condition, especially the paranoia and fear of a post-9-11 society. However, as I read it, I found myself falling asleep with a feeling of deep discomfit that invaded even my dreams. While it is essential to engage with difficult topics (both in literature and in life), I found myself increasingly disenchanted by the seeming hopelessness of this novel.

But then I met a little prince. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince, to be exact. And in this book, I found a story that children can understand perfectly and grown-ups can use to relearn what they once knew. A commentary on life complex enough to keep readers wondering yet simple enough to read aloud, I found in The Little Prince the food-for-thought and story-for-the-soul that I craved.

This small, blue picture book does what the enormous yellow novel could not: both present humanity honestly, not shying away from the flaws of our fallen state. However, while The Goldfinch depicts a doomed, adult redemption in the love of beautiful things which are bound to fade, The Little Prince offers redemption by inviting us to become like children once more— that is, it invites us to perceive the small, the simple, and the saving.

The Little Prince wants only a drawing of a very small sheep. The protagonist of The Goldfinch hoards an invaluable work of art. The Little Prince sees the cyclical downfalls of various men and can find them only silly and sad. In The Goldfinch, they are seen as inevitable. While both are edifying in their stark portrayal of all that is wrong, The Little Prince, in a sweet, uncomplicated manner, reminds readers of all that can be set right:

We can love something and, in loving it, make it unique. We can see something whimsical and refuse to be disenchanted with the world around us. We can ask questions without ceasing, knowing there must be answers. We can travel without fear, for we know where our true home lies.

In reading The Goldfinch, I was painfully presented with the tragic state of the world, humanity, and myself. A strategically-broken mirror, it remains a powerfully-written source of conviction. But falling asleep in a state of despair and dejection? 10/10 would not recommend. Save that sort of reading for the daytime, or at least by the light of a fire with a cup of tea in hand to ward off the depression.

The Little Prince, however, brings both conviction and clarity. Opening its pages and listening to the bell-like voice of its young adventurer allows readers to shake off the dust of the day and sink into a state of reflection and reorientation. In traveling alongside the Little Prince, we realize intuitively what our grown-up rationality cannot grasp:

but Jesus said, ‘Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.’

Matthew 19:14 (ESV)

With the proper story, we might be better able to perceive not only the good, true, and beautiful with the clarity of innocence of youth, but rest in the words of the classic bedtime prayer:

Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my soul to keep.
Guide me safely through the night,
Wake me with the morning light.
Amen

Now I lay me down to sleep.
I pray the Lord my soul to keep.
When in the morning light I wake,
Show me the path of love to take.
Amen

The New England Primer

Dear Mr. Dickens: An Open Letter

My dear Mr. Dickens,

I hope you are well and not at all rolling over in your grave. (It is, after all, nearing Christmas and renditions of your famous holiday tale are promenading before audiences who are mostly wondering whether they actually turned off the oven or whether the turkey they pretend to like is burnt positively to a crisp.)

I digress. I hope that you are enjoying some heavenly library and continuing to dream up wonderfully real characters, quirks and all. (Though sadly characters with fewer flaws if you are in some higher home…)

Now that the well wishes are done, I must humbly beg your pardon; I insulted you years ago, though perhaps we can lay the true blame on my mother, who insulted you first. But whether or not insults are hereditary failings, I must ask you to forgive me. I called you “long-winded” and “gold-digging,” for I heard that you were paid per word and perpetuated your propensity for prolific phrases to procure profit. (How’s that for alliteration?)

I was wrong to mock you for a trait that I share (love of words and liking of being paid for them). I also concede that I was incorrect in my accusations. You were not, as it turns out, paid per word, but rather per installment. This is most sensible, as you wrote novels in monthly installments and it seems a shame to only be paid upon the completion when readers were already enjoying your creations. I freely confess that I made these claims without reading anything aside from the aforementioned Christmas tale and even this is dubious as I my only memory of it is from the Muppets’ version. And so, I apologize most sincerely for my unbased bias.

My readers might pause here, thinking that the length of some of your works does lend some credibility to my prejudice. But here is where we must become more thoughtful. Are your books —David Copperfield for instance— actually pedantic in prose and sprawling in size? Or, are our attention spans as readers poorly lacking? Are we even reading these narratives correctly?

Life is so rapid these days and we demand constant simulation. Not only does my phone weigh much less than Copperfield, it promises more laughs and terrors per post.  Modern literary material is the same; young adult novels especially demonstrate this, focusing more often on the fantastic elevating the ordinary instead of finding what is naturally noteworthy  in this ordinary.

It is so easy to be absorbed by rapid-fire adventures and super human characters, but have we lost something? Have we lost an enchantment with our own humanity? Even just a few chapters into David Copperfield, I am rediscovering a love for the quirks of the human race. I am disgusted by characters that are as flawed as I am and cheer for those that cherish the same silly little hopes that I do. I am enraptured once more with the thought that in all my eating or drinking or whatever I do, I am somehow doing something marvelous because I am, as much as and more than any character, a unique human being set within the context of my culture and, above all, creation’s narrative.

But I am getting carried away and I will tell you now, Mr. Dickens, that I intend to write many more blog posts as I live alongside young Copperfield. For that is what it is, after all: living. There is to be no skimming, no rushing through this book; the very length and style do not allow for it! And where once I might have cursed you for this, now I bless you, sir. I am grateful that your writing, at once elegant and snappy, makes me slow down, return to a fascination with the ordinary, and truly live in community with your characters as they develop alongside my own life.

I once more offer my humblest apologies and my deepest thanks.

Your abashed and admiring reader,

Ryanne J. McLaren