Everybody Poops. But what do they read while they do?
An exciting combination of too much time in the developing world and an anxious disposition has left me with what my grandmother might have described as wretched guts. Hanging out in the toilet for unpredictable amounts of time isn’t what anyone would call fun, but it does have its advantages. Well, one advantage. It’s great reading time. And as we all know, everybody poops. E
Reading in the bathroom is a contentious issue. Jewish law suggests you shouldn’t read (or even think about) the Torah while you’re in there; Muslims are told it’s best not to read anything in case they stumble across a reference to Allah or the Qu’ran, both of which do not belong in the toilet. Christians reckon Jesus is happy for you to think about and read about God wherever and whenever, including during toilet time. George Costanza says go for it; Jerry and Elaine say ‘no way’.
I am unswervingly on the side of toilet reading. To me, it seems inhospitable not to provide reading matter for visitors - I have a shelf in the downstairs toilet stacked with short reads. And I certainly don’t want to risk being caught short myself: upstairs, The Best American Noir of the Century is propped under the toilet roll just in case.
What hospitality looks like
But I’m well aware a lot of people reckon it’s flat-out gross to take something readable into the toilet (though science says you’re more likely to spread germs from your phone to the toilet than vice versa http://conversation.which.co.uk/technology/tablet-smartphone-computer-keyboard-hygiene-dirty-cleaning-virus/). So I thought I’d do a completely non-scientific survey to find out where the Australian public stand (sit?) on this very important matter.
Nearly 70 people responded: 22% never read in the toilet, 35% never fail to.
Magazines and non-fiction are out. Phones (particularly social media) are the go-to reading matter, but novels still have a following of about 30%. Poetry, fairy-tales and atlases charmingly got a vote each.
But back to the state of my bowels. Like I said, they’re a little on the dodgy side. It’s not a totally rare occasion for me to wake up in the middle of the night with a feeling of gastro-related doom. And in those circumstances, any old reading matter simply won’t do.
When the bleak, lonely hours stretch before me, there is one book to which I always turn: Robert Graves’ I, Claudius. For those who’ve somehow missed this genius work of historical fiction, I, Claudius is the ‘autobiography’ of Roman emperor Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, who lived from 10BC to 54AD. The book details life among Rome’s imperial family during the reigns of emperors Augustus, Tiberius and Caligula, when Claudius was seen as the stammering, lame family idiot and thus overlooked during the purges that took out the rest of his extended family. It’s full of gore, sibling-on-sibling sex, betrayal, intrigue and heartbreak, and it rocks.
This book has been with me for decades, travelling from Adelaide to Canberra to Melbourne to San Francisco and back. I’m pretty sure I originally ‘borrowed’ it, along with Claudius the God, from my grandmother when I was about 12. (Facts conspire against me: my grandmother wasn’t one of those hip old birds who would have thought incest and infanticide were appropriate reading matter for adolescents.) Either way, by the time I was 14 and taking ‘Ancient Greece & Rome’ in high school history, I’d absorbed enough of it to be ahistorically ‘correcting’ my teacher.
I used to read I, Claudius regularly - on the couch, on the bus, in bed (in fact, the only book I’ve read as many times is Alive, the story of the Andes survivors, which would be on my toilet reading list too if I hadn’t lost it to a thieving housemate some time last century.) But now Claudius only ever gets a guernsey when I’m in the loo.
Why, at a time of gastric and psychological distress, would I turn to a book which so strongly features death by poisoning? Probably because I’m deranged. Almost no one else in my survey admitted to having a favourite ‘long hours on the bathroom floor’ book (I tip my hat to the outlier who nominated David Astle’s Cluetopia - I only wish I could be more like you). Some say they grab whatever is lying around or turn once more to the phone. Others were revolted: ‘Seriously? You have time to read when you have gastro? And you put your gastro hands all over the reading matter in the loo?’
But while ‘gastro’ and ‘favourite book’ go together like pork mince and yoghurt, the idea of a ‘comfort book’, turned to in times of illness or melancholy, is widely accepted. As blogger leatherboundpounds wrote during a recent illness:
“I needed a comfort book. The literary equivalent of a blanket and a cup of tea [one where] the characters and world they inhabit are familiar enough for me to pop into for an hour or two, the prose unchallenging but satisfying.”
Goodreads backs her up: its ‘comfort reading’ shelf is replete with books people loved when they were kids or which they have no doubt read 500 times already: Harry Potter and the various implements, All creatures great and small, Little women, These old shades; Carry on, Jeeves and Hitchikers Guide to the Galaxy (both of which seem a dangerous choice if you already have stomach cramps). None of them have particular literary merit (Georgette Heyer excepted, of course). All follow a predictable, well-worn path and drop us without fuss or preamble into a different, better world - a world with hedgerows and embroidery, magic and spaceships, new-born foals and tree-climbing. Illness takes the form of discreet spots of blood coughed into a lace handkerchief, not streaks of vomit that someone, probably you, is going to have to clean off the wall. While Ulysses and To the Lighthouse have their place, that place is not among twisted and sweaty sheets or dazed on cold tiles. These places are the home of Arthur Dent, Josephine March and Clau…Clau...Claudius.
Jane Rawson wrote the novel, 'A wrong turn at the Office of Unmade Lists',which Ed Wright at the Australian compared kindly to Neil Gaiman and Paul Auster, and the Advertiser's Patrick Allington said was 'one of the stranger debut novels I've read''. Jane blogs at http://janebryonyrawson.wordpress.com/ and is writing a non-fiction book about surviving climate change.
Sam van Zweden was Writers Bloc’s Online Editor from 2013 - 2015. A Melbourne-based writer and blogger, her work has appeared in The Big Issue, Voiceworks, Tincture Journal, Page seventeen, and others. She’s passionate about creative nonfiction and cross stitch. She tweets @samvanzweden.