HEALTH JULY 10, 2013
City life affords few greater pleasures than a seat on a crowded subway. While everyone else bumps and grinds to the spasms of the speeding train, you sit snug between two strangers with a magazine on your knees. The humid stench of morning breath wafts harmlessly overhead; the intercom warnings of “unlawful sexual conduct” aren’t quite so creepy. And if a pregnant or elderly person boards the train, a subway seat affords you an even better satisfaction: selflessly standing up.
Enjoy it while you can, because if Michael Bloomberg’s ethos outlives his mayorship, it’s easy to imagine a future with no subway seats at all. Americans spend most of their waking hours seated at a desk or in a car, and our sedentary lifestyles are jeopardizing more than just our postures. Inactivity ratchets up the risk of diabetes, heart disease, and death, according to a slew of research. “Sitting is the new smoking,” a doctor recently told the Los Angeles Times—and so it seems inevitable that New York City will try to regulate it.
It worries me because I like to sit. It feels fantastic. If I wrote The Giving Tree, I would have chopped the tree down on the first page and had the boy sit on the stump for the rest of the book. And I would definitely have written it while seated myself, because sitting, for me, is one of the true rewards of writing.
What, then, is Colum McCann thinking? A recent The New York Times Magazine profile revealed that the novelist writes on the floor of a windowless closet. That’s a tad austere: The point of writing is to sit in as comfortable a chair as possible. Still, it got me wondering how other writers sit when they write. I emailed Geoff Dyer, who seemed the sensible type of writer who would appreciate a good seat. He replied promptly:
Sometimes when people give up their seat for me—as they ought—they accompany this generous gesture with the words “I’ve been sitting all day.” “Me too!” I say, happily taking the weight off my feet. If I've sat on my arse all day—and it’s definitely my English arse I sit on, not an American ass—then what I most want to do come evening is sit on it some more. But I do like to change where I sit on it. In the day I'm at my desk in one of those Herman Miller Aeron chairs that make one feel like a mid-level executive with back problems. For a while in the afternoon I move to a red leather chair that tilts back like a prototype of the first-ever business-class airplane seat in order to read, i.e. induce a nap. Having recovered from my nap, I put in a further quarter-hearted shift in my Aeron before moving to the living-room sofa for some real sitting: sitting in the sense of almost lying down with all parts of the body evenly supported. “Up go the feet,” I say out loud and from then until bed-time they come down only reluctantly.
Zoë Heller told me by email that she writes from “an extremely unergonomic blue armchair that I bought at a yard sale 15 years ago.” She explained:
When I read that Phillip Roth wrote standing up at a lectern, I did briefly fantasize about trying it out. (It's hard to resist the magical thinking that the work habits of great writers are the key to their greatness.) But it was never going to happen. The concentration required to overcome my sitting down reflex would leave no room for thinking about the work. Besides which, sitting is the least of my writing sins. The cigarette and Diet Coke habit is a much more pressing concern.
A representative of Roth confirms that he does, in fact, write while standing at a lectern. I’m a little disappointed in our preeminent novelist, but at least he's not writing on a treadmill.
“The biggest problem with working at a treadmill desk: the compulsion to announce constantly that you are working at a treadmill desk,” Susan Orlean typed from her treadmill desk in an article about treadmill desks for The New Yorker. It almost makes you wish her shoelace had gotten snagged. For starters, writing while standing isn’t nearly as novel as its evangelists make it sound: Nietzsche denounced Flaubert for his “sedentary life” way back in 1888, and Virginia Woolf and Lewis Carroll were standing writers, according to an entertaining article by George Pendle (who writes, he tells us, while standing).
What’s new is the entry of the medical establishment into the debate on the side of the standers, lending their preference an annoying air of moral superiority. The years the standers gain in longevity, though, are offset by lost pride: Is there a better symbol of corporate obeisance than the standing desk? Set aside writers for a moment, whose work routines are relatively idiosyncratic. Of course the long, stationary workdays of most Americans are unhealthy. The solution should not be to sit less, but to work less. If sitting is as bad as the doctors say—and I’m sure it is!—then why not prescribe longer lunch breaks, shorter hours, and more vacation? You can still be chained to a standing desk. Is it any surprise that its biggest fans are the paternalist creeps of Silicon Valley?
This is why I have come to appreciate the position a writer writes from as a marker of his or her individual style. Despite my passion for sitting, I admit it’s not so much about sitting versus standing as it is developing an appreciation of the full range of writing postures. It makes perfect sense that a writer as obsessively distractible as Dyer would develop an elaborate sitting regimen. And of course Roth would write at a lectern like the ones from which his work is constantly read and celebrated. Truman Capote, per Pendle, declared himself a “completely horizontal writer”—that is, he wrote while lying down. In an email, Gary Shteyngart said that he lies down to write too, though in a way distinct from Capote’s decadent repose:
I do not sit. I lie. I am in bed now, writing to you. All my writing is done in bed. As a result I suffer from tendinitis, rotator cuff injuries, poor posture, and hamburger helper syndrome. I'm not well. But I'm not getting out of bed either.
Most of the writers I contacted about sitting let me know that they had more important problems to consider. “Try me with a serious book some time,” one suggested. Normally, I’d be put off, but in this case the rejection seemed significant. A culture that requires standing or treadmill desks in the workplace produces a literature mainly about “the compulsion to announce constantly that you are working at a treadmill desk.” A culture that tolerates sitting is one where people can apply their minds to something else.
“You see more sitting still than chasing after,” Jonathan Franzen once told the Guardian. The quote puts me in mind of my favorite writer to imagine sitting, Paul Theroux. I don’t imagine him sitting at a desk—he might stand to write, for all I know (I asked him, but he did not reply). I picture him sitting on the transcontinental trains from which he observed his most famous books. There are few places more sedentary than a train car; there are also few better ways to see the world. For Theroux, sitting was motion. A seat on the Boston metro for him was not merely a source of comfort; it was an introduction to adventure. “As we drew into South Station I was a mile closer to Patagonia,” he writes in the opening pages of The Old Patagonian Express.
I’ve been thinking about this more lately because I recently drove across country with a friend. We hit the road early each morning; at night, we exited the car on unsure legs, like newborn colts. Unlike the slow death of the average sedentary workday, the road trip made us physically aware of sitting’s toll on our bodies. My innards felt leaden and slightly swollen; when I tried to jog one morning, they came along reluctantly and lagged behind. It was definitely unhealthy, and it was totally worthwhile. I suppose that one day someone will invent a standing car, but I'm not sitting around to wait for it.
Ben Crair is a story editor at The New Republic. Follow him on Twitter at @bencrair.