Where you really need a great book

It’s no small mercy that one of life’s most elevated human undertakings can occur during one of its most humbling. Yes, I’m talking about reading on the john. Stop blushing. You know you do it. Everyone does—especially if you’re a parent. I only wonder if we’re maximizing the experience.

Facebook or a hastily snatched magazine are unworthy of such an occasion. We require a greater intentionality. As we all know, short and—ahem—digestible text is usually best. Given that, some books are preferable to others in redeeming the time. Here are (and you’re welcome in advance) a handful of suitable suggestions.

Montaigne’s Essays

Montaigne lived in the sixteenth century, but he could be your next-door neighbor. That is, if your next-door neighbor were wiser, funnier, better-read, and more self-deprecating. There is no human emotion Montaigne fails to touch or treat in his Essays, and he writes about almost every subject imaginable. Within the span of a few dozen pages, he covers everything from war horses to ancient customs, prayer, aging, and (appropriately) smells. He addresses parental affection, will power, thumbs, changing your mind, names, sleep, sumptuary laws, cannibals, inconsistency, fear, sadness, solitude, friendship, even how we laugh and cry at the same things.

Montaigne tries warning off potential readers in the preface, saying it would be “unreasonable to spend your leisure” on the book. But it’s one of the few things about which he was entirely wrong. For his vast scope and deep insight, it’s both safe and fitting to say that Montaigne is one of the most fully human writers to ever take up the pen. And his wide reach means you’ll never be bored. No bathroom should be without a copy of the Essays.

C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters

Even without the suggestive, squatting posture of the gargoyle on the cover of a recent HarperOne edition, contemplating the advice of senior demon Screwtape to his nephew Wormwood while in the confines of the small room is eminently sensible.

Screwtape is one of those books that rewards many readings and can be picked up at any place and satisfy just about any mood. Lewis is sly, funny, perceptive, and on-point throughout. The discussions about the physicality of prayer or the dips and highs of living are, for instance, revelatory at the first reading and great reminders ever thereafter.

The Psalms

If this one scandalizes you, you’re in good company. I once heard Fr. Thomas Hopko mention a story about a monk who recited the psalter while on the toilet. His brothers, overhearing him, were horrified and dragged the offender before the abbot. To their chagrin, however, the monk’s practice was vindicated and his recitations continued.

It seems that qualms about prayer and the privy are the currency of the devil. Martin Luther tells the story of a monk who said his morning prayers while in the latrine. The devil appeared and scolded him. “What climbs up is for God,” answered the monk, “and what falls down is for you.” Bernard of Clairvaux had a similar exchange when the devil needled him about reciting psalms while relieving himself. “That which comes out of my mouth, I offer to God,” said the saint; “but that which I eject out of my belly, eat it!”

In these three cases, the prayerful have their material memorized. I’ve learned snips and snatches of the Psalms but require text for anything more. Thankfully, Holy Transfiguration Monastery’s psalter comes in a convenient size for such purposes, and I appreciate the Elizabethan style of the rendering.

Ambrose Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary

Here’s another way to give the devil his due. Possibly the original spoof dictionary, Bierce started what became The Devil’s Dictionary in 1881 with definitions filed in a weekly paper. By 1911 it was a full-blown and riotous tome, made all the better by the posthumously published Enlarged Devil’s Dictionary (my favorite edition).

I came across it when visiting a friend of one of my aunts. Upon my mention of H.L. Mencken and P.J. O’Rourke, he retrieved a copy of Bierce and said in so many words, “You ain’t seen nothing yet.” There’s something amusing on every page. Here’s Bierce’s definition of cabbage: “A familiar kitchen-garden vegetable about as large and wise as a man’s head.” And belladonna: “In Italian a beautiful lady; in English a deadly poison. A striking example of the essential identity of the two tongues.”

The Oxford Book of Essays, edited by John Gross

Besides being edited by a man with the right name for the job, The Oxford Book of Essays rewards even the most casual of thumbings. With over a hundred essays by over a hundred authors, it’s hard to leave disappointed. Gross’s wide-ranging collection features everyone from Francis Bacon to H.L. Mencken, Jonathan Swift, G.K. Chesterton, William Hazlitt, Mark Twain, John Henry Newman, and George Santayana. Perhaps best of all, you can find Ambrose Bierce’s hilarious and Facebook-timely essay, “Disintroductions.”

Finley Peter Dunne’s Mr. Dooley on Ivrything and Ivrybody

As you might guess from the language in the title, Mr. Dooley doesn’t speak the King’s English. Or the Queen’s English. Or anybody’s but his own. The Mr. Dooley books were written a little more than a hundred years ago and involve the ramblings of an Irish—what else?—bartender named—what else?—Mr. Dooley. He’s also known as the philosopher; think Montaigne but with Bushmills.

Mr. Dooley holds forth on the news of his day (some of it is very dated, though still amusing) and subjects of timeless curiosity. A smattering of topics include books, anarchists, family reunions, keeping lent, history, swearing, vice, gratitude, and political reform movements, e.g., “A man that’d expict to thrain lobsters to fly in a year is called a loonytic; but a man that thinks men can be tur-rned into angels be an iliction is called a rayformer an’ remains at large.”

Each of these books lends itself to moments of discovery and serendipity. Just open one and see what you find. It’s hard to think of a more edifying way to pass the time.