Thursday, March 18, 2004

Reading In The Bathroom

In Sylvia Plath's novel THE BELL JAR, Esther Greenwood decides that the world is divided into two parts: People who have had sex, and people who haven't. For a long time, I concurred. But now that I'm older (notice I didn't say wiser!), I think the world is divided up like this: People who read in the bathroom and people who don't.

Growing up, our bathroom looked like a waiting room with magazines in little plastic wastebaskets by the toilet. My grandmother's bathroom was even better: She had huge stacks of TRUE CONFESSION in there. Summers and holidays when we'd go to visit, I'd eagerly hone my reading skills.

For me, there is no long bathroom visit (I'm trying to be delicate here) without some kind of reading material. I hazily remember my potty-training days; I remember being handed a Christmas catalog and told to "look at the wish book" until something happened.

Nicholson Baker addressed this topic with his typical vigor and humor in ROOM TEMPERATURE. The husband in the novel needs to complete a "Big Job" in the bathroom *right away*, but he simply can't go until he finds the perfect book to take in there with him. During a brief and frenzied search, his wife looks at him bemusedly: "Big Job?" "Big Job," he nods, finding the desired book and heading down the hall.

I've adopted Nicholson's "Big Job" line for my own purposes, mostly to puzzle my husband. I didn't realize until well after the nuptials (a year? Two years?) that he doesn't take a book to the latrine. I was confounded, but didn't say anything until he did.

"You read while you're...? He finally said.

"Doing the Big Job? Yes."


"Whaddaya mean, WHY?" I went on the offensive. "You never read in there, do you?"

He looked appalled. "NO!"

"WHY NOT?" Finally, I was going to find out his dark secret.

"Well, because..." He paused, and I could tell that he was trying to figure out how to put it to a crazy woman. "Because you're not in there to read. You're in there do a job, and you need to concentrate on doing the job and getting out of there."

"Reading can help with concentration."

No reply.

"Hey, I'm normal! What about your father? He takes books in there!"

He shook his head and walked away, but I don't think it was to the bathroom. I was left with my revelation: There are people in the world who don't read in the can!

I went down the list of people I'd known and loved who were can readers:

Nicholson Baker, for one. Well, I don't know him or love him, but he goes on the list anyway.

My mother. My father. My grandmother.

My aunt. (she even has an attractive little table in there right in front of the toilet topped with interesting reading material)

My first husband (who I'll call Manfred, Sr. in this blog) took a book in there. Often it was science fiction, but he was flexible.

Then there was my interlude with someone who I'll call Geezer. Geezer was partial to Civil War history. I remember a huge tome by Shelby Foote.

I paused my mental list when I came to my son, Manfred, Jr. Does he read in the bathroom? I know he sings in the shower, but does he read in the can? This is someone I've known for almost 20 years, and a good 16 of them he's been potty-trained. Still, I have no idea. Logic would tell me yes, because he's an inveterate comic reader, and comics are light and easy to transport from room to room. Also, if he's in the middle of a good read away from the bathroom, he doesn't like to be distracted or interrupted. In addition, he has both a mother and father who are can-readers.