What was the first toilet read?

A Toilet Read is a book or magazine kept in a toilet or bathroom for reading when sitting on the toilet.

Toilet reading habit starts early

What was the first book to be prominently displayed in a toilet for all users to read? Was there a single book that kick started the genre of literature that now has nearly two hundred volumes in the Amazon Book store?

I think there was.

It’s difficult to be sure. For all I know,  there was  a school of philosophy that did its best reading in some communal Greek outhouse. I wouldn’t put anything past the Greeks. Greek philosophers aside, I don’t think many serious authors would want that kind of first highlighted on their dustcovers or in their reviews. It’s conceivable that a high minded but nasally challenged cleric left his bible in a monastic  toilet for the delectation of the brothers and sisters. Arguing against that having happened is the thought that devotion and defecation aren’t  happy roommates. It would also be counter to the teachings of Valentinus and Clement of Alexandria who maintained that Jesus never defecated, although he did eat and drink.

Ancient Greek communal outhouse

What can’t be denied is that a diverse collection of reading material is to be found in literate households all over the world today. The scope and scale of the library in the WC is an expression of the personality of the householder(s). Even the absence of books and magazines besides the porcelain potty can be meant to indicate that the prime user(s) is not anally retentive. Of course, it usually means the opposite.

Whatever you think about reading in the toilet – and views range from ‘intellectually stimulating’ to ‘dangerous to health’ – loo literature is a social phenomenon that might even survive the invasion of the e-readers. Social anthropologists should be delving into the roots of this phenomenon. Since, in all likelihood, loo literature can be closely correlated with voting intention, the psephologists should be getting in on the act too.

To save you from a surfeit of ologists, I can reveal the most likely source.

In the late Tudor era, an accomplished writer, better known in his time than Will Shakespeare, stipulated that his most recent and controversial book should be hung by a chain on the door of the newest privy in Richmond Palace. He was in a position to make this stipulation because the privy had been installed at his own cost and he was very friendly with the ladies-in-waiting who looked after Queen Elizabeth’s toilet habits.

The man was John Harington and I stumbled on this fact when researching for my book, ‘The Archer Prism: reflecting Sir John Harington’.

Harington was admired for his wit and you might expect that the book he wanted hung in Queen Liiz’s loo was a collection of his scurrilously amusing epigrams and verse. Not at all. He wanted his serious side on show to any royally-favoured noble who answered the call of nature in Richmond.

It was appropriate for him to suggest that people got into the toilet reading habit because he had invented the first mechanically flushing and perfumed toilet in the world. His was the first toilet designed to be pleasant to sit in and his Queen was so impressed with it that she wanted one for Richmond. As long as she didn’t have to foot the bill.

The book he wanted hanging beside the regal loo paper was not a light read. It certainly wasn’t the first of the toilet trivia books that are now stuffed into Xmas stockings every year. ‘A New Discourse of a Stale Subject, Called the Metamorphosis of Ajax ‘ was a social commentary on the ills of Tudor society wrapped inside a tortured analogy with human waste disposal. The title, which was a pun on the Elizabethan epithet for the toilet , the jakes, was the funniest thing about it. The impenetrable wrapping was necessary to keep Harington’s head off the block – Elizabeth was very touchy about any criticism of her way of running England, funny or serious.

Sadly Amazon doesn’t feature ‘The metamorphosis of Ajax’ in its ‘toilet reading’ list although it was in print right up until the 1960s. it should be there if only for curiosity’s sake.

It should be there to inspire writers like Nicholson Baker to pen:

”    … she told me how she often rushed around the apartment looking for just the right thing to flip through while she jobbed, rejecting the book or magazine she had been reading in favor of some other, often a specialized work of reference – Beal’s Grasses of North America, for instance. That’s kind of incredible, I told her – I did the same thing! Sometimes I spent four or five minutes hurriedly scanning my bookcase, wanting something I hadn’t examined in a long time, something out of the way, improving, life-advancing, lamp-smelling, jobworthy, so that this tiresome physical act would be a step forward, although by the time I finally sat down with a volume of my grandfather’s 1991 Encyclopædia Britannica I barely had time to locate an article on Accursius or Porson and read one sentence before I was done and could reshelve the book and resume whatever real reading I had been in the midst of.” Room temperature

It should be there for the benefit of minds like Henry Miller who claimed that:

“All my good reading, you might say, was done in the toilet. There are passages in Ulysses which can be read only in the toilet — if one wants to extract the full flavor of their content.”

Could the Kindle/Nook be heading this way?

Miller went so far as to recommend particular toilets for individual authors. To enjoy Rabelais, he advised a plain country toilet, “a little outhouse in the corn patch, with a crescent sliver of light coming through the door”. Better still, he said, take a friend along, to sit with you for half an hour of minor bliss.

‘Best places to read  (an author)’ could make an amusing list.

Where would you feel most comfortable alone with Archer, Barnes, Rushdie, Vincenzi, Pratchet, Childs, Fry, Grisham etc.?

And should they all be stored on a Kindle or a Nook especially designed for  the toilet?


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