Thursday, January 17, 2013

Book Review: Toilet: Public Restrooms and the Politics of Sharing edited by Harvey Molotch

It's my own fault I read this. I picked Toilet: Public Restrooms and the Politics of Sharing up vaguely hoping for something like Katherine Ashenburg's The Dirt on Clean or Mary Roach's Stiff, something unexpected, a bit whimsical, irreverent, and insightful. It wasn't until I got home that I realized I had a book of academic essays, a genre not generally known for whimsy.

I read Toilet anyway. There actually is a certain amount of whimsy in some of the pictures, so hurray? That didn't stop me from wanting to read a different book than the one I was holding. I kept wishing the authors had talked to one another. For example, it would have been so much more interesting if Terry S. Kogan, author of (takes a deep breath) "Sex Separation: The Cure-All for Victorian Social Anxiety," an essay insisting that separate gender toilets had helped keep Victorian women in their place, in a separate sphere, had talked Clara Greed, whose essay "Creating a Non-Sexist Restroom" argues (among other things) that women generally needed larger stall space than men; the combination of essays led me to conclude that those Victorian women might have been extremely glad the authorities had an attack of prudery, and I would have enjoyed some back and forth between them. Almost any two authors could have had a lively back-and-forth, something which would have made the book both livelier and more complex(1).

I mildly enjoyed Laura Noren's essay, "Only Dogs are Free to Pee: New York Cabbies' Search for Civility" on the New York taxi drivers. She actually went and talked to the people who were using (or in the case of the taxi drivers, not being able to use), the toilets(2). Irus Braverman's essay, "Potty Training: Non-Human Inspection in Public Washrooms" on the way toilet design affects--actually directs--our behavior in the stalls was quite interesting and is probably the only essay I'd actually recommend to the casually interested reader. I had hopes for Kamash's essay on Roman latrines, but it turned out to mostly say "We really don't know what their restroom etiquette was." Turns out there aren't many surviving writings or murals on the topic. I wonder why?

The rest of the essays? Very, very earnest. Very academic. Very focused. Very thoroughly titled. Probably worthy, but a little earnestness goes a long way.

Recommended? Not particularly.
(1) I know, I know: These essays are all written by harried academics who are squeezing research time in and around teaching, administrating, and trying to catch some sleep. They'd probably like the chance to chat, too. They just don't have the time. Like I said, it's my own fault for reading the book. I did know what I was letting myself in for.

(2) I also vaguely remember reading an article about this somewhere--The New Yorker?--so there was an odd, pre-existing tag to hang some of that on.

No comments:

Post a Comment