July 9, 2012
Acquainted With the Night by Christopher Dewdney
I’m not sure if last Friday evening was necessarily so enchanted, or if I noticed the enchantment in particular because I was reading Christopher Dewdney’s Acquainted With the Night. It was hot out, the city with all its doors and windows flung open, and we’d just come home from an evening swim at Christie Pits, where I would have liked to stay and watch the darkrise, as Dewdney notes that Christie Pits is a prime viewing location, but alas, we had a little one to put to bed. And once she was put to bed, we sat out on our porch catching whatever we could of an evening breeze, and we could hear our downstairs neighbours in the yard below us, and similar sounds from backyards and front porches up and down the street, the city alive with murmurs and bursts of laughter.
I read Christopher Dewdney’s Soul of the World last year, and delighted in its breadth. Acquainted With the Night is a previous book, but a similar approach, Dewdney taking a commonplace idea and illuminating its extraordinary and unknown aspects, tying together science, philosophy, literature, art, history and particle physics. So yes, it’s non-fiction, which means that I’ve spent most of the last week greeting friends with, “So, did you know that an owl can’t move its eyes in their sockets and that’s why their heads swivel round?”
Dewdney takes us through the night, hour by hour, discussing the physics of sunset, just why the night is dark, the night as portrayed in the works of Maurice Sendak, or in the adventures of nocturnal animals. Then onwards to the revolutionary advent of streetlamps, of night shifts, the science of sleep, of dreams and nightmares (and did you know that its possible for your nightmares to kill you?). On creatures of the night from Frankenstein’s monster to UFOs, to constellations and their accompanying stories, to insomnia and moonshine (and moonshine). The only thing I missed was a bit about the worst night-shift ever, which is sitting in a rocking chair holding a tiny bundle of baby in your arms whose wide-open saucer eyes refuse to fucking close.
To read Dewdney is to take a leisurely stroll with the smartest man you ever knew. He grounds the book in his narrator’s voice, this guiding character appearing in and out of the text to take the your hand and guide your through, giving the impression that this book which is seemingly about absolutely everything is also about the individual person and the experience of being in the world.