Columns > Published on April 9th, 2014

9 Great Poop Reads: Taking Literary Structures From Classroom To Bathroom

My junior high English teacher measured reading assignments in something he called Poop Reads. 

I had an interesting education. Ask me about it sometime. Buy me a drink first and you'll hear some stuff. There's a story about a speech and debate teacher's pregnancy that's still hard to tell without slipping back into the voice of an embarrassed 8th grader.

Poop Reads. A Poop Read is the unit of reading done in one toilet trip. The number of toilet trips it takes to finish a given piece of literature is a book's Poop Read score.  A regular novel, maybe The Great Gatsby, might be several dozen Poop Reads.  A Calvin & Hobbes comic is something like .25 Poop Reads. 

This junior high teacher, he would assign homework, and when the classed groaned he would say, "C'mon guys. It's like three Poop Reads. Max." 

In addition to discovering things about the English language, I spent a good deal of junior high learning about the toilet habits of this teacher. Or maybe his reading speed. How long three Poop Reads was for him. I would categorize his reading speed as very fast. And his bowel movements as infrequent but lengthy.

It's a fascinating measure in that it's dynamic, based on the individual. My Poop Read may not be the same as yours. However, Poop Reads are a great answer to the question of how long it takes to read something. It takes different people different lengths of time. It is in the Poop Read that we've finally discovered a useful measurement.

Just because you're reading on the toilet doesn't mean you have to read books that belong IN the toilet. You can read good stuff. Great stuff.

I also suspect Poop Reads might be the hidden factor when it comes to Soul Mates, that your Soul Mate will have a similar Poop Read time. But the research is ongoing. I'll let you know when I find either my Soul Mate or someone whose Poop Read times synch with my own. It's a dubious start, Soul Mates based on fecal matter, but god knows I've gone off of less.

At this point I'm sure I've lost some readers already. The people who do not read on the toilet. Who don't iPad on the toilet. The high and mighty of the world who never wind up on the toilet with a melting lime popsicle, wondering where life all went wrong.

Must be nice to live so refined.

Bad news, though. You who sit with empty hands and an empty head, waiting for the magic? You're in the minority.

My day job is in a public library, so I see the books go out, and I see the books come in. In the last decade I've seen some interesting bookmark choices. A hundred dollar bill. An endless parade of kid pictures, one which I keep with me. It's a beautiful baby girl with the thickest unibrow I've seen in my entire life.

The most consistent bookmark, hands-down, is a swatch of toilet paper. Thin stuff, two-ply. Torn in neat squares or ripped in animal fashion.  Any way that toilet paper can be separated from the roll and placed between pages, it's happened. At a library near you. 

If you need something less anecdotal, this study says that just over half the population is reading on the toilet. Look to the person on your left.  Look to the person on your right.  Now imagine one of those people cracking the spine on Moby Dick while the exhaust fan hums from above.  

Face facts. People are reading on the toilet. This is science. This is happening.

When something like this is happening, when reading on the toilet is the hottest trend sweeping the nation, you have two options. Embrace or reject.

I embrace you, brothers and sisters of the porcelain. Right after you wash your hands, I embrace you. Wherever you feel the need to read, let's make it happen. Not to mention that just because you're reading on the toilet doesn't mean you have to read books that belong IN the toilet. You can read good stuff. Great stuff. Let the masters of structure put on a clinic in your bathroom. Read their words and watch how they break apart and fit back together. There are so many great reads that are broken up into short sections, perfect to enjoy during...let's just leave it at During. Take a look at some of these options, pick whatever's best for you. Each title on the list is a good read and has something to teach any writer about short forms.

It's okay to look over the list even if you're not a toilet reader. Your uptight lifestyle can be a secret between you and me.

I've also included some approximate Poop Read (PR) numbers for scale and, you know, just in case one of you readers out there just might be my PR soulmate.

1. 'The Lover' by Margeuerite Duras
Approximately 12.88 PR

I can't overstate how funny it is to read something with real gravitas on the toilet. There's nothing better. I giggle. I wish I was the kind of man who laughed, but no. I'm a giggler reading classic literature on the toilet.

The Lover is a classic that's at home in just about any big time literature class.  A great piece of minimalism with that capital-L Literature feel, this one will leave you feeling sort of dead and sort of more alive than ever. This was the shining gem of one of my college classes, World Literature By And About Women. I was often called on to give the male perspective in this class. I did my best but still feel like I should apologize to my fellow men. I also left out the part about developing my perspectives on World Literature By And About Women in the restroom.

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2. 'The Call' by Yannick Murphy
Approximately 20.65 PR

Each section of this book is a vet's journal entry, the log of the vet's visits to animals big and small and what he did to treat them. The format starts simple and then becomes a scaffolding for a great, heartbreaking story. And you don't have to be an animal lover to enjoy this book.  I'm not someone who would call himself an animal lover. Although I DO love pictures of cats thrown into Snapchat who have clothes drawn on them. Or dogs, also thrown into Snapchat, but I prefer they be mounted with shoulder missiles, machine guns, stuff like that.

The Call has the kind of structure that lets a reader pull a lot out of a small space. Not to mention a voice that keeps you going through call after call after call. It's a really gorgeous book. Read it and then find me on Snapchat.

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3. 'Ablutions' by Patrick DeWitt
Approximately 10.01 PR

A truly great book that reads fast. Not to mention that for writing nerds, it's a really great study in second-person ("You wake up. You go to the store.")  It shouldn't work, but it does. This slim story about a bartender near the end of his everything will entertain the hell out of you while dazzling you with technique at the same time. The author, Patrick DeWitt, made a bigger splash with 2011's The Sisters Brothers, but this one just might be his secret masterpiece. 

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4. 'The Lover's Dictionary' by David Levithan
Approximately 16.7 PR

Imagine writing your breakup story, then parceling it out with section headings, then arranging those sections alphabetically. You'd think such a concrete approach might get in the way of the emotion. But honestly, it's a godsend. It'd be just too much in regular, chronological fashion. On the plus side, if your Poop Reads tend to run a little long, coming out of the bathroom looking like you were crying will eliminate any and all questions of what the hell you were doing in there for the last half hour.

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5. 'Ant Farm' by Simon Rich
Approximately 8.22 PR

Simon Rich is a Saturday Night Live writer who looks like he's 14. I say that in a loving way because I too am afflicted with a youthful glow that becomes less charming and more of a medical quandary as the years pass.

Ant Farm reads like a slim treasury of rejected SNL bits, ones that should have existed but didn't because of pure foolishness on the part of some staff member. You will be laughing on the toilet. Be warned. I don't know much about the physiological effects of a belly laugh while defecating, but I'm going to use this space to make sure and absolve myself of any responsibility. Enjoy the bits about why math sucks, why being a kid sucks, and make sure you do so during your physician's normal office hours. Just in case.

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6. 'Was She Pretty?' by Leanne Shapton
Approximately 5.5 PR

You know that thing where you make the mistake of asking about someone's entire romantic history?  It doesn't always happen on purpose.  You see a picture from a vacation.  You look harder because you're pretty sure you're looking at downtown Chicago in the picture.  Then you say, "Who's that with you?"

Was She Pretty? is Leanne Shapton's combination of words and pictures that answers all the questions that come after you ask that one stupid question. She sums people up the way you might hear about them third-hand, one little quirk or problem, or the most threatening part of this or that ghost of a person. It's a book you can really stop and start anywhere, and you don't have to read it in order. PR perfect, which has to be the lowliest endorsement this stunner of a book has earned.

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 7. 'Tales From Outer Suburbia' by Shaun Tan
Approximately 7.11 PR

If you grew up during the time when Calvin & Hobbes ran in newspapers, you've probably been looking your whole life for something else that captures some of that magic. The way the world was pretty and big and a little dangerous. This book is the closest thing out there to Calvin & Hobbes a little grown up. 

Tiny alien foreign exchange students, a minotaur, the place at the end of the world. It's all here. It's a slim book with short sections, but PR times will vary depending on how long you spend exploring Shaun Tan's gorgeous artwork.

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8. 'What Every Person Should Know About War' by Chris Hedges
Approximately 11.9 PR

Laid out for you in Q&A style, this book presents all the facts about war. About a soldier's likelihood of ending up in combat. What happens when a bullet hits Kevlar. How things might go if you get captured.

The format makes for good, broken-up reading, and it has a great side effect. Somehow, the clinical, statistic-based answers hit differently when they're answers to questions like, "How likely is it that I'll lose a limb?" Before long you'll almost start to think of the asker as a character, someone who has found himself in a pretty bad situation. Great book for non-fiction buffs, great book for fans of experimental ways to tell stories.

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9. 'Palm-Of-The-Hand: Stories" by Yasunari Kawabata
Approximately 30.22 PR

A book that comes with a hard recommendation by Amy Hempel, this collection of single-PR-short stories can teach any willing reader a thing or two about writing fiction. Kawabata, a Nobel-winning Japanese author, considered this form of flash fiction to be his true art. These brief tales are short on text and long on feeling, often leaving the reader with an ending just open enough to think on throughout the day and into the night, long after sleep should have come.

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Enjoy your reading. And remember, true bathroom scholars always wash their hands.

About the author

Peter Derk lives, writes, and works in Colorado. Buy him a drink and he'll talk books all day.  Buy him two and he'll be happy to tell you about the horrors of being responsible for a public restroom.

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