The Game of the Book of Thrones


GuardianNo, it’s not about that heavyweight book series by George Martin, or the TV series based on it (or even about how you really need to read the books to understand anything that is happening in the TV series). It’s about the other throne, the porcelain one. And what books are best for reading thereon.

Yes, reading on the toilet. Don’t tell me you just sit there and stare vacantly into space.

This is important time. Those few rare minutes when we really have uninterrupted time to ourselves; quality time with our bodily functions unhampered by TV, by the phone, by people wanting to see your gas bill or water heater, by the cats or the dog, by the kids or the neighbours.*

Perfect time for reading. It’s quiet, peaceful, gently lit and often fragranced by the sweet aromas of toiletries, like a garden of lilacs and roses. There you can concentrate, focus your attention on the book at hand, while your body takes care of the autonomous business of emptying itself.

So what sort of publication is perfect for that all-too-short slice of intellectual freedom? What work can you read for a few, exhilarating minutes, put down for several hours or even a whole day, and pick up again and continue reading without having lost the thread or diminished the intellectual thrill?

Clearly, for most folks, that’s a challenge. Continuity makes it difficult to read War and Peace in five-minute snippets. From one day to the next, you won’t remember who Count Whats-his-name is or why he’s out of favour, or who’s sleeping with whom or why they’re all akimbo over the French. For this sort of book, continuity matters.

I know, I’ve tried. I’ve been inching my way through Boswell’s Life of Johnson in the downstairs bathroom for the past two years. Unsuccessfully, if keeping clear all his comments, his activities and his conversations is the point. I switched to Bruce Campbell’s autobiography, If Chins Could Kill, and found – despite the shallow, narcissistic content – it was much easier to track through Campbell’s life than Johnson’s. But I feel somehow my bathroom experienced is cheapened.

This perplexing question is why so many people have magazines in their bathroom, or those books of jokes you buy someone for Xmas when you don’t have the faintest idea what else to get them. But jokes are like potato chips: a few are all you need, and it’s easy to overindulge and lose the whole point of them. Yet the books provide them in an unending stream, encouraging us to read as many as time permits.

They cease to be funny awfully quickly. Jokes, I mean. Chips aren’t funny unless you’re a nutritionist.

As for magazines, well I suppose it depends on the ‘zine. I’m not very tolerant of the usual lot of them. I have visited the local supermarkets and drug stores to examine their magazine racks and find them mostly filled with the most gawd-awful tripe, a trend that seems to be accelerating.**

Unintellectual pap spreads across the shelves: fashion, gossip, home decor, sports, computer games, gadget, consumerism and self-indulgent me-lifestyle trivialities. Shallow dreck. Sometimes you can find a Scientific American or Discover, maybe a National Geographic. More rarely you’ll find The Economist or Walrus buried therein. But if you want some celebrity-gossip-crap like People, it and a dozen dreary clones of it are front and centre.

You don’t want a steady diet of this stuff in your bathroom reading. It would be like having ice cream for breakfast, lunch and dinner: all calories, no protein, no fibre. It’s okay to thumb through a copy of Cosmo or GQ in a friend’s bathroom (a friend of questionable intellectual taste, perhaps), but in your own you need more substance. More fibre.

Newspapers? Too big. Too much folding: time spent on the origami of getting just enough visible yet making the rest manageable. The smaller-sized tabloids – the Sun chain and most QMI products – have an uncomfortable intellectual resemblance to bathroom tissue. One should not read what one wipes with. Besides, none fit comfortably on the tank top for later reference.

If you have five or even a blessed ten minutes to ponder things, you don’t want to waste that precious time on mindless pursuits. You can get that on any TV channel or by reading some local blogs. You will never get that time back, so use it wisely, intelligently. Emerge from the bathroom having accomplished something.

You need a book in your own bathroom. But which book? Aye, there’s the rub.

Usually the same places selling this anti-intellectual magazine fare have a selection of similarly witless books: popular titles like the abysmally-written mommy-porn 50 Shades, or one of any number of cookie-cutter vampire tales aimed at superstitiously libidinous young girls. A few bestselling crime or detective authors, thrillers, romances and even westerns fill out the racks. Dan Brown. Michael Crichton. That sort of thing.

Easily forgettable stuff you read on an airplane or a beach but most of which you don’t want to bring home. Stuff you can leave in your hotel room or at the swim-up bar without a pang of guilt.

You might get away with a P. D. James, Ruth Rendell, or John Le Carre. They’re British, with that dry lack of sexuality that makes them seem more intellectual than their American counterparts. Ken Follett you could get away with, too, if it’s not something that has been serialized on TV.

Anything to do with the life of a musician, authorized and autobiographical included, is simply crass voyeurism. And bodice rippers? Please. Do you want your friends or spouse to discover this is your choice in reading when they use the loo? Imagine your chagrin when they exit the throne room sniggering.

No, the most appropriate reading for the throne is not the mass-market stuff. The best of it will make you want to sit in the bathroom longer than necessary, just to finish the chapter. The worst will prove too easily forgettable, like microwaved frozen food, and you’ll end up getting lost and rereading sections just to try to stay with the plot.

Either way the result is more time in the loo with less satisfaction than bowels alone could provide.

You need something that, within the limited slice of time available, will give you that satori-like lift that engages the mind on a higher plane, and yet entertains without confusing or cheapening the experience.

Shakespeare. That’s the solution.

Almost any play will do. Even fat collected works, the for-show-only titles you would never otherwise read because they’re big and ungainly and printed in too-small type for bedtime enjoyment.

If you are like most readers, you will read as much in the annotations and notes as in the plays themselves, giving you both a lesson in etymology and the evolution of language, as well as the pleasure of the words. Most people these days can barely make sense out of any Shakespeare, so continuity won’t be a problem because it will all seem a blur of archaic words, irrelevant references and confusing characters.

You will delight in the great monologues even without understanding why they are spoken or in what context. Who cares about Hamlet’s perplexed psychology, Lear’s familial problems or Anthony’s conservative politics? Just read on.

Better yet, get a collection of monologues or brief selections of scenes. That will eliminate the need to read for continuity, and trying to keep track of all the characters; those pesky twins who keep shifting about, the dukes and lords who crowd the king, the minor characters who confound the plot… if you don’t really need to follow each one and figure out their individual stories, you can delight in a handful of their lines without any sense of guilt for not reading the whole play.

In fact, a collection of Shakespeare quotes can do the job quite nicely, if you read only a very few, and don’t try to munch on them like salted peanuts, one after the other. A collection arranged by topic might be best. That way you can read, say, three or four quotes on love, or on duty, or friendship, or France, without gorging on too many subjects all at once.

It would be like reading Zen koans: little intellectual firecrackers to illuminate the darkness of the mind. And if you memorize just one with each sitting, you would be able to amaze friends and family by quoting some of the Bard’s more pithy lines at a salient point in the conversation.

Imagine how the chatter will turn from mindless comments on the game last night or on some continuing indiscretion of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford when you suddenly say, “Such tricks hath strong imagination/That, if it would apprehend some joy/It comprehends some bringer of the joy.” The undertone of the patter will be lifted to new heights. Jaws will drop in awe.***

For the more literary-minded, a dictionary of Shakespeare’s word uses might work as well. Perhaps Eric Partridge’s little gem, Shakespeare’s Bawdy, with the Bard’s sexual and scatological references explained. Stuff you can drop into the conversation back at the dinner table, risqué but intellectual. Nothing like a 16th century dirty joke to get chins wagging.

Or Scott Kaiser’s Shakespeare’s Wordcraft, which explores the Bard’s various literary and theatrical techniques, like alliteration and epizeuxis with numerous examples from the plays and sonnets. Toss a few of his Shakespearean malapropisms or oxymorons into your comments and people will marvel at your erudition.

Yes, Shakespeare is the key. Best content for the throne. Least likely to confuse or lose continuity. Least likely to embarrass when others discover the book on the top of the toilet tank. Most likely to impress when you emerge from your ablutions or when others use the john and espy your reading material.

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* I have seen TV sets in bathrooms, but I can’t imagine what would possess anyone to have one there. It’s only marginally more intrusive than a TV set in the bedroom, which itself is an abomination. People who have TV sets in bathrooms are likely to tweet images of themselves in states of undress to strangers. It’s a disturbing thought. Sound minds don’t allow TV sets in private spaces.

** I gave up even trying to look for a magazine at Loblaws, Wal-Mart Shoppers’ Drug Mart and most other big box stores because I get too easily frustrated hunting for titles like Skeptic, Philosophy Now, Chess International, Technology Review, New Scientist or Foreign Affairs Digest. However, should I want to know the best way (this month) to remove spots on my carpet, to cook pasta, train my dog to sing, paint my bathroom in designer colours, develop a six-pack, or to gawk at celebrities in crudely revealling wardrobes, the choices are endless.

*** Theseus, Midsummer Night’s Dream, 5.1.18. Good choice for a play, if you’re of the mind to put whole ones in the can.