Friday, October 12, 2007

Tristram Shandy

I started to read Tristram Shandy last week. It was written in 1749 by Laurence Sterne. It's a novel, I think. Or will be eventually. So far, it's seventy pages of digression, which is mostly entertaining, but hard to follow late at night. The principal punctuation mark is the dash, and at many of those dashes my mind wanders off on its own.

I'm mostly rehashing the day's conversations--things I wish I'd said, things I should say tomorrow, and things I'm not sure I should have said at all. How much simpler life would be, and how much reading I could get done, if I would just not talk at all.

But spew I do. Everything depends on language. Human society was built on our ability to tell one another how to use tools. (I read that in an article on baboons' understanding of social status.) I've had enough missteps with language and symbols today that I'm not convinced language is the key to understanding how to use tools they way the other guy does. Twice in the last 24 hours I've told knitting friends to think less about all the words in the directions and think more about what the work looks like. At other times, I've issued directions that were less and less clear the more you thought about them. Most verbal directions could be replaced by intelligent graphic design.

Language is really for play--serious play sometimes, but play nevertheless. You can't tell about anything without spinning it. What could be more unexciting than ordering a new garage door? But I can buff up that tale, put a little foreshadowing into the repairman's early speeches, and round up a few dollars here, round down a few over there to make the need for a door more compelling. Serious stories sometimes need to come out of people, and you can hear them spin as they spew, alliterate as they exaggerate.

Why am I reading Tristram Shandy? Because of Thomas Jefferson, who greatly enjoyed it. He is not someone you picture reading fiction. I was curious about what entertained him. Most definitely it was language, story play, spinning and spewing.

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