Reading list for the pot

Palash Krishna Mehrotra | Updated on March 05, 2021

Daily dose: Newspapers and magazines are often picked up for reading in the toilet   -  ISTOCK.COM

Reading in the loo — flipping through anything, really — appears to help the locomotion

* Has the phone killed the loo-reading habit? Research shows that the opposite holds true

* Among the classics of light toilet reading or toilet literature are Uncle John’s 4-Ply Bathroom Reader and several volumes of Passing Time in the Loo

* Does toilet lit, by definition, have to be “light”? There are those who would like to differ, Henry Miller being one


In a way, all of us are kings and businessmen. Every morning we sit on the throne... and do our business. While we are there, we often carry with us some reading material in order to pass the time, distract ourselves and aid the movements, symphonies and overtures.

Has the phone killed the loo-reading habit? Research shows that the opposite holds true. With mobile phones, even the non-readers are reading now. There is, of course, the ever present danger of the coveted iPhone sliding into the WC on a whim. Books are a safer bet. On the phone, it’s more likely that one is looking and liking (Tinder, Instagram), rather than flipping and reading. And so, for the rest of this piece, I will stick to books, newspapers and magazines that we read on the pot. Besides, the loo is a good place to isolate oneself from technology and spend some me-time with a favourite author. Also, while phones swarm with microbes, paper is an unattractive area for bacteria to breed.

Internet wags have invented quirky terms for the associated literature: Lav lit, sh*t lit, potty prose and toilet tomes. The most accepted one is “toilet literature”. As a kid, I remember being engrossed in the Nancy Drew I was reading (The Mystery of the Brass Bound Trunk) while on an Indian squatter. The habit had to be curtailed if I was at a relative or friend’s place in a joint family situation. The lavatory turnover is high in such houses, and one’s reading is constantly interrupted by impatient knocking.

What does one read on the pot? I remember a trend which cut a swathe in fancy South Delhi toilets: The anthology of erotic writing. Didn’t matter if it was contemporary or ancient, Indian or American. There are a few of these around and I’d invariably spot one placed diagonally on the top of the glossy white flush tank. Newspapers and magazines are old favourites. A friend once told me that Delhi Times worked very well in the mornings, while he kept The Indian Express for general lunch-time reading. Old issues of The New Yorker, MAD Magazine and National Geographic are fixtures in the upwardly mobile Indian toilet. The general consensus is that words that aid the business tend to be on the lighter side. This wouldn’t please the editors of The New Yorker but so it is.

The Urban Dictionary has an excellent example of this, in the entry under ‘Toilet Literature’. One person says to another, “Man it’s part of the ritual, u got to read some sh*t u don’t care about to get a good sh*t.” The friend responds: “Word”. I can vouch for this from experience. Occasionally, while travelling, I’ve found myself in a nice enough guest house with no reading material whatsoever, not even a newspaper. It’s morning, the pressure is on and one has to be resourceful. In such cases, it’s a good idea to take the room service menu in. One scrolls down the list: Chicken Manchurian, Lung Fung soup, Veg Fried Rice — there is something about reading in the loo, reading anything really, that helps the locomotion. Doctors have a theory about this. Now the reader might say that this is simply Too Much Information, but gastroenterologist Patricia Raymond MD writes: “A third of all women read on the toilet, with most doing so to relax or to be distracted. African-American females read more (54%), Caucasians less (32%). Additional studies show that relaxation on the commode, as might be brought about by reading, helps to relax the voluntary anal sphincter.”

Another doctor who researched the issue is the Israeli Ron Shaoul, a paediatric gastroenterologist. He did a detailed study of the link between reading and the pot, sending out questionnaires to 500 people. While the study did not throw up any concrete findings, it seemed to conclude that reading in the loo was harmless and people tended to read “whatever is around”.

Over in Germany, the Association for Consumer Research, commissioned a study on the same subject. Nearly one-third of those surveyed admitted to perusing advertising brochures and catalogues. This bears out my earlier point about reading menus. Reading thrillers was high on the list for both men and women, along with the car magazine, Auto Bild. Comics and crossword puzzles are the least popular.

Among the classics of light toilet reading or toilet literature are Uncle John’s 4-Ply Bathroom Reader and several volumes of Passing Time in the Loo, edited by Stevens W Anderson. These, pretty much, form the American cannon of the genre. Quentin Tarantino, in Pulp Fiction, throws the pulpy paperback into the mix. Vincent Vega, John Travolta’s character in the film, is frequently shown on the pot, reading the novel Modesty Blaise. In Ulysses, Leopold Bloom reads a magazine on the pot and proceeds to wipe himself with it.

This begs the question: Does toilet lit, by definition, have to be “light”? There are those who would like to differ, Henry Miller being one. Miller even recommended different authors for different types of toilets. It’s a theme echoed by the anonymous author of The Life of St Gregory, who felt that the toilet of the Middle Ages — the period of European history from the fall of the Roman Empire in the West to the fall of Constantinople — high up in the castle turret, provided the most ideal pitch for batting, the perfect reading chamber. For Miller, the best place to read François Rabelais in solitude was the humble country toilet, “a little outhouse in a corn patch, with a crescent sliver of light coming through the door”. Meanwhile, Philip Stanhope, the Earl of Chesterfield, writes about a gentleman who was such a master at harnessing the living hours, that he made full use of the time spent in the “necessary house”, going through the Latin poets, including Horace.

What one reads in the loo also has something to do with one’s chosen vocation. A poet might never be found reading poetry in the loo, while non-poets will claim Philip Larkin works just fine A poet will not read poetry on the pot, just like Luciano Pavarotti or Liza Minelli will never sing in the bathroom, Joan Baez will never strum an acoustic on the WC and Joe Satriani will never plug in his electric guitar and shred.

While toilet lit thrives, there is some medical evidence to suggest that overstaying one’s welcome in the loo, in pursuit of reading pleasure, might be linked to getting haemorrhoids. This was hinted at by Dr Shaoul as well as Alexander Herold, professor of colon and rectal surgery at Mannheim, Germany, who cites “extended sitting” as a “prime cause of haemorrhoids”. He recommends “People should go to the toilet when they really need to, and shouldn’t stay for more than a maximum of five minutes.”

It’s too late for Henry Miller to heed this advice; besides, who in their right minds goes to the loo even when it’s not required? But the reader will do well to heed the warning. Don’t get too engrossed in that thriller. The thrills and chills might just be followed by piles and pain.

Finally, dear readers, if you have been reading this column on the pot, then, amigo, have a good one!

Palash Krishna Mehrotra   -  Businessline


Palash Krishna Mehrotra is the author of Eunuch Park and the editor of House Spirit: Drinking in India

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Published on March 05, 2021
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