Sitting and Standing Are for Suckers. I’m Writing This Headline Lying Down!

Reading between the lines.
Dec. 2 2013 11:09 AM

The Sweetest Recline

On the joys of lying down.

Illustration by Frederik Peeters.

Illustration by Frederik Peeters

The first thing everyone tells you when you start to work from home is that you have to pretend you still have a normal office job. “Shower first thing in the morning,” they say. “Put on makeup, change out of your pajamas, and sit at a desk.” Over and over, fellow work-from-homers tell me about how they “just can’t get motivated” unless they’re wearing a crisp button-down shirt and sitting up ramrod straight. A Vogue contributing editor recently included a pair of $795 mules on her list of home-office must-haves.

Ruth Graham Ruth Graham

Ruth Graham is a regular Slate contributor. She lives in New Hampshire.

Are these people lying, or are they crazy? I’m writing this book review slumped down in bed at 10 a.m. on a Wednesday, and I’m loving it. I often spend entire mornings this way, especially during winter, and my productivity is just fine. In fact, because I don’t tie up my best thinking hours primping and getting resettled, I’d venture to say that I actually work more efficiently lying down. Working from home is a spectacular privilege, so why waste it on fashion and good posture? Just because one slouches doesn’t make one a slouch.

All of this puts me in a receptive frame of mind to read The Art of Lying Down, an idiosyncratic new examination of the one-third of life—or more!—we spend recumbent. Lying down, German author Bernd Brunner writes, “spans the human condition, from complete passivity to the most passionate of activities.” (The book was translated by Lori Lantz.) It’s the position in which “we sleep and dream, make love, contemplate, give ourselves over to wistful moods, daydream, and suffer.” Almost every day begins and ends in a bed, and so does almost every human life.

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If Brunner has a big idea, it’s that lying down is due for a revival in the Western world, a culture too long obsessed with achievement and motion and noise and, therefore, uprightness. That makes rest a kind of rebellion. The book begins with reassurance: “If you’re lying down right now, there’s no need to defend yourself.” After all, life on the X axis is natural, enjoyable, and healthful. It’s good for the soul, the mind, and the body. By the end, Brunner is optimistically declaring that “the age of the New Horizontal has arrived.” 

1312_SBR_LYING_COVER

Courtesy of Melville House

Well, perhaps. I’m not sure there’s much evidence for this, but Brunner at least takes an extremely enjoyable path to get there. Over the course of 31 brief chapters, he meanders from topic to topic, as minds do when daydreaming. In one chapter, he muses on the scandalous reputation of the chaise longue at the turn of the last century. In the next he’s describing the infamous 1998 Tracey Emin installation “My Bed,” strewn with cigarettes and condoms. In a quick 167 pages, he covers hypnosis, gravity, drugs, bedbugs, the psychology of various sleep positions, feng shui, Egyptian mummies, the effect of climate on sleep, and La-Z-Boy recliners. If that sounds exhausting, it’s not, but why not go ahead and take a nap anyway?

Brunner, who has written similarly peripatetic books on bears and Christmas trees, doesn’t belabor any of these topics or even spend more than a few paragraphs mulling most of them over. There’s no real sustained argument here, and many chapters sort of drift off at the end. That’s one of this slight book’s charms, and another nice echo of the way the lying-down brain works: Grand emotional or intellectual breakthroughs often arrive on the brink of sleep, but that’s no time to be writing a thesis. Think big thoughts, sure, but do it briefly, hazily. You can do the heavy lifting in the morning.

Naturally, sleep is one of the book’s major themes. Brunner digs up a 1953 pamphlet called “Sleep Before Midnight,” written by a German school principal named Theodor Stöckmann. Stöckmann promoted his discovery of “the law of natural time,” which requires going to bed at sunset and rising naturally no later than sunrise. “By consciously and willingly submitting to the cosmic dictates of the sun’s orbit,” Stöckmann concluded, “we must become people of the sun, children of the light.” He wasn’t so far off: Contemporary sleep research indicates that artificial light, particularly the “blue light” of iPads and energy-efficient light bulbs, is terrible for sleep.

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