In the time of no toilet paper

I find myself feeling grateful to have such a large library of books. In these times of no toilet paper, I’ve got months of dual-purpose reading material, and it’s comforting to know that if the toilet paper shortage continues, we’ve got it covered.

Generally, I’d find myself gravitating to cheap paperbacks first, due to the type of paper used in printing them. Many utilize a grade of paper just above that of newsprint; it’s absorbent and when moistened is very pliable. Moreover, ink used to print books doesn’t rub off easily.

The same ease of utility cannot be said for the coated sheets used in coffee table books. Such publications use coated paper because image fidelity is better than it appears on uncoated paper like newsprint. However, the slickness imparted by the coating process makes it quite stiff and non-absorbent; further research and experimentation may yield more positive results.

Somewhere in-between lie the hardcover books, many of them quite old. The paper is uncoated, typically of a heavy type, that when damp is strong and flexible. In the past, paper was referred to by its “rag content,” a reference to the material added to paper-pulp derived from discarded cotton fabrics. Accordingly, paper from old hard-cover books is durable, and doubles quite well as a substitute for paper towels.

Choosing between books will be both satisfying and upsetting. Revisiting an old, beloved title reminds one of past pleasure while immersed within its pages; old memories come flooding back, and the occasional underlining or margin notes bring back a book’s immediacy of ideas. The idea of tearing out this page or that, deciding what’s important and what’s not, presents a quandary. Perhaps it’s best to simply begin on page one and proceed accordingly.

Rabelais’ aptly titled Gargantua and Pentagruel, written during the Renaissance, is a mighty 900 pages, good for at least a solid month of toilet tissue duty. The Philosophy of Nietzsche seems particularly well-suited, and its 339 pages offers the wiping power of an Ubermensch. Paul Johnson’s 1991The Birth of the Modern is a whopping 1050 pages long and features a paper stock a bit smooth but pliable; I’ve not checked the index to see if he covers the development of toilet paper. Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, is a nice 627 page hardcover of modest dimensions that will fit well on the toilet tank. I figure these four tomes alone are equal to at least 20 bundles of Scott Toilet rolls.

Toilet paper, as we Americans call it, (the sophisticated say “toilet tissue”) is not so uniformly named. In England, as my Londoner friend Richard noted in our FaceTime conversation this morning, (yes, there are shortages in London as well) toilet paper is called “loo rolls.” Loo refers to rooms with toilets, or what we sometimes call “water closets.” The etymology is unclear; one popular explanation is that “loo” is from the English cry of “gardyloo,” itself derived from the French “regardez l’eau” or “watch out for the water,” which was shouted by medieval servants emptying chamber pots of “night water” from windows out into the street.

The size of our library is very reassuring, but in the event we’re facing a toilet paper apocalypse stretching far into the future, I’m comforted by the thought that I can resort to some hefty handfuls of dried bamboo leaves littering the garden.

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