Reading Practices: The Eighteenth Century versus the Modern Era

Allow me to excuse any vagueness of this prospectus by stating clearly the fact that this paper is still a work in progress and this prospectus serves mainly to illustrate my main areas of interest and sample the sources which I will use to investigate these interests.

This essay will investigate Eighteenth century and modern reading practices with Laurence Sterne’s “The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman” as its primary text. The continual references Sterne makes to the readers of his novel provide great insight into the expectations 18th century authors have of their contemporary readers, while at the same time illustrating differences between reading practices of their time and now. Sterne’s depth of scholarly knowledge and his many allusions to previous literature (real and fictional) can come across as intimidating and exhausting to the not-so-well-read reader, giving rise to the notion that the reader plays an important role in the understanding of and bringing to life of Sterne’s characters. How different the reactions to Sterne’s novel are between readers of the 18th century and modern readers, then, will be one of the primary concerns of this traditional (not blogged) paper. Sterne’s novel will therefore be explored in an effort to illustrate the potential differences and similarities of 18th century reading and modern reading.

The scholarly sources listed below will be used in conjunction with Tristram Shandy and will assist in my endeavouring to illuminate the similarities and differences between two different time-period’s reading practices. While most sources below are concerned with the 18th century in some way, I have also found sources which will discuss digital reading and the evolution of texts over time in the hands of different authors, publishers, editions, etc. detailing certain effects this has on the modern student. The sources concerned with the 18th century discuss “Novels” and their elevation as a writing format, the demographics of readers, and authors’ expectations of readers. While the list which follows is not the “final” works cited list for this essay, they are representative of the issues which will be explored throughout the paper.

These will be my main points of argumentation:
• The essay will take into consideration the fact that the 18th century readers of Tristram Shandy were of varying classes and, depending on to which class they belonged, their reactions to Tristram Shandy would have been favourable or hostile.
• The increasing popularity of the novel format and the way in which Sterne is aware of this trend will be elaborated upon in order to show that his digressions and non-linearity were intended as a defense against the rising body of works which were goal oriented and, in his mind, unproductive reading practices.
• This paper will also aim to uncover the differences and similarities among the traditional 18th century readers compared to digital/technological modern reader.

Annotated Bibliography (Not in Alphabetical Order):

Lupton, C. “Giving Power to the Medium: Recovering the 1750s”. Eighteenth Century:
Theory and Interpretation, 52(3-4). 2011: 289-302.

Lupton describes the material side of the novel and the interactions authors of the Eighteenth century have with physical books. Also, going a step further, she describes novels of this time period as works which anticipate their own reception. Applying her ideas onto Tristram Shandy will allow me to contextualize Sterne’s addresses to his readers and his insistence on their reading and education. For example, Lupton states that in the 1750s, “trumped-up authors parade knowledge of their books’ printed form while actually illustrating the sense in which its printed matter lies beyond their grasp,” giving “The Two Orphans” (1756) by William Toldervy as an example. Toldervy’s exposition includes instances such as, “those for whom these sheets are written,” or, “which we shall exhibit in the next chapter” (299). Sterne participates in these conventions, allowing extrapolation from Lupton’s discussion here, onto Sterne’s own work. Continuing from this discussion, Lupton emphasizes that not all 18th century novels are successful as entertainment and that “most were received with some hostility” (299). In our class discussion of Tristram Shandy, this feeling of “hostility” towards Sterne’s work was apparent and much of what she says on the readers of the 18th century overlaps with this reception. I feel that her analysis of the novels in the 18th century will be valuable in my investigation of the evolution of reading practices through a material perspective.

O’Driscoll, S. “Reading Through Desire: Interpretive Practices for Eighteenth-Century
Popular Culture”. British Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies, 29(2). 2006: 237-251.

O’Driscoll offers much insight into the demographics of literacy and class in the 18th century, and applies this information onto the reading of ‘Pamphlet Literature.’ While ‘Pamphlet Literature’ is not wholly interesting in this discussion of 18th Century readings of Tristram Shandy compared to our reading of it in English 503, the insights she provides will be included in determining the intended audience and the reception of Sterne’s novel. Her comments on the upper classes portraying the reading practices of the lower classes, for one, as having “nothing pure about the activity” (238), will potentially be helpful in reading Sterne’s addresses to his readers during his meta-fictional breaks from his history. As well, her discussions on the “ambivalence of the middling classes toward the labouring classes” (239) will be useful in framing and contextualizing Sterne’s characters and their stature in society for the purposes of contemporary interpretations versus our own.

Drury, J. “The Novel and the Machine in the Eighteenth Century”. Novel: A Forum on
Fiction, 42(2). 2009: 337-342.

Drury gives much insight into the growing popularity of novels during the 18th century and details the resistance to conventional novel-styles from authors like Laurence Sterne. He also gives a somewhat comprehensive evolution of the history of the novel during this time period. Plot lines and narratives which reach an end are of importance in his paper, giving arguments to support the claim that Sterne flouts conventional writing techniques and wishes, instead, to engage in conversational, digressive, allusive writing of an “older model.” Drury states, for example, that “Tristram declares his book remarkable for the “deep erudition and knowledge” with which it supplements the usual fare of plot and “adventures.”” This source will enhance my argumentation in that I wish to discuss in some detail the narrative effects of Sterne, his awareness of the literary trends of his time, and contrast the impressions this would have given an 18th century reader with a modern reader.

Diaz, J. T. “The Digital Archive as a Tool for Close Reading in the Undergraduate Literature
Course”. Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition, and Culture, 12(3). 2012: 425-447.

Diaz, who writes specifically on Early English Books Online (EEBO), gives instances of students engaging with digitally formatted texts and compares these digital texts with, say, a Norton anthology physical text. She discusses the changes that happen to texts over time when in the hands of different authors, publishers, etc., and the ways in which being aware of this fact enhances students’ interpretive strength when reading. In comparing the poem ‘Easter Wings’ as it appears in the Norton to the digital copy of it on EEBO, she states, “regardless of which version students prefer, they acquire an insight into how printing and editing practices inform our close reading practices. In addition, they also learn to see these “errors” as moments of insight into the poet’s art; as Random Cloud has observed in his brilliant study of the poem, “the modern critical and editorial confusion about the number of ‘Easter Wings’ poems could be said to emanate from equivocation at the very core of Herbert’s artistic practice”” (83). These moments of comparison between traditional and digital reading will allow me to contrast the ways in which our class engaged with Tristram Shandy and, therefore, how the modern reader would engage with it as well.

Again, these sources should not be taken as a comprehensive list of works which I will cite, only as being representative of the major points I wish to address in my paper to come.

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One Response to Reading Practices: The Eighteenth Century versus the Modern Era

  1. ullyot says:

    A very solid and engaging prospectus; I’m looking forward to seeing the paper.

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