#62 The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, Laurence Sterne



Ah, the profoundly put-downable Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy. My old nemesis.

Tristram Shandy had it out for me from the beginning. That’s how it looked from where I was sitting, anyway. I picked it up with wildly inaccurate expectations, having read several Amazon reviews describing this 18th-century faux-autobiography as “hilarious.”

It is not hilarious.

It is an incomprehensible, unrewarding chore of a book.

Tristram Shandy‘s user-unfriendly utter unreadability stems largely from its devotion to digression. Digression is Tristram Shandy‘s partner in crime, its lifelong companion and its soul mate, while Plot is a sporadic business trip mistress who’s always complaining they don’t spend enough time together. Digression shows up, unwelcome, mid-sentence, mid-paragraph, mid-chapter, and between chapters. (Notice that was “and,” not “or.”) Digression is the rule and ruler in Tristram territory.

Add to this Sterne’s stormy refusal to relate any of the book’s events in chronological order, and you’ve got leather-bound misery between your hands.

You don’t believe me, do you? You are putting on your shoes to trudge to the nearest bookshop, or hovering over an Amazon shopping cart, aren’t you?

Well, just for the record, here’s Sterne’s attempt to define the word “nose”:

I define a nose as follows – entreating only beforehand, and beseeching my readers, both male and female, of what age, complexion, and condition soever, for the love of God and their own souls, to guard against the temptations and suggestions of the devil, and suffer him by no art of wile to put any other ideas into their minds, than what I put into my definition – for by the word Nose, throughout all this long chapter of noses, and in every other part of my work, where the word Nose occurs – I declare, by that word I mean a nose, and nothing more, nothing less.

This is, by the way, one of the more straightforward excerpts I could find.

Imagine the glitter bomb of gratification and relief I felt, after that whole “hilarious” Amazon review prank, when I stumbled upon Shmoop’s Tough-o-Meter rating for Tristram Shandy: an 11/10, or a “Mount Everest” among books. As they put it,

[Sterne] leaves people stranded on a staircase and only comes back to them five chapters later; he introduces three different versions of himself; and he writes entire chapters in Latin.

So, yeah, I’m feeling a little less embarrassed that it took me something like six months to slog my way through Tristram, page by agonizing page. Needless to say, I got little out of the experience and am waiting for literary karma to make it up to me with some buried treasure of a book. Or, like, a random house call from Harper Lee.

[Five-minute fantasy break.]

The good news? Now that I’m done reading and reviewing this tangled up Life and Opinions, I can make a solemn vow never to speak of it again.

Is It One of the 100 Greatest—according to me, anyway—because I wouldn’t want to blindly accept the judgment of a bunch of barely credible publications and a so-called algorithm—who even needs math, amirite?—well, except for, like, architects—all both of them—wait, did we ever even bother to define “Greatest”?—meh, let’s not and say we did—Books of All Time?


Favorite Quotes

(…Well, Relatively):

There is nothing more pleasing to a traveller – or more terrible to travel-writers, than a large rich plain; especially if it is without great rivers or bridges; and presents nothing to the eye, but one unvaried picture of plenty: for after they have once told you, that ‘tis delicious! or delightful! (as the case happens) – that the soil was grateful, and that nature pours out all her abundance, etc. . . . they have then a large plain upon their hands, which they know not what to do with – and which is of little or no use to them but to carry them to some town; and that town, perhaps of little more, but a new place to start from to the next plain and so on.

We live in a world beset on all sides with mysteries and riddles – and so ‘tis no matter – else it seems strange, that nature, who makes everything so well to answer its destination, and seldom or never errs, unless for pastime, in giving such forms and aptitudes to whatever passes through her hands, that whether she designs for the plough, the caravan, the card – or whatever other creature she models, be it but an ass’s foal, you are sure to have the thing you wanted; and yet at the same time should so eternally bungle it as she does.

Read: 2015

How Long Does It Take to Read Your Favorite Books? (Personal Creations)

For me, as for (probably) many others, approaching the finish line of any book is enough motivation to shift into a determined sprint and put the whole race behind me as quickly as possible.

Most of the time.

Tristram Shandy, however, is sitting at the edge of my desk, staring up at me with the mournful eyes of a motherless marmoset. I have exactly twelve pages left. And I will be leaving them for tomorrow.

You could call my struggle with Mr. Shandy a marathon, but only if it’s the kind of marathon in which I jogged halfheartedly for a bit, fell behind a row of six cancer survivors wearing assless chaps and platinum wigs (making any form of concentration impossible), wandered off the track and sat down on the sidelines for a while, drinking wine and harassing passers-by, walked the other twenty miles, came in dead last, and still called it a victory.

With so little left to read, you’d think—I’d think—I’d just want to get it over with at this point. You’d think I’d be ready to bask in the vague satisfaction of, if not a job well done, then a job technically completed.

But the five to ten pages I’ve been forcing myself to read every day for the last, oh, eternity, have been painful enough. Each word is like a wilting fern to the imagination, and each chapter is like a paper cut to the eye. I don’t know if all those Amazon reviewers were conspiring to play a prank on me when they called Tristram Shandy “hilarious,” or if I just didn’t get the joke. I’ll probably never know, and just have to live with that.

This is the primary reason I found Personal Creations’s infographic on the time it takes to read popular books a little bit amusing and a little bit presumptuous. Sure, if we sit down to read The Great Gatsby and never get up again until he’s The Dead Gatsby, and we happen to read exactly 300 words per minute, it might take 2.62 hours. But for all of us with lives that interrupt that sort of undertaking, this estimate feels like a taunt.

I will not be mocked by your infographic with its cutesy book scale, Personal Creations. I will not let you convince me that Gone With the Wind can be read in less than a day. I will take six months to read Tristram Shandy if I must, sentence by inane sentence, and then spend another six months on Lolita if that book is terrible too. WATCH ME. I’ll do it, so I will.

Oh, and Tristram: I’m coming for you tomorrow. And I will end you, literally. I admire your tenacity, but you haven’t defeated me yet. Let’s do this now so I can go on vacation with Bridget Jones—a book that is actually hilarious.