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Light Reading for Those, Uh, Private Moments

Books: With each new edition, 'Uncle John's Bathroom Reader' unearths more quick and quirky takes on the weirder side of life.

September 01, 1996|ROY RIVENBURG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

What Shakespeare is to the theater, John Javna is to the latrine.

Since 1988, his Bathroom Readers' Institute has been publishing books specifically designed for folks with, um, a little extra time on their hands, if you get our drift.

As literary genres go, it's an odd one. Each year, Javna and his research team compile a smorgasbord of pop culture trivia, strange lawsuits, weird obituaries, humorous quotes, obscure history and other bizarre tales into a new volume of "Uncle John's Bathroom Reader."

Some sample tidbits:

* The largest painting in the world is a 72,437-square-foot smiley face.

* A monkey was once tried and convicted for smoking a cigarette in Indiana.

* Several TV viewers took "Gilligan's Island" so seriously that they fired off telegrams to the Coast Guard asking it to rescue the lost party.

* The Cherry Sisters, an Iowa singing act, once sued the Des Moines Register for libel after the paper reviewed their show and wrote, "The mouths of their rancid features opened like caverns, and sounds like the wailings of damned souls issued therefrom." The judge had the sisters sing in court, then ruled in favor of the paper.

* 3,000 cows lose their lives to supply the NFL with enough leather for a year's worth of footballs.

Other topics range from the history of Astroturf to the genealogy of singer Wayne Newton, who is said to be a descendant of Pocahontas.

The books succeed, Javna theorizes, because "they go right to the heart of what interests baby boomers about the things around them."

It doesn't hurt that the stories and anecdotes--organized by length as well as subject--are written to be read in a quick sitting. According to a 1991 survey by the Scott Paper Co., more than two-thirds of people with master's degrees and doctorates read in the can. And about half of everyone else visits the privy with some sort of printed matter.

This is an audience waiting to sit down and be counted, Javna, 46, quips.

Not that the Bathroom Reader series is a completely original concept. Cecil Adams has been writing a similarly themed column (and books) called "The Straight Dope" since 1973, exploring such burning questions as "How many keys on a Chinese typewriter?" (usually 1,500) and "Can you avoid dying in a falling elevator by jumping into the air at the moment of impact?" (You can't.)

And during the 1950s, one publisher issued a fiction collection called "The Bathroom Reader."

But Javna--a former dollhouse manufacturer, helium-balloon salesman, gold-mine caretaker and hippie street-corner musician--seems to have turned lavatory literature into a mini-marketing phenomenon.

He urges bathroom book browsers to "come out of the water closet" and admit their habit. And each volume is graced with a photo of a ponytailed "scientist" in a lab coat, holding a pencil and clipboard, and the statement:

"For years, the Bathroom Readers' Institute has researched your bathroom reading habits in an attempt to understand and serve the interests of America's forgotten readers."

The "institute" consists of Javna and a colorful coterie of friends, including: Penelope Houston, former lead singer of punk rock's the Avengers; John Dollison, author of "Pope-Pourri," a compendium of weird Catholic trivia; Jack Mingo, who edited "The Whole Pop Catalog," a 608-page encyclopedia covering everything from ant farms to Mr. Potato Head; and Eric Lefcowitz, biographer of the Monkees.

Javna's credentials include work on such important literary masterpieces as "The TV Theme Song Sing-Along Songbook" and " '60s!" --the latter written with his brother, Gordon, who occasionally helps with the "Uncle John" series but spends most of his time these days building a microbrewery in White Plains, N.Y.

"People told me they read my [other] books in the bathroom," Javna says, "so that's where we got the idea for the Bathroom Reader."

Seven publishers rejected the concept before St. Martin's Press signed on in 1988. To date, the series has sold more than 1 million copies, Javna says.

Not everyone peruses the books while on the commode, however. Some readers bring them on airplanes, he says, and one new mother wrote to say she plowed through several volumes during 20 hours of labor.

The most touching letter, Javna says, came from a man who took a copy to his dying father. They'd had trouble communicating over the years, he explains, but in the hospital they read aloud from the book and it would spark a conversation.

Upcoming on Javna's agenda: "The Bathroom Readers' Guide to the Year 2000" and explorations of such topics as the origin of Pop Tarts, who cracked the Liberty Bell and Spam haiku.

He also has a serious side. In 1989, he published "50 Simple Things You Can Do to Save the Earth," a runaway bestseller. And he and his wife, who recently moved from Berkeley to Ashland, Ore., are now working to create an Ashland Children's Art and Science Museum.

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