It’s no small mercy that one of the most elevated human undertakings can occur during one of the most humbling. Yes, I’m talking about reading on the john.
Stop blushing. You know you do it. Everyone does. I only wonder if we’re maximizing the experience. Facebook on your cell phone, a hastily snatched magazine, or a dog-eared book previously abandoned in the bathroom are usually unworthy of the occasion. A greater intentionality is required here. There are certain books that can redeem the time in ways untold, and here are (drum roll optional) a few of them. First, my favorite and then some runners up:
Montaigne’s Essays. Montaigne lived in the sixteenth century, but he could be your next-door neighbor. That is, if your next-door neighbor were wiser, smarter, funnier, humbler, better-read, and more self-deprecating. There is not a human emotion that Montaigne doesn’t touch or treat in the Essays, and he writes about almost every subject imaginable. Within the span of thirty pages, he covers everything from war horses to ancient customs, smells, prayer, and aging. He treats subjects like the love of fathers for their children, will power, thumbs, changing your mind, names, sleep, sumptuary laws, cannibals, inconsistency, fear, sadness, solitude, friendship, even how we laugh and cry at the same things.
In the preface, Montaigne says a reader would be “unreasonable to spend your leisure” on his book. It’s one of the few things about which he was entirely wrong. For his sheer scope and insight, I think it is safe and fitting to say that Montaigne is one of the most fully human writers to ever take up the pen. And his wide reach means you’ll never be bored. Most of the entries are quick reads, thoughtful and amusing. No bathroom should be without a copy of the Essays. There are dozens of editions out there; my favorite is Donald M. Frame’s Everyman’s Library edition of The Complete Works.
C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters. Even without the suggestive posture of the gargoyle on the cover of the recent HarperOne edition, contemplating the advice of senior demon Screwtape to his nephew Wormwood while in the confines of the small room makes a certain sort of sense. Screwtape is one of those books that rewards many readings and can be picked up at any place and satisfy just about any mood. Lewis is sly, funny, perceptive, and on-point throughout. The discussions about the physicality of prayer or the dips and highs of living are, for instance, revelatory at the first reading and great reminders ever thereafter. And speaking of the underworld. . . .Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary. Maybe the original spoof dictionary, Bierce started what became the DD in 1881 with definitions filed in a weekly paper. By 1911 it was a full-blown and riotous tome, made all the better by the posthumously published Enlarged Devil’s Dictionary (my favorite edition). Here’s his definition of cabbage: “A familiar kitchen-garden vegetable about as large and wise as a man’s head.” And belladonna: “In Italian a beautiful lady; in English a deadly poison. A striking example of the essential identity of the two tongues.”
The Oxford Book of Essays, edited by John Gross. A wide ranging collection of essays by everyone from Francis Bacon to H. L. Mencken, Jonathan Swift to G. K. Chesterton, William Hazlitt to Mark Twain, John Henry Newman to George Santayana. Perhaps best of all you can find Ambrose Bierce’s hilarious and Facebook-timely essay, “Disintroductions.”
Finley Peter Dunne’s Mr. Dooley on Ivrything and Ivrybody. As you might guess from the language in the title, Mr. Dooley doesn’t speak the King’s English. Or the Queen’s English. Or anybody’s but his own. The books were written a little more than a hundred years ago and involve the ramblings of an Irish—what else?—bartender named Mr. Dooley, also known as the philosopher. (Think Montaigne but with Bushmills.) Mr. Dooley holds forth on the news of his day (some of it is very dated, though still amusing) and subjects of timeless curiosity. A smattering of topics include books, anarchists, family reunions, keeping lent, history, swearing, vice, gratitude, and political reform movements, captured perfectly in this classic statement of his: “A man that’d expict to thrain lobsters to fly in a year is called a loonytic; but a man that thinks men can be tur-rned into angels be an iliction is called a rayformer an’ remains at large.”
Each of these books lends itself to serendipity. Just open one and see what you find. It’s hard to think of a better or more edifying way to pass the time.
What are your favorite bathroom reads? And don’t worry. If you’re embarrassed, just start the sentence with “Well, my friend likes. . . .” I’ll wink and pretend I have no idea.