Forgive this old warhorse of a trope — there are two kinds of non-fiction writers in the world: those who are writers who happen to dig exploring the real world and those who are researchers who happen to know how to write standard English sentences. Bill Bryson, whose charming A Short History of Nearly Everything is a primer both on how things and words work, is an example of the former. Andrea Rock, whose The Mind at Night: The New Science of How and Why We Dream is a dry read about a lush subject, is a textbook example of the latter.
It’s not that the information Rock presents isn’t interesting. During her foray into the science of the sleeping brain, she uncovered some fascinating tidbits about competing theories, some of which pit Freud against pretty much everyone else, as well as details about how the mentally ill mind dreams and why dreams seem to be needed. Not all of Rock’s information is new, despite the promises of the subtitle. Really, this collection of chapters collects and attempts to synthesize both recent and historical data. Most of the nuggets presented in Mind at Night have been nibbled by other journalists as well, such as the theory that the sleeping brain is engaged in risk-free problem solving and the proof that lucid dreaming is doable by the average sleeper. Despite the relative lack of startling new material, the ideas themselves are still interesting.
With such rich sources, the resulting book should have been a feast. Where it all comes apart is Rock’s prose, which is, at best, workmanlike and overly academic. An example, chosen more or less at random:
Our offline processing of the day’s events involves incorporating autobiographical memories that have a profound influence on who we are. What we record as autobiographical memory and how we integrate it with past experience contributes to the development of what neurologist Antonio Damasio calls the autobiographical self. That sense of self is based on past experience, but it is also what allows us to imagine and plan for the future.
And that’s only the first half of the paragraph, which ends with a lengthy quote from Damasio that essentially restates these first few lines.
The above excerpt isn’t an exception. Almost exclusively, Rock simply reports the basics, rather than deeply diving into the personalities of these scientists, some of whom must be vivid characters. When Rock does gloss the men behind the EEG machines, like she does in her opening chapter with research pioneer Eugene Aserinsky, she writes with a careful distance and never gets close enough to dirty her hands. It is as if Rock has leached all of the technicolor from the dream world and we’re only left with a black and white version, like Kansas after Dorothy returned from Oz.
More important, this clinical approach never satisfies the first question that any journalist should answer: why should your reader care one bit about what all of these men in white coats are doing? Rock teases at making her findings urgent and useful but never quite delivers the goods. In the end, Rock’s writing is perfectly competent. It does not, however, match the popular appeal of her subject matter — after all, each one of us dreams — and is better suited for an annual report or research paper. One wonders what this same research would have inspired in the mind (and, perhaps, night visions) of a more skilled craftsperson, one who could present the meaty facts as well as engagingly tell the stories behind them.