Photo: Alan Gee
In America, February 9th is National Read in the Bathtub Day. Though I found this out recently, reading in the bathtub has been my favourite secret pastime since childhood (I have librarian relatives who would be very upset with me if they found out I was taking their beloved hardcovers into the bath and getting the pages all wrinkly). Some of my best snowy days were spent hanging out in the tub reading my little brother’s Asterix comics and the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
There is a fundamental inconvenience to reading in the bathtub, though: the temporal limit. You inevitably won’t have gotten all that far into your reading before your toes turn all pruney and the water’s lukewarm at best and you have to turn from your book to the bothersome business of washing your armpits and getting out into the cold wrapped in nothing but a terrycloth towel.
This year, on National Read in the Bathtub Day, I decided to celebrate this inherent flaw in the plan by compiling a list of some of the things you will never have time to read, even if you stay in the tub long past the pruney-fingers stage (or even long past the point when the water in the bathtub has evaporated out and gone to join the rest of the water up in the sky as clouds, only to later rain down on the forests of the Amazon somewhere).
1. All the National Geographics
The publication of the National Geographic Society and its trademark yellow rectangle came into existence in 1888. Since then, they’ve published an issue a month, so there are roughly 1,500 extant issues. Even reading one issue a day, it would take four years to catch up, during which time an additional 48 issues would have been produced. Most of us don’t have that kind of time to spare, so it’s probably best to admit defeat (it was never a race anyway) and just enjoy National Geographic as an endless trove of wonder for a rainy day.
I once met someone who lived in a yurt in the woods with two horses, a flock of sheep, three dogs, and every issue of NG ever published since 1946. She seemed to have an excellent approach to life.
2. The United States Code
According to the US government printing office, “the United States Code is the codification by subject matter of the general and permanent laws of the United States.” Essentially, it’s an attempt at agglomerating US federal law. Currently, there are 51 broad categories (called titles), each with myriad subsections. A new physical copy gets printed every six years, and the length of the last edition is somewhere around 200,000 pages.
For Americans at least, then, it seems that ignorance of the law does not excuse, but full knowledge of the law is impossible. In light of that, I might just keep reading National Geographic instead.
This one is admittedly a bit self-evident — to try to read the largest encyclopedia in the world would be a futile endeavour, as material is added to it faster than one can read. Instead, Wikipedia serves as a sort of endless supply of information, a perennial reminder that despite the considerable ills of modern civilization, we live in an age where anyone anywhere in the world with an internet connection can look up, say, who Luther Blissett is, or the regional usage of the word y’all in the continental United States. (Is instant access to lists of the most poisonous mushrooms in the world what makes us global citizens?)
4. Raymond Queneau’s hundred thousand billion poems
Raymond Queneau was a French author who founded a literature society (the Oulipo) whose main goal was to push the boundaries of experimental literature. A Hundred Thousand Billion Poems is a series of ten sonnets that all have the same rhyme scheme and can therefore be scrambled at will. The idea is that to create a poem, you have ten choices for each of a sonnet’s fourteen lines, giving 1014 (or a hundred thousand billion) possible poems.
As a preface, Queneau wrote,
The work you are holding in your hands represents, itself alone, a quantity of text far greater than everything man has written since the invention of writing, including popular novels, business letters, diplomatic correspondence, private mail, rough drafts thrown into the wastebasket, and graffiti.
Brilliant? Arrogant? No consensus exists, but in any case, no one will be reading all of Raymond Queneau’s poems anytime soon.
5. War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy
War and Peace is sometimes held up as the archetypal work that one can never finish. For good reason — it consists of four volumes, 1,440 pages, and almost 600,000 words. Despite this, many people find it worthwhile to try — Tolstoy’s momentous account of the Napoleonic era in Tsarist Russia is widely considered to be one of the greatest works of world literature.
I can’t say I would know, though — I’ve never tried reading it. It probably can be done, because my roommate once spent an entire summer in her hammock on our balcony in Montreal reading it and got about halfway. From this, I gather that you can in fact read War and Peace, provided you’re willing to spend two summers in a hammock on a balcony doing so. Admittedly, that doesn’t sound so bad.