Friday, April 13, 2012

At Day's Close: Night in Times Past (A. Roger Ekirch)

At Day's Close: Night in Times Past by A. Roger Ekirch

Things that go bump in the night would be a good alternative title for A. Roger Ekirch’s fascinating inch-thick tome that investigates nocturnal beliefs and behaviours across the ages.

At Day's Close: Night in Times Past describes a world that as the sun set and darkness descended, outdoor work ended and families locked their doors until morning. Anyone spotted moving on the street would have been viewed with suspicion: a thief, a prostitute or a miscreant.

Amongst the accessible history and engrossing lore outlined in – which jumps about in time and geography – the most intriguing chapter describes evidence for alternative sleep patterns.

Until the close of the early modern era, Western Europeans on most evenings experiences two major intervals of sleep bridged by up to an hour of quiet wakefulness … The initial interval of slumber was usually referred to as “first sleep,” or, less often, “first nap” or “dead sleep” … The succeeding interval of sleep was called “second” or “morning” sleep, whereas the intervening period of wakefulness bore no name, other than the generic term “watch” or “watching”.

The “period of wakefulness” was put to all kinds of uses: emptying your bladder (on top of the fireplace ashes if no chamber pot was to hand), smoking, studying, doing household chores, pilfering, praying, and yes, making love. (A BBC Magazine article also looks at the myth of the eight hour sleep in more detail.)

The evolution of street lighting and availability of artificial indoor lighting along with the development of a more time-conscious society seemed to eradicate segmented sleep.

Ekirch finishes his book by looking at the future of the night.

Increasingly, rather than render nighttime more accessible, we are instead risking its gradual elimination. Already, the heavens, our age-old source of awe and wonder, have been obscured by the glare of outdoor lighting. Only in remote spots can one still glimpse the grandeur of the Milky Way. Entire constellations have disappeared from sight, replaced by a blank sky. Conversely, the fanciful world of our dreams has grown more distant with the loss of segmented sleep and, with it, a better understanding of our inner selves.

Certainly, it is not difficult to imagine a time when night, for all practical purposes, will have become day – truly a twenty-four/seven society in which traditional phases of time, from morning to midnight, have lost their original identities …

Ecological systems, with their own patterns of nocturnal life, will suffer immeasurably. With darkness diminished, opportunities for privacy, intimacy, and self-reflection will grow more scarce. Should that luminous day arrive, we stand to lose a vital element of our humanity – one as precious as it is timeless. That, in the depths of a dark night, should be a bracing prospect for any spent soul to contemplate.

At Day's Close is a book I’d recommend you read in bed! The author – and, no doubt, the book’s editor – uses nearly as many commas in his sentences as I do, and this, along with its easy telling of history, makes it a great read.

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