Towards the end of my college career, I felt the joy of reading slipping away from me. I had read so much out of discipline that I had forgotten the pleasure. But in my last semester, thank God, reading Tristram Shandy rejuvenated the way I read books. As Tristram would say, allow me to go backwards in order to go forwards.
When I got to high school and really began to analyze stories and poems and plays and novels in a rigorous way, I became conscious of losing the ability to sink into a book the way I once could. My parents still tell stories about how in elementary and middle school they would knock on my bedroom door and speak to me without eliciting any response from me; I was so engrossed in Jane Eyre or Jane Austen that I had lost all capacity for sensory impression except for imagining the sensory imagery of the book. I literally could not hear my mother asking me to fold my laundry; I was in the red room with Jane. I sincerely believe that the state of mind I attained in moments like that is something akin to formal, disciplined meditation. In high school, as I said before, when I was taught to read actively (i.e., pen in hand) I lost that ability to immerse my thought in the words on a page. A critical voice began speaking in my head, questioning the effect of word choice or metaphor or trying to identify the characteristics of the Hemingway hero as I read For Whom the Bell Tolls. I could not recover the pure experience of reading that I could remember for as long as I could remember anything.
College only intensified the critical voice that speaks inside my head, which is not necessarily to say that I became a more skillful or insightful reader. On the contrary, often that voice prevented me from being able to concentrate on the text in the moment of reading it. In class I would remember my reactions to a text better than I could remember the text itself. I read Samuel Richardson’s Pamela for ENG 391: The Birth of the Novel very much in this vein of hyper-questioning the text at the expense of absorbing it on its own terms. I proposed preposterous readings of certain characters’ motives in my journals and during class discussion. I was too over-eager to find something insightful to let some unique perception simply emerge from my reading.
But something in the make-up of Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy subtly affected my reading process. At first I read pen-poised, as is my wont, and eagerly underlined instances of some recurring motif or another. Increasingly, however, I found myself reading several pages without having made a single mark. Sometimes, it must be admitted, this was because my attention had strayed rather than becoming more focused. (Remember the marriage contract between Tristram’s parents? I don’t.) Many times, however, I had so sunk into the text that even my pen couldn’t break my concentration.
At other times, my awareness of my reading process was heightened. In his games with the reader, Tristram as narrator plays with the idea of reading as an unselfconscious process. In narrating the curious incident of his circumcision, he expresses some words only with asterisks: “The chamber-maid had left no ******* *** under the bed.” That self same chamber-maid soon after exclaims, “cannot you manage, my dear, for a single time to **** *** ** *** ******?” After some counting of asterisks, I was certain that the words elided are “chamber pot” and “piss out of the window.” Sterne manipulated me into counting every asterisk, my pen tapping each one—calling attention to a single printed character on the page, slowing down my reading process, and making that process more aware of itself. But in counting the asterisks, I was playing a game with Sterne on his own terms, rather than imposing interpretations on a poor novel, as I had done with Pamela.
Mostly, over the course of my reading of Tristram Shandy, I became gentler on myself, allowing that it was impossible for me to extract every morsel of meaning from that encyclopedic novel and simply looking forward to many future re-readings. I think Laurence Sterne would be pleased with this attitude from his readers.
I am going to try to take this less strenuous yet still highly focused way of reading forward with me in life (and graduate school!). And I cannot give up my pen entirely while reading. In fact, I anticipate looking back on the different markings I have made during different readings of a text with pleasure. It will be a palimpsest of interpretations, a record of my different experiences with the same writing.
One of the last morals Sterne leaves his audience with is “to let people tell their stories their own way.” I have also learned to let myself take in stories my own way. As he asks of his readers, I am trying to meet him halfway.