Books to read to relax before bed
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Not being able to sleep: we all hate it, right? When it’s way past my usual 10:30pm bedtime and I can feel my heart beating and mind racing, I know something’s off-balance. My best cure is a good book.
Generally I sleep well – and a lot. But not always. And it doesn’t take long for mild insomnia to start stressing me out.
My sleep tactics cover all sorts of bases: including a warm bath with a few drops of neroli oil, a bedtime tea blend, the Calm app, and especially reading or listening to a relaxing book.
If you haven’t tried it already, the Audible app has a great sleep timer to turn off after a set amount of time – I give it 40 minutes on a day I’m struggling to wind down.
If you’re not sure what to read before bed, here are some of the most relaxing books to help you sleep if you need a little help drifting off.
(Looking for audiobooks to help you fall asleep? You might like my list of the best bedtime audiobooks to help you drift off to sleep.)
The best books to read before bed
1. How to Read Nature: Awaken Your Senses to the Outdoors You’ve Never Noticed by Tristan Gooley
Tristan Gooley is one of the best guides to the details and patterns of the natural world. He’s also one of my favourite authors to enjoy via audiobooks, especially How to Read Nature; one of my go-to recommended books to help you fall asleep.
You’ll drift off dreaming about country fields, mountains, and trickling streams.
2. The Secret History by Donna Tartt
Although Donna Tartt is best known for The Goldfinch, her earlier novel The Secret History is an incredible book about a group of classics students with a cult-like following.
It also contains one of my favourite quotes about insomnia (and some motivation to try reading The Great Gatsby to help you sleep, too):
“Nothing is lonelier or more disorienting than insomnia. I spent the nights reading Greek until four in the morning, until my eyes burned and my head swam, until the only light burning in Monmouth House was my own. When I could no longer concentrate on Greek and the alphabet began to transmute itself into incoherent triangles and pitchforks, I read The Great Gatsby. It is one of my favourite books and I had taken it out of the library in hopes that it would cheer me up; of course, it only made me feel worse, since in my own humorless state I failed to see anything except what I construed as certain tragic similarities between Gatsby and myself.”
The Secret History
3. Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman
In a thread about the books to read to fall asleep, Reddit user qiuel writes: “Bit of a weird one, but Norse Mythology. I can’t quite explain it but, as violent as it is at times, there’s something so comfy about Gaiman’s writing.”
This is Neil Gaiman’s retelling of the great Norse myths, breathing new life into the captivating ancient tales of Odin, Thor, and Loki among others.
For other cosy reads (without murder and aggression) to help you fall asleep, head over to my recommendations of the most wholesome comfort reads for a hug from a book.
4. The Bear by Andrew Krivak
I’ve been reading The Bear before bed recently and it’s been the perfect book to help me fall asleep. The book reads like a dream, even though it’s ultimately about loss: it’s a story of the last two humans on earth, a father and daughter living in an Edenic future close to nature.
Drift off dreaming of lone mountains, whispering forests, handfuls of foraged herbs, and bears with poignant life lessons if we only stop to listen.
5. The Peace of Wild Things by Wendell Berry
Wendell Berry’s poems are gorgeous love letters to the land that offer the perfect nighttime reading. Before bed, delve into these short, simple, and profoundly wise hymns to the cycles of nature and hope, love, healing, death, friendship, and belonging. I
f you already love Mary Oliver’s writing, I think you’ll adore Wendell Berry too.
6. His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman
When I decided to reread Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, Northern Lights did a fantastic job at helping me to fall asleep more easily.
Read about Lyra’s adventures, mythical beasts, and the beautiful aurora in the North as you wind down from the day and prepare for sleep.
7. Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang
“Deliberate rest,” as Pang calls it, is the true key to productivity, and will give us more energy, sharper ideas, and a better life.
Rest offers a roadmap to rediscovering the importance of rest in our lives, and a convincing argument that we need to relax more if we actually want to get more done.
8. The Collected Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
It’s hard to beat a visit to the world of Sherlock Holmes for bedtime reading. Talking about favourite books to read before bed on Reddit, eleganthaunt shared:
“Sherlock Holmes is my favorite. I have a volume with all the stories in it, so if I feel like a short story I’ll read that, but if I have more time I’ll start a novel. Takes me back to the wonderfully cozy world of 221b Baker Street every time.”
9. What I Know For Sure by Oprah Winfrey
I read this back in the summer of 2018 after leaving my job and adored it. What I Know For Sure is a compilation of the wisdom shared in Oprah’s widely popular “What I Know For Sure” column, a monthly source of inspiration and revelation.
While it’s inspiring, it won’t make you too motivated and excited to take action like many other self-improvement books. So it’s a great book for relaxing with before bed.
10. Nothing Much Happens: Calming Stories to Soothe Your Mind & Help You Sleep
If you struggle with insomnia, you might have heard of the podcast Nothing Much Happens. It’s one of those excellent creations with a title that lets you know exactly what you’re getting: in this case, stories where nothing much happens.
Creator and host Kathryn Nicolai has created this companion book of calming stories to soothe your mind and help you sleep as a wonderfully relaxing bedtime book for adults.
Accompanied by cosy and relaxing illustrations, the unnamed, gender-neutral narrators recount their days and evoke the distinct comforts offered by each of the four seasons as they gently guide you towards sleep.
11. The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot by Robert Macfarlane
I’ve been recommending Robert Macfarlane quite a lot recently, and The Old Ways is one of the best starting points for one of Britain’s best-loved nature writers.
Before falling asleep, immerse yourself in his journeys on foot following the ancient routes that crisscross the landscape of the British Isles and its waters and territories beyond.
The Old Ways was chosen by Slate as one of the 50 best nonfiction books of the past 25 years.
12. Gratitude by Oliver Sacks
I would give everyone a copy of Oliver Sacks’s essays if I could. Gratitude is my favourite book by neurosurgeon and writer Oliver Sacks, available as a lovely hardcover which I’ve given to several friends I wanted to thank.
Written during the last few months of his life, this set of essays was Oliver Sacks’s way of exploring his feelings about completing a life and coming to terms with his own death, offering an overwhelming sense of gratitude for the gift of living.
It’s a lovely book to read in small moments, especially before bed. Sacks’s autobiography, On the Move, is also fantastic.
“My predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved. I have been given much and I have given something in return. Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.”
Gratitude by Oliver Sacks
Enjoy more from me
We already know that a little bit of reading can improve your health. Studies show that cracking a book reduces stress, helps keep your memory sharp, and increases empathy. Basically, reading makes you a better person — and it can also help you sleep. So, if you’re looking to catch up on some Z’s, pick up a few of these books to read before bed.
Of course, even if thrillers are your go-to reading material, it’s best to avoid books that aren’t exactly relaxing. Suspenseful novels great, but if you read them before bed, they may keep you up all night — either because you’re too busy turning pages to count sheep, or because the climax leaves you with an adrenaline rush. Basically, you don’t want something that will make your heart beat faster, or a novel so gripping that you end up pulling an all-nighter just to get to the end (as we’ve all been guilty of doing).
If you have trouble falling asleep, reading can help you relax, but you probably want to look for a particular type of book — one that’s as calm as a cup of tea, and as soothing as a warm bath. Below, 18 books to read before bed that will help you relax and unwind at the end of a long day.
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Mary Jane by Jessica Anya Blau
‘Mary Jane’ by Jessica Anya Blau
Mary Jane was raised by her conservative family to be a good girl. A nice girl. But when she takes a summer job in a local doctor’s household, the 14-year-old comes face-to-face with the kind of liberal lifestyle that would make her mother blush. She keeps the doctor’s secrets — which include the identities of his two famous, hard-partying houseguests — to herself, but is forced to think long and hard about what she wants her future to look like.
Vessel by Cai Chongda
‘Vessel’ by Cai Chongda
From former GQ China editorial director and Mensmode founder Cai Chongda, this memoir paints a brilliant portrait of the author’s childhood in a small town on the coast of China’s Fujian province. Chongda was forced to take over as the head of his household when a stroke left his father unable to work, and his desire to provide for his family took him far — not only from home, but also from the way of life he’d previously known.
May the Best Man Win by ZR Ellor
‘May the Best Man Win’ by ZR Ellor
As cheer captain and quarterback, respectively, Jeremy and Lukas have always been high school royalty. Last summer, though, Jeremy broke Lukas’ heart. Now, the trans senior is making every effort to live his best, most authentic life — and that means going head-to-head with his ex for the Homecoming King’s crown. Lukas isn’t about to take Jeremy’s campaign lying down, though. He’s got a plan… and a lingering crush.
The Paper Palace by Miranda Cowley Heller
‘The Paper Palace’ by Miranda Cowley Heller
While on vacation with her loving husband and another couple, 50-year-old Elle sleeps with the other woman’s husband, Jonas — the man Elle always believed she’d wind up with. Waking up the next morning with her awful secret, Elle begins to sort through the reasons she and Jonas never married, and questions whether the two of them should take a second chance at love.
The Secret Keeper of Jaipur by Alka Joshi
‘The Secret Keeper of Jaipur’ by Alka Joshi
This follow-up to The Henna Artist centers on Malik, a 20-year-old intern at Jaipur’s Royal Palace. It’s 1969, and the Palace’s Facilities Office is planning the construction of a modern movie theater in Jaipur. But when tragedy strikes on opening night, Malik is certain that an innocent person has been blamed — so he sets out to learn the truth.
My Remarkable Journey by Katherine Johnson
‘My Remarkable Journey’ by Katherine Johnson
Katherine Johnson lived a storied life: The Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient once worked as a human computer at NASA, and was portrayed by Taraji P. Henson in the hit film Hidden Figures. She passed away in 2020 at the age of 101 — but not before writing this memoir, published posthumously in 2021.
The Last Garden in England by Julia Kelly
‘The Last Garden in England’ by Julia Kelly
Moving between the Edwardian era, World War II, and the present day, Julia Kelly’s The Last Garden in England follows a small group of women who share a connection to one majestic estate. In 1907, Venetia is tasked with designing the Highbury House gardens; decades later, in 1944, three Highbury employees share a love of the greenery — and a wartime secret; and finally, in the modern day, Venetia’s biggest fan steps in to restore Highbury House’s beloved gardens to their former glory, only to uncover huge secrets from the estate’s storied past.
The Bombay Prince by Sujata Massey
‘The Bombay Prince’ by Sujata Massey
In 1921 Bombay, the Prince of Wales’ latest tour of British India sparks riots in a country longing for self-determination. And Freny Cuttingmaster, a Parsi 18-year old-who suffers a tragic fall just as the royal procession passes her school, appears to be the protests’ latest casualty. But for Perveen — the first woman to practice law in India — the young student’s demise reeks of foul play.
One Last Stop by Casey McQuiston
‘One Last Stop’ by Casey McQuiston
A cynic who doesn’t believe in romance finds herself falling for a time-traveling woman in Casey McQuiston’s delightful follow-up to Red, White & Royal Blue. August knows that only fools fall in love, but when she meets Jane — an enigmatic woman who has accidentally traveled to August’s time from the 1970s — she begins to question her life philosophy.
The Beautiful Ones by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
‘The Beautiful Ones’ by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Nina’s a lucky girl. Thanks to her family connections, she’s able to make her debut in one of France’s most elite social circles. Everything is on the right track — until her telekinetic abilities appear to ruin her reputation for good. Nina spies a chance at salvation with Hector: a telekinetic entertainer who takes her on as his protégée. But does Hector have her best interests in mind?
Fox and I: An Uncommon Friendship by Catherine Raven
‘Fox and I: An Uncommon Friendship’ by Catherine Raven
This touching memoir centers on a solitary writer’s unlikely friendship with a wild fox. Exploring themes of loneliness and solitude, Fox and I balances author Catherine Raven’s experiences living off-the-grid in Montana, where she met the titular fox, with ruminations on humanity’s broader relationship with nature.
The Kitchen Front by Jennifer Ryan
‘The Kitchen Front’ by Jennifer Ryan
From The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir author Jennifer Ryan comes this uplifting historical novel about wartime Britain. With an Allied victory looking less and less likely in a country still reeling from the Blitz, a BBC radio show holds a contest to boost the country’s morale. Four women — a widowed mother, a domestic servant, a wealthy woman trapped in an abusive marriage, and a professional chef — throw their hats into the ring to become the first woman to host the program, in The Kitchen Front.
The Queer Principles of Kit Webb by Cat Sebastian
‘The Queer Principles of Kit Webb’ by Cat Sebastian
Coffee shop owner and ex-highwayman Kit Webb has made a valiant effort at finding contentment, but he’s begun to long for his madcap days on the wrong side of the law. When Percy enlists Kit to steal a book from Percy’s father, the onetime thief finds himself chasing both adventure and romance: as he teaches Percy the ins and outs of the criminal life, Kit finds himself falling in love.
Ladies of the House by Lauren Edmondson
‘Ladies of the House’ by Lauren Edmondson
Sense and Sensibility comes to modern-day Washington in Lauren Edmondson’s Jane Austen retelling. When a politician’s funeral is interrupted by a salacious revelation about his life, his wife and daughters find themselves ostracized from Washington society. Blamed for their late patriarch’s crimes, the family tries to move forward — but love, lies, and another scandal make their lives anything but easy.
All the Things We Never Knew by Liara Tamani
‘All the Things We Never Knew’ by Liara Tamani
Teenage basketball stars fall in love at first sight in this heartwarming coming-of-age story. All the Things We Never Knew centers on 11th graders Carli and Rex: two of the best high-school athletes in Texas, who both have big, bright futures ahead of them. But as they embark on a romantic adventure, secrets come to light that could drive them apart forever.
The Art of Patience: Seeking the Snow Leopard in Tibet by Sylvain Tesson
‘The Art of Patience: Seeking the Snow Leopard in Tibet’ by Sylvain Tesson
After waking up from a coma, French travel writer Sylvain Tesson set out for Tibet, where snow leopard enthusiasts wait — some for months or even years — for their chance to spot the elusive cat in the flesh. Tesson recounts his own experiences waiting for the snow leopard in The Art of Patience.
The Hellion’s Waltz by Olivia Waite
‘The Hellion’s Waltz’ by Olivia Waite
Conwoman Maddie Crewe and the rest of the weavers’ union have had enough of one troublesome-but-wealthy associate, and they’ve got a plot to ruin him and secure their futures forever. There’s just one problem standing in their way: the new girl in town, Sophie Roseingrave, who hates con artists and is determined to find out what Maddie is up to.
The Final Revival of Opal & Nev by Dawnie Walton
‘The Final Revival of Opal & Nev’ by Dawnie Walton
The Lit. Bar
Lightning just struck twice for Sunny. Shortly after becoming Aural’s first Black editor-and-chief, she catches wind that Opal Jewel and Neville Charles, a pair of 1970s rock icons who haven’t performed together in more than 25 years, may be reuniting. Although their career together was short-lived, Opal and Nev became infamous after they lost a bandmate to a hate crime. For Sunny, the story is personal: Her father was the man who was murdered.
This article was originally published on March 27, 2017