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A treatise on toilet reading

We all spend a significant proportion of our short lives on the toilet, and, since few people have a toilet equipped with a television, reading is a popular means of filling this time. However, far too little work has been done on the factors influencing the choice of toilet reading matter. This humble treatise is an attempt to help rectify this situation.

Aspects of toilet literature may be divided into two categories: the physical, relating to the size, layout and so forth of the reading matter, and the intellectual, relating to the nature of the ideas expressed therein.

Physical considerations

Size

The typical toilet is not equipped with a lectern or desk, so the options for support of the item being read are the floor, the lap or the hand. The first of these is only really suitable for material with large type, except perhaps for longsighted readers. However, the floor does offer the largest surface area, allowing even a broadsheet newspaper to be laid out flat. This, however, is not to be recommended since toilet and bathroom floors are prone to dampness. In general, it is unwise to countenance anything much larger than a magazine in format. Weight is also an issue: if the hand is to be used, a hardback encyclopædia, for instance, is not a good option.

Binding

Holding the volume in the hand is far from ideal, since one or both hands may well be pressed into service for other purposes. It is far better to place the volume on the floor or lap, which clearly requires a binding allowing it to lie flat. This counts heavily against paperbacks, which can very rarely manage such a feat without sustaining damage. Magazines, newspapers, large hardbacks and reference works designed to lie flat pass this test with flying colours.

Intellectual considerations

Granularity

By granularity I mean the size of the semantic chunks of a work. So, for example, a novel would have very low granularity, a collection of short stories a medium granularity, and a dictionary very high granularity. Since toilet literature is read in short bursts, content with high granularity is desirable: you probably don't want to read Crime and Punishment over the course of half a year in five-minute bursts, neither do you want to start reading something long and gripping and find yourself still enthroned an hour later. This factor (along with the binding considerations mentioned above) makes interesting reference works and magazines excellent reading matter.

Interest and usefulness

A toilet is probably not the place to attempt to fire your enthusiasm for something which you need to read but don't really want to. It's preferable to have something that interests you, but (as mentioned above) doesn't hold your interest for too long at a time.

If, like me, you are terrified by the prospect of mortality and want to make the most of your time on this earth, you might want to read something useful. At a rough estimate, you will spend maybe six months on the toilet over the course of your life (based on ten minutes per day for seventy years) and it might be nice to feel you've used this time wisely.

Respect and reverence

Some people may consider that it's inappropriate to read a work for which they have great reverence while engaging in defecation. For example, although the Bible fits my previous criteria for toilet reading excellently, a devout Christian may baulk at reading it on the toilet (particularly since, as the 2nd-century gnostic master Valentinus concluded and Clement of Alexandria concurred, Jesus never defecated, although he did eat and drink). This is a matter for personal taste, and a question of whether you consider poo to be actually morally evil, or merely smelly.

Conclusions

Examples of suitable works

One work which could almost have been written for toilet reading is Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. The articles are short but interesting, the book lies flat and is of a reasonable size, and I suspect that few people hold it in such awe that they would refuse to read it on the toilet. (I should add that, even for general everyday perusal and reference purposes, it's an excellent work, and should by no means be confined to the toilet.)

My flat came with a large stack of National Geographic magazines, and these also work well for toilet reading, although the granularity tends to be a little high: one article can last for many toilet visits.

Further considerations

It hardly needs to be stated that this article has merely scratched the surface of the topic it attempts to explore. What, the reader may well ask, about taking with you a book which you're reading already? What further considerations come into play with other people's toilets and public toilets? There are rich seams waiting to be mined, and I hope that I have inspired a few bold souls to venture beyond this modest beginning.

Corroborations

Nicholson Baker

Imagine my delight when, while reading Nicholson Baker's Room Temperature, I stumbled across a passage which seemed to echo almost exactly my own feelings on the matter. Here it is.

… she [Patty, the narrator's wife] told me how she often rushed around the apartment looking for just the right thing to flip through while she jobbed, rejecting the book or magazine she had been reading in favor of some other, often a specialized work of reference – Beal's Grasses of North America, for instance. That's kind of incredible, I told her – I did the same thing! Sometimes I spent four or five minutes hurriedly scanning my bookcase, wanting something I hadn't examined in a long time, something out of the way, improving, life-advancing, lamp-smelling, jobworthy, so that this tiresome physical act would be a step forward, although by the time I finally sat down with a volume of my grandfather's 1991 Encyclopædia Britannica I barely had time to locate an article on Accursius or Porson and read one sentence before I was done and could reshelve the book and resume whatever real reading I had been in the midst of.

He goes on to describe the laxative effect caused, for Patty, by the very presence of certain types of publication, and, for him, by the act of entering a library, both effects which I'm relieved to say I've never experienced. I've never had the fortune to encounter Beal's Grasses of North America, but the reader will note that, judging simply by the title, it seems to satisfy most of the criteria set out above.

Matthew Knight

Matthew Knight (who kindly wrote me an appreciative note concerning this treatise) has started reviewing books suitable for toilet reading, under the rubric Books in the Bog.

Last modified 2006-08- 5 14:09 BST