Confession #1. This is for my mother who will not be shocked when she hears that yes, all those times I disappeared into the bathroom when it was my turn to wash the dinner dishes, I was reading. Long after I had any legitimate reason to be in the downstairs bathroom, I was poring through the pages of Gone With The Wind, Lady Chatterly’s Lover, an old Perry Mason mystery, or some other novel I’d stashed there before dinner. The dishes, I reasoned, would always be there. What would one more chapter matter? She never saw it this way which may account for the many nights of extra reading I enjoyed when she grounded me for ignoring her when she pounded on the bathroom door.
Confession #2. And this one is for those who had to be evacuated from the old Woolworth’s building in Somerville, New Jersey one day during the height of tax preparation season over a decade ago: it was my fault. I went to the ladies’ room shared by our office and the H&R Block staffers on the third floor. I carried with me the key to the bathroom which was appended to a binder clip big enough to clamp both sides of the Manhattan Yellow Pages with room to spare. I also carried some essential reading material. Work related possibly but more likely the copy of People Magazine that I received as a gift from an old friend and not as a joke either. Somehow, in the complicated maneuvers required to complete my toilette, flush, and transfer my magazine (okay, yes, it WAS People Magazine) from hand to hand, the key and giant clip slipped from my hand and dropped into the swirling waters never to be seen again. My People, however, was safe. Two hours later, the landlord cleared all three floors of the building because of a massive problem in the pipes which required the water to be shut off. Those who knew about the key did not know about the People Magazine. To you, my friends, I am sorry. You never told the landlord or anyone outside our office who was behind the shut-down and you did give me that lovely, giant key made of chocolate for Christmas. I am ashamed.
Confession #3. To my husband: I am sorry for picking up all those novels you left by the toilet and reading the endings before you’d had a chance. In my defense, I couldn’t put my hands on the books I was reading at the time and because am always interested in what interests you, I read your books. I have also, on occasion, walked off with books you’ve left in the bathroom clearly marked as yours by the presence of your reading glasses which I have, unwittingly I assure you, also taken with me.
Confession #4. Finally, to the librarians of the Montclair Public Library in Montclair New Jersey, here is the real reason I waited a year to return a copy of John Irving’s The Cider House Rules: I hoped that if I just waited long enough, you’d forget about it and I’d never have to explain that the hardcover swelled to three times its normal size when it fell (okay, I dropped it) into the bathtub. I am also sorry for returning it, dried and fat, its cover ink running like mascara down a crying clown’s cheeks, by squeezing it through the night depository slot. I just couldn’t face you. I remind you that when you sent me the bill, I paid it. And I resorted to buying books rather than risking your ire for years afterwards.
There, I feel better now. In truth, I have more happy memories of reading in the privacy of the bathroom than awkward ones. When you come from a family as large as mine, there are very few places one can really get away. Books come in handy. So do bathrooms. It was in my bathtub that I read Johnny Tremain for the first, second, and third times as a kid. The water turned green from the ink that ran from the binders and my puckered fingers looked like pickles but I had the pleasure of sinking into hot water and the world of Boston at the dawn of the American Revolution at the same time.
I’ve grown up now and here is what my pre-bath set-up looks like on an ideal night:
When I visit folks, I do what I bet many of you do, I try to learn whatever I can about them from their book shelves. When a bathroom is devoid of reading material, I am suspicious. On the other hand, I am growing more proficient in the pronunciation of the names of chemicals found in air freshener, toilet bowl cleaner, hand cream, or shampoo.
I always like to visit my sister Kit who has moved a number of times over the years but has more or less maintained the same lavatory library which is more like a carefully curated collection of audio-visual materials to “go” by. She has graciously provided a small tour of it here.
“So on the top shelf is my collection of hair ties & boobles, always a pen handy in case there is a crossword or soduku going, and my essential oils.
2nd shelf is candle, for, ahh, ya know…
Behind that is my Fantasia flip book (um, at least 20 years old….a chat pack (conversation starters), and a set of “Power Cards” that have affirmations reminding me that “Loving others is easy when I love myself” and other positive messages. Behind that is a treasured book given to me by my cousin Kak , THE INVITATION. The flip thing with the two ring binders is something called DAILY TONIC, 365 days of quotes that has traveled with me for 30 plus years.
On the 3rd shelf is a hand squeezer/exerciser given to me by Mrs D [our stepfather's wonderful mom] when I was diagnosed with MS. Every now and then I pick it up and practice my strength resistance.”
A close up of the Fantasia Flip Book:
From a writer’s perspective, it may not always be thrilling to learn that your well-wrought prose is helping a reader to pass the time on the throne. I have little experience to share here except for this rather scalding one, at the hands of my mom way back when I was a junior in college and shared with her my first effort at feature writing.
“What do you think?” I asked her when I’d shown her the piece about a rural pilot I was hoping to sell to a regional magazine.
“It’s good, Sweetie. Great bathroom reading.”
It took a long time but I realized I couldn’t maintain a double standard. I have hauled everyone from Charles Dickens to Gary Larsen (The Far Side), into the bathroom with me. If someone ever needs a little company in the water closet and they pick me, I’ll be honored.
I just don’t want to know exactly what they are doing when they are reading it.
Here are a few fun links on the well-established practice of bathroom reading, complete with commentary from Charles Simic in the New York Review of Books to the mainstay of loos everywhere, Readers Digest. Bloggers have had their fun with it too. If you’ve a mind to, share what’s on your bathroom shelf these days. Maybe we’ll all learn something new.
A few more links:
A male perspective: Ask Men.
Alice’s perspective: Ask Alice
Fox News’ perspective which examines the health risks of bathroom reading. Who knew? Except maybe George from Seinfeld.
The compendium of all reading for the lav, Uncle John’s.