I feel an enormous sense of accomplishment having completed this book. It was a slog. It was a slog in the same way that some of the readings I had to do during my undergrad were a slog: dry, overly academic, little sense that they were written with any consideration for the person who would have to learn something from it. This book was so dry it actually made me angry because it had so much potential! The subtitle of the book is “Night in Times Past.” Now I’m not much of a history buff but I do have a fascination with pre-industrial times: hygiene, crazy diseases and their even crazier “cures”, dentistry, the class system, and generally how difficult life must have been back then. When I read a (positive) review of At Day’s Close in The Globe and Mail awhile back, it struck me that I’d never considered how different nights would have been before the invention of artificial light. It seems obvious but torches and fires can only do so much. How did people spend their nights, once the sun was down? What kind of socializing occurred? What was crime like? These questions are addressed, albeit in the most boring way possible. Ekirch has clearly done his research, but he is so wrapped up in presenting his findings in as much detail as possible that he forgets to weave in a narrative. For example, he refers many times to a man named ‘Pepys’ but gives no introduction for who this man was other than mentioning that he kept a highly detailed diary. Here is a golden opportunity to discuss what nights might have been like through the eyes of a person who actually lived them! Instead, Ekirch chooses to insert seemingly random quotes and passages from Pepys’ diary that almost always seemed to appear out of nowhere. He uses material from other surviving diaries and correspondences as well but again, no introduction or explanation of who these people were is given.
All this being said, I did glean some interesting information, particularly from the last few chapters, which for some reason were a lot more coherent. For instance, much time is spent discussing the idea of ‘two sleeps’, wherein a person would awake midway through the night for a period of time – perhaps an hour or two – before lapsing back into a second sleep. This apparently was very common before the advent of artificial light and Ekirch suggests that this might be a more natural way for humans to sleep. Another tidbit of information: roads were very dangerous in early modern times, particularly at night. Writes Ekirch, “Gibbets with human corpses littered the early modern countryside. These were tall wooden posts with one or more arms from which hung the decomposing remains of executed felons, though trees provided handy substitutes. Often corpses would remain suspended in an iron cage or chains for months, warning prey and predator alike.” As gruesome as that is, this is the kind of thing I want to read about! Unfortunately, these descriptions were few and far between throughout the book.
If you are writing a paper about life in the pre-industrial era, this would be an excellent resource for you. However if you are looking for a non-fiction bedtime read, I’d probably give this a pass.