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 in the bathroom, especially when reading on digital devices is included. No less than 90% of cellphone owners owned up to it in a survey conducted in 2015 by Verizon Wireless, and a study conducted in Israel in 2009 found that a majority of adults were toilet readers, with higher rates among men and among the young, the well-educated and white-collar professionals. Toilet reading is normal, not the preserve of an unbalanced fringe.
But what about the medical implications of toilet reading? It has been argued that toilet reading produces hemorrhoids by increasing the time spent seated and straining. The fear of hemorrhoids is shared by Leopold Bloom in his outhouse (“hope it’s not big bring on piles again”) but science fails to support a link to toilet reading. The same study of Israeli adults found that although time spent on the toilet was associated with having hemorrhoids, toilet readers were no more likely to have them than non-readers. Indeed, toilet readers were less constipated than their non-reader peers. Other research has found no link between toilet reading and symptoms of “benign anorectal disease.”
But perhaps toilet reading endangers our health via contamination instead. Bathrooms are often viewed as microbial greenhouses, and reading materials might be vectors for the transmission of nasty infections. Although it is certainly true that toilets pose some infectious risk, that risk is often exaggerated. A study of microbe hotspots in the home shows that bathrooms come a distant second to kitchens in microbial density. Toilet seat and handles, and bathroom faucet handles and doorknobs, all had lower counts of bacteria and mold than kitchen sinks, countertops, stove knobs, coffee reservoirs and, most revolting of all, dish sponges. Arguably it is reading in the kitchen rather than the bathroom that should be taboo, with a special stigma attached to cookbooks.
On this note, we must address the idea that taking smartphones into the bathroom is especially inappropriate, more so than books or newspapers. Their much-fingered glass surfaces, warmed from within by battery power and without by pockets and bags, offer an appealing environment for bacteria. A British study reported that one in six smartphones has evidence of fecal contamination. Even so, our phones tend to be extensions of our personal microbiome, sharing around 82% of more common types of bacteria with our index fingers, so even if they are germ-ridden they mainly carry microbes already housed by our bodies rather than foreign invaders that might make us sick. So although it might be wise to put them away in public restrooms, a recent article concluded that “there is no direct evidence … that mobile phones present any more infection risk than any other human possession.”
Reading on the toilet may not point to a psychological abnormality, damage our posteriors or expose us to an especially high risk of infectious disease, but perhaps it signifies a social malaise. That was certainly the view of the novelist Henry Miller. In an essay on “Reading in the toilet” in his 1952 collection, “The books in my life,” this master of transgression and mocker of bourgeois manners was unusually conservative, declaring the practice to be a sign of spiritual emptiness: “thoroughly unsound, unhygienic and ineffectual.” Miller found it “grotesque and ridiculous” to read while seated on the throne, to break this “minor sort of bliss” by concentrating on the printed page, when one should be merely doing. It would be better, he wrote, “not to meditate on literature at all but simply to keep your mind, as well as your bowels, open.”
Miller is clearly wrong here. Most toilet readers have no difficulty keeping both ends open at once. Reading on the toilet is not an act of bliss-breaking concentration but of quiet idleness and mind-wandering. It is a way to savor a few moments of private reverie and relaxation away from the bustle of the world beyond the bathroom door.
Of course, interacting with our smartphones can be as obsessive and harried on the toilet as off it — catching up on emails, keeping up with torrents of news, playing addictive games, ensuring one has not missed out on the latest social media outrage. But when conducted in the right, Leopold Bloomian spirit, toilet reading is a benign way of living serenely in the moment. Just remember, from time to time, to wipe your screen down too.