Not being able to sleep: we all hate it, right? When it’s way past my usual 10:30pm bedtime and I can feel my heart beating and mind racing, I know something’s off-balance. My best cure is a good book.
Generally I sleep well – and a lot. But not always. And it doesn’t take long for mild insomnia to start stressing me out.
My sleep tactics cover all sorts of bases: including a warm bath with a few drops of neroli oil, a bedtime tea blend, the Calm app, and especially reading or listening to a relaxing book. If you haven’t tried it already, the Audible app has a great sleep timer to turn off after a set amount of time – I give it 40 minutes on a day I’m struggling to wind down.
If you’re not sure what to read before bed, here are some of the most relaxing books to help you sleep if you need a little help drifting off.
The best books to read before bed
1. How to Read Nature: Awaken Your Senses to the Outdoors You’ve Never Noticed by Tristan Gooley
Tristan Gooley is one of the best guides to the details and patterns of the natural world. He’s also one of my favourite authors to enjoy via audiobooks, especially How to Read Nature; one of my go-to recommendations of books to help you fall asleep. You’ll drift off dreaming about country fields, mountains, and trickling streams.
2. The Secret History by Donna Tartt
Although Donna Tartt is best known for The Goldfinch, her earlier novel The Secret History is an incredible book about a group of classics students with a cult-like following. It also contains one of my favourite quotes about insomnia (and some motivation to try reading The Great Gatsby to help you sleep, too):
“Nothing is lonelier or more disorienting than insomnia. I spent the nights reading Greek until four in the morning, until my eyes burned and my head swam, until the only light burning in Monmouth House was my own. When I could no longer concentrate on Greek and the alphabet began to transmute itself into incoherent triangles and pitchforks, I read The Great Gatsby. It is one of my favourite books and I had taken it out of the library in hopes that it would cheer me up; of course, it only made me feel worse, since in my own humorless state I failed to see anything except what I construed as certain tragic similarities between Gatsby and myself.”The Secret History
3. Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman
In a thread about the books to read to fall asleep, Reddit user qiuel writes: “Bit of a weird one, but Norse Mythology. I can’t quite explain it but, as violent as it is at times, there’s something so comfy about Gaiman’s writing.”
This is Neil Gaiman’s retelling of the great Norse myths, breathing into new life into the captivating ancient tales of Odin, Thor, and Loki among others.
For comfy reading without murder and aggression to help you fall asleep, head over to my recommendations of the most wholesome comfort reads for a hug from a book.
4. The Bear by Andrew Krivak
I’ve been reading The Bear before bed recently and it’s been the perfect book to help me fall asleep. The book reads like a dream, even though it’s ultimately about loss: it’s a story of the last two humans on earth, a father and daughter living in an Edenic future close to nature. Drift off dreaming of lone mountains, whispering forests, handfuls of foraged herbs, and bears with poignant life lessons if we only stop to listen.
5. The Peace of Wild Things by Wendell Berry
Wendell Berry’s poems are gorgeous love letters to the land that offer the perfect nighttime reading. Before bed, delve into these short, simple, and profoundly wise hymns to the cycles of nature and the hope, love, healing, death, friendship, and belonging we witness. If you already love Mary Oliver’s writing, I think you’ll adore Wendell Berry too.
6. His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman
When I decided to reread Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, Northern Lights did a fantastic job at helping me to fall asleep more easily. Read about Lyra’s adventures, mythical beasts, and the beautiful aurora in the North as you wind down from the day and prepare for sleep.
7. Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang
“Deliberate rest,” as Pang calls it, is the true key to productivity, and will give us more energy, sharper ideas, and a better life. Rest offers a roadmap to rediscovering the importance of rest in our lives, and a convincing argument that we need to relax more if we actually want to get more done.
8. The Collected Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
It’s hard to beat a visit to the world of Sherlock Holmes for bedtime reading. Talking about favourite books to read before bed on Reddit, eleganthaunt shares: “Might sound really weird, but Sherlock Holmes is my favorite. I have a volume with all the stories in it, so if I feel like a short story I’ll read that, but if I have more time I’ll start a novel. Takes me back to the wonderfully cozy world of 221b Baker Street every time.”
9. What I Know For Sure by Oprah Winfrey
I read this back in the summer of 2018 after leaving my job and adored it. What I Know For Sure is a compilation of the wisdom shared in Oprah’s widely popular “What I Know For Sure” column, a monthly source of inspiration and revelation.
While it’s inspiring, it won’t make you too motivated and excited to take action, like many other self-improvement books. So it’s a great book for relaxing with before bed.
10. Nothing Much Happens: Calming Stories to Soothe Your Mind & Help You Sleep
If you struggle with insomnia, you might have heard of the podcast Nothing Much Happens. It’s one of those excellent creations with a title that lets you know exactly what you’re getting: in this case, stories where nothing much happens.
Creator and host Kathryn Nicolai has created this companion book of calming stories to soothe your mind and help you sleep as a wonderfully relaxing bedtime book for adults.
Accompanied by cosy and relaxing illustrations, the unnamed, gender-neutral narrators recount their days and evoke the distinct comforts offered by each of the four seasons as they gently guide you towards sleep.
11. The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot by Robert Macfarlane
I’ve been recommending Robert Macfarlane quite a lot recently, and The Old Ways is one of the best starting points for one of Britain’s best-loved nature writers.
Before falling asleep, immerse yourself in his journeys on foot following the ancient routes that crisscross the landscape of the British Isles and its waters and territories beyond. The Old Ways was chosen by Slate as one of the 50 best nonfiction books of the past 25 years.
12. Gratitude by Oliver Sacks
I would give everyone a copy of Oliver Sacks’s essays if I could. Gratitude is my favourite book by neurosurgeon and writer Oliver Sacks, especially in the lovely hardcover edition which I’ve given to several friends I wanted to thank.
Written during the last few months of his life, this set of essays was Oliver Sacks’s way of exploring his feelings about completing a life and coming to terms with his own death, offering an overwhelming sense of gratitude for the gift of living.
It’s a lovely book to read in small moments, especially before bed. Sacks’s autobiography, On the Move, is also fantastic.
“My predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved. I have been given much and I have given something in return. Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.”Gratitude by Oliver Sacks
Enjoy more from me
- Retreat into my new book, Your Life in Bloom: Finding Your Path and Your Courage, Grounded in the Wisdom of Nature.
- I'm also the author of Mountain Song: A Journey to Finding Quiet in the Swiss Alps, a book about my time living alone by the mountains.
- If you love books, are feeling a little lost right now, and would love some gentle comfort and guidance, join The Sanctuary, my seven-day course to rebalance your life.