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234 × 156 × 18 mm
176 pages
15 illustrations
01 Apr 2007
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Insomnia A Cultural History Eluned Summers-Bremner

In today’s media-saturated, hyper-connected society, increasing numbers of people are finding it hard to switch off their over-stimulated brains and escape the demands of daily life. We are becoming, it seems, a world of insomniacs – but this condition of perpetual unrest has plagued people for centuries. In this fascinating study, Eluned Summers-Bremner shows that the roots and effects of insomnia are complex, and reveals how humans have employed art, science and witchcraft to understand and treat the affliction. 

Summers-Bremner’s exploration of sleeplessness begins with the literature of ancient times, and finds its sufferers in prominent texts such as the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Mesopotamian epic Gilgamesh and the Bible. Insomnia continued to figure large in Romantic and Gothic literature, as well as the ephemeral worlds of nightmares and the Sublime. Meanwhile, throughout the ages insomnia has been variously categorized by the medical community as a manifestation of a deeper psychological or physical malady. As modern medicine and science evolved, insomnia emerged as a distinct symptom of psychological illness or post-traumatic stress disorder. Today’s medical solutions tend to involve prescription drugs, and Insomnia raises important questions about the role of the pharmaceutical industry and the effectiveness of such treatments.

Bedside reading of the most useful sort, Insomnia won’t cure your sleeplessness, but it will help you understand the problem and introduce you to its rich cultural antecedents, and to fellow sufferers down the ages.

‘Summers-Bremners excellent account of insomnia shows that the consideration of our waking moments is indicative of the changing ways we think about life. As crime fiction and drug prescriptions will attest, the inability to sleep is also a condition of modernity . . . Wasnt it Margaret Thatcher who said that sleeping was for wimps?’ — Financial Times magazine

‘[Summers-Bremners] account of literary usages of insomnia, from Gilgamesh to Garcia Márquez, is a rich one, sufficient to make the case that insomnia is a recurrent theme in Western culture.’ — Wall Street Journal

‘[A] fascinating study’ — Daily Telegraph

‘A well-informed and important book’ — Times Higher Education

‘A whimsical tour of the history of how different cultures have viewed not only insomnia but also the night itself, sleep, dreams, darkness, and activities that occur in the dark . . . covers a wide swath of territory and poetically describes what historical figures wrote or thought about insomnia.’ — The New England Journal of Medicine

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Eluned Summers-Bremner is Senior Lecturer in the English Department at the University of Auckland, New Zealand.


1  Sleeplessness in the Ancient World
2  Love, Labour, Anxiety
3  The Sleep of Reason
4  The Night of Empire
5  Cities That Never Sleep
6  Wired

Photo Acknowledgements