How Lewis Carroll fixed his sleeplessness.

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Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, pen name Lewis Carroll, is best known as the Victorian-era author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Now, out of obscurity, comes Lewis Carroll’s Guide for Insomniacs, a charmingly odd little book. From reasoning problems to poetry writing to how to greet a ghost—all activities for what Carroll calls insomnia’s “wakeful hours”—it’s composed of fun, or fun-ish, recommendations for ways to pass your sleep-deprived time. Insomnia, Carroll tries to convince us from beyond the grave, is an opportunity, rather than an affliction.

Writer, broadcaster, and former British Member of Parliament Gyles Brandreth, who compiled the book in the 1970s, writes in the new introduction to this second edition that he first learned of Carroll’s insomnia when he was commissioned to write a play based on the author’s life and work. The revelation shaped Brandreth’s approach to the project. “In the first act of my one-man play,” he writes, “the great man was in his Oxford college rooms talking to himself as he tried (and failed) to get to sleep. In the second act, he was in bed having dreams (and nightmares) peopled by the characters he had created, from the Mad Hatter to the Frumious Bandersnatch.”

This makes for a neat two-act structure. But for Carroll, waking and dreaming were not quite the opposites they seem to be. And since he believed dreaming to be a source of creativity, it follows that to him, sleeplessness might also be useful.

This is all well and good. But it’s especially hard for me when I get insomnia because I’m a teacher. I have to be on every day, all day; students demand nothing less. I’ve always suffered from intermittent insomnia, but, mercifully, never the kind that lasts more than a day or two. Dread is always my first response because my mind immediately fast-forwards to the next day, when I’ll be teaching one class after another with my response time compromised, a dangerous proposition when operating the heavy machinery of a middle school classroom. In recent years insomnia has usually hit me on Sundays, if it’s going to hit at all. That’s the worst because then not only do I start to shoulder the weight of the week without sleep, but I’m deprived of the good mood necessary for my students to mirror to make for a happy, functional classroom.

And as a teacher, I’ve taught Carroll’s books nearly every year I’ve been in the classroom. For my students and me, whether or not I’m teaching after a sleepless night, these days are always a wild tumble down the original rabbit hole into a dream for which we don’t need to be asleep. This is Wonderland-dream thinking, where stuff doesn’t make sense but also really does.

I always appreciate our classroom conversations about the White Rabbit, the Caterpillar, the Cheshire Cat, and all the rest of the exemplars of Wonderland’s rational madness. But most of all, I enjoy talking about a certain mad tea party with a Hatter, a March Hare, and a Dormouse. As the characters speak in turn, thoughts get tossed around like grenades, exploding in shrapnel of reason and absurdity. The wild chitchat gives Alice the chance to confront the difficulty she had with the Caterpillar: working out who she is, as best she can, with the words she has. Caught in a very lucid dream that might as well be waking, Alice struggles with who she is, how she feels, and making sense of whatever the hell is going on around her. Maybe, in 2024, you know the feeling?

Reading Lewis Carroll with my students has taught me that waking and dreaming aren’t as easily separable as we might want to think—and that we, as if in Wonderland, should lean into rationality and idiosyncrasy, waking and dreaming, to make sense of the world and ourselves.

OK, I thought, what do I have to lose? I tried the Guide for Insomniacs out one Sunday. Midnight came and went, and I remained wakeful and angsting for sleep. I’ve learned over the years that staying in bed when I have insomnia is too torturous for me to endure, so I got up and moved out to the couch, switched on a lamp with modest light, took out a little Moleskine book I usually use for reporting, and attempted some of Carroll’s exercises.

I started with the ones included in the “Rhymes at Midnight” section of the book, whose title I’d like to think is a sly allusion to a line of Shakespeare’s Falstaff in Henry IV (“We have heard the chimes at midnight”). Carroll’s first suggestion is to write verses with a moral. Here’s what I came up with:

Sleep Is Good

I wonder where sleep may be.

I’ve let cares seize my mind.

Fingers tighten, breathing, I plead

With hostile sleep, how unkind.

But I know sleep is not out there.

It is in me, yet to emerge.

I touch the tousled mess of my hair,

Dreaming, eyes open, of latent sleep’s urge.

From there, Carroll suggests writing “dilutions,” which are poems in which the first line of each stanza is borrowed from the lines of stanza of a preexisting poem. You then are to write stanzas off those borrowed lines. Still feeling angsty and way too awake, I chose the final tercet (and the one line preceding it) from a translation of French poet Charles Baudelaire’s “The Sadness of the Moon.”

Some pious poet, enemy of sleep,

In greatest thrall

To the mystery of it all,

Takes in his hollow hand the tear of snow

Clutching it close,

Enduringly ephemeral, somehow,

Whence gleams of iris and of opal start,

Lights in purple black haze,

Sleep turns inward on itself,

And hides it from the Sun, deep in his heart,

Where what matters endures,

Through early dark, through early light.

Finally, still awake but maybe fading some, I tried—again per Carroll’s suggestion—writing an acrostic. His example is written off the name of one of his friends, but I chose “White Rabbit,” because, you know:

Who do you think you are,

Happy you can sleep,

Ignoring the stupid hell

That rages round each day.

Everyone is appalled by you.

Right now I lie awake,

Afraid waking is the worst kind of dream.

But sleep will come when it’s ready.

But oh how it eludes me now.

In terror, this inspires my scream,

Till a white rabbit wakes me into dream.

Finally, appropriately, I fell asleep after writing these lines. It worked!

The sections of this little book that I didn’t use but that might appeal to others include “Pillow Problems,” “Night Writing,” and “Ghosts and Nightcaps.” “Pillow Problems” offers math problems, puzzles, tangrams, a labyrinth, and word problems for the irrepressible problem-solvers out there. “Night Writing” includes instructions for how to use a nyctograph and alphabet cipher but is most endearingly archaic when it lays out the etiquette for proper letter writing.

The “Ghosts and Nightcaps” section includes recommendations for proper eating and drinking for rest, but also, in a wonderful bit of weirdness, Carroll’s matter-of-fact instructions for how to greet a ghost. “When encountering a ghost for the first time,” he writes, “it is necessary to remain as calm as may be and to retain the normal courtesies of civil society.” If that doesn’t work, he notes, you can try keeping your fears at bay by conjuring a ghost all your own, using shadow puppets (instructions included).

But it was “Rhymes at Midnight” that saw me off to slumber, after all, because it offered the best mix of aesthetic engagement and slight compositional angst, an approach that, for more emo-inclined types like me, is quite suitable. After my poetry exercises, I could even feel my consciousness unspooling till I could follow the thread down the rabbit hole. Now, I have to say, I might even use Carroll’s guide again. It made insomnia feel kind of funny and dark and thought-provoking, casting a spell over the experience much like that produced by reading about Wonderland’s twisted magic characters.

With insomnia, it’s often hard to remember that sleep will come at some point. When it does come and you wake up refreshed, it might be right to try, however you can, to keep one foot in the waking world and one foot in the dreaming world. That might seem bonkers, but then again, the glories and hilarities of Lewis Carroll would be lost on those who don’t heed the Cheshire Cat’s abiding insight: We’re all mad here.

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