‘Insomniac City’ by Bill Hayes


Insomniac City is a story of New York told through the eyes of a newcomer. Bill Hayes moved to New York in 2009 at the age of 48. He moved from San Francisco after the tragic death of his partner. He bought a one-way ticket and had only had the vaguest idea of what he’d do there. The title of the book is derived from Hayes’ lifelong dealings with insomnia and in fact many of the stories from this book take place through late night strolls through the city. During his time in New York, Hayes unexpectedly fell in love with his neighbor, Oliver Sacks, the writer and neurologist popularly known for his books about his patients such as The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat. Hayes was 48 and Sacks was 76 when they met. This relationship adds a fascinating layer of insight into the book and gives aspects of the book a lovable, mundane quality.

Bill Hayes is an author many books such as ‘Sleep Demons’ and his works are frequently published in the New York Times and his photographs often featured in Vanity Fair. He was given a grant to write this book by the American Academy in Rome, so ironically wrote a book about New York, the place he still lives, in Rome.

This book is a memoir but also could be classified as travelling writing due to the author’s detail and obvious love of New York. The major themes in this book are change, awareness of yourself and awareness of others

Insomniac City has a very soft and gentle writing style, it can be likened to a memory- it has moments of passion, guilt, sadness or even just the mundane. It’s difficult to pin down the intended audience of this book because everyone gets something different out of it. Insomniacs can relate to Hayes’ musing about being envious of his partner’s sleep, wanting to climb through his sleeping eyelids himself, for me I found the passion for New York incredibly inspiring. Hayes’ is also a photographer and will walk the streets finding a myriad range of people from all walks of life in this one city. Having moved to New York at 48 he has a child-like wonder about how much there is to do and see

Parts of the book have great critical analysis about life. His partner, Oliver Sacks, was deeply profound in how he saw the world. Sacks often removed himself from the world and instead focused on himself and life. This stems from a distaste for popular culture and certain technologies and it allows for a greater sense the bare basics of what makes us human

The themes in this book aren’t specifically developed, instead they grow through experiences but may not change e.g. the encounters Hayes’ has when he takes people’s photos. Some are forthcoming and willing to tell their stories, others want their picture taken but still crave anonymity

This book has an interesting layout which is important due to its mixed genres, content and characters:

  • Notes from his journal (I loved this aspect because it highlights the mundane but makes the book feel real and lovable)
  • Photographs capture the gentle and the striking and sometimes have a related story but otherwise just show the diversity of people in New York
  • Chapter lengths vary due to the impact this event had on the author


This is the type of book I’m glad to have on my bookshelf. It’s something I’ll pick up at random points just to re-experience certain parts.

He describes the current mood of the city as “exhilarating – there is a feeling of bonding and resistance to Trump that reminds me of the early days of AIDS when the government was doing nothing and activism started to happen everywhere…. We changed opinion and policy. So yeah, I’m feeling guardedly optimistic.”

One of the best books I’ve read so far in 2017!
Highly recommended!

Love, Vanessa

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