Don't think it's just a run-of-the-mill chair
Sunday, October 11,
The Chair: Rethinking Culture, Body
by Galen Cranz. Norton. 288 pages. $27.50.
If you read this book, you'll never
look at or sit in a chair the same way again. Galen Cranz, a
professor of architecture at Berkeley, points out, "Chairs
have become second nature to us - virtually indivisible to
us - and therefore invisible to us."
In "The Chair," she strives to
prevent the reader from ignoring this very basic but, as it
turns out, very important part of everyday life.
Cranz takes a holistic approach to
her subject, drawing on history, architecture, social
science, biology, art history and ergonomics. The breadth of
knowledge makes what might appear to be a dull book (an
entire book about chairs?) lively and engaging. One learns
that "pressure on the spinal discs is 30 percent greater
when sitting than when standing"; and that chairs became
common office furniture after 1900 (in the preceding
century, "office workers sat on high stools or stood,"
making it easier for them to adjust their posture).
To those who blanch at the thought
of reading more than 200 pages about chairs, at least read
the practical recommendations from the book's final
Though chairs that render us
horizontal connote sloth in our culture (hence the
"La-Z-Boy" name), Thomas Jefferson, Mark Twain and Winston
Churchill all preferred to work while lying on a chaise
lounge. The uncomfortable chair-sitter also will want to
know that people aren't "designed to hold any single posture
for long periods of time," so it's OK - even healthy - to
move about, adjusting your posture. Should Cranz's ideas
about chairs catch on, perhaps one day we, too, will be able
to lie down at work without being accused of lying down on
For readers who enjoy a scholarly
study that speaks clearly while it leaps disciplinary
boundaries - books such as Mike Davis's "City of Quartz" or
Edward Tenner's "Why Things Bite Back" come to mind -
Cranz's "Chair" is for you. This is a smart book that
refuses to talk down to the non-expert and yet manages to
convey the depth and breadth of the author's expertise.
(Phil Nel is an adjunct
professor of English at The College of Charleston.)