Why do People Like to Read in the Toilet?
Reading in the loo; lots of us do it, few of us talk about it. But we’re not shy at Naked Sprout, so let’s fling back the bathroom door (making sure it’s unoccupied first) and see if we can scare up any reading material!
Why do people like to read in the toilet, and how long have we been doing it?
A Historical and Cultural Inter-Loo’d
Bathroom reading is not a modern phenomenon. We have extensive records of people using newspapers for toilet paper from the 1700s well into the 20th century. It’s easy to see why; this relatively soft, inexpensive material would have done double-duty for both reading and wiping! While most people now prefer toilet paper made specifically for the task, the habit of toilet reading continues to this day - a 2009 study found that 57% of adults regularly bring reading material into the toilet.
Evidence of toilet reading across cultures as well. Citizens of the Soviet Union were known to have extensive toilet libraries, with widespread newspaper and magazine subscriptions ensuring there was always plenty of reading material to hand. In Japan there is a term “Mariko Aoki phenomenon”, an urge to go to the loo when entering a book store, that some believe is a result of the widespread association of reading with going to the loo.
And the toilet isn’t just a place for reading - throughout history some have taken it on themselves to do a bit of writing there as well. Scrawling on toilet walls, properly called “latrinalia”, is common in public toilets around the world, and toilet scrawlings that are nearly 2000 years old have been found in the preserved ruins of Pompeii. As any visitor to a pub, university, or public toilet in the UK will report, the practice is still alive and well. While this kind of graffiti is often crude, and can be very unsightly, it does at least mean that most public toilets have a bit of reading material right there on the wall.
Why Do We Do it?
So that’s where and when people read on the loo, but why is this habit so widespread? The authors of the biggest study of the toilet reading suggest that it may serve to help with the… er… matter at hand, by providing some gentle distraction and a bit of light relaxation while we’re going about our business.
And relaxation is needed now more than ever. Smart phones, home working, and digital media are all helpful additions to our lives, but they are blurring the lines between public and private space more rapidly than ever before. In a world where privacy is becoming a luxury, the bathroom can serve as a makeshift retreat. As Canadian author Margaret Atwood put it: “the bathroom is a place where you can go in and pretend to be doing one thing while actually you're reading. Nobody can interrupt you.”
Unfortunately, the same technologies that are driving us to the privy for a bit of peace and quiet are often coming in there with us! A survey conducted by Verizon in 2015 found that 90% of people admitted to using their phone in the bathroom. This shift to digital media has made reading in the loo more convenient, but carries some potential health-hazards.
Why You Shouldn’t Read your Phone
So what are the risks of reading on the toilet? Prolonged sitting, especially on a toilet seat, can lead to issues like haemorrhoids. For this reason it’s best to keep reading sessions brief, and be mindful of posture.
There’s also the issue of hygiene. Toilets, especially public ones, are breeding grounds for germs and bacteria, and these can transfer onto your device if we touch our phones during or after going to the toilet. Unlike books and magazines, phones have plenty of warm crevices for bacteria to lurk and multiply. If we then take our phones into other spaces like the kitchen or bedroom (and let’s face it, we take our phones everywhere), we can transport those germs to other areas of the home. It’s important to clean your phone regularly anyway, but the best practice is to avoid using it in the toilet altogether.
And finally, what about our mental space? Catching up on news, emails and social media while on the loo is tempting, but it eats away at our downtime and encourages us to see every moment as something to be optimised. All of this is terrible for our mental health - if we want to feel a bit more peace in our everyday lives we need to look for moments to put down our phones, not sink deeper into notifications and live streams.
So if we want to read in the toilet without doing damage to our bodies or our health there’s three key points to bear in mind:
- Keep it short
- Keep it light
- Keep it off your phone!
Interestingly, people seem to gravitate to this kind of bite-size material in their choice of reading. Comic anthologies, books of quizzes, and magazines are all popular material for toilet reading. In the UK people often read the satirical magazine Private Eye in the toilet, and during Covid19, when toilet rolls were stretched, they nodded to this practice with the Front Page Headline “48 sheets of toilet paper free with this issue!”
For the most hygienic reading, how about taking the reading out of your hands altogether, and putting it on the wall? Many people choose to hang interesting posters or framed sets of cartoons on the walls of the bathroom, some even wallpaper with newsprint, bringing us back to the Victorian practice of using up old newspaper in the bathroom!
So there’s a bit of light reading for you! It turns out there’s some very good reasons to read on the toilet. From newsprint to digital, Pompeii to the present day, the smallest room in the house has doubled-up as a library as well.
So, the next time you reach for that magazine on your way to the loo, know that you're part of a vast community of toilet readers, all enjoying a few minutes of peace. Happy reading, wherever you choose to do it!
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