Quick: Where are you while you’re reading this? You might be at work. Or relaxing in a café. Perhaps you’re driving your car (please don’t read Slate while driving your car). Or you might be sitting on the toilet.
Honestly, you’re probably sitting on the toilet. According to one assuredly scientific survey conducted by an electronics trade-in website, 75 percent of Americans bring their smartphone with them to the bathroom. But this is a terrible idea. We already spend all day on our computers or our phones, feeling those repeated blasts of rage and despair and envy. And then we retire to the bathroom and dive right back into the same mess?
Look, I do it too: keying while peeing, scrolling while unrolling. But I wish I didn’t! Because that’s not what the bathroom is for. The bathroom ought to be a respite from the loud, angry world, a place to purge our bodies of waste and clear our minds for the time ahead.
Our forefathers, and foremothers, had a solution for this problem: the bathroom book.
You remember, right? Your mom or your best friend’s mom placed a small basket or magazine stand on the floor of the powder room. Within, a few paperbacks: a travel guide, or a collection of National Geographic photographs. More likely a quirky humor tome, impulse-purchased at the Barnes and Noble or Urban Outfitters register. A Far Side collection. Deep Thoughts, by Jack Handey.
A bathroom book has one simple job: It must be briefly diverting. Sometimes the bathroom book diverts with facts, as in the Guinness Book. Sometimes it diverts with jokes, as in The Preppy Handbook or collections of Onion headlines. The bathroom book is not meant to compel, to whisk you to another world, like a novel; after all, you have a job to do in there. It’s not meant to challenge you, as in the best narrative nonfiction; you get enough of that in all the other rooms of your house. It’s merely meant to deliver two to eight minutes of mild interest.
For a long time, readers had to find their own bathroom-oriented literature. The publishing industry ignored bathroom reading as a category. But that changed in the late 1980s, when brothers John and Gordon Javna created Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader, the first purpose-built bathroom book. “At the time Reader’s Digest was the go-to,” John Javna told me when I Zoomed with the brothers recently. “We thought that was boring. You could do more interesting stuff.” They compiled historical oddities, eyebrow-raising trivia, I-can’t-believe-they-said-that apocrypha, and proto-memes into a single tome. Most New York publishers rejected it—“comments ranged from ‘dumb’ to ‘disgusting,’” Gordon said—but St. Martin’s Press bought it.
In 1988, putting an actual toilet on the cover of a book seemed cheeky, maybe even a tiny bit naughty. St. Martin’s sent bookstores a toilet-shaped “dump display” for the sales counter during the 1988 holiday season, and Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader was a huge success. Soon there were more—upwards of 30 editions, now. “People bought it as a joke gift for people who spent too much time in the bathroom,” said Gordon, “and then it became an expected gift every year.” The series inspired innumerable copycats and, by the time the Javna brothers stepped away from the line in 2016, they estimated they’d sold more than 14 million books.
But things are different in the 21st century. “There’s been a real change in reading behavior since smartphones came around,” Gordon Javna said. The ubiquity of the smartphone seems to have made the bathroom book seem superfluous. Bathroom books still get published, of course; just last year the comedian Joe Pera released the delightfully titled A Bathroom Book for People Not Pooping or Peeing But Using the Bathroom as an Escape. But I hardly ever see them in the wild, in the powder rooms of my friends and neighbors.
Several interior designers told me that in recent years a trivia compilation atop the toilet tank has come to seem old-fashioned, not to mention a tiny bit gross. “I have designed lots of bathrooms,” said Susan Sutter, a Northern Virginia designer, “and I have never had a request for books in the bathroom. I think people now might view that as a cleanliness issue, having books that everyone touches in there.”
But I say it’s time to bring back the bathroom book! Nothing is keeping you from a more civilized powder-room experience. Buy a little wicker basket at Pottery Barn. Stock it with what I believe to be the world’s most perfect bathroom books: Death in Yellowstone and Death in Grand Canyon. These historical compilations attempt to document every single time someone has died in our nation’s showcase parks, and while they are somberly written, they remain gruesomely diverting. Turn to any page and you’ll land on a compelling story of foolhardiness, ill fortune, or just plain cosmic absurdity: poachers falling into 175-degree hot springs, hikers traipsing down Bright Angel Trail in flip-flops, foragers eating the wrong parsnip. (The sheer number of dudes who have shown off for girls on the rim of the Grand Canyon and then fallen straight in! It’s astonishing.)
The fact is, books are way more satisfying to read on the john than phones are. They’re bigger; they’re more tactile; they won’t cost $800 to replace if you drop them on a tile floor (or, god forbid, in the bowl). And the best bathroom books are engaging but not addictive, the way your phone is. “Screens hypnotize you into staying there longer,” Gordon Javna pointed out—not necessarily what you want in a bathroom environment, where sitting more than 10 or 15 minutes is counterproductive, even unhealthy. You want reading material that conforms to your needs, not that entices you to sit in one place forever, legs eventually going numb.
So what is standing in your way of becoming, once more, a Bathroom Reader, instead of a Bathroom Scroller? Let’s dispense with the germ issue, to start with: Yes, you pick up a bound block of paper that has been in the bathroom, touched by others—but if you follow proper hygiene practices, that’s the lesser of two evils. Just wash your hands after you put the book down, as you should do anyway. That’s certainly better than holding your phone while crapping, washing your hands, and then picking your phone back up again.
And if you’re worried about your bathroom seeming old-fashioned, Rebecca Quandt, another Northern Virginia interior designer, says bathroom books, chosen wisely, can feel on trend. “The powder room is a place you can get a little more playful,” Quandt told me. “People are starting to have more fun in this space, trying to integrate humor. Is it a design feature that I specifically recommend to my clients? No, but I might throw an idea out.” (Quandt says she keeps a copy of the cartoon collection T. Rex Trying in hers.)
Think of the bathroom book as a gift you give to everyone who enters the sanctum of your powder room. Open me, the bathroom book whispers, and step away from the braying news, the wheedling ads, the braggadocio of social media. And it can serve, in its way, as a statement of household values: a declaration by the family, writ large, that this item, these facts, these jokes, are how a person ought to spend her most contemplative moments. It’s OK to let your guard down. On the can, no one can hear you chuckle.