Roving thoughts and provocations

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The Bathroom Muse

Ferdinando Scianna/Magnum Photos
Milan, Italy, 1997

If you are like me, you must always have something to read in the bathroom. Anything will do. A reporter once told me about spending the night in the home of an ex-president. Being in desperate need to read something, he set out to find a book or a magazine and to his astonishment, wherever he went in that huge seaside mansion, he could not find a single thing to read, not even a Chinese takeout menu or a flyer for a bake sale at the local church. Lately, as I’ve discovered, there has been an attempt to remedy this. An anthology called Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader is widely available and describes itself on the Amazon website in these words:

At last…Here it is…The book you’ve been waiting for! No more frantic searches at the last minute for that perfect magazine article. No agonizing choices between light reading and the serious stuff. This little volume has it all: entertainment, humor, education, trivia, science, history, pop culture…and more! And it’s even divided by length—you can spend a minute with the Quickies, relax with Normal-Length articles, or really get comfortable with Long Items.

Has there ever been any survey conducted among those who lock themselves in the bathroom inquiring how they spend their time? Do they read, smoke, talk to themselves, think things over, say their prayers, or just stare into space? If not, how come? All those lights burning in bathrooms late at night in large and small cities must indicate someone is doing much more in them than just answering the call of nature. Wives slipping away from husbands who snore, husbands kept awake by their wives grinding their teeth, or just plain old insomniacs, they seek a refuge, a quiet place to read and meditate. With all the surveillance that dozens of government agencies and countless private companies are subjecting every American to, I would not be surprised if they are not already tearing down the veil of secrecy from these late night activities and have a certain dentist in Miami, a farmer in Iowa, a showgirl in Vegas, and thousands of others around the country closely monitored to determine the level of threat they and other bathroom readers may be posing to our country that may require congressional action once their findings are made public.

Did our Founding Fathers read while sitting on their chamber pots? In my childhood in Serbia, when outhouses were common in the countryside and toilet paper was regarded by ordinary folk as a decadent luxury, the pile of old newspapers we kept in there provided not only the necessary substitute, but also inviting reading material, which supplemented my education and entertained me. It used to be a common experience, and most likely still is in some homes, that if a child or a grownup was missing and could not be found, someone was sent to knock on the bathroom door. We’ve all had family members who spent inordinate amount of time on the potty or lying in a tub filled with water reading magazines and novels, until a small line had formed outside the door, each of us as impatient to relieve ourselves as to find out what the last occupant, looking guilty, had been reading in there.

As a guest in homes of strangers, I have discovered bathroom libraries that took my breath away by their size and intellectual pretensions. It was unclear to me whether Plato’s dialogues in original Greek, together with Marx’s The Communist Manifesto, Thomas Pynchon’s latest novel were there to impress the visitor, or in the case of another fellow who had a pile of memoirs by ex-presidents going back to Reagan, to make him laugh. I can’t say that I’ve encountered a whole lot of poetry in bathrooms, even in the homes of poets, though I’ve come across many an anthology. Would reading one of Hamlet’s soliloquies or John Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale” in such a setting be unbecoming? I don’t know. I’ve heard of people reading the Bible on the toilet, which even for an unbeliever like me came as a shock. Even more appalling to me was the discovery, in a famous art collector’s bathroom, of a painting of the Madonna and the Child, either by some highly competent imitator of Raphael—or perish the thought!—by the master himself.

As for my own reading preferences, I gravitate toward works of reference like Halliwell’s Film Guide, The Guinness Book of World Records, Dictionary of Philosophy, and Farmers’ Almanac. But in an emergency I’ll read about Kyra Sedgwick and Kevin Bacon being distant cousins and whether Emma Stone would rather kiss Ryan Gosling or Andrew Garfield in People magazine. Once, at what seemed to me like the world’s most boring dinner party, it occurred to me that a prolonged visit to the can might alleviate my tedium. However when I got there and found one of those modern bathrooms the size of Grand Central Station, there was nothing to read except some pages of instructions in minuscule print inside a box of cough syrup, which I studied thoroughly in no rush to return to my hosts and their guests. Of course, if there’s nothing to read, one can always pass the time mulling over whether to buy a companion for the one goldfish in the aquarium at home or ponder whether the universe is finite or infinite. Kidding aside, I’m convinced that a lot of serious thinking has always been done in bathrooms, and that it is an irreparable loss to humanity that the names and ideas of these philosophers are not known.

No doubt Pascal was right when he said that most evils in life arose from “man’s being unable to sit still in a room.” Puffy-eyed and wrapped in a vintage bathrobe, grandpa shuffles in stocking feet past his granddaughter and son, letting out a groan, since both are too busy to notice him as they stare intently into the screens of their phones. He knows that history is against him; that he may belong to a species about to become extinct, the one relying on printed matter destined to be relegated in the future to the Smithsonian museum, where a replica of someone like him sits on the can with his pants lowered reading a newspaper, while puzzled visitors pass by, a few of them bending over with curiosity to read the brief accompanying description about the reading habits of their ancestors. On the other hand, the old man could very well be wrong and technology in the future will happily address this human need and provide a new generation of e-readers and iPhones especially designed for use in bathrooms, public toilets, and other such disreputable places.

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