I must be as crazy as the book I am discussing

I say this for two reasons: 1. I have decided to attempt the illusive PetchaKucha presentation style, probably because I am a sucker for punishment; and 2. because I think I ‘get’ The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman.

As I was reading the other night, I had an epiphany! Our course is about the history of reading, a history of reading would not be possible without also looking at the history of writing; the two concepts are nothing without each other. My argument is this: as convoluted, and usually quite confusing and frustrating, Tristram Shandy is to read I believe that Sterne’s choice to write in this fashion is to prove the power he holds as an author. We have already discussed how Sterne is aware of the limitations writing presents such as with imagery and an aural sense; however, we have not yet delved into the powers a written format enables. Sterne is flexing his authoritative power, using the power of the book to do what cannot be done in person; jumping around between ideas, digressions, interruptions, inexhaustible details about seemingly meaningless side tracks, none of these are things that would be tolerated in a conversation or lecture. Yet, Sterne provides all of these techniques and more in his novel it has found an audience for nearly 150 years. Authority is after all built upon the word author, so whether we find Tristram ‘believable’ or ‘trustworthy’ as a narrator he is in this case also to be considered the author of this extremely wrinkled story; therefore, he controls the narrative and the reader has a choice to let him lead as he may, or to close the book.

Sterne exemplifies Tristram’s father and Uncle Toby’s stories as justification to why Tristram writes in the manner he does; his style is influenced by the obsessive tendencies he has acquired from these main role models. Sterne, however, writes as he does because of his need to prove the liberties that may be taken in a written format.

Sterne and the reader are taking a journey down the same path only at different times and by different approaches. I will discuss how Sterne influences the reader’s knowledge through his peculiar writing style, and how he spits in the face of traditional writing styles. Through the scope of how he challenges the usual ‘function’ and ‘form’ of a book I will demonstrate Sterne’s Romantic tendencies.

In conclusion, I will demonstrate how The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman is not at all a book about nothing, but in fact a book overloaded with an overwhelming amount of everything even relatively pertinent to the story of Tristram’s life and opinions.

Discussion Questions:
1. Do you find Sterne’s technique for writing The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman radical or even revolutionary, or simply the ramblings of a madman?
2. Does the idea of Sterne’s flexing his authoritative power allow you to see the novel in a different light that provides a connection between the otherwise loosely related narrative?

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One Response to I must be as crazy as the book I am discussing

  1. Dylan Vaughan says:

    I am looking forward to your presentation! You have some really great ideas that are sure to provoke a lot of thought and discussion.

    I think that you are right about the interwined relationship between reading and writing. While our course is explicitly about the history of reading, the spectre of writing is almost always visible in the background. In fact, I think one could argue that all reading practices are necessarily informed by writing practices. Even our first text, Plato’s Phaedrus, gestures toward the interconnected relationship between reading and writing. Thamus, in his warnings against the newly invented system of writing, is concerned with the possible effects, and this emphasis on effects implies the presence of a reader. Perhaps one could even say that reading practices are always-already inscribed in writing practices and vice-versa? That they are both mutually constitutive?

    I also agree with you that Sterne is deliberately taking advantage of his role as an author and, in doing so, is taking advantage of us, the reader. I hereby charge him with 145,238 counts of gross misconduct. It seems to me as if Sterne is somewhat decadent in his writing style and is aware of the fact that he is in complete and utter control. The quote “absolute power corrupts absolutely” comes to mind when thinking about Sterne’s writing style. In the first volume of the text, there is a section where Tristram picks out an imaginary reader and tells her to re-read the previous chapter because she missed a piece of information regarding his mother. What makes this section so interesting is that I almost went back and re-read the previous chapter as well.

    However, I think it is also important to acknowledge the power of the reader. While Sterne can manipulate the reader to a certain degree, he can never completely control all aspects of his readership: who reads his text and how they extract significance from it. Our ability to make connections (or not make connections, despite Sterne’s efforts) will always create alternative readings that subvert or undermine any intended reading. Going further, it could also be argued that Sterne’s digressive style is what enables, or at least encourages, alternative readings of his text. As Sterne’s narrative spirals outwards, our readings spiral outwards in tandem, and connections proliferate like dandelions in a neglected garden.

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