An Essay by Simon Winchester
I was deep in the water and deep in a book, reading. It was early on a Friday morning in the spring of 1998, and I was soaking in a warm and soap-scented bath. I will always remember the book: it was Jonathon Green’s Chasing the Sun, and on this particular dawning my eye was drawn to a footnote that said, loosely: readers will of course know the story of W.C. Minor, the American lunatic and murderer, who from his asylum cell was so intimately involved with the making of the Oxford English Dictionary.
I remember the book, the bath – and the time. For as soon as I had read the footnote, and was duly astonished by the curious lexical conjunction – lunatic, American, murderer, OED, cell, asylum - I picked up the phone beside the tub, noted that across the Atlantic in Oxford it would be 12.15pm, just before lunch, and dialed a long-remembered number. My friend there answered – the consequent conversation starting me on the journey that led to my writing my first successful book, The Professor and the Madman.
But before she hung up that morning my Oxford friend asked: tell me – do you always read in the bath? I said yes, and she giggled with pleasure. Me too, she responded; a glass of whisky, a hot soak and a good book – what could possibly be nicer?
Or what could possibly go wrong? Ablutionary reading is a pastime fraught with small dangers – mainly concerning the soddening of the lower half of any volume’s pages. So I make my immersive preparations with some precision.
I shower first, arriving at the bath entirely clean. I fill the clawfoot to a carefully measured height and take care to use foaming salts that won’t produce unruly mounds of bubbles. I get in, settle back, towel my hands dry, reach for the book that is kept in the caddy and then read away, disturbed only by the occasional ripple, or by the dog attempting to lean in and chase the declining Himalayas of foam.
Only topping-up with hot water involves disturbance, and potential disaster. I once bathed in a Berkshires mansion built by a Thirties nickel magnate, and his baths had nickel faucets with extensions two feet long, movable with the toes and making the reading experience incomparable. I spent so long immersed there that I have not been invited back.
Books in my view should be bath-compatible – they should ideally never be of a length, and therefore a weight, that makes reading them unmanageable. Applying this rule I’ve never read War and Peace, nor Infinite Jest, nor A Suitable Boy while steeping: the arms get so tired. Pachinko is about as much as I can do.
And I have to confess a fondness for the even more slender. My guiltiest bathroom secret vice these days concerns a ritual: that when the catalog from the Vermont Country Store arrives in the mailbox I soak with it for hours, since it is light to hold, fun to read, and presents no problem if it falls in when I drift off to asleep. Not that its pages are waterproof: it is just as with all catalogs, another will be sure to come in the mail, needed or not.
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