The most famous toilet-reader in literature is surely Leopold Bloom, hero of James Joyce’s Ulysses. After a slightly burnt fried kidney breakfast, Bloom heads to his outhouse where, “asquat on the cuckstool,” he relieves himself while perusing a story from a cheap magazine. His business done, Bloom wipes himself with a torn-off scrap of the story.
A century after Joyce penned this evocative but humanizing episode, reading in the bathroom continues to be a dubious activity. Historically, some psychoanalysts have argued that it is a sign of abnormality. Medical authorities tell us that it exposes us to gastrointestinal problems and fearsome germs. Social critics contend that it signifies a mind or a culture out of balance — particularly in an age when our phones seem to have become fused to our bodies as needy new appendages, demanding constant and compulsive attention. But despite the taboo, toilet reading remains stubbornly popular.
What gives? Should toilet readers yield to the call of decency and hygiene, and give up their troublesome habit? Or should they read on without shame?
Let’s first consider the psychoanalysts, two of whom have explored why people might be driven to read on the loo. The American analyst Otto Fenichel determined in 1937 that “reading in the water-closet” is a passion of people with early childhood fixations. Reading is an act of incorporation, so toilet reading is “an attempt to preserve the equilibrium of the ego; part of one’s bodily substance is being lost and so fresh matter must be absorbed through the eyes.” Only the unbalanced would feel the need to fill their head while emptying their bowels.
James Strachey, Sigmund Freud’s English translator, agreed. He argued in 1930 that light reading of the sort that toilet readers prefer — few tackle modernist novels, after all — is essentially infantile. “The blissful absorption, the smooth, uninterrupted enjoyment, that characterize the mental states of the novel-reader … suggest … that their nourishment is liquid and that they are sucking it in.” Reading, writes Strachey, “is a way of eating another person’s words,” so people who read on the toilet are reading the words excreted metaphorically by an author at the same time as they excrete literally.
Fanciful ideas about the unconscious meanings of toilet reading aside, there is no evidence that its practitioners are abnormal. Studies consistently show that large fractions of humanity admit to reading …read more
Source:: Time – Technology