By day books editor Catherine Woulfe reads actual book-books. At night it’s a different story.
In preparation for my first baby I bought a big hardback copy of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. Second time around I knew better.
Here is what I knew, and what I told myself: you are going to be awake in the night, a lot. You’re going to have to stay awake while feeding bub in the dark, a lot. Each side can take like an hour. You will be so tired and so bored. If you resort to your phone too much during this time you will blunder into a tarpit of anxiety due to the climate crisis and your subpar parenting, as signalled by the fact that you’re on your phone while breastfeeding. (The sacred bond, won’t someone think of the bond, gnash, wail, etc.)
Actual book-books will be largely out of the question because for those you need light, which will hit your poor tattered circadian rhythm like a slap to the face and, much less importantly, wake anyone else in the room. Further, actual book-books are heavy and pointy, and hard to grapple with around water-balloon boobs and a c-section wound and a pulsing fontanelle.
Once, with my eldest, The Goldfinch slipped down the pillow when I dozed, and I woke to find a Pulitzer Prize-winning dent on his cheek. At that point I switched to watching White House dramas with headphones in. Subpar parenting, you see.
Thus, despite my deep suspicion of ebooks and digitalisation and tech in general, at about the 35w mark with baby number two I told myself it was time to buy a Kobo*. And it has been two years of nothing but sweet sweet nocturnal candy. Eight hundred and ninety hours I’ve spent on that thing, snacking away in the dead of night, and they have been exceptionally good hours. Some of the best in my reading life.
This is because on my Kobo, I consume simple carbohydrates. Sugar. Seventy-three books, so far, almost exclusively about lake houses and Christmas and Prosecco and tanned limbs. I knocked three books off before we left the hospital. By about the four-month point I was happy when baby woke for a fourth feed, or a fifth, because that meant I got to leave my manky milk-spewy bed and, say, spend a summer messing about in boats in the Swedish archipelago (The Hidden Beach, Karen Swan). Or exchange extremely witty texts and also pashes with a prince of England (Red, White & Royal Blue, Casey McQuiston). While baby gulped and farted and the house was dark I lounged by turquoise pools, flicked my leonine beach-hair, dressed my lithe clean body in white silk and sapphires. Fell in lots of love.
When you switch on a sleeping Kobo it wakes with a little flush of soft white light. I’ve come to savour that moment. It’s very much like standing in front of an open fridge in a dark kitchen. Hmm. Will I be nomming the pizza or the leftover pav, tonight? Why not both!
Like the best kind of fridge, my Kobo is always stocked. It’s impervious to lockdowns – run out of books and I just buy another from the Kobo store, or borrow from the local library. Right now, unread, I have the latest by Lauren Weisberger (she wrote The Devil Wears Prada, and then a very good/bad novel about tennis, and then one called When Life Gives You Lululemons), The Secret Path (the new Karen Swan, which involves being super-rich in a rainforest) and the last two Bridgerton books (I stalled at the one about Elouise, because she ends up with a shithead).
There’s also some more fibrous stuff sitting at the back of the shelf all forlorn and unread. The Song of Achilles. The Silence of the Girls. Some Ursula K Le Guin. Ocean Vuong. One day, Ocean, but not today.
I do mean day. No way I’m reading those sorts of books at night. By day I mostly read actual book-books, lots of them. And book-books still definitely have the edge in terms of impact. I just finished Anthony Doerr’s sublime Cloud Cuckoo Land, a hulking thing that weighs nearly 800g in paperback, and when I was done I just sat that big amazing book on my lap for a long while.
The books I read in the dark drop from my memory almost right away. Scrolling back through my “Read” pile I see books I don’t remember reading at all. But the sweet relief they’ve brought me lingers. With my Kobo in hand, the long newborn nights were barely a strain. I mean, I was outrageously tired, but not despondent, anxious, strung-out. I think of those endless night feeds as an intensely private period of sustained silent reading, with cuddles on the side. Well, both sides. Repeatedly.
It’s still very rare for me to sleep through the night. My big kid sleepwalks, has nightmares, needs his inhaler or more tissues or his blankets tucked back in. My little one thrashes in the cot, loses her bunny or her giraffe, hollers for cuddles. Often, getting up to them snaps me awake and I need to read for a while to fall asleep again. So I reach for my Kobo, and for white-sand beaches, cold champagne, dukes, and after a few minutes my eyes are heavy. And then I switch it off. “Sleeping”, the screen says the moment before it goes dark.
*Reasons for Kobo over Kindle: I have a Clara, which doesn’t emit blue light. It lets me read PDFs, which is great because lots of books get emailed to me for work. It lets me borrow books for free from the library. Also – I just couldn’t bring myself to support Amazon.