Is a Little Bedtime Reading Bad for You?

Not to get too personal, but how do you like to read? Do you prefer a paper and binding book? An e-reader? A tablet or phone? And where do you like to read? Curled up in a chair? Stretched out on the floor? At the end of the day, do you like to read in bed, with or without a flashlight? For me, there is nothing better than ending the evening burrowed under the blankets, reading a mystery by the golden glow of my e-reader light.

I was naturally curious, then, when I stumbled across an article from a May 2017 issue of The Atlantic called “The Dangers of Reading in Bed”. The piece began with the true story of Lord Walsingham who, in 1831, was found burnt to a crisp in his own bed. His wife, Lady Walsingham, also died, but her demise was the result of jumping from the bedroom window to escape the flames. The papers and magazines of the time laid the cause of the fire firmly on the doorstep of what Lord Walsingham had been doing that evening: reading in bed.

At first, I wondered if the poor man had spontaneously combusted, but as I read the article, a more convincing reason emerged: candles. Reading by candlelight and falling asleep could lead to a fire, but not as often as the authorities of the time believed. In fact, statistics from the period show that cats brushing past lit candles accounted for more fires than reading in bed.

But facts never stood in the way of a good cautionary tale and, in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, lying in bed with a book was about as depraved as a person could get. The moral of the story? Spending the evening in prayer and contemplation was much safer, for both a person’s body and their everlasting soul. The Atlantic article is an interesting overview of the social changes surrounding reading and sleeping during the era of the Enlightenment, alone and in combination with each other.

My, how things have changed. I can’t say that I ever worried about the lamp on my nightstand bursting into flames, but I have been catching wind of modern dangers of reading in bed. Some articles say that lying in bed with the book or e-reader on your chest can cause eye strain. No problem, I don’t like a book on my chest, but I do curl up and have the book propped at the same angle as my face on the pillow. Maybe not the best for eye strain, but it is comfy. The best way to read? Get one of those wedge pillows and sit upright in a more natural reading position.

The other problem with reading at night comes from today’s technology and melatonin-busting blue light. Melatonin is the hormone that regulates our sleep cycles. Light (blue light, in particular) can decrease melatonin levels, making it harder to fall and stay asleep. The screens of our laptops, tablets, and smart phones emit a huge amount of blue light. Recommendations? Unplug a couple of hours before bedtime. Read a print book, knit, meditate, write with a pen and paper, or anything that doesn’t use a screen. Easier said than done, especially when it comes to turning off the television. But it doesn’t mean I won’t try to spend a few hours in my grandma’s pre-television world.

Will I give up my e-reader before dropping off to sleep? Probably not, but I do have a Nook Glowlight 3 with night mode. I’m liking the warm, orangey glow of the screen. For me, it’s a vast improvement over the flashlight I hid under my bed for secret nighttime reading when I was a kid.

And there are no flames required.

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