What goes into a man

What goes into a man May 14, 2010

What Goes Into a Man
(Photo by Horia Varlan, Flickr)
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.

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  • Wow, Joel. I knew you were a smart, deep guy but this is just wow. My guess is that most people use this time as escapism and don’t go much for the heavy stuff. And now that you have set the bar so high that no one wants to admit they read things way more mundane than this…

    Reader’s Digest has been a staple for years. While not as sagacious as your list, I like that I never quite know what I’m going to get each time I go in. Political commentary, humor, self-help, inspiration, a little pop culture, and, yes, even some intelligence boosters thrown in there for good measure.

    Finally, in the complete Guilty Pleasure category… Growing up, the best way to, ahem, “recycle” a large Sunday afternoon dinner was with the Sunday comics.

  • Years ago in a dusty old bookstore, with walls lined with relics, I found a book that caught my eye. “All Quiet on the Western Front.”
    To this day this continues to be one of my favorite reads.

  • There is some justice to this indulgence. The guy who invented the flush toilet was a writer, uh, and kind of a smart___ as well. His name was John Harington. To James, just before ascending the throne (of England that is) Harington said, “Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom.” Harington stayed in trouble for his words, but he gave us the royal flush. He accused James of being a potty mouth.

    I usually take my latest read with me. Now it happens to be OBEDIENCE OF A CHRISTIAN MAN by William Tyndale. Kind of dense for this kind of work. Either that or crossword on the iPhone.

  • Love Screwtape Letters.

    As for my bathroom time…well…I get so few stress breaks that when I unload in there I want it to be mentally as well. So I’ll read ESPN the Magazine or Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader. 🙂

  • Excellent post Joel. The throne is the one place where many have undivided attention. It may be said that the bathroom is the best place to read.

    My choice is Fine Homebuilding Magazine. That and the occasional gossip magazine that my wife leaves around. Wink wink

  • Brant

    I never go without iPhone in hand. Makes the trip much more enjoyable and usually longer! When I’m wrapping up, I just set my iPhone on my shoe.

  • My dad had a habit of doing this–taking reading material into the bathroom with him–and it was a big joke at our house. So I grew up with the habit. When my brother and I were younger, sharing a bathroom, we kept mostly comic anthologies in there–notably Garfield, and The Far Side.
    A few years later, it was by leaving my copy of “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” in our bathroom that I finally got him into the series. The next time I went in, i discovered my book was gone–only to find it in my brother’s room.

    These days I read mostly the same stuff in the bathroom as I read out of it. (Right now it’s “The Rock that is Higher: Story as Truth” by Madeleine L’Engle.) There are some types of books I’ve found unsuitable–the ones that are dense and cannot be easily picked up and put down. I LOVE C. S. Lewis, but “The Abolition of Man” is not bathroom reading. Nor is “The Silmarillion” by Tolkien. At least, not for me.

    I guess there is kind of a stigma about reading in the bathroom, but the truth is, it’s developed into a habit that has helped save reading in my daily life. It’s far too easy to let reading an actual book get crowded out by all our other activities, especially the ones that involve computers, cellphones, and other technology. In our multi-task-oriented culture, bathroom reading is an excellent way to redeem some time. I love to lose myself those few minutes in a good story, or an essay that really makes me think, and I hope your post inspires others to chose good books to read in the bathroom as well. 🙂

  • Love Screwtape Letters.

    As for my bathroom time…well…I get so few stress breaks that when I unload in there I want it to be mentally as well. So I’ll read ESPN the Magazine or Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader. 🙂