In the final scene of last night’s season finale of Breaking Bad, Hank Schrader apparently experienced an epiphany on the toilet after opening a copy of Walt Whitman’s Leaves Of Grass. Of course, this was far from the only historic moment involving toilets and literature:
October 31, 1517:
Martin Luther nails his 95 Theses to the door of Wittenberg’s All Saints Church. Scholars attest that Luther’s acute constipation caused him to spend many hours on the toilet, where he researched and wrote the text that started the Protestant Reformation.
December 11, 1747
In a letter to his son, Lord Chesterfield discusses the virtues of reading in the necessary-house:
I knew a gentleman who was so good a manager of his time that he would not even lose that small portion of it which the calls of nature obliged him to pass in the necessary-house; but gradually went through all the Latin poets in those moments. He bought, for example, a common edition of Horace, of which he tore off gradually a couple of pages, carried them with him to that necessary place, read them first, and then sent them down as a sacrifice to Cloacina: this was so much time fairly gained, and I recommend you to follow his example…. Books of science and of a grave sort must be read with continuity; but there are very many, and even very useful ones, which may be read with advantage by snatches and unconnectedly: such are all the good Latin poets, except Virgil in his Æneid, and such are most of the modern poets, in which you will find many pieces worth reading that will not take up above seven or eight minutes.
March 8, 1857:
Joseph Gayetty is the first to market toilet paper, sold for 50 cents per 500 sheets. In a press release, the product is dubbed “Gayetty’s Medicated Paper for the Water-Closet,” and is said to be purer and safer than more commonly used printing papers, which contain “fearful poisons” like Oil of Vitriol and Oxalic Acid. Newspapers and other printed materials, however, continue to be the t.p. of choice in America because they’re cheaper, more readily available, and more fun to read than Gayetty’s papers, which only feature the inventor’s name.
September 30, 1890:
Sears publishes its first catalog, which soon becomes rural America’s preferred toilet reading material/toilet paper.
September 23, 1930:
Sears publishes its catalog on less-absorbent glossy paper, and receives a number of complaint letters from rural America. The Old Farmer’s Almanac, with its more absorbent texture and hole punched in the corner for easy outhouse hanging, remains a popular alternative.
In Black Spring, Henry Miller extols the glory of toilet reading:
O the wonderful recesses of the toilet! To them I owe my knowledge of Boccaccio, of Rabelais, of Petronius, of The Golden Ass. All my good reading, you might say, was done on the toilet. At the worst, Ulysses, or a detective story. There are passages in Ulysses which can be read only in the toilet- if one wants to extract the full flavor of their content. And this is not to denigrate the talent of the author. This is simply to move him a little closer to the good company of Abelard, Petrarch, Rabelais, Villon, Boccaccio- all the fine, lusty genuine spirits who recognized dung for dung and angels for angels.
February 23, 1940:
Celebrated Argentine author/reviewer of non-existent books Jorge Luis Borges imagines reading Pierre Menard’s Quixote while pretending to poop.
August 16, 1977:
Elvis Presley falls off his toilet and dies in Memphis. Rumor has it that at the time of his death, he was reading a copy of Tom Robbins’ Another Roadside Attraction, smeared with fried banana-and-peanut butter fingerprints.
Pulp Fiction‘s Vincent Vega (John Travolta) reads Peter O’Donnell’s Modesty Blaise while on a coffee shop toilet, and fails to hear Pumpkin (Tim Roth) and Honey Bunny (Amanda Plummer) loudly committing an armed robbery. Later, in the last moments of Vince’s life (but earlier, in the middle of the movie), Vince is so captivated by Modesty Blaise while using Butch Coolidge’s toilet that he apparently fails to hear Butch (Bruce Willis) enter the apartment, retrieve the gold watch from the bedroom, prepare a Pop Tart and pick up the assault rifle that was left on the counter. (Though the theory that Vince may have been expecting Marsellus Wallace [Ving Rhames] and therefore thought nothing of Butch’s noisemaking is a widely accepted hypothesis among internet geeks.)
April 16, 1998:
George Costanza (Jason Alexander) is forced to buy a book on French Impressionist art which he brought into a bookstore bathroom. Subsequent attempts to sell the tainted book prove futile.