Friday, January 9, 2004

What Should You Read In the Bathroom?

Published in the Alton Telegraph--January 9, 2004

I suppose to a few people the very question will seem odd, since it has never occurred to them that anyone would choose to read while completing the digestive process. To many, the notion that others would even consider visiting the smallest room in the house unaccompanied by reading material is equally strange. No matter. I and many other decent Americans like me choose to read before we wash our hands.

But what makes for a good bathroom book?

This is no idle question.

Some books are clearly unsuitable, and the vicious merry-go-round of frustration, guilt, and stoic perseverance which can attend a poor choice is enough to justify this discussion. Entering into such a long-term relationship is lightly done only at one’s own peril.

Then there’s the whole book/magazine/newspaper controversy. Personally, I’ve always found the newspaper’s size and flimsy tensile strength too difficult for my skills. I never quite acquired the knack of getting the pages to fold properly without the aid of a decent table. Then when I try to flip a page, the middle sections invariably slide down, sometimes all the way to the floor. This is not a relaxing process, and in my bathroom experience, I need no added stress. Hence, I am decidedly anti-newspaper in my outhouse outlook.

As for magazines, well, I guess some people do go this route, but we talk about them in hushed tones at church, and most likely those people aren’t reading this anyway. Reading isn’t really their objective. Magazines, of the decent sort anyhow, do have one advantage over books: you can discard them without regret. There is perhaps some ancient wisdom in the practice of only reading things in the bathroom which you will never sell to a neighbor in your annual garage sale.

On a related note, my normal cleanliness standards seem breached on the subject of books. No matter whence it comes, I always feel like a book is clean once it is in my possession. I’ve never washed off a book, but I sometimes wonder whether a more sanitary person might not do so.

In spite of their merits, magazines nonetheless are just a smidge too large for the top of the tank. Also, the glossy ones are all too slippery on the porcelain, which means you must invest in some contraption to store them safely out of sight (and splatter), yet within reach. There is nothing more frustrating than knowing you have prudently stashed some reading material under the sink but that this stockpile is at least one good arm’s length beyond your most gymnastic lean.

Me, I’m a book man. But of course this is only the beginning of the problem, for there are many kinds of books. Novels are clearly out, although I have fallen into this trap, as the expression goes, many times. The two basic problems with a novel are obvious.

First, there is something moderately unnatural about craving a trip to the bathroom. Yet when a good novel is waiting there for you….

Second, you stay too long. Anything which can seduce you into sitting there until you no longer feel your legs is probably not the ideal choice. Besides, novels encourage you to read them for hours at a time with interruptions only to refill your coffee and stoke the fire. I like to immerse myself in a novel, and, well, immersion is never my goal in the activity under discussion.

So then it’s non-fiction for me, yet still our discussion is not resolved. Full-length books are not appropriate because they require serious and continuous study. It’s simply too hard to maintain fidelity to the author’s ideas when the breaks are longer than the action. I might carry such a book into the bathroom with me if I am already reading it elsewhere, but this is precisely so that I may return to my original location afterward without losing intellectual inertia.

No, for my money there is really only one ideal sort of book for the bathroom: a compilation of an author’s best newspaper columns. Such editorials are the ideal length for a visit to my other office. There is no intended continuity between segments, and if I happen to find myself with more event than 900 words will occupy, I can always read two in one sitting, so to speak. I get the benefit of the newspaper without all the effort, and if the particular column is not a satisfying one, well, it was over quickly anyhow.

So, in closing, I hope this has helped you gain perspective on one of those vaguely unsettling problems which seem to endlessly plague thinkers like us. If you are like me, you’ll be reading this at the kitchen table. Perhaps, if it ever sees its second life in a book, you’ll read it again elsewhere.