The Art of the Nap

Handy tips from a master snoozer


| March-April 1996



I had on gray wool trousers, a blue shirt, and a four-in-hand knit tie, which I didn’t bother to loosen. My hands were folded together on my chest in the corpse-in-the-casket position, and I hadn’t turned back the bedspread. It was three-thirty on a cold and gray February afternoon. My next appointment was at five o’clock, and there was nothing, at that moment, that I was eager to read. Into the arms of Morpheus I slipped, and for the next half hour I slept, I won’t say like a baby, or like a log, but like what I now prefer to think myself—a man who has mastered, in all its delicate intricacy, the art of the nap.

I did not move, I did not stir. I woke, as planned, without a wrinkle in my shirt, trousers, or cheek, not a hair out of place. A most impressive, if I do say so myself—and at that moment I did say so to myself—performance. Really quite brilliant. The term control freak is almost never used approvingly, I know, but I felt myself at that moment a control freak entirely happy in his work—that is to say, in perfect control. I carefully slipped off the bed and walked into the bathroom, where I gazed at my clear eyes in the large mirror. Another fine nap successfully brought off.

I don’t ordinarily nap on a bed or on my back. As a napmaster, I fear too much comfort and the consequent difficulty of pulling myself out of the pleasures of a too-deep sleep to go back into the world. I also wish to avoid rumpledness, the toll that a nap on one’s back on a couch often takes. Most of my napping therefore is done sitting up, on a couch, shoes off, with my feet resting on a low footstool. Having one’s feet up is important.

Most of my naps—and I usually get, on the average, three or four a week—take place late in the afternoon, around five or five-thirty, with the television news playing softly in the background. As the reports of earthquakes, plagues, arson, pillaging, and general corruption hum on, I snooze away, a perfect symbol of the indifference of man in the modern age. These naps last from twenty to thirty-five minutes. (“A nap after dinner was silver,” says old Prince Bolkonsky in War and Peace, “before dinner golden.”) Should the telephone ring while I am mid-nap, I answer it in an especially clear and wide-awake voice that I don’t usually bother evoking when I am in fact wide awake. Some of these naps leave me a touch groggy, though this soon enough disappears. Usually, they all do the job, which is to help get me through the evening.

I not long ago asked a friend, an Englishman, if he naps. “Whenever possible,” he replied. Prone or sitting up? “Prone.” On a bed or couch? “Bed.” Trousers on or off? “Generally off.” And for how long? “That depends,” he said, “on when the cats choose to depart.” Joseph Conrad wrote that his task was “by the power of the written word . . . to make you see.” The picture of my friend with his cats napping atop him is almost too easily seen.

I nap well on airplanes, trains, buses, and cars, and with a special proficiency at concerts and lectures. I am, when pressed, able to nap standing up. In certain select company, I wish I could nap while being spoken to. I have not yet learned to nap while I myself am speaking, though I have felt the urge to do so. I had a friend named Walter B. Scott who, in his late 60s, used to nap at parties of 10 or 12 people that he and his wife gave. One would look over and there Walter would be, chin on his chest, lights out, nicely zonked; he might as well have hung a Gone Fishing sign on his chest. Then, half an hour or so later, without remarking upon his recent departure, he would smoothly pick up the current of the talk, not missing a stroke, and get finely back into the flow. I saw him do this perhaps four or five times, always with immense admiration.