The Night Desk

Thomas Knoll (Death Valley Selection + Ornament 523). Constant Dullaart, 2014. Courtesy the artist and xpo gallery. Via Artsy.

The End Isn’t the End

When insomnia and technological convenience collide, a lifetime of binge reading reaches its full potential.

I just spent the past four months reading all eight books in the Outlander series—and a five-book spinoff series—back to back. It wasn’t because they were especially transcendent or because I’d become a fan of the Starz show. It was just because they were fun, and because I wanted to see how Jamie and Claire turned out.

And why not? Life is short, and my nights are long—two excellent reasons, as far as I’m concerned, not to endure cliffhangers or loose ends unnecessarily.

It started with A Game of Thrones, the book that launched a thousand HBO binges. It wasn’t the kind of thing I usually read, but I figured it would be good in its own way. I had thoroughly enjoyed reading the Da Vinci Code on my last vacation—but I expected I’d finish it and move right along to the new Ondaatje or Mantel or Murakami. But after I finished the first book, I wanted to keep reading the series, and I wanted to read it all right away. And by “right away,” I mean that when I finished Game of Thrones late on a night that I could already tell was not going to yield any sleep, I didn’t pick up the new Ondaatje/Mantel/Murakami on my nightstand to see me through till morning. I mean that after less than a minute’s deliberation, I downloaded the rest of the series to my Kindle and read them all in a row, leaving the books on my nightstand to gather dust. All told, my extended vacation in Westeros lasted almost five months.

Four years later, I wrapped up Outlander. Next in my bingeing queue is the Elena Ferrante trilogy, My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, and Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, and I won’t sleep until I’ve finished the whole set.

I really won’t.


I’ve had insomnia all my life and books have kept me company at night since I was old enough to read. Thanks to my mother, I had probably a thousand books to choose from in our house, including dozens of complete series.

And so I filled my nights with every original Nancy Drew, every Hardy Boys, every Cherry Ames, every Boxcar Children, every Betsy, Tacey, and Tib, every Pippi Longstocking, every Heralds of Valdemar (OK, that one was mine), every V.I. Warshawski, every The Cat Who…, every Mists of Avalon, every Jack Ryan novel, and yes, even every Clan of the Cave Bear. I read them all because I read anything I could get my hands on, but also because I could always find the next one right on our shelves.

This was actually the most important part. It didn’t matter if I liked them or not, so long as I could keep the story going. Like most children, books offered me a secret second life where I could solve the mystery, save the day, win the war, discover the treasure, fall in love—where I could live a life that demanded more than being cute, studious, and polite. Barreling through an entire series amplified the experience exponentially. It was like going under deep cover.

The worst part about the chronic fog was that I couldn’t read a book.

As I grew older and gained more independence, I wasn’t living vicariously through my books as much, although they were still very much an escape into adulthood. The faculty at the private school I attended taught us to reject 98 percent of those books as nothing more than unserious popular entertainments. Becoming a teenager did little to quiet the inner grownup who was still trying to claw out of childhood, but I found literature was a place where my teachers—real, live adults—and I could meet as equals. I abandoned the mass-market books of my youth and didn’t look back.

That training chopped a lot of genre fiction—and therefore a lot of series—out of my life for nearly 20 years. There were some mystery authors I continued to let myself read: Henning Mankel, Dennis Lehane, Kate Atkinson, whose books were bound up smartly in sober, well-designed, matte-finish trade paperbacks that said, “It’s genre, but it’s also literature.” I liked them all, but I never read any two books in their respective series in a row, just because it was next—it no longer occurred to me to do so anymore.


Eight years ago I caught a summer cold that only lasted a few weeks, but which left me spacey and tired for months. I’d get winded after walking a few blocks, or find myself on a subway platform after work suddenly uncertain which train I needed to take home. In conversation I’d say one word when I meant another and sometimes forget what we were talking about altogether.

The worst part about the chronic fog was that I couldn’t read a book. It wasn’t the words or sentences that gave me trouble, but I could no longer hold onto the thread of a long piece of fiction. I’d read a few pages, then lose focus, and when I picked the book up again the next day I couldn’t remember what had come before. I gave up and started making my way through my stack of old New Yorkers instead—there was no question a 10-page short story was more manageable than a novel.

Even though I found a way to keep reading, it was strange to go about my day without carrying the loose ends of a story in the back of my mind, without wanting to know what happened next. It wasn’t that I didn’t feel like myself—I didn’t quite feel human at all.


I wonder if anyone comparing my bookshelves to my Kindle library would clock them as belonging to the same person—they’re that different.

My physical library consists of approximately 700 books, mostly trade paperbacks, mostly literary fiction, nonfiction, and history. I haven’t read them all—some are my husband’s—but I’ve read most of them. We even have a small room set aside for them, furnished with a loveseat and a lamp.

To call the library the Netflix of books is both completely ridiculous and completely true.

A visitor to my Kindle would still find Ondaatjes and Mantels and Murakamis, but they’d also find books by Bernard Cornwell, John LeCarre, Neil Gaiman—genre writers I’d unjustly dismissed for far too long. I owe the democratization of my tastes to the discretion of the Kindle, and now I sustain it through a far more venerable platform: my public library.

I’m grateful for my literary comeuppance, but the fact is I’m almost always going to read three police procedurals quicker than one meaty work of literary fiction. I like to buy and own my books, but I could not afford to read the way I do now without the library.

Say what you will about the quality of any taxpayer-funded enterprise in a red state, my library has a killer e-book collection. There are still waiting lists for hot new releases, and they don’t have everything, but I do have instant access to a rich catalog, 24/7, which is exactly what I need, when I need it.

To call the library the Netflix of books is both completely ridiculous and completely true. Netflix owes its model to the library, but its effect on how we consume media is totally unique. While I happened to grow up with the resources to indulge a book binge, it was logistically impossible for almost anyone else. And my mom’s books gave me no advantage in the TV department—I had to wait for Labor Day weekend Law and Order marathons like everyone else.

People sometimes compare binge-watching a TV series to reading a book, and it makes sense. Very few people read five books at once, reading a chapter from one book on Mondays, another book on Tuesdays, and so forth, until four months later all five are complete. By settling in to watch an entire season of a TV series over the course of a week (or weekend, no shame), we are, whether we’ve cracked a chapter book since 12th grade or not, behaving very much like readers.

Now that my library can provide books to me in almost exactly the same way that Netflix can provide me with a TV season—virtually unlimited, instant content paid for by a yearly tax bill that’s even less obtrusive than Netflix’s monthly flat rate—my adult reading patterns can finally follow suit. When I start the first book in a series, my default assumption is that, unless it’s just terrible, I’ll read the rest of the series straight through before moving on to anything else. And I’ll do it mostly in the middle of the night.

Which is nothing new. The technology I use is, of course, but staying up all night with a story and a bit of light—be it from fire, candle, flashlight, or Kindle—is one of the most ancient and universal things humans do. And I’ll never stop.