Tristram Shandy Unbound: Book Arts and Literary Studies

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Book and Paper | Literature in English, British Isles


Early in Lawrence Sterne's wildly idiosyncratic novel, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Tristram invites his reader to join him on a journey. As soon as we begin that journey, we find ourselves plunging downhill, toiling uphill, leaping forward, doubling back-desperately trying to find and keep our bearings.

Sterne's fragmented, digressive novel cudgels the brains of the reader with questions about the relationship of each part to the rest of the work. This reading experience has led several critics to describe Tristram Shandy as "proto-postmodern"; in fact, students and scholars have created hypertext versions that emphasize the temporal and cognitive leaps in Sterne's novel. Those digital versions help us see the links between Sterne's experimental novel and contemporary experimental fiction. At the same time, however, they conceal the ways in which Sterne explores the possibilities and limitations of the physical book.

I've created a one-of-a-kind physical book that highlights the fragmented, digressive nature of Volume I. Just as the novel hangs together by the slenderest narrative thread, my book hangs together by means of a little thread and ribbon. In the process of reading it, a reader literally takes the book apart and then reassembles the parts in an attempt to produce narrative coherence. The book aims to illustrate, in physical form, the cognitive operations that all readers perform, all the time-cognitive operations that Sterne makes devilishly difficult. By focusing on the reader's struggle to make sense of Sterne's brilliant and exasperating novel, I hope to suggest possibilities for using book arts to demonstrate concepts in literary studies.

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