Oh yes! We absolutely have a series on bathroom reading! So long as it's taking place behind the closed (or open, if that's the way you swing) bathroom door, we want to know what it is. It can be a book, the back of the shampoo bottle, the newspaper, or Twitter on your cell phone - whatever helps you pass the time...
Today, takes it to the toilet. She is the author of the new novel Her award-winning writing has been published in National Geographic News, The Wall Street Journal, The Huffington Post, China Daily, Guernica Magazine, and Kartika Review, among others. Her work focuses on travel, exploration, expatriate culture, US-China relations, environmental issues, and motherhood. She has lived around the world—from New England to China to Singapore to San Francisco—and is co-founder of the academic media network . She lives in San Francisco with her husband and daughter. She was a 2016 SF Writers Grotto Fellow and is working on her next novel while also associate producing the childbirth documentary, Of Woman Born.
Ode to a Poop
I labored on this toilet. So I can’t ignore the fact this porcelain bowl has deep significance beyond defecating and urinating into it. This toilet has received so much, and, at the same time, offered an equivalent amount of serenity and support.
There’s been much written and elucidated about the similarities between writing a book and giving birth. But I have never written a book while sitting on the toilet. I nearly gave birth on this toilet (my daughter was born an hour later on my bedroom floor in a planned home birth). I guess that is a critical difference between the two—I don’t think I could ever write on a toilet; the stench, the hard seat digging into one’s fleshy thighs, is just not what I need to write. Thinking and reading—sure. But writing and creating literary worlds don’t mesh with defecation for me (despite how both can be arduous, painful, and yet deeply satisfying in the end).
But reading: yes! Toilets are lovely reading spots. And when you have a noisy, curious toddler, bathrooms can be incredible places to seek quiet and respite. I do a lot of thinking on the toilet, the waiting for the bodily relief of what is hopefully to come (when it doesn’t arrive quickly), and then luxuriating in the space post-poo, taking a few breaths, a needed escape, before returning to the world. I also use the toilet to catch up on reading that has otherwise fallen to the wayside. Before I had a child that meant The New Yorker. But the stack beside the toilet grew onerously high and only reminded me I was an entire year behind in my reading—so I shamefully gave up my subscription because I couldn’t bear to see that pile and be reminded how much reading I had yet to catch up on. Now, motherhood consuming me, the books beside my toilet are entirely parenthood related—Touchpoints by T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., Diary of a Baby by Daniel Stern, Mothering Your Nursing Toddler by Norma Jane Bumgarner, La Leche League’s The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding, and Buddhism for Mothers by Sarah Napthali.
These books seem quite practical, but imagine pooping and reading Stern’s dreamy psychoanalytical lyricism describing the experience of infancy: “Each moment has its own sequence of feelings-in-motion: a sudden increase in interest; a rising, then a falling wave of hunger pain; an ebbing of pleasure.” Or in Mothering Your Nursing Toddler, “The difference between limits and control is an important one, like the difference between a protective bubble and a straightjacket.”
What I love about what we read and do on the toilet (aside from the obvious) is how, like the act of defecation, it speaks to some kind of essentiality of our individual human experiences. For example, before I had kids and was an aspiring writer (okay, I’m still the latter), I thought reading The New Yorker would make me smarter, be entertaining and enlightening. So that’s what I did on the toilet. At other times, like in college, the toilet was where I read gossip magazines because it was where I could do my “dirty business” (e.g., catch up on celebrity gossip or articles on how to snag a husband in less than three dates). I don’t know why shit and pop culture go so brilliantly together (okay, maybe that’s obvious) but I suspect there’s always been a correlation throughout history. My husband reads about politics on the toilet. Given recent political news, that correlation couldn’t be more clear.
Yet perhaps we don’t give bathroom reading enough credit. Perhaps it speaks to our most critical inner need at that moment. Like the need to defecate, how we’d die of sepsis without doing so, maybe it fills a space of both inane and mundane, echoing what it ultimately is: Ode to a Poop. As in how and where we give birth, bathroom reading matters greatly, accompanies, and plays accomplice to, one of our most necessary, most overlooked, most universal human acts.