What Makes an Article About Bed-Sharing So … Share-able?

Somewhat improbably, an article about a book on bed-sharing cracks the New York Times' most emailed list -- and stays there for 30 days.

(The Most Post is an occasional look at the most popular, most blogged, and most emailed stories on the Web.)

Within the universe of most-emailed articles, there are certain, dependable genres — stories about natural disasters, weird animals, celebrity split-ups. But articles about books?

Not so popular.

That is, with one notable exception. Roughly a month ago, reporter Kate Murphy penned a beguiling story for the New York Times called “People Who Share a Bed, and the Things They Say About It.” The article focused on the findings of a scholarly book, Two in a Bed: The Social System of Couple Bed Sharing by Paul C. Rosenblatt, a professor at the University of Minnesota.

“For Two in a Bed, Dr. Rosenblatt interviewed 42 couples,” wrote Murphy. “Most of them were married heterosexual couples but some were unmarried hetero or homosexual couples … The subjects he interviewed invariably had their own side of the bed, and responsibilities like putting out the cat or opening the windows before turning in … Not surprisingly, perhaps, those interviewed said dealing with a partner’s snoring and insomnia profoundly affected the couple’s sleep dynamic.”

Originally, Murphy’s story about the bed-sharing book appeared in the Health & Fitness sub-section of Science Times — not exactly the most visible real estate at the paper. But soon the story found a second life on the Times’ most emailed list, where it continued to lure readers, day in and day out, for the next thirty days (the longest amount of time currently allowed by the guardians of the Times’ list).

It’s an impressive feat when you consider that the story didn’t focus on the work of a famous writer (like a Bob Woodward or a Stephen King), nor was the story penned by one of the Times’ better-known book reviewers (like a Michiko Kakutani or a Joe Queenan). So what makes the story so wildly email worthy?

“At one level, I think the book is just fun,” Dr. Rosenblatt recently told the Most Post. “It’s like finding out things about other people that you never dared to ask them. A lot of people don’t talk much about their bed-sharing. This gives them a way of understanding their experiences. It’s like, ‘Oh gosh, I’m normal.’ Or, ‘Oh gosh, everybody else has this same kind of problem.’”

Another possible explanation for the article’s popularity is that (a) there are a huge number of people who share a bed and (b) most studies of sleep disorders focus on individuals rather than couples. (Full disclosure: the Most Post found the subject matter highly interesting and perhaps not coincidentally shares his bed with the future Mrs. Most Post, and … that’s all we have to say about that.)

Dr. Rosenblatt says that the buzz surrounding his book has hardly been limited to the Times’ Web site. Recently, excerpts of Two in a Bed ran in the Times of London. Reporters — many who were inspired by Murphy’s article — continue to line up for interviews (according to Dr. Rosenblatt, the Most Post was the eighty-fifth news outlet to interview him about the book). And emails continue to pour in to Dr. Rosenblatt from the bed-sharing public.

All of which seems to slightly baffle the professor. “It’s not a self-help book,” says Dr. Rosenblatt. “It’s not even a trade book. It’s a scholarly book with references and chewings about scholarly issues that most people even in the scholarly world aren’t interested in … I thought it would sell 400 copies over the next two years.”

Murphy, a regular freelancer for the Times who more recently has been covering the Jeffrey Skilling sentencing in Texas, was also somewhat taken aback by the runaway popularity of her article — a fact that she hadn’t noticed until an editor pointed it out to her. “I’ve had other pieces in the top ten before but not one that stayed there so long,” Murphy writes via email from Houston. “That surprised me.”

According to Murphy, she first stumbled upon her subject matter thanks to an errant Google search. “I was researching another totally unrelated story and stumbled upon a U of Minn. announcement about his research,” she says. “I am probably the only person who loves irrelevant search results.”

So how does she explain the peculiar popularity of her article? “You know, I think it’s because it was a subject most people could relate to,” says Murphy. “It wasn’t so much the book as it was a subject worthy of a book. The best stories to me are ones that shine a light on something right in front of your face.”

Or perhaps right behind your back — depending on who’s spooning whom.

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Felix Gillette writes about the media for The New York Observer.