From The Letters of the Earl of Chesterfield to his Son, ed. Charles Strachey and Annette Calthorp (1901), i. 192.
I knew a gentleman who was so good a manager of his time that he would not even lose that small portion of it which the calls of nature obliged him to pass in the necessary-house; but gradually went through all the Latin poets in those moments. He bought, for example, a common edition of Horace, of which he tore off gradually a couple of pages, carried them with him to that necessary place, read them first, and then sent them down as a sacrifice to Cloacina: this was so much time fairly gained, and I recommend you to follow his example.... Books of science and of a grave sort must be read with continuity; but there are very many, and even very useful ones, which may be read with advantage by snatches and unconnectedly: such are all the good Latin poets, except Virgil in his Æneid, and such are most of the modern poets, in which you will find many pieces worth reading that will not take up above seven or eight minutes.(Lord Chesterfield (1694-1773) )
As an unapologetic reader in the loo I completely understand this unnamed gentleman. I would have a bookshelf in my own private bathroom/toilet at home if there was any space for one, but all I can fit in is a small IKEA shoe rack I installed on the floor in order to act as a shelf for stuff I couldn’t fit into the tiny bathroom cabinet. Since it’s an open shelf I generally only keep my toilet book of the moment on it. My copies of Neytendablaðið (Consumer News) also tend to end up in there.
I have very specific demands of my toilet books. Unlike readers who would have it that Ulysses is a good toilet read, I like books with short chapters that you do not need too much concentration to read and are not so engrossing as to tempt you to remove the book from the toilet to continue reading. Best of all I prefer collections of short passages or pieces that can be browsed at will, such as quotations, trivia, comic books and cartoons. I don’t buy magazines on a regular basis, but they also make good toilet reads.
Here are my 10 favourite loo reads (so far):
- The Calvin and Hobbes Lazy Sunday Book by Bill Watterson. I dust this one off every few years and re-read it (in or out of the loo). Each story is one page and you can open it at random and be guaranteed a fun read.
- The Ripley’s Believe It or Not trade paperbacks. I keep a pencil beside these when I'm reading one, because I like to fact check them and I usually find at least one or two errors in each book.
- The Mad books. Sergio Aragonés' cartoons for preference, but Spy vs. Spy or any of the other classics will do. Come to think of it, I also liked reading the magazine in the toilet when I held a subscription. Trade paperbacks for preference, but the magazine-size books are good too.
- Outhouses by Roger Welsch. An erudite and humorous examination of the humble outhouse from many different perspectives. This is a collection of essay on a common theme, but is an engrossing read and perfect for the toilet. I kind of regret trading it off though BookMooch, as I would like to read it again.
- Son of "It Was a Dark and Stormy Night", edited by Scott Rice and authored by various participants in the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction contest. I haven’t been able to find the prequel or the sequels (not that I have been looking very hard), but I greatly enjoyed this one.
- The Meaning of Tingo: and Other Extraordinary Words from Around the World, by Adam Jacot de Boinod. This is a dictionary of useful and weird words that exist in other languages than English but which the author feels maybe should be considered for inclusion in the English vocabulary.
- Lost in Translation by Charlie Croker. A collection of funny English from all over the world. I would love to get my hands on the sequel, Still Lost in Translation.
- The Oxford Book of Oxford, edited by Jan Morris. An eclectic history of Oxford University, told through quotations.
- Collections of standalone comic strips and editorial cartoons.
- Trivia books of all kind.
Since finishing The Oxford Book of Oxford I am a little at a loss as to what to read next, but I have a few choices:
I might bring in a stack of National Geographics or The Wordsworth Dictionary of Surnames
or I might choose Get Thee to a Punnery: An Anthology of Intentional Assaults Upon the English Language by Richard Lederer.
I would also quite like to get my hands on Lederer’s series of Anguished English books, which sound like fine toilet reads, or maybe I’ll get a copy of Sh*t My Dad Says or Stuff White People Like, but only if I can find them second hand. They are the kinds of books that can be funny in small dozes (like the blogs they’re based on), but which begin to grate when you read more than a few pages at a time.
A related class of books is the ones I read at work while my computer is starting up and the numerous ponderous software programs I use in my work are waking up. Usually I browse through the day’s newspapers, but when I forget to bring them with me to work I resort to books. These days I generally read a few pages of my book de jour on the smartphone.
More reading about bathroom books:
Do you read in the bathroom? Somebody does!
Little Loo Library
Is reading on the loo bad for you?
Reading in the toilet (This one has some good suggestions for reading material)