Privy to the best spot for reading

December 11, 2007|By SUSAN REIMER

It is an open secret that people read in the bathroom - I mean, there is National Bathroom Reading Week every June - and books are a very common Christmas gift.

But a holiday sales pitch for books to read in the bathroom seemed to me to be particularly indelicate.

"Bathroom Readers' Institute and Portable Press offer just the ticket for those who plan on using the bathroom this holiday season," the news release began, trumpeting the arrival of the 20th anniversary edition of Uncle John's Bathroom Reader.

There is a kids' version, too, titled Uncle John's Under the Slimy Sea Bathroom Reader for Kids Only, which struck me as an unfortunate title, bringing to mind, as it does, some kind of sewage spill.

But you can't argue with success, and the Uncle John series of bathroom readers has sold more than 7 million copies in the past two decades, according to Uncle John himself, Gordon Javna.

"Well, I am an uncle," said Javna from the Oregon offices of Bathroom Readers' Institute. "The `John' part is a bathroom pun. We go for as many of those as we possibly can."

The institute isn't exactly an institute, either. It is Javna and "a crack research staff" of six who gather goofy tidbits year-round to fill the annual Bathroom Reader, which is 600 pages this year.

Javna said he and his brother came up with the idea in 1987.

"These kinds of books are fun to read anywhere. But we realized this was a niche that nobody had recognized. We didn't know how successful it would be," Javna said. "It is one of the longest-running active book series out there."

I guess there are no taboo subjects for publication these days, but since surveys indicate that most people close the bathroom door even when they are home alone, it seems that the majority of us are still reluctant to reveal everything that goes on behind that door.

A discreet selection of magazines and catalogs serves as an unspoken acknowledgment of the facts in this matter. But putting a book in the powder room with an illustration of toilet paper on the cover seems over the top.

Author Henry Alford, in an essay on the subject in nothing less than The New York Times, repeated the Freudian claim that we read in the bathroom to distract ourselves from shame and the more modern psychological explanation that we are trying to replace what is lost.

That is certainly true if we are talking about waste material.

Most of these bathroom books - and there have been dozens of imitators since the Uncle John series debuted - are collections of trivia, lists, jokes, urban myths and little-known facts.

In other words, random, tidbit knowledge.

Although we spend something like 35 minutes a day in the bathroom, that is apparently not enough time to finish a New Yorker essay or a Vanity Fair article, although I read where one woman finished the entire New Testament in the bathroom over the better part of a year.

"We started with dumb crooks, odd quotations and weird news," Javna said. "Those kinds of things are now franchises for other people. We've had to innovate."

Alford, in his essay, surveyed friends on their bathroom reading materials and found that some actually turn their powder rooms into small libraries and stock them with books that will impress their visitors.

Despite its impressive length, I am not sure Uncle John's Triumphant 20th Anniversary Bathroom Reader would earn me the esteem of even my most loyal friends.

Other bathroom facts, many of which are recorded in these bathroom companions?

Men are more likely than women to read in the bathroom, as are people with advanced degrees; newspapers are the most popular reading materials, although a segment of the population goes through its bills in the bathroom.

It is interesting to see the impact of technology on all this. Apparently the most common BlackBerry repair results from a fall in the toilet.

And the "smart homes" built by the tech-savvy now include flat-screen TVs that double as shaving mirrors and wireless access in the bathroom, which means you can probably download books to your Kindle there.

We have certainly come a long way from The Old Farmer's Almanac, which used to serve two purposes in the old outhouse.

But I am not sure I consider it progress when we become a target audience while sitting in that last private place.

susan.reimer@baltsun.com

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