For an activity whose very essence is rest, sleep is a persistent cause of human anxiety. There’s insomnia, nightmares, and stiff necks. And then there’s the judgment from scolds who don’t want anyone to enjoy it. British preacher and theologian John Wesley took the typical sourpuss approach in 1782 in an entire sermon against sleeping late: “A still greater objection to the not rising early, the not redeeming all the time we can from sleep, is, it hurts the soul, as well as the body,” he wrote. “It is a sin against God.”
Wesley, the founder of Methodism, got up at 4 a.m. every day. There’s something deeply un-Protestant about getting plenty of sleep. Maybe that’s why so many American success stories feature bragging about how little sleep each high-achiever requires. President Obama, Marissa Mayer, and Martha Stewart, among many others, are all said to get by on no more than six hours a night, and some of them much less. Thomas Edison, the inventor of the light bulb that now disturbs our circadian rhythms, grabbed just three or four hours a night and dismissed sleep as “a heritage from our cave days.” (I’ve already admitted to working from bed, so what the hell: Most nights, I get about eight hours.)
All sleep is not equal. Brunner warns against the romantic temptation to sleep outdoors: “Caution is especially called for in forests,” he writes, ticking off problems like strange sounds, “upsetting scents,” nosy animals, and damp ground. “Nothing about it encourages a good night’s sleep.” There is a reason God invented mattresses. And yes, Brunner gets to those, too. In a chapter on their history, he traces the development of the coil spring, the box spring, and the water bed, conceived in the early 19th century by a Scottish doctor who placed a slab of rubber on a basin of water and called it a “hydrostatic bed for invalids.”
Lying down is not only about sleeping, of course. It’s also about sex, which Brunner doesn’t spend much time on, and contemplation, which he does. And why don’t we do as the Greeks and Romans did and eat lying down? Despite the mini-revival of lounges and nightclubs that encourage reclining while socializing, Brunner reluctantly concedes that “tables and chairs have existed for thousands of years, and their anonymous inventors developed them for a reason.”
Then, of course, there’s work. “People who work while lying down often don’t like to admit it,” he writes, correctly. But plenty of us do manage to get work done there. Proust finished In Search of Lost Time in bed. Mark Twain, Edith Sitwell, and William Wordsworth were all in the habit of writing from bed, and Henri Matisse sometimes painted there using brushes attached to long sticks. Truman Capote referred to himself once as a “completely horizontal author,” and said, “I can’t think unless I’m lying down.” Edith Wharton, Brunner writes, “retreated to bed to escape rigid expectations about what women should wear,” raising the appealing possibility of lounging around as a feminist statement. Is it too late for me to claim that?
Despite Brunner’s belief that we’re entering a new age of recline, there’s all too much evidence that in fact, we’re only speeding up. Within the last year, dozens have articles have frantically reported that “sitting is killing you.” That led to the abhorrent “standing desk,” and lately it seems that even standing up all day isn’t good enough. Now we’re supposed to embrace the treadmill desk, which apparently boosts productivity while it burns calories.
It’s all so exhausting. And isn’t life exhausting enough? Before you talk yourself into the Ultra-Marathon Desk, take a deep breath. Pick up this book. Read it in bed.
The Art of Lying Down: A Guide to Horizontal Living by Bernd Brunner. Melville House.