Last week I had a breakthrough moment. I didn’t read a book in its entirety. Instead I skimmed it.
It’s nearly impossible for me to put a book down once I’ve started it. I’ve always been this way: black or white, yes or no, read or not read. Once I’ve invested 20 pages of reading energy, it seems a waste not to power through and finish the thing; my sensibilities buck harder at the act of giving up on a book than they do at schlepping through 200 pages of writing I can’t stand. I can’t help it. This is how I learned to read.
In the last year or so, I’ve begun to realize the error of my ways. Lit mags are difficult to enjoy if you make yourself read straight through them. Louise Glück’s First Four Books of Poems is also a slog if you try to read it like a novel; even worse with Cyril Burch’s Anthology of Chinese Literature, Volume I. And then there’s when people have caught wind of the fact that you’re a reader and they loan things to you unasked. For me, there’s no more fearsome prospect. Because of course I have to read every word of what they’ve given me. For this reason, I might be the only person in the world who’s actually read MFA vs. NYC.
Thankfully, I managed to put down two or three books in the last few months, just downright give up on them. I picked up lit mags that I knew I’d only flip through. I even thought about making a Google doc of books I hadn’t finished, meant to accompany my 64-page document of books I have read. This seemed to be overdoing it. Surely, I thought, I could access different modes of reading without rewarding myself as if I were finishing books. And last month, in a moment of clarity, I harnessed the power of skimming: I flew through Soulcraft: Crossing into the Mysteries of Nature and Psyche in a series of three delighted nights. Had I read the thing word for word, chapters like “Groundwork: A Briefing for the Descent to Soul” and “Sinking Back into the Source of Everything: The Call to Adventure” would have undone me.
All of that, and bathroom reading. In these same months of burgeoning readerly awareness, I’ve taken far more care to curate the selection of books sitting on my and my roommate’s toilet tank, believing that the limitations of reading while using the restroom would help me practice the non-attachment I’ve been trying to cultivate. For a long time, I’ve read while on the toilet. Still, I’ve only recently understood the joy of turning to a random page and allowing what is there to captivate me for the short time I have with it. Because there is a certain joy there. And while the scatological setting (not to mention the profusion of silly bathroom books) might make the entire project seem trivial or even puerile, I’d argue that it’s not. Instead, it’s a way of reading that helps us understand our books in ways we haven’t understood them before.
What I want to do here is tell you what’s on the tank in my household, and how those books work, not as straight-line reading experiences, but as written environments to jump in and out of at random. What does it mean to encounter books on terms that neither we nor they have set? What do we learn by such ephemeral contact with a medium in which, more typically, we are supposed to lose ourselves?
A History of the English Speaking Peoples by Winston Churchill
Barnes & Noble, January 1995
475 pages / Amazon
Winston Churchill’s 1,700+ page monster work (475 pages abridged) is exactly the kind of book that makes you fear the flippant act of reading single paragraphs at a time in isolation. How do you just dip into an entire culture’s history while you’re using the bathroom? My last roommate kept this volume on our toilet tank for the entire time I lived with him. Did he ever read it? I wondered. Could a truly determined person finish the entire thing over a calendar year of sitting on the toilet?
This was a bad start to my apartment’s bathroom collection. Though I miss my old roommate, Sean, I was glad to see Churchill go so that I could begin to curate my own collection of bathroom reading with intentionality and hope, taking extra care to avoid works of sustained narrative, such as (cough) the entire history of England.
It Takes a Certain Type to be a Writer by Erin Barrett and Jack Mingo
Conari Press, August, 2003
194 pages / Amazon
Sometimes people give me writing books as gifts, and this one came at the perfect time. I wasn’t ready to relinquish my cover-to-cover reading habit but still was on the lookout for something special to put on the tank. It Takes a Certain Type to be a Writer, a compendium of quotes and factoids by and about writers, was exactly what I needed: a book made up of unrelated fragments that I could whip through and bookmark on any page I happened to stop at.
This is your prototypical “bathroom book,” and if my own experience was any indication, it’s going to be on and off my tank into perpetuity. If there are writers in the house, as I always hope there will be, it’s hard to go wrong with facts like these: “Authors Miguel de Cervantes and William Shakespeare both died on the same day—April 23, 1616.” Did you know that? I had no idea. And as skeptical as I am of factoids, I feel more educated for knowing.
Undercastle by Feliz Lucia Molina
Magic Helicopter Press, 2003
105 pages / Small Press Distribution
Undercastle had a good run on the tank. Right in the center of the book is a poem called “Reality Was the One Who Ate Toilet Paper” (about a woman on a reality TV show who compulsively eats toilet paper), so the thematics were right. But so was the form. Many of the poems in Undercastle imitate the internet/TV/cell phone age, dancing from subject to subject, level of diction to level of diction, saying things like:
No sails set forth the winged
internet stars owed us more years to live
the bowler sits in his syntax my eyes dissolve
in limitless surrender a row of people
bowling their hearts and disgust for life out
In other words, high and low, the grandiose and the trivial, all mashed together. I felt like I was in this book’s wheelhouse, reading it in the bathroom. Which was a slight problem: at times, I felt almost too in-the-bathroom. Mildly dirty, in an albeit miraculous way.
I liked this book, but it didn’t make me forget where I was.
All-American Poem by Matthew Dickman
The American Poetry Review, 2008
96 pages / Copper Canyon Press
All-American Poem, on the other hand, flew me across the country. This is the only one of the bunch that I understood better after keeping it in the bathroom for a while. All-American Poem poems is wildly friendly to a jumping in and out, even in the middle of a poem. Here’s an excerpt I pulled out from the first page I turned to:
I loved the cows, my irrational heart
blowing open the doors of the schmaltzy saloon
where my feelings stay up late
drinking scotch, listening to old punk records,
which aren’t even old
in the fossil-universe-space-station we live in.
Bam. The voice, the long but varying lines, the mad and ecstatic language. It takes you in immediately and doesn’t want to let you go. But the poems go on forever. It is nice to fall away from them when you are ready.
I realized: there are some books you like to read, and some you like to have around. This is one of the latter. It makes me happy to know that at any time, I can pick it up and immediately experience wonder. But wonder should be brief—which is why this one is ideal for the toilet tank.
The Ants by Sawako Nakayasu
Les Figues Press, 2014
98 pages / Les Figues Press
That said, I cannot imagine finding a better bathroom book than The Ants.
That sounds like a terrible thing to say.
So: I love this book either way. It’s both experimental and funny, fragmented and discursive, remote and intimate. The book consists of one- to three-page thought experiments, musings, games, and miniature manifestos, the vast majority of which are literally about ants. I bought this book on a whim at AWP Seattle. I was at the Les Figues table and Sawako Nakayasu happened to be standing right there. She signed it for me in stretching, unintelligible script. Yes.
In the bathroom, The Ants keeps its poise. The pages, suspiciously white in the first place, have begun to wrinkle with the dampness of the shower. The cover curls up. The pieces are the perfect length and work the way meditation works for me: a brief inhabitation of a better consciousness than my own—full of humor and playfulness, forgiving and attentive—in a space between the commitments of everyday life.
I’m reading this one in chronological order again, I’m sorry to report. But with something this good, I feel as if I have to.
Outside of the bathroom, I’m trying to be forgiving with myself. I skimmed a couple of Kazim Ali’s essays tonight, and got their point without making myself submit entirely to it. I’ve been reading Nakayasu’s translations of Takashi Hiraide without knowing entirely (or, really, at all) what they mean. This letting is important, I think, and it’s hard to believe I’ve come upon it so late. Letting books be, letting them cry out the way they cry out, depending on their surroundings.
I’ll never stop feeling as if I have to read books all the way through, I think. But I’m glad to know there’s always the bathroom.