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 also 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 with a cult following. It also contains one of my favourite quotes about not being able to sleep:
“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. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerland
As a character in The Secret History recommends, pick up The Great Gatsby if you’re struggling to fall asleep and cross into dreamland.
4. 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.
5. His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman
I recently decided to read Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy again, and it’s this book that has been helping me to fall asleep lately. 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.
6. Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese
Cutting for Stone is another book that I’ve loved recently. It’s a big book that’s perfect to read for half an hour before bed every night. If you’re anything like me, you’ll be counting down the hours until you can get back to it.
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. 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.
9. The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng
One of my all-time favourite novels, The Garden of Evening Mists won the Man Asian Literary Prize for its remarkably elegant and haunting weaving together of war, art and memory during the Japanese occupation of Malaya. Every time I mention this book to someone, I know I should reread it soon.
10. 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.
11. Everything in its Place: First Loves and Last Tales by Oliver Sacks
I would give everyone a copy of Oliver Sacks’s essays if I could. Everything in Its Place is his most recent anthology, published posthumously last year after his death in 2015, and it’s a lovely book to read in small moments and to help you sleep. His autobiography is also fantastic.
12. Philosophy for Polar Explorers by Erling Kagge
I read Philosophy for Polar Explorers recently on a train from London to Glasgow and adored it (nearly as much as Erling Kagge’s other beautiful little hardback, Silence: In the Age of Noise which I’ve celebrated before.) If you have an adventurous spirit and a penchant for remote journeys, I think you’ll love it too as a relaxing bedtime book.
Retreat Into The Sanctuary & Find Your Way With Comforting, Gentle Wisdom
Love books, feeling a little lost right now, and looking for some comfort and guidance forwards? I made The Sanctuary exactly for this.