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Project awarded Guggenheim Fellowship, 2015

Named one of 15 best forthcoming science books, New York Magazine

Named "One of the Books We Can’t Wait to Read," Chicago Reader

"Engaging our imagination with equal parts history, literature, science, and social criticism, Benjamin Reiss traces our past notions of sleep, from sources as diverse as Thoreau's journals, Balzac's coffee consumption, and Skinner's baby box, to illumine our present views-potentially to transform them. Just as sleep is thought by neuroscientists to 'clean' the brain's detritus of past thoughts, this book releases the too-rigid hold of past views of sleep to give us fresh reason to re-conceptualize this essential aspect of our life."-Maryanne Wolf, author of Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain

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"Wild Nights is a literary and historical triumph, showing how sleep patterns have been deeply connected to social structures throughout human history. It is a profound and thoroughly readable book."-Carlos H. Schenck, M.D., author of Sleep: The Mysteries, The Problems, The Solutions

"With unbridled imagination, Benjamin Reiss awakens us to sleep's pervasive influence over the course of three centuries of American culture-from the utopian visions of early reformers and the chronic exhaustion of antebellum slaves to the centrality of human slumber as a literary motif. Lacking for neither flair nor wit, Reiss shows how deeply embedded sleep, in all of rich complexity, has been in the American past. Wild Nights is nothing short of a tour de force."-A. Roger Ekirch, author of At Day's Close: Night in Times Past

"A fascinating look at a phenomenon we have taken for granted. Benjamin Reiss pulls the bedcovers off of sleep, revealing a deep and significant history of Western culture and politics. It turns out that nothing escapes the tendrils of somnolence-race, gender, capitalism, technology are all culprits or agents in creating our restless nights. Written with subtlety and provocation, this is a must-read for anyone whose head ever hit a pillow."-Lennard J. Davis, author of Enabling Acts and Obsession: A History

"Through impressive research and beautiful writing, Benjamin Reiss brings readers on a scientific, literary, and historical voyage, exploring our complicated relationship with sleep in an active world."-Lauren Hale, editor-in-chief of Sleep Health

"Ranging widely across time and cultures, Wild Nights offers a rich perspective on Americans' present-day expectations about a good night's sleep. With Thoreau's Walden as his ballast, Benjamin Reiss examines the ways that religious thought, economic change, medical prescriptions, and big business have pushed sleep for those in the middle class into a single mold, while the rest of the world serves and goes without. This smart and engaging book is an ideal companion for that middle-of-the-night break, as well as for serious thought in the bright light of day."--Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz, author of A Taste for Provence and Wild Unrest

"A lively, astute, wide-ranging reconnaissance of the attempted re-engineering of modern humanity's sleep habits. Benjamin Reiss pointedly and persuasively questions whether today's 'sleep science' delivers better results than what seemed second nature to our pre-industrial forebears."--Lawrence Buell, Harvard University






Wild Nights

How taming sleep created our restless world

Why is sleep frustrating for so many people? Why do we spend so much time and money managing and medicating it, and training ourselves and our children to do it correctly? In Wild Nights, Benjamin Reiss finds answers in sleep's hidden history--one that leads to our present, sleep-obsessed society, its tacitly accepted rules, and their troubling consequences.

Today we define a good night's sleep very narrowly: eight hours in one shot, sealed off in private bedrooms, children apart from parents. But for most of human history, practically no one slept this way. Tracing sleep's transformation since the dawn of the industrial age, Reiss weaves together insights from literature, social and medical history, and cutting-edge science to show how and why we have tried and failed to tame sleep. 

In lyrical prose, he leads readers from bedrooms and laboratories to factories and battlefields to Henry David Thoreau's famous cabin at Walden Pond, telling the stories of troubled sleepers, hibernating peasants, sleepwalking preachers, cave-dwelling sleep researchers, slaves who led nighttime uprisings, rebellious workers, spectacularly frazzled parents, and utopian dreamers. We are hardly the first people, Reiss makes clear, to chafe against our modern rules for sleeping.

A stirring testament to sleep's diversity, Wild Nights offers a profound reminder that in the vulnerability of slumber we can find our shared humanity. By peeling back the covers of history, Reiss recaptures sleep's mystery and grandeur and offers hope to weary readers: as sleep was transformed once before, so too can it change today.


"Reiss accessibly addresses an astounding breadth of material… This is a captivating examination and Reiss gives readers much to ponder long into the night." (Publisher’s Weekly, starred review)

"Liberating.. pops with insight... eye-opening... harrowing.  Reiss makes it achingly clear that sleep is anything but democratically distributed."  (Jennifer Senior, New York Times)

"Sleep is a culturally fluid phenomenon, reveals Benjamin Reiss in this marvelous scientific and literary study.  He deftly interweaves multiple threads, from the industrial manipulation of time to the near-hibernation of snowbound Russian peasants in 1900, Henry David Thoreau's clock-free sojourn a Walden Pond, and the 50-cup-a-day coffee habit of French novelist Honore de Balzac.  Sleep fascinates, Reiss reminds, because it is so many things; common denominator, 'hidden dimension,' field of dreams." --Nature

"Sleep remains a universal experience, but it's lived seven billion different ways.  One finishes Wild Nights with the feeling that our modern-day anxieties about sleep are the symptom of another, more complicated disease.  If societies were better able to provide their citizens with life's basic necessities - food, shelter, safety, employment, health care, a clean and quiet environment, transportation, civic participation - then the sleep crisis might fade away on its own.  As long as we lack this larger vision, Reiss warns, we are stuck 'attempting to repair sleep with the tools that broke it.'"
(Jacob Silverman, The New Republic)

"A thorough probing into why sleep is such a problem for so many in contemporary society. Reiss  takes both a long and surprisingly wide view of sleep, looking back over the centuries to examine literature, cultures, and social and medical history… A fresh approach to a familiar phenomenon." (Kirkus Reviews)

"An exceptional book that takes us on a historical and literary tour of sleep...This compelling tour reveals the amazingly strong, pervasive, and at times devastating, influence of social structures and pressures on human sleep patterns, with forebodings about the future of sleep in our rapidly evolving Human Age.  Wild nights provides a carefully researched and documented background for how we should understand sleep and its contexts from the broadest possible perspective." (Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine)

"Just as sleep may represent an amalgamation of functions to maintain optimal health and well-being, Wild Nights serves multiple purposes: to inform, inspire, persuade, entertain, and even stimulate the reader to reclaim his or her sleep as a revolutionary act. A great, collective blend of scientific, historical, and literary works that is as
well-written and enjoyable as it is provocative and informative..."  (Chandra Jackson, Sleep Health)

"Deserves to be on the bedside stand of anyone who is losing sleep over losing sleep."  (Lincoln [Neb.] Journal Star)

"An illuminating... revealing history.... We now have new ways of monitoring, managing, inducing and reducing sleep, but Reiss would argue that our solutions are actually at the heart of the problem." (Truthdig)