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Heart of darkness

A fascinating though indiscriminate compendium about the nocturnal phases of life

Acquainted With the Night: Excursions Through the World After Dark
By Christopher Dewdney
Bloomsbury, 313 pp., $24.95

My first thought -- and also my second -- reading Christopher Dewdney's "Acquainted With the Night" was that here was yet another of those garrulous, fact-laden compendiums made possible by the astonishing harvesting powers of the search engine. Think of it: An author nowadays can pick almost any subject, devise a few screening protocols, and suddenly, instantly, the world of that subject is there at his literal fingertips. Sure, the weaver must still weave the cloth, but what a change from the old days (which for our purposes can be said to have begun not even two decades back) when research was still an artisan's trade.

In any case, I was persuaded for some time that Dewdney (a Canadian poet and media theorist, author of "Last Flesh," a futuristic meditation on the emerging bio-techno interface) had cooked up the archetypal Google book. Certainly the conceptual structure argued for it -- an hour-by-hour tour through the watches of the night, beginning at 6 p.m. and ending 12 hours later, each section tagged with some theme or relevant set of themes (e.g., sunsets, the emergence of night creatures, the history of illumination, of prostitution, of the theory of dreams), the whole amounting to something the publicists could advertise as "studded with lore" or "a veritable trove of information."

Of course, if you have read this far you have to be waiting for me to round on myself and announce that the third thought was the charm, that in fact . . . But no, I can only make a half-correction here. Dewdney's book does have a fun-facts-fished-from-the-data-ocean feel to it. It does not vanquish all skepticism; there is a whiff of the end-of-term crammer about much of it. But against all odds, I have to allow that it is also an enjoyable and instructive read, and that if the reader does not come away with a significantly deepened sense of what the night is -- how could she? -- at least she is beguiled and set to wondering by a dozen or so cunningly encyclopedic mini-essays.

Dewdney is an engaging enough narrator and solid, enthusiastic stylist, but his best writerly resource is his magpie's eye for the tinfoil glint of unusual facts and his knack for constructing little nests from these. What he has amassed in "Acquainted With the Night" is a hoard of "did you know?" building straws.

Did you know, for example, that if you were in Los Angeles and if "by some magic force of will, you could suddenly stop moving while letting the earth's rotating surface slide beneath you . . . you would accelerate to 869 miles per hour (the 'spin speed' for Los Angeles) in an instant"? And: "The only evidence that your friends would have that you existed would be the sonic boom your body made as it broke the sound barrier over the Pacific Ocean." How this elliptical factoid connects with the subject is through Dewdney's contemplation of the earth's rotation and the fact that half the planet is always in the shadow we call night.

Did you know that "some of the nocturnal lemurs and tarsiers -- small, elfin primates with long, human-looking fingers -- have the largest eye-to-body ratio of any mammal" and that "their eyeballs are so large that, like owls', they cannot be moved in their sockets"? To have us appreciate the power conferred by this attribute, Dewdney asks us to recall the "serial killer equipped with night-vision goggles" in "The Silence of the Lambs."

And did you know that "in the early 1980s, a number of bizarre, unexplained deaths came to the attention of the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta"? It appears that "a significant number of immigrant men of Asian background, particularly Vietnamese men from a specific tribe called the Hmong, were dying in their sleep under strange circumstances." The phenomenon was given the name Oriental nightmare death syndrome, and research disclosed that the attacks "would almost always strike during the REM phase of the victim's first sleep cycle of the night."

To me, all of these facts -- and there are hundreds like them -- are more or less fascinating depending on whether sufficient context has been created. The question is whether an organizing principle like "themes related to the night" allows for enough of this context. Dewdney has devised a sieve that will snag almost anything that comes along. What results is a lack of an organic sense of necessity not quite compensated by the division into hours or the insertion of relevant information about changing physiological factors and their impact on the sleep cycle.

My sense is that any one of Dewdney's excursuses could earn its keep as a column in a popular science magazine, but that their assemblage into a book is warranted only if we understand "book" to also mean "miscellany." I am not convinced it should be. Poetic in places, dutifully primer-like in others (like the extended history of nocturnal festivals the world over, or the contributions of Freud and Jung to the theory of dreams), "Acquainted With the Night" sends its glittery tracers this way and that overhead but leaves the fundamental mystery of the dark hours of life unsolved.

Sven Birkerts edits the journal Agni at Boston University; he teaches at Emerson College and in the Bennington Writing Seminars.

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