From the moment Ron Shaoul 2)took it upon himself to investigate the practice of reading on the toilet, 3)scouring medical literature and turning up nothing 4)of note as to its public health consequences, the situation became clear that here, on his hands, was a big job.
Shaoul, who published his study in 2009, 5)lamented that toilet reading was 6)woefully neglected by scientists, considering the habit probably dated back to the emergence of printed books. He 7)mustered some colleagues, drew up a questionnaire and had hundreds of people of all shapes and sizes complete it. What resulted was perhaps the most scientific attempt yet to shine light on a habit that rustles unseen behind closed doors.
The 8)anonymous author of The Life of St. Gregory couldn’t help but notice that the toilet of the middle ages, high up in a castle 9)turret, offered the perfect 10)solitude for “11)uninterrupted reading”; 12)Lord Chesterfield also 13)saluted the benefits, recounting the tale of a man who used his time wisely in the “necessary house” to work his way through 14)Horace. This was but the beginning.
No writer owned the 15)arena of toilet reading more than 16)Henry Miller. He read truly great books on the lavatory, and maintained that some, Ulysses for instance, could not be fully appreciated elsewhere.
From a medical 17)standpoint, there are plenty of questions to ask of toilet reading. Most can be 18)worded in vague, 19)euphemistic terms that convey the 20)gist without 21)delving into 22)coprological detail. Does reading material become irreversibly infused with nasty 23)contaminants when carried into the toilet? How long can unpleasant 24)microbes live on 25)glossy magazine covers or, for that matter, the pages of a newspaper? And what does the straightforward act of reading on the toilet do for 26)bowel movements.
Val Curtis, director of the Hygiene Centre at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, is a self-confessed toilet reader. There is, she says, a theoretical risk. To be 27)blunt, 28)bugs in your 29)poo can get on your hands, be 30)transferred to your reading material, and on to the hands of some other unfortunate. That risk is quite slim, though. “The important thing is to wash your hands with soap after using the loo to get the bugs off,” Curtis says.
Microbes don’t 31)fare too well on 32)absorbent surfaces, and might survive only minutes on newspaper. But plastic book covers and those shiny, smooth surfaces of iPhones and iPads are more 33)accommodating, and it’s likely bugs can live on those for hours. A recent study by Curtis suggests that in Britain one in six mobile phones is 34)contaminated with 35)faecal matter, largely because people fail to wash their hands after going to the toilet.
Shaoul, who works at the Bnai Zion Medical Centre in Haifa, Israel, agrees that there is little to fear from unpleasant bugs when reading in the toilet. Most people who 36)indulge in the habit—his questionnaire pointed to more men and more educated, whitecollar workers—do so at home or at work with their own material, rather than in random, 37) excrement-38)spattered lavatories.
More interesting to Shaoul is whether the simple act of reading on the toilet has an impact on bowel movements. “We thought sitting and reading while you were on the toilet might be relaxing and make things go better,” Shaoul says. “We thought we might cure the world of 39)constipation with our research.”
Shaoul cast his net wide. He received completed questionnaires from 499 men and women, aged 18 to over 65—some unemployed or students, others builders and academics; some from rural villages, others from the city. More than half of the men (64%) and 41% of the women confessed to being regular toilet readers. More often than not, they described their reading material as “whatever is around.” In practice, this usually meant newspapers.
It 40)transpires that toilet readers spend more time on the loo and consider themselves less constipated than non-toilet readers, but other measures of their 41)defecation habits show the two groups hardly differ. Shaoul’s work hints that toilet readers suffer more 42)hemorrhoids—something that made for 43)cautionary news stories around the world—but the effect is 44)negligible.
Finally, Shaoul concluded that reading on the toilet is widespread, 45)alleviates boredom, and is ultimately harmless. This 46)rings true to Curtis. “I use it as distraction therapy. I don’t particularly want to think about 47)crapping.”