David K Randall's Dreamland is a review of the best scientific thinking that illuminates and important subject: namely, why do we spend a third of our lives paralyzed, eyes closed, having vivid hallucinations?

David Randall wants you to know five things about sleep:

  1. We don't know much about sleep
  2. We don't think much about sleep
  3. We pretend sleep doesn't matter
  4. Sleep matters, a lot
  5. And boy, is sleep ever weird

Framed as a journey through which the author tries to get to the bottom of his own alarming sleepwalking, Dreamland is thirteen loosely joined essays, each covering a different aspect of sleep, from sleep-related errors in military fatalities to people who commit grotesque murder in their sleep to the strange social history of dreaming to the painful business of "sleep training" newborns.

In each chapter, Randall visits the best thinking in sleep science, often interviewing leading thinkers in the field about cutting-edge research and the best current thinking. Although each chapter constitutes a well-told scientific tale, not much effort is put into tying the chapters together. Even so, taken as a whole, the book goes a long way to making the case for sleep as an urgent life-necessity and not a weakness of the flesh. Over and over again, in sports and medicine and war-fighting and scholarship, Randall tells the stories of people whose macho work ethic put sleep behind other considerations of "getting the job done," who discovered a false economy and paid a terrible price in the form of decreased judgment, performance, and stamina.

This is the sort of thing that, depite being well-known, isn't well-understood. We treat insomnia as a weakness, treat sleeping pills and caffeine as an easily substitutable for time with our heads down, and consistently underestimate the extent to which sleep deprivation has undermined our effectiveness.

I read my copy while horrifically jetlagged and found it especially trenchant — and alarming. But Randall's such a charming storyteller that I was able to convert my alarm to rest, rather than having it keep me awake.

Dreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep [David K Randall/WW Norton]

-Cory Doctorow