Wednesday, December 05, 2007

reading (at stool)

I am sitting in the smallest room of my house. I have your review before me. In a moment it will be behind me.
–Max Reger

Evening hours, girls in grey gauze. Night hours then: black with daggers and eyemasks. Poetical idea: pink, then golden, then grey, then black. Still, true to life also. Day: then the night.

He tore away half the prize story sharply and wiped himself with it. Then he girded up his trousers, braced and buttoned himself. He pulled back the shaky door of the jakes and came forth from the gloom into the air.
–James Joyce,
We all do it. Read in the bathroom – the washroom, the loo, the bog, the "smallest room of the house," what have you. We all snatch those few or many moments of enforced inaction as the opportunity to scroll thru just a bit more text.

The phenomenology of bathroom reading has always interested me. Everyone, even the inhabitants of the most appallingly book-free homes, seems to have some stash of reading material in the bathroom, whether it's a stack of fashion magazines, children's books, Reader's Digests, or (god help us) motivational business books. (I suppose this is in default of having yet another television in the bathroom, tho I know one local restaurant which has miniature screens in every urinal stall of the men's room.)

The key element of the phenomenology of bathroom reading is of course brevity: even the very costive reader is unlikely to pull down a copy of In Search of Lost Time or Absalom, Absalom!, with their endless chapters & vertiginously unwinding sentences, for what will be at most 10 or 15 minutes of reading. (There's an old copy of Doctor Faustus beside the upstairs watercloset, but it hasn't seen much reading.) This is why there's a niche market for bathroom books, consisting mostly of collections of jokes & brief anecdotes. And it's why Leopold Bloom's choice of morning reading, the prize-winning but brief "Matcham's Masterstroke," a short story published in the newspaper, is exemplary. (I have never resorted to Bloom's or Max Reger's method of disposing of their reading material, tho I've been sorely tempted by some of the pages of John Betjeman's collected poems.)

We recently installed a handsome set of bookshelves in the downstairs bathroom, which rapidly filled (as bookshelves around here magically do). Some of these books are simply overflow, things I haven't yet found a permanent home for. Others – perhaps the majority – are things I've pulled from other bookshelves to leaf thru briefly, but not yet to seriously tackle: heaven knows the collected letters of Walter Benjamin & Theodor Adorno, or Hegel's Philosophy of History, or Jürgen Habermas's The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity, deserve better than the modular, slightly abstracted reading the toilet allows for.

On the other hand, there are books which seem to be best taken in once or twice daily 5 minute doses. For some weeks, I enjoyed in that manner Geoffrey O'Brien's The Browser's Ecstacy: A Meditation on Reading, only hauling it out of the loo when I came to the final chapters, in which his little angular parables abruptly expanded into a larger scope. He was replaced by Flann O'Brian's The Various Lives of Keats and Chapman, not a book about famous English poets but a collection of elaborate & sometimes very very funny shaggy dog stories.

Currently I'm trawling in 3- to 4-page swoops thru Michael Bérubé's What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?: Classroom Politics and "Bias" in Higher Education. I suspect this is a book that some readers will want to give the full monty, serious reading treatment – comfy chair, beer at one's side, pen in hand, etc. Mostly the conservative readers who're out to skewer MB, & are looking for juicy quotes. But I was a pretty much religious reader of Bérubé's late much lamented blog for a couple of years, & I've heard most of the arguments of What's Liberal before – they're for the most part good arguments, but I need no more than a wee occasional dram of them anymore; heaven knows there's enough to be depressed about in academia without being reminded of the bile the David Horowitz Right is directing at liberal arts departments around the country. It's enough to give you – pardon my French – les merdes.


Bradley said...

It's that last sentence that causes this piece of writing to transcend simple blogging and become art.

zimdog said...

As one of FAU's leading research scholars in the poo field, I am duty-bound to weigh in on this matter.

Firstly, I commend you for having an entire book rack next to your shitteur. 'Tis truly a literary repository for the literate positor.

More importantly, you have constructed a niche for the (thus far) marginalized peoples of a Postian society. These "less-than-couth" house guests who dare the doing of their nature in your water closet no doubt welcome the distraction of turning pages that allows the necessary movement from social embarrassment to transcendent relaxation.

In closing, may I suggest adding a stack of the following under the bottom shelf ... just in case:

Su said...

You used 'snatch' as a verb in a blog about bathrooms as reading rooms.

I am easily amused.

Don Share said...

Are you sitting comfortably? By an amazing coinkydink:

Unknown said...

The photo which you open this with is perhaps my favourite I've seen. Living in a small, four (soon to no-longer-be) undergraduate apartment rapidly filling with (mostly) second hand books, the idea of a shelf in the washroom seems almost ideal.

If only it wasn't for the shower!

J. A. Giardini said...

I seem to have published the last comment through the gmail account for the lab I work volunteer in. Don't take an interest in to be representative of McGill, or my lab.