Incarnational literary studies: Exam Reading Week 2

This week I read:

  • Part of Cathy N. Davidson’s Revolution and the Word: The Rise of the Novel in America
  • Part of The Intimacy of Paper in Early and Nineteenth-Century American Literature by Jonathan Senchyne
  • The second half of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress
  • Mary Rowlandson’s Captivity and Restoration
  • A wee tiny bit of John Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding

Reading a number of different things this week was nice. The Bunyan and the Rowlandson were quick and now out of the way (I did enjoy them! It’s just nice to get things finished). I’ve decided that to tackle the Locke (and probably any other philosophical works), I’m going to kind of let it wash over me, while still taking notes. Trying to parse out every little point will make it take far too long. And speaking of taking a long time, I’ll be reading it in small pieces over a couple of weeks so I don’t get bogged down in it and get stuck there.

The scholarly books were both very interesting. Davidson’s book is from the mid-eighties, and its one of those “foundational in its field” academic books. That is, it shaped the way the field looks today, and most scholars after her reference this book. I haven’t encountered much about the earliest American novels before, since in both high school and college classes the American novel tends to begin with “the greats” – e.g. Hawthorne, Melville, perhaps Fenimore Cooper. I didn’t even know there were earlier American novels until I started my PhD! It’s true that the American novel was rather late to the scene — the first one was published in 1789–but there were about a hundred early novels that don’t really get talked about much. I enjoy the information, and, for the most part, the analysis, that Davidson provides, although her approach is very overtly feminist and marxist. This isn’t surprising; it’s the normal approach today and was even more normal in the 80s, but I tire of these interpretive approaches, really.

The Senchyne is the text I want to focus on this week, despite only having read the Introduction so far. But to get to my point, I must first provide some Context.

I’ve been meeting a lot of new people lately, which leads to a lot of “what do you do?” questions. When I mention I’m doing a PhD, the follow-up question is usually “what do you want to do with that?” and the answer is, I don’t know. I am increasingly dissatisfied with the state of Academia–it’s become more of an ideological bubble than ever before, it’s struggling in all sorts of ways, the jobs available continue to shrink, and frankly, I don’t think that there is a place in academia for the questions I ultimately want to engage. Really, the idea of becoming a stay-at-home mom who scribbles at stories and ideas after the kids are in bed becomes more and more attractive.

That doubt, of course, leads to further doubts–should I still be doing this PhD? Would my time be better spent elsewhere? Some of these doubts, fortunately, have been eased by the beginning of the semester. I like doing a deep dive into a topic (which is what exam reading ultimately is, in spades), I like teaching (though I could do without the grading), I like the generally busy and convivial air of the lively campus.

It’s odd that I’m doing work in print culture, because I firmly believe that a traditional, classical approach to the humanities is the best–close reading and discussion of the Major Canon, and so on. Why then, am I rummaging around in the dusty corners of the archive? Why am I concerning myself with books that nobody has read in hundreds of years? Why am I doing what is essentially historical, and not so much literary, work? What is an Orthodox way to approach literary study? How do I bring my understanding of the world to my work? It’s hard to do, because of that ideological bubble I mentioned above.

Reading the Senchyne introduction helped me answer some of those questions.

Senchyne mentions at one point that print culture/book history/bibliography–terms that describe slightly different approaches to studying the material and social contexts of books, instead of the abstract contents (or in addition to, I suppose)–are often set against the predominance of Critical Theory, which is very abstract and concerned solely with Ideas. Senchyne goes on to argue that the two things–material and Idea, print culture and critical theory–are not opposed, and I suppose he’s right.

But his mention of this potential duality helped me see clearly something I’ve been sensing intuitively. I am doing print culture because I enjoy it, and part of the reason I enjoy it is that it’s not critical theory, which I dislike. I may be burned at the stake for heresy if any of my colleagues or professors ever read this, but it’s true. I find it difficult and, frankly, mostly pointless. Treating theories as lenses that help us explore books in different ways is useful, sometimes, if they are good lenses, but Theory has become something like a religion or a worldview (or an identity?) in academic circles, (and they’re not good lenses usually) and, well, no thank you.

Focusing on materiality helps to balance the at-times extreme, almost gnostic, abstract world of theory. But materialists often go too far (I’m looking at you, thing theory), and ascribe to material more agency than it ought to possess; it becomes almost mystical, and often collapses the distinction between objects and people.

What literary study is looking for, I realized, is incarnational approaches. The Incarnation (yes that Incarnation) is in one degree about the marriage of spirit and material; it is God-become-Man. Literary study is struggling to find a way to approach both the ideas that a book or poem or play contains, the truth they invite us to uncover, and also the way that those ideas are contained in physical objects and impact actual people. The incarnational approach may offer a way to integrate those two apparently disparate approaches into one coherent whole. But even more important, by thinking incarnationally instead of gnostically or materially, we invite an entirely different way of thinking about literature, one that is open to the Orthodox, spiritual, way of seeing the world. It could be an escape from the ultimately materialist, modernist and post-modernist ways of reading that infuse the academy right now.

Don’t ask what the incarnational approach actually looks like. I have no idea. I had this thought literally yesterday. But as I keep reading and preparing for exams, I’m going to start trying to figure it out.

A Beginning: Exam Reading Week 1

Confused? See my last post for Explanations.

I tried to begin my exam reading in earnest back in May, and it was such a slog. I felt like each page read was hard-won, and the one day that I did read all I planned to I ended up with a tension headache from eye strain. So I took a break.
Looking towards the beginning of the semester (the time I told myself I would begin my reading, and high time, too), I was worried I would have the same struggle. But friends, I did not!

It helped that I began with a book I was looking forward to reading: Abigail Williams’ The Book In Society, a scholarly book about the social aspects of reading in the 18th century. The topic was fascinating, and Williams was engaging, and thus I conquered the first book in list three. According to Williams, reading was a highly social activity; throughout the century there was an elocution fad, and lots of books and opinions on how to read aloud “correctly.” People read together, often pausing for discussion, to while away the hours during the evenings or bad weather. Lower classes would take turns reading (if there was more than one person literate), as they sat around and worked at carpentry or whatever. There was even a market for book-related merchandise–statues of beloved characters, tea sets and fans with quotes from favorite books. Williams did a great job of evoking the eclectic, sociable world of books in this time, with examples from an impressive swath of diarists and letter-writers, male and female.

I also finished Tom Jones, which I had begun in January. It is long–my edition clocks in at almost 900 pages — but it shouldn’t have taken me that long to read. I’ve been poking away at this book for a couple of weeks, but never reading more than thirty or so pages every couple of days. That was enough, however, for me to start to suspect that about 200 pages from the end I’d get hooked, and find my pace pick up, and that is exactly what happened. Despite my mostly slow reading pace, I thoroughly enjoyed Tom Jones. It is the story of a young man, a foundling, who is raised by a country squire, Mr. Allworthy. Tom is brought up with Mr. Allworthy’s nephew, and falls in love with his neighbor, the lovely Sophia. When Tom, through the malice of his enemies and also through his own fault, is cast away from Mr. Allworthy’s presence, he embarks on an often-madcap journey around England that takes him eventually to London. Along the way, he begins to grow, and become a man who is worthy of Sophia.

One of the things I enjoyed about the story is the strong presence of the narrator. The first chapter of each book is a discussion of an idea of some sort, usually relating to this new genre we now call the novel, or about writing, or about virtue. And the narrator often addresses the reader directly throughout the narrative. Indeed, in the last book, he says, effectively, “we have so much plot to get through in this book I won’t be commenting,” and you know, I missed it. One of my favorite narrative moves is when the narrator often says something like “and then they had a conversation about such and such, but that’s not interesting/relevant, so we’ll move on.” It’s such a neat trick–it implies that this conversation does take place, which adds depth and richness to the novel, while adding little in the way of words, of which this novel already has so many.

There’s so much in Tom Jones, and I simply have not had the time to explore its themes. I plan to continue to engage with the book after reading some scholarship about it to help me get a handle on it. But I definitely recommend it. Take it slow, and enjoy the journey! Not only is it a good story (with an amazing plot twist I did not see coming right towards the end), it does an excellent job of depicting (and satirizing) mid-eighteenth-century culture.

On to week 2!

PhD Exams: Overview

Between now and March I will be reading for my PhD exams. Partly as a way to keep myself accountable, and partly because others might find it interesting to get a glimpse into this strange time of the PhD experience, I’ve decided that each week, I will list what I’ve read since the last post, and choose one of those texts and do a short review/analysis/discussion of it. This will also be great for anyone curious about eighteenth century British and American literature; we’re covering it alllll.

But before that, what even are PhD exams? Consider this the “info dump,” overview, explainy post. Don’t really care? Come back this weekend for the literature. (Or check out the archive if you’re from the future. Hi there! How are things?)


Have you ever wondered what it entails when someone in a PhD program says they have exams? Or are you considering a PhD program yourself and wondering about the experience? Or do you just want to know why I’m reading a bajillion books* in six months? This is the post for you.

A caveat: this explanation is specific to the program (*school redacted*) and field (literature) I’m in. How this works varies from school to school and program to program, so your experience (or your friend’s) may be different. And by “may” I mean “definitely will.”

So you start a PhD program in literature. Here in the US, that usually means you take a few years of classes, then have your oral or comprehensive exams, then write a dissertation (a book-length scholarly project). This semester, I’m beginning the “exam” phase.

The purpose of the exam is twofold: to prepare you to teach by giving you the chance to read and study all the major literature of your chosen period, and to help you explore the ideas and questions that you hope to work on in your dissertation through a list of secondary (scholarly) books and articles.

The first thing you do is put together your exam committee. This involves identifying 3 professors who do work in or adjacent to your proposed field of study, and asking them to be your committee. They will help you develop your reading lists, and provide the exam questions. Typically, one of these professors is the chair, or head, of the committee. They are the one you work most closely with, and the one that has the final say in your lists, etc. (And they’re responsible for the administrative paperwork.)

I did this last fall. I met with the professor I wanted to be my chair (Professor C, for chair), and asked him if he would. We discussed the (very vague) research direction I’d like to go in for my future dissertation, and he agreed that our interests overlapped enough that he would be a good choice. I picked this professor first because his interests align with mine, in terms of period (the literal time period, which for me is 1700-1830 British and American literature), method (the way you approach analysis: print culture and historiography) and specific interests (the reading and writing practices of ordinary people of this time). I also picked him because I’ve taken several of his classes and know we work well together. This is best-case scenario; sometimes the professor you need hasn’t taught during your “take classes phase.” In this case, I strongly recommend trying to get to know them by meeting with them a few times to chat about your interests.

After meeting with Professor C, I asked the other two profs, Professor 2 and Professor 3. I chose these professors to help fill in ‘gaps’ in Professor C’s expertise, to help give me a more rounded exam list. For example Professor 2 does work with 18th century British literature, while Professor C is more focused on American, so they balance each other out.

In the spring, I started writing my lists. I did this by looking at lists written by other students in my program, googling and finding lists from students at other schools who were doing similar work, and by asking my professors for suggestions. After a few rounds of back and forth with each, I finalized the lists. They will still fluctuate as I do my reading; I’ll run out of time to get to *everything*, and I may find books that are more relevant than others on my list currently and switch them, things like that. But they are on the books as “officially approved,” which is what matters.

The exam list has three parts: primary literature, secondary literature, and scholarship. For a lot of people, the primary list is the books in the genre or sub-field they most want to work in, and the secondary list is more of a survey. For example, you might have list one be “American postmodern encyclopedic novels,” and list two be “general American lit from 1860.”** I’ve arranged things a little differently, as I’m essentially “double majoring” in British and American literature, so the subordination of “primary” and “secondary” doesn’t really matter. The primary list is primary because Professor C. is an Americanist, not because it’s most important. So you see, within the general practice there is a lot of individualized variation, at least at my school.

My first list is major works of American literature 1700-1830. You might recognize names like Cotton Mather, Jonathan Edwards, Washington Irving, Thomas Jefferson, and James Fenimore Cooper. Also, while 1700-1830 is a pretty typical time frame that scholars use (there were some big shifts in the 1830s after a lot of continuity), most American lit I courses in college go to 1860, so I’ve added some of the big hits to prepare me to teach–books like The Scarlet Letter, Moby Dick, and the poetry of Walt Whitman show up for that reason.

My second list is major works of British literature 1700-1830. Did I say 1830 so I could get Jane Austen on this list? I’ll never tell ūüėá. Since I’m focusing on novels in my research, I have a lot of novels on this list (and the other one, too, but there are far fewer American novels published in this time frame). Robinson Crusoe, Pamela, Tom Jones, Tristram Shandy; Maria Edgeworth, Fanny Burney, Anne Radcliffe, Jane Austen, Mary Shelley (there were a LOT of female authors in the second half of the 18th century). It also includes poetry and prose, from writers like Samuel Johnson and Alexander Pope.

My third list is secondary scholarship about reading and print culture. I’m looking at general scholarly takes on print culture, on books about reading specifically, and also books about the relationship between reading and education. For the curious, “print culture” is the study of printed things — books, pamphlets, broadsides, newspapers, etc.–and the way people interacted with them as objects.

I was actually supposed to begin reading in the spring, through the summer, and take my exams late this fall. But between the chaos of the world and getting married in March, I got to May and was staring burnout in the face, and so arranged to push things back and take the summer off. I’m so thankful that my department is willing to work with us to arrange things like that when we need them.

So! Tune in this weekend for some thoughts on the first books I’ve been reading.

  • *It’s actually something in the neighborhood of 130; this includes long books like Tom Jones (almost 900 pages), parts of nonfiction books, essays, average-sized books, collections of poetry, and single poems. So it’s a lot of things, but at least some of those things are short.

**This is a real example.

2021: Exam Year, Reading Year

Hello, friends!

I’ve been toying with the idea of blogging a bit about my PhD exams reading. As you know if you’ve followed me at all, I’m not great at sticking to a schedule, but I think that writing about the books I’m reading for my exams would be a helpful way to study, and doing it blog-style could be fun! If you’d like a ~weekly glance into my exams prep and reading, would you drop me a comment and say so? Knowing that even a few people are interested would help my motivation greatly!

What even are PhD exams? Well, they vary between subject and field, but basically this is when you do all the reading that makes you an Expert‚ĄĘ in your field. My field is 18th century British and American literature, so this year I’ll be reading all the major canonical works by British and American writers from roughly 1700-1830 (with a few outside exceptions at either end). I thought blogging about this would be particularly interesting as 18th century literature is under-read compared to the Victorians.

I haven’t yet officially begun my reading, as the first draft of my list is currently under review by the chair of my exam committee,* so for now I’m tackling Tom Jones and will continue to contemplate what this series might look like. I’m imagining a combination of book reviews, close looks at particular literary trends, discussions of the process, etc.

(And maybe in the mix I’ll finally finish those back-reviews I promised last summer).

Review: Wide Sargasso Sea

Second in my short “catch-up” reviews. I finished Wide Sargasso Sea, by Jean Rhys, 31 Aug, 2019.

This short novel is a companion piece to Charlotte Bront√ę’s Jane Eyre, following the childhood and early adulthood of the woman who is known as Bertha Mason in Jane Eyre. (There are some slight spoilers for Jane Eyre below; I’ve tried to keep them small and to a minimum, but reader beware) According to Rhys, her real name is Antoinette Cosway, and she is the creole daughter of an European family who has fallen into poverty after the elimination of slavery in Jamaica. Her mother remarries a Mr. Mason, and Antoinette is educated at a convent, and then married to “him” (Mr. Rochester is never named), a relationship that is fractious and full of conflict and even hatred from the beginning.

I was intrigued by Wide Sargasso Sea both because I love retellings and re-imaginings and books related to other books, and because I liked the idea of giving Bertha a well-rounded storyline and the chance to be redeemed a bit. And the novel certainly does attempt that, presenting Antoinette as a complex character living in a complex time, and dealing with postcolonial and patriarchal themes. But ultimately, I just didn’t like it much. As it’s been a year, I’m afraid I cannot remember why in any great detail, but I found Antoinette unsympathetic, and the portrayal of the black Jamaican people rather cringe. Antoinette might have been dealt a bad hand, but she didn’t help matters, either. Indeed, she often does the one thing that would make whatever situation she’s in worse. Her final actions of the novel don’t feel poignant or triumphant, but petty.

Reading Jane Eyre through the lens of today does make Bertha seem maligned, but Rhys’s novel ultimately doesn’t do the rehabilitative work it purports to do. (Imho).

Have you read this? What did you think?

Review: The Mill on the Floss

This is the first in a series of catch-up posts, as I review the classics I’ve read in the last year and not discussed yet (i.e. all of them). These will be shorter and less in-depth than usual, both so that I can get through my backlog quickly and because it’s been a while since I’ve read these books!

The Mill on the Floss was my fourth George Eliot novel, and my least favorite so far. According to Goodreads, I finished it 31 August 2019. I gave it three stars.

Mill follows siblings Tom and Maggie Tulliver, the children of a small-town mill owner. There are several time jumps, so in all we cover about ten years of their young lives, as they move from childhood to adolescence to adulthood. When they are adolescents, their father loses the mill and they teeter on the edge of poverty. Tom and Maggie both do their parts to keep the family afloat, relying on their mother’s several sisters and their more prosperous husbands for help. The Goodreads review, with its talk of “Maggie being torn between three men” makes it sound rather dramatic and even melodramatic, but the focus is actually on Tom and Maggie’s relationship, and on the community in which they live (although there are some dramatic moments towards the end, but spoilers). As with all Eliot novels, the plot is quiet and slow-paced (not a bad thing!), and the focus is on the character and thoughts of each person. Maggie and Tom are both incredibly vivid, as are their parents and aunts and uncles. This was Eliot’s second book, and you can see her improvement in developing incredibly life-like characters and group dynamics.

While I consider Mill to be an objectively masterful work, I didn’t love it. My biggest problem was Tom, and his relationship with Maggie. Tom is one of those people who can only see the world in black and white, and I find that kind of rigidity generally drives me crazy. And, of course, as it was so well portrayed, it bothered me even more. I spent a lot of the book wanting to slap Tom a couple of times and give him a talking-to. Maggie is a precious darling, who is much more creative and flexible in her thinking, but this leads her and Tom to be rather constantly in conflict. Poor Maggie just wants someone to love her, but Tom makes his love always conditional on her behavior, which doesn’t often meet his exacting standards. Like I said, this dynamic is SO well done, and Eliot certainly doesn’t condone Tom’s behavior, but it just happens to be one that I dislike reading, so that diminished the enjoyment for me.

That said, I have friends who LOVE Mill, so I would encourage you to give it a try, at least. And I’m eager to pick up the next Eliot novel (Romola!).

CC Spin #24…the winner is…

Number 18! My decision to double up on a couple of books I really wanted to get to soon paid off, and I‚Äôll be reading Romola, by George Eliot! I‚Äôve been wanting to get to this book for literally a year, and I‚Äôm so excited that I have this push to get on with it already‚ÄĒjust as soon as I finish Ivanhoe. Looks like classic historical fiction is this months reading theme.

Classics Club Spin #24

Hey guys! I hope you all are doing well. The last six months have been insane (as they have been for you, I’m sure), but I’m slowly coming back to some of the things that have fallen by the wayside, like this blog. I’m hoping to do a number of reviews soon, as I have a pretty long backlog. But to get started, I’m excited to participate in the Classics Club Spin #24! Find out all about it here:

I totally wanted to participate in Spin #23, but I didn’t see the announcement until after the number had been picked, so I did my own little spin in May by asking my boyfriend to pick a number for me instead. I ended up reading A Tale of Two Cities and really loved it! Review coming eventually.

Phew! Will I ever not be long-winded in my intros? (no, sorry)

My spin list this time has some books I’m hoping to read soon, and some others that strike me as interesting. I’ve put my three highest-interest books in there twice.

  1. Histories by Heroditus
  2. Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather
  3. Confessions St. Augustine
  4. The King of Elfland’s Daughter by Lord Dunsinay
  5. Revelations of Divine Love Julian of Norwich
  6. The Worm Orobouros by Eddison
  7. The Vicar of Wakefield by Oliver Goldsmith
  8. Evelina by Frances Burney
  9. Lud-in-the-Mist by Hope Mirrlees
  10. Weiland by Charles Brockden Brown
  11. Revelations of Divine Love Julian of Norwich
  12. Moll Flanders by Daniel Defoe
  13. Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton
  14. Tom Jones by Henry Fielding
  15.  Romola by George Eliot
  16. Weiland by Charles Brockden Brown
  17. The Pioneers by James Fenimore Cooper
  18. Romola by George Eliot
  19. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Other Writings by Washington Irving
  20. The Moviegoer by Walker Percy

Classics Club Spin #22/I’m Back?

Hello, friends, It’s been a while. This semester has been a long and hard one for several reasons, but things are settling down now, school is out, and I’m feeling ready to start digging into some classics again.

Conveniently, the Classics Club is doing another spin! You know how it goes: I post a list of 20 books here, the Classics Club announces a number on Sunday, Dec 22, and then I have to read that book by the end of January!

This is super perfect timing, because I don’t really know what I want to read next. I’m just listing 20 books from my Classics Club list that sound interesting at the moment, and hopefully I’ll get a good one!

The list:

  1. Romola by George Eliot
  2. The Mabinogion
  3. The Aeneid Virgil
  4. Pamela by Samuel Richardson
  5. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  6. The Pioneers by James Fenimore Cooper
  7. Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather
  8. Aurora Leigh Elizabeth Barrett Browning
  9. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Other Writings by Washington Irving
  10. Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons
  11. Tom Jones by Henry Fielding
  12. The Vicar of Wakefield by Oliver Goldsmith
  13. Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne
  14. Lud-in-the-Mist by Hope Mirrlees
  15. The King of Elfland’s Daughter by Lord Dunsinay
  16. Histories by Heroditus
  17. Wieland by Charles Brockden Brown
  18. Moll Flanders by Daniel Defoe
  19. Revelations of Divine Love Julian of Norwich
  20. Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott


Tristram Shandy: Review

IMG_3367.jpegI’ve been feeling like my review for Tristram Shandy is going to have to go one of two ways: I share what I liked about the book, or I write a 7,000 word academic essay. Fortunately for you, I don’t have time for the latter. So this might be a bit more casual of a review than normal.

Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman is a tricky book to review, anyway, because it doesn’t really have a plot. It was published as nine volumes over nine years, between 1758 and 1767, but this publication doesn’t have much to do with the meandering, digressive, and episodic form; plenty of books were published over multiple years, and they all had plots.

Okay, I admit, I’m still a little salty about the lack of plot. (Is salty still slang? Or have kids these days moved on?)

That’s my own fault, though, because I knew next to nothing going into the novel. In fact, I picked it up because last spring I worked on an early 19th-century diary written by a young American man who happened to love Tristram, and I was curious as to why he liked it so much.

Like my young diarist discovered more than two hundred years ago, it’s the novel’s very absurdity that makes it so charming. It invites us to laugh at the world, to see its comic aspects, to recognize that life is far too complex and random and strange to portray accurately in a traditional novel. And yet, it also refrains from descending into bitterness, instead remaining cheerful (but not saccharine) throughout. And once I realized that the plot was not simply forestalled but never arriving (and on purpose), I was able to enjoy Tristram much more. So don’t expect a plot. Just enjoy the journey.

The novel is not actually about Tristram, despite the very misleading title. While Tristram, as the vocal and active narrator, is kind of a character, we see very little of his life or opinions in the novel, and he almost never appears in the narrative. He isn’t even born until volume iv!

46201c899bc0e45596f544a6667444341514141.jpgInstead, the main  characters are Walter Shandy, Tristram’s father, Toby Shandy, Tristram’s uncle, and Trim, Toby’s butler/valet.  These three men are delightfully quirky characters, and are drawn with wonderful complexity. Walter has strange opinions about noses and names, Toby was invalided out of the army and now researches battles by building models in his garden, and Trim is a kind, loyal, soft-hearted former subordinate officer and valet and friend who also happens to know more about the world than surprisingly innocent Toby. For example, Toby (my favorite character), despite his near-obsession with military campaigns, cannot bear to kill even a fly.

I should note that while the characters are complex, they are not necessarily realisticTristram is a comic, even satiric novel, belonging to the same family tree as Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel, Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and, later, Alice in Wonderland. Don’t expect Dickens or Richardson.

So, the characters are delightful, and if you let the narrator take you on a journey, you will find yourself delighted. Just don’t look for a plot.

Despite the seeming nonsense of the book, even a little contemplation of it will reveal that it has been very deliberately written and that Sterne knew full well what he was doing, even if Tristram doesn’t. It is bristling with literary allusions, allusions to (and quotations from) Sterne’s sermons, and a sharp awareness that this is a novel. Indeed, a lot of the book’s absurdity comes from Sterne showing us the limits of the novel form, which, it must be remembered, was still just a few decades old in the English tradition. One can try, like Henry Fielding does in Tom Jones, to be as realistic as possible, but a novel is still a written thing; its plot and characters imaginary.


Tied to this awareness of the limitations of the novel is a parallel awareness of the novel as an object. Sterne constantly reminds us that we are reading a book. His book is filled with quotations and paraphrases and copies of parts of books (real and made up). And Sterne will often use creative textual methods to make a point. When somebody dies, early in the book, there are two black pages following, which serve as mourning. Later, Tristram rips out a chapter he has written, and there is a corresponding blank page in the book. The font changes in the chapter headings to make a point. I found all of this fascinating, and would like to dig more deeply into that aspect of the book (but not here).

So, while I struggled a bit at the beginning, simply because Tristram was a creature I was not expecting, I ended up really loving it. I’ve used “delight” several times in this review already, but I’ll use it one more time, because that’s what Tristram Shandy is: delightful. It ended up being a pleasure to read, and left me with some rich material to ponder in the days to come. What more could you want?

Video review, in which I explore some of these ideas in more detail, here: