Over the past five years or so, a distinctive new genre of non- fiction has appeared on the literary horizon, recently and rather uninspiringly christened by an article in The Atlantic Monthly as “mundane studies.”
Unlike traditional works of history or cultural studies, mundane studies avoid large and obviously important topics, focusing instead on the tiny, the obscure, the seemingly (if not actually) insignificant. They see the world in a grain of sand – sometimes almost literally, as in the case of historian Joseph Amato’s Dust, which explores the history of civilization as manifested in its changing attitudes to … you guessed it. Other mundane studies have taken on similarly quirky subjects, such as the screwdriver, chickens, salt, and stereoscopic light.
Christopher Dewdney’s Acquainted with the Night is the latest addition to the mundane studies canon – well, sort of. Night can be seen as mundane, in that it surrounds us so regularly that we hardly think about it. Nonetheless, it is not a grain of sand, but (in one sense, anyway) as vast as the entire universe. Unlike some subjects of mundane studies, then, night’s mundaneness is a product of its ubiquity rather than obscurity.
Whereas most mundane studies work outward from the tiny and specific to larger cultural and historical patterns, Dewdney’s study works inward, from the massiveness of night to the multitude of comparatively small earthly things that are encompassed by it. As it turns out, it’s an approach that at times benefits from the sheer variety, while elsewhere suffering from a frustrating lack of overall focus.
Appropriately enough, the book is structured in the form of a single night, with each chapter (aside from the introduction and conclusion) representing one hour. Chapter two, then, corresponds to 6 p.m., and discusses sunsets, from the physics that underlies them to their symbolic significance in various cultures. Chapter four tackles 8 p.m. and includes a nifty rumination on children’s bedtime stories. And so on, through the wee hours, which bring forth discussions of creatures of the night (both real and mythological), stargazing, dreams, and insomnia, until the pale dawn finally looms on the horizon. The structuring device works nicely, providing unity to the book’s diverse collection of topics, as well as a sense of stately forward progress as the hours march by.
As for the actual content, I found myself drifting in and out. On the one hand, there is much to inform and amuse here, including an array of intriguing, mostly useless facts. For instance, nine hundred million years ago, there were 481 18-hour days in a year, and the average night was only nine hours long. And sunset fans will be intrigued to learn of a rare atmospheric effect called the “green flash,” a luminous glow that occasionally appears on the western horizon in the wake of a sunset. In French folklore, it’s said to grant people who witness it an expanded sense of their place in the world.
Acquainted with the Night is not simply a compendium of nocturnal trivia; the book contains many excellent self-contained essays that delve with gusto into their subjects. The section on children’s bedtime stories is a case in point, featuring a brilliant exegesis of Goodnight Moon that delves to the roots of the tale’s odd, almost surrealistic mood. Elsewhere, Dewdney provides a decent overview of how the advent of electric light has altered our relationship with night, extending our senses and transforming our lifestyles.
Other discussions are significantly less successful. There are, for example, the book’s potted histories of modern astronomy, from Copernicus and Galileo through Hubble, and of the debate between Freudian and Jungian psychologists on the nature of dreaming. Both subjects are massive in scope, universes unto themselves, and there simply isn’t space in Acquainted with the Night for Dewdney to give either area more than a cursory survey, the kind of discussion one would find in an encyclopedia entry. Moreover, such topics are so familiar that they will no doubt be old hat to many, if not most, readers.
These skippable interludes aside, the book is an enjoyable if not hugely compelling work, well deserving of a spot on the bedside table. It lacks the tight focus and clever arguments that enliven many of the best mundane studies, but largely makes up for this with its relaxed mood of intelligent contemplation and steady movement from topic to topic.
Now if you don’t mind, it’s getting rather late.