Some monomanias stick. All readers have obsessions of varying degrees of seriousness and duration. Among mine are biographies of jazz musicians, the American Civil War, the history of Communism, etymology and entomology, Judaism, George Santayana and, lately, boxing. It says something about the nature of a committed reader – that is, me – that I would rather read about the Sweet Science than actually go to a fight. I could never take seriously the reader who subsists on a strict diet of Jane Austen and memorizes her novels like an idiot savant. That’s a smear of provincially minded readers, not Austen.
A reader’s life is Shandean, digressive, forever looping back to books consumed days or decades ago. It has a beginning, middle and end, as does Sterne’s great novel, but it has been shuffled like a croupier’s deck. No one, not even the reader, disentangles the palimpsest of a bookish life. I’m again reading minor Sterne, Journal to Eliza, written in the summer of 1767 as he died of tuberculosis by increments. Each of his books dramatizes a race with death: So long as his narrator (a stylized Sterne) keeps writing, he lives. He writes his diary-letters as Parson Yorick to the latest of his infatuations, Mrs. Elizabeth Draper. Both were married. Here is the delicious entry from this date, July 8:
“--eating my fowl and my trouts & my cream & my strawberries, as melancholy as a Cat; for want of you—by the by, I have got one which sits quietly besides me, purring all day to my sorrows—& looking up gravely from time to time in my face, as if she knew my Situation.—how soothable my heart is Eliza, when such little things sooth it! for in some pathetic sinkings I feel even some support from this poor Cat—I attend to her purrings, & think they harmonize me—they are pianissimo at least & do not disturb me.—poor Yorick! to be driven, with all his sensibilities, to these resources—all powerful Eliza, that has had this magic! authority over him; to bend him thus to the dust—But I’ll have my revenge, Hussy!”
There are readers who find Sterne insufferable – his sentimental longueurs, his smut, his prose that fills pages and goes nowhere. For me, he’s a comfort, a sustained serial monomania for forty-five years.
[The passage quoted at the top is from “The digital challenge, I: Loss & gain,or the fate of the book,” by Anthony Daniels (aka Theodore Dalrymple).]