Thursday, September 19, 2019

'The Life, the Soul of Reading'

“The biggest mystery so far is how did I wind up with four copies of Tristram Shandy?

The poser of the mystery is my friend Melissa Kean, our university historian. As she explains, “I spent most of the weekend happily moving my books back into the house after having been separated from them for almost two years.” Bookish separation anxiety each year claims scores of serious readers. But Melissa is wrong. That’s no mystery at all. I also own four copies of Sterne’s novel, including three-volume and two-volume editions. That’s a lot of needlessly redundant shelf space being consumed, and more prudent, less greedy readers will no doubt object.

So why do I keep them? The sensitive answer is, “So I can give them to deserving readers,” which is self-serving hogwash. I have no intention of giving them away. I no longer have the first copy of the novel I read as a sophomore, which is probably a blessing. I’m spared the witless annotations (Symbolism!) with which I no doubt vandalized the book. The professor who taught “The 18th-Century English Novel” (which included Don Quixote and John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor on the required reading list) was an enthusiastic proselytizer for Sterne’s novel. She had a raunchy sense of humor compatible with my own. She was a scholar of the eighteenth century but not a wet blanket. Books were there to be enjoyed. One derives pleasure from books. If one doesn’t, something – reader or book – is wrong.  

The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman was published in nine volumes between 1759 and 1766. In its day it was a bestseller. It made Sterne, already sick with the tuberculosis that would kill him in 1768, a celebrity of the fashionable salons. His eponymous hero, too, was dying of consumption. So long as he continued writing, he would go on living. What do our favorite books have in common? The answer is obvious but somewhat formless and subjective: The sensibilities of their authors are interesting. We use the same criterion when choosing friends. There are many ways to be dull and even more ways to be interesting. Part of Sterne’s charm is his non-recognition of Euclidean geometry. The shortest distance between two points may or may not be a straight line, but who cares? The long way around is often more entertaining. Consider the line Corporal Trim traces with his walking stick. Consider the prose of Montaigne, Burton and Lamb. Consider the narrator’s apologia:  

“Digressions, incontestably, are the sunshine; —& they are the life, the soul of reading; — take them out of this book for instance, — you might as well take the book along with them.”

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