Iain Murray: Are books such stuff as dreams are made of?

Researchers have found a correlation between reading and dreaming. Too true: some newspaper stories can induce the worst kind of nightmare, says Iain Murray

I awoke just in time. Another second and I would have been screaming and gibbering. I had seen such things as the very depths of hell are made of. In my fevered imaginings Mick Jagger had been knighted; the tabloids were shrieking football triumphalism; Tony Blair was strolling down Whitehall shaking the hands of well-wishers wearing Queen Mother masks. No wonder the sweat ran down my chest in icy rivulets.

There was a time when I would have put it down to something I had eaten: an ill-advised piece of cheese perhaps. But now I know it was almost certainly something I had read.

For want of anything better to do, researchers at the University of Wales in Swansea divided more than 10,000 library goers into different personality types based on the books they chose and asked them to complete questionnaires about their dreams.

We shall never know with what heightened sense of anticipation these researchers approached their task when, at last, all 10,000 forms were completed and returned; with what excited Welsh cries the cloisters of Swansea University rang as the analysis yielded its secrets; with what solemnity the findings were collated; and with what ceremony they were entered, leather-bound, into the archives. It seems a fair bet, however, that in each case the answer was, not much.

The survey found that “adults choosing fiction had stranger dreams”. Stranger presumably than adults choosing non-fiction. Common sense would suggest that a couple of chapters of Jilly Cooper taken before bed would produce a less easeful sleep than the equivalent dosage of the Ford Focus maintenance manual, but I suppose it is as well to have these things confirmed scientifically.

Another key finding was that fans of fantasy novels “had more nightmares”, while the “dreams of those who preferred romantic fiction were more emotionally intense”. Again the points of comparison are not clear. Do readers of fantasy novels have more nightmares than readers in general? If so, what is the incidence of nightmares among readers of, say, lyrical poetry? We are not told. Similarly, are the dreams of readers of romantic novels more emotionally intense than those of people who pore over the works of Jamie Oliver, the naked chef? It would be interesting, too, to know whether the intensity of the dreams of readers of Mills & Boon is related to the vividness of the narrative, the plot, or the descriptive passages. In other words, is the ferocity with which the bodice is ripped proportionate to the wildness of the nocturnal imaginings that it inspires? Further research is needed.

For the time being we have the provisional findings of the University of Wales, which are (a) people’s taste in books indicates the kind of dreams they have and (b) different personality types have different kinds of dreams. Well, as they say in the University of Life, I’ll go to the foot of our stairs.

Books, of course, account for only a part of our reading. For all the competition from rival media and the excesses of the Press notwithstanding, we remain a nation of newspaper readers. And what effect do you suppose this habit has on the sleeping hours?

No one who follows the passing pageant of blunder, murder, mayhem, incompetence, cruelty, stupidity, and greed, not to mention spin and smear, can be certain to traverse the small hours untroubled by what he or she has read.

Indeed, there are times when sleeping and wakefulness are indistinguishable one from the other; such are the bizarre and incredible creatures and happenings that inhabit both states. Did we really hear Charles Clarke, the Labour Party’s preposterously unshaven and thuggish chairman, accuse the press of “bringing politics into disrepute”? Surely not. We must have stepped through the looking glass into Topsy-turvy Land, where truth is stood upon its head and words mean the reverse of what they say.

And where but in a nightmare can we imagine a surgeon removing the wrong kidney, because he looked at the x-ray the wrong way round? Did we read that or, as seems much more probable, did we dream it?

And what of the imminent extension of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, a piece of legislation whose name suggests precisely the opposite of its intention? Its effect is not to control the intrusive powers of the State, but greatly to extend them. Its expansion will mean that not only will the police, the Inland Revenue, Customs & Excise and all of Whitehall, have free and unrestricted access to records of our telephone calls, e-mails, and the websites we visit, but so too will a range of other organisations including local authorities. That town councils – the people you will recall who sent inspectors masquerading as shoppers to spy on street traders selling bananas by the pound – are to be given powers that Big Brother would envy is truly the stuff of nightmares.

But take heart, it is not all bad. In a sleep blissfully induced by Ruddles of Rutland, I saw Alastair Campbell’s head on a stick. It was a bloodied, grisly spectacle, too awful to describe in detail. Suffice it to say I awoke refreshed, to a dawn chorus in full and jubilant cry. For a moment all too brief the world basked in heaven’s blue smile. Of such visions and imaginings are sweet dreams made.

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