I've been thinking about reading Tristam Shandy, by Laurence Sterne, for a while. First I just thought about it. Then I talked to my neighbor down the street, a lit professor, who loves it, and that made me think about it for a while longer. Then I went to the library, but the library didn't have it, which bought me some more thinking time. Then I searched for it on Amazon, but I couldn't find a hardcover copy, and I didn't like that. So I thought about it some more. Finally I just bought a nice new Modern Library edition and read some of the introduction. That did me for a while, but eventually I began to feel like an intellectual dilettante despite my advanced degree in procrastination, and so I took up and read.
But you don't just read Tristam Shandy straight through. There's nothing straight through about Tristam Shandy. It's vignettes and by-the-ways and digressions and sentences that would make William Faulkner sit up and take notice of a master.
THE LIFE AND OPINIONS OF TRISTAM SHANDY, GENT.
I wish either my father or my mother, or indeed both of them, as they were in duty both equally bound to it, had minded what they were about when they begot me; had they duly consider'd how much depended upon what they were then doing;—that not only the production of a rational Being was concerned in it, but that possibly the happy formation and temperature of his body, perhaps his genius and the very cast of his mind;—and, for aught they knew to the contrary, even the fortunes of his whole house might take their turn from the humours and dispositions which were then uppermost;—Had they duly weighed and considered all this, and proceeded accordingly,—I am verily persuaded I should have made a quite different figure in the world, from that in which the reader is likely to see me.—Believe me, good folks, this is not so inconsiderable a thing as many of you may think it;—you have all, I dare say, heard of the animal spirits, as how they are transfused from father to son, &c. &c.—and a great deal to that purpose:—Well, you may take my word, that nine parts in ten of a man's sense or his nonsense, his successes and miscarriages in this world depend upon their motions and activity, and the different tracks and trains you put them into, so that when they are once set a-going, whether right or wrong, 'tis not a half-penny matter,—away they go cluttering like hey-go mad; and by treading the same steps over and over again, they presently make a road of it, as plain and as smooth as a garden-walk, which, when they are once used to, the Devil himself sometimes shall not be able to drive them off it.
Pray my Dear, quoth my mother, have you not forgot to wind up the clock?—Good G..! cried my father, making an exclamation, but taking care to moderate his voice at the same time,—Did ever woman, since the creation of the world, interrupt a man with such a silly question? Pray, what was your father saying?—Nothing.And that's chapter one, and very charming it is too, and as pretty an example of usage of em dashes as even a devotee such as myself could hope to see. And this absent-minded conception leads him to ponder in subsequent chapters the poor wee Homunculus making his way to the security of the womb; his good uncle Toby, from whom he learned the story of his conception; how he can be sure of the exact date of this occurence; how he was born under ill auspices; how he begs the reader's patience for taking a long time to get back to how he was born, with reflections on the beginning of a friendship; how his midwife received her license, with much bawdy punning about hobby horses; a reflection on hobby horses that leads him to write a dedication to any Lord who will purchase it; an advertisement for this dedication; back to the story: how the parson who paid for the midwife's license rode around on an old nag...
And that's as far as I've gotten, ten brief chapters, twelve pages, and I'm dizzy, I tell you. Tristam Shandy is a book of associations. One thing leads to another, rabbit holes and side roads galore, until you hardly remember what started everything off until Sterne yanks you back and you take one more step forward and ten all over the place. The reading map looks like one of those diagrams of how to dance.
And that's the point of Tristam Shandy, as I take it. Life isn't a straight line, from conception to wherever we're going next, which I still haven't figured out textwise. Everything is connected, and everything runs into everything else, and no man is an island, and neither are any of his thoughts. So I can't really tell how to read the thing, because I feel like if I read it in bite-sized chunks I'll forget what he was talking about earlier, and if I read it straight through in spates I'll get a headache. This doesn't make for promising readalong material. In fact, I only mention it here to hold myself accountable, because I feel like this is going to take at least a year, on and off, of intermittent binges and fasts, and reading the same line for a few days, and getting through a whole volume some other time. One matches one's reading to the material, and Sterne seems to invite just such an approach.