The Lost Art of the Shitter Read
When I graduated from college in 2006, George W. Bush was President, Donald Trump was a Democrat, and most American voters didn’t know enough about Barack Obama to have an opinion of him. The financial crisis hadn’t hit. The iPhone hadn’t been released. Only 2 or 3 percent of Americans had a smartphone of any kind. Newspaper and radio were still four times as popular a news source as the internet.
A lot has changed since I was young. So says every formerly young person, I suppose. These days, we're a bunch of smartphone-addicted cyborgs. Four out of five Americans own a device. Two-thirds of us get at least some news from social media. Our politics have been hijacked by the loudest and most extreme. Our parents post on Facebook. Our teenagers are losing interest in driving and dating. There's less randomness to our days. Fewer random conversations. Fewer random walks. Fewer random thoughts. The smartphone rules all.
It's in your bed when you go to sleep, and it's the first thing you check when you wake up. It likely sounded your alarm. It guides, informs, and entertains you on your commute. It's in your hand when you watch TV, or whatever the hell you watch, beckoning you to check it if your already probably ad-free show loses momentum for a split-fucking-second. You know you'll check it, too. I hate knowing that I will.
It's next to the sink when you shower, collecting texts and emails and notifications and sometimes playing music or a podcast while you bathe. You check it when you pee, unless — maybe — you're a guy in a public bathroom and a dude pulls up at the urinal next to you and you don't want him to think you're taking pictures. But if he's relatively young, he's probably checking his phone too, so you're good.
Lost in popular discourse, however, is the degree to which smartphones have transformed one of our most fundamental (if you're regular), satisfying (if you're healthy), and peaceful (if your setup is clean and you're not in a rush) activities. I am, of course, talking about shitting.
There was a time, not long ago, when those blissfully private moments required an intoxicating mix of planning, creativity, and spontaneity, and carried with them the promise of a new, exciting, and uncertain intellectual journey. What were you going to read on the shitter?
Nowadays, the device that provides infinite access to people and information has, ironically, destroyed the exhilaration, mystery, and magnificence of reading on the can — replaced instead by texting, scrolling, Twitter feeds, Instagram videos, and quick, superficial clicks.
Magic and mystery at home and on the road
Reading on the shitter was an art form unto itself. If you grew up with a father in your house, then you might have weekend memories of pops disappearing after breakfast, the only signs of life being the metronomic turn of newspaper pages from the other side of the bathroom door, or the occasional muffled yell in response to your mother's wondering where the hell he went. If he had enough time, your old man probably shit, showered, and shaved — a hallowed trifecta about which songs have been written and little debate exists.
As you learned the art form yourself, you realized you could build consistency into your reading plans at home. Maybe your parents kept material in the bathroom — stacked in a basket, jammed in a bin, or atop the back of the toilet — a gesture of goodwill and recognition of shared experience. Or, at the very least, you knew where you could reliably pull a newspaper or magazine on the way in.
But even then, there was haphazard beauty amidst the consistency. As a kid, you probably didn't have much say over your options — with a sister five years older than me, that meant a whole lotta Seventeen Magazine — and you never knew where your thumbing through the pages or the duration of your session might lead. When you struck long-form gold and had nowhere to be, you might go until your legs went numb, subconsciously believing that for some reason, you wouldn't be able to pick the story back up a few minutes later on the outside.
The mystery and excitement were only heightened when you were in a rush or on the road. An emergency meant grabbing whatever was in arm's reach as you raced to bathroom, be it a cookbook, JCPenney catalog, or random-ass photo album. If you just busted through the front door and had to go, the mail in your hand was your best bet. At your friends' or cousins', you were relegated to whatever they had — a strange but insightful peek into their world — or nothing at all, in which case you were left to peruse the back of the shampoo bottle.
A wise shitter knew how to assess the landscape during those road games, both in choosing their target and procuring material. A one-bathroom setup usually meant no reading, or at the very least only while you pushed, lest you disrespect the crowd. A second bathroom in a basement was, on the other hand, a bonanza, so long as reading options were rife. The true artist surveyed bookshelves, newspaper piles, and magazine racks in advance, and exhibited clandestine skill in securing and returning the material, unbeknownst to all.
Strategy, creativity, and camaraderie at the office
And then there was work, where the art of the shitter read — and all of the strategy, creativity, and camaraderie that go along with it — was most pronounced. My first job's floor layout featured desks around the outside of the building, with elevators and bathrooms in the middle. That meant one entrance to the bathroom on each side of the floor — a great benefit to the harried worker in search of a several-minute shitting oasis, as you could enter from one side and exit from the other with no one any the wiser, even if you just took down 2,000 words.
But what to read? You can escape from the door on the other side, but people are still going to see you walk in, which often precludes a magazine or newspaper. Indeed the best option, as many of that era would surely attest, was to print a long article on regular paper, fold or roll the pages in your hand, and casually stroll on in. No such strategy exists in the smartphone era. I pity the younger generations for it.
My work buddies took to referring to the experience as "taking a meeting," borrowed, I believe, from a guy who joined with us but left after three months. What a fine legacy he bequeathed. Article length was measured by how many sessions it would take to finish a story — there were one-shit reads, two-shit reads, and so on. Bill Simmons's lengthy ESPN Page 2 articles and The New York Times Magazine stories were tailor-made for the circumstances, offering two-, three- or even four-shit deep dives that people just don't undertake on smartphones.
I can only speak for guys here, but shitting forges camaraderie among boys and men. (It may sound crass or juvenile, but it's true.) You know you're becoming legit friends with somebody if you can speak freely of where you're going and what you read. If you were a good friend in the pre-smartphone era, that meant bringing reading material that you really liked back out to pass on to your buddy when you were done with it. In many respects, there was no finer a reading recommendation or truer indication of blossoming friendship than that.
If a printed story was good enough but not worth your buddy's time, a generous shitter might leave it in the stall for an anonymous follower to enjoy. That was part of male-stall code, itself an evolution of the once-ubiquitous leave-the-newspaper-in-the-stall-at-work maneuver. Those newspapers always seemed to take on a weird texture and smell after that thin, recycled newsprint was in there for too long. But that's the way it was, always welcomed by the next man up, predicated on a certain group understanding. A tie that binds.
All of this is sadly gone. Today's smartphone shitters still have to choose their venues wisely — upstairs, downstairs, maybe a different floor at work — and I hope that part of shitting never goes away. But they'll never know the intellectual bliss of being forced to find something interesting in a magazine they didn't choose, the magic of the back of the shampoo and conditioner bottles, the intimacy of passing a wrinkled 10-page printout to their colleague, or the strange wonder of picking a damp newspaper up off the bottom of the bathroom stall.
They say millennials were born between 1981 and 1996. But I've never really felt like one. I was born in 1984, and I don't see how someone who didn't see the internet until late middle school, still had to call girls' houses and talk to their dads, was pretty well grown by 9/11, and had a fucking landline phone in their freshman dorm room is part of the same group as someone who can't recall life before the internet. But above all, I don't see how someone who spent two-and-a-half decades shitting without a smartphone is part of the same generation as someone who can barely remember shitting without one.
Smartphones have destroyed privacy, political discourse, focus, being present, cuddling, stopping for directions, listening to entire albums (I guess CDs helped kill that), writing love letters, and striking up conversation with the person sitting next to you at the bar, on the bus, or in the coffee shop. Young people have been robbed of learning the fine art of the shitter read, too. It was a joy too rich to capture in a story that's probably too long to read on your device.