Insomnia, by Stephen King, stands as one of the most important books I’ve ever read.
In the summer of 1997, just a few months after I discovered my love of reading, I decided I wanted to use my three months away from school to sufficiently challenge my reading chops. I wanted to see just how far I could take this literary trip. I decided I wanted to read one of those fat novels, thick like a brick of cash, that I used to see my mother read when I was a kid. In her case, they were romance novels, but that didn’t really matter to me.
I just remember sitting in the family car (or minivan or pickup truck) driving to Magic Mountain or Disneyland or Knott’s Berry Farm or wherever and watching my mother read a gigantic book, while she sat in the front seat beside my father who was, at the time, serving his thankless role as family chauffeur. I was always wowed by the idea that, not only could someone read a book of that size, but they would do so on purpose—and, presumably, enjoy the process.
So, at the age of 19, having discovered my own love for reading, I wanted to know if I was one of those people who could read one of those huge books. This led me to take my first trip—as an actual reader of books!—to Barnes & Noble. It was an exciting moment for me, because not only did going to a bookstore make me feel (and, hopefully, appear) smart, but I actually wanted to be there. I couldn’t wait to choose from the thousands and thousands of books, each of which contained a little movie inside that I could watch in my head.
About five seconds after I stepped into Barnes & Noble, I realized that there were too many books. I had no idea how to sift through the vast inventory of books, how to filter the good from the bad. More importantly than that, I had no idea what sort of books I would enjoy. Up to that point, I’d completed only three books: The Jungle, The Great Gatsby and Star Wars (see if you can guess which of these books wasn’t assigned to me in school). There were so many aisles and different genres, I didn’t know where to begin. So, I decided to start with the only writer I had ever heard of.
Even without being a reader, I knew that Stephen King was one of the most successful writers in the world, so I figured he must also be good at it. Whether or not I was right didn’t really matter to me at the moment. I was just happy to have reduced my choices down to a single author. After some searching around, I found the section of Barnes & Noble that held a seemingly endless line of Stephen King books. Having found them, I started looking only for the thickest books on the shelves—and the book that stood out to me the most was Insomnia. I can’t tell you why exactly, but I think it had something to do with the fact that I’d never heard of it before. And possibly the fact that, since I was a kid, I’ve always had trouble sleeping, the story appealed to me. Just to be sure, I read the back cover:
Ralph Roberts used to be an ordinary guy—until insomnia robbed him of sleep. Now he’s no longer ordinary—he can see horrible things happening to the people of Derry, Maine. He can see how, one by one, they are turning into monsters straight from hell. He’d like to call them nightmares, but he’s wide-awake. He can’t call himself crazy, because there is another person who sees these happenings, too. But even if seeing is believing, it still doesn’t give him a clue of how to stop these deadly, demonic visions from coming true….
Even now, looking back on this book, I find that synopsis appealing, so it’s no wonder that I chose Insomnia for my summer reading challenge. Aside from its promising synopsis, the book itself was nearly 700 pages long and about as thick as a deli sandwich. While it was challenging, I got through about 98% of the book that summer. For whatever reason, the final 2% felt like something of a chore, so Insomnia sat in my room for months, going unfinished.
In retrospect, it might have been the pleasure delayer in me that didn’t want to finish the book. Even now, I find that I savor the last few pages of any book I read, even ones I don’t especially enjoy. What eventually got me to finish was my Uncle Phil, who, himself an avid reader, wanted to borrow the book when I was done, so I went ahead and finished it.
That was about 14 years ago and, hopefully you’ll understand, I can hardly remember anything about the story. I didn’t even remember the main character’s name was Ralph before I picked the book up from my shelf to refresh my memory. The clearest memory I have of the story is three scary little men, who only Ralph could see. They were dressed in white overcoats, like doctors, and walked around with scissors, which they could use to cut people’s lifelines—or something like that—instantly killing them.
I’m sure I didn’t get all the details right, but whether or not I can remember what the story is about isn’t really the point anyway. It was a test of my reading chops, like a runner who decides run a marathon. When a runner finishes their first marathon, the reward isn’t the time they finished in, but rather the knowledge that they could finish it at all. As a new reader, starting and finishing a book of great length—particularly a book that nobody was forcing me to read—was one of the most important accomplishments of my life, because now I knew I could do it.
And this is why Stephen King’s Insomnia stands as one of the most important books I’ve ever read.