Book History

Final Project, Paper in Tristram Shandy

Samuel Howeth

Prof. Pressman

ENGL Book History


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Paper in The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman.

For this paper I have produced a book of sorts that is intended to draw attention to the ways in which paper, in various capacities, affects a reading of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. Tristram the narrator repeatedly calls attention to the material nature of the book and in the process highlights elements of book creation by drawing attention to the physical body of the book itself, i.e. the paper on which it is printed. Drawing attention to the paper and ink the book is written with reminds readers that the body of the book can be figured as a function of the body of the author, examines the metaphors applied to and the assumptions made about books based on their materiality, and forces consideration of the book as a material object that can be censored. Ultimately, by reminding readers that a book is actually made of paper, Tristram Shandy prompts questions about what books are and how they work not just as stories, but as objects that are produced.

One of the first things that considering paper prompts readers to consider is the fact that there is an author who writes the novel. While in the case of Tristram Shandy there is the author-character of Tristram who fills the role, invoking paper and ink as well as other writing tools reminds readers that the creation of the work and the material object in front of them actually requires the input of a living breathing human being. While the importance of the author and what constitutes an author is contested in Roland Barthes’ work “The Death of the Author” and John Brewer’s “Authors, Publishers and Literary Culture,” Tristram the narrator seems to argue for the importance of an actual physical author in the process of making a book. Tristram states at the beginning of Volume seven:

“No—I think, I said, I would write two volumes every year, provided the vile cough which then tormented me, and which to this hour I dread worse than the devil, would but give            me leave—and in another place—(but where, I can’t recollect now) speaking of my book as a machine, and laying my pen and ruler cross-wise upon the table, in order to gain the            greater credit to it—I swore it should be kept a going at that rate these forty years if it pleased but the fountain of life to bless me so long with good health and good spirits.”                       (Sterne 395)

Tristram the narrator is only able to create more sections of his book if he is physically fit to do so. It is critical here that he figures his book as a machine rather than a story or a work of art. By figuring his work as mechanical, a product of production, rather than an artistic labor, Tristram calls attention to the process of producing books and the people and materials involved, processes that are usually hidden and overlooked.

Moving on from Tristram’s preoccupation with directly laying bare the processes of bookmaking, Tristram calls attention to the conventions and expectations that readers have of books and how they think that paper (and chapters) should be used. In Volume 4, chapter 25, Tristram draws the reader’s notice to the missing 24th chapter pervious. He states that:

“No doubt sir, there is a whole chapter wanting here—and a chasm of ten pages made in the book by it—but the book-binder is neither a fool, a knave, or a puppy—nor is the book            a jot more imperfect, (at least upon that score)—but, on the contrary, the book is more perfect and complete by wanting this chapter, than having it, as I shall demonstrate to your            reverences.” (Sterne 259)

Tristram draws notice to the “chasm” made by the missing ten pages, and later claims that he has literally torn out these pages. This matters because it draws the attention of the reader to their preconceptions about what a book is. David Kirby, in his work “What is a Book,” asked his students and colleagues to list the books they would want their children to read, and comes to the conclusion that his respondents anthropomorphized the books they liked, in particular the novels they enjoyed (302). This work highlights the assumptions that are still made today about the nature of books, Kirby states that “The earliest novels were people, in effect: Pamela is Richardson’s heroine writing for help” (302). Tristram Shandy actively fights against this sort of personification by calling attention to its materiality and construction. It becomes much more difficult to personify a work when the work itself reminds readers that it is made of paper and chapters. Although it was mentioned earlier that Tristram Shandy seems bent on reminding readers of the importance of the author, in this particular case the book also reminds readers that its construction is dependent on a bookbinder as well. While there are of course more individuals involved in the making of a book, Tristram Shandy here reminds readers that it is an object manufactured out of paper that requires the collaboration of multiple individuals to accomplish.

Tristram plays with the signifying possibilities and limitations of paper throughout the course of the novel with the black, marbled, and blank pages respectively, all of which have caused significant speculation by readers and academics. Tristram begins this series of strange usages of pages beginning with the black page(s) in Vol. 1 Ch 12 p 29-30. He then picks up again in Volume 3. Ch 36 p 185-86 with the infamous marbled page, which is not reproduced in my art project due to the difficulty in reproducing such a pattern. Immediately before the marbled page itself, Tristram taunts his readers with the declaration that

“I tell you before-hand, you had better throw down the book at once; for without much reading, by which your reverence knows, I mean much knowledge, you will no more be able            to penetrate the moral of the marbled page (motley emblem of my work!) than the world with all its sagacity has been able to unravel the many opinions, transactions and truths            which still lie mystically hid under the dark veil of the black one” (Sterne 184)

If one looks at these pages in terms of the role of paper in them, one can see that Tristram is actually playing with multiple ideas concerning the signifying nature of paper here. First of all, Tristram relates reading to knowledge, perpetrating the assumption that there is useful knowledge contained in written works that can be obtained through the act of reading. However, immediately following this he claims that there are things to be “read” in the black and marbled pages. This seems to beg readers to consider what exactly they are doing. Are they reading here, what are they meant to be reading, or are they meant to be reading? More interestingly to this project however, is that this section highlights the dual signifying nature of paper and of books. The black and marbled pages, coupled with Tristram’s admonishment to read more or throw down the book, serve to point out that the book is engaged with multiple types of literacy. Not only are readers asked to understand that there is significance in the printed words on the page, but they are asked to contemplate the significance of non-words printed on the pages and even to consider the significance of pages and of books. By linking “learning” and “reading” Tristram reminds readers that books mean separately from their contents, i.e. books, writing, and paper as associated with knowledge and learning.

Tristram omits chapters 18 and 19 in Volume 9, only to insert them after chapter 25. He claims that it is necessary to do so because he is under duress to complete his twenty fifth chapter, which he spends explaining why he has not put chapters 18 and 19 in order and will put them after chapter 25. Here Tristram seems to be playing with readers’ expectations concerning what a chapter, and by extension paper, is supposed to do. This ties back into his earlier “chasm” of a missing chapter, as again Tristram subverts what the reader expects him to do with the paper of his book. The omission and subsequent reordering of these chapters makes apparent the readers’ expectations concerning how paper is supposed to be used. Readers assume, since they are trained by other reading that they have done, that paper bound in a book format is used to imprint letters, to form words, to form sentences, paragraphs, chapters. By refusing to conform to the conventions of the book format (by highlighting his requirement to write a certain number of chapters, thus calling attention to a different part requirement of the form) Tristram forces readers to acknowledge their own assumptions about the way in which the book format uses paper as its material.

There are many ways to interpret the importance of paper in Tristram Shandy, but it becomes important to digress first and foremost on the nature of the paper used at the time of the book’s publication. While paper as it is known now is principally, if not entirely made of wood-pulp fibers, when Tristram Shandy was published in 1759 paper was made of rags (Smith 121-25). According to Blum’s On the Origin of Paper, paper was often made from flax or hemp fibers, although many other types of plant fibers would work (Blum 16). He notes as well that a particular type of paper in Syria made of “white hempen ‘cord of excellent quality.’” Paper in its earliest incarnation (aside from papyrus) was associated with cloth and textiles, which is where referring to written works as “texts” originates (“text”). Tristram asks:

“Shall we for ever make new books, as apothecaries make new mixtures, by pouring only out of one vessel into another? Are we for ever to be twisting, and untwisting the same            rope? For ever in the same track—for ever at the same pace?” (Sterne 283)

Because of the nature of paper at this time it is important to note that “twisting, and untwisting the same rope” has different meaning at this time than it does for a modern reader. Rag paper, before becoming paper, was rags, and could have been clothing, or sheets, or even rope. In asking the reader to examine the derivative process of making a new book, Tristram also asks readers to notice the connection between the repurposing of fabric as paper and the repurposing of other authors words. Graham Petrie notes, for instance, that a section of Burton’s Anatomy that consist of “generalized remarks on death” backed up with references is repurposed by Tristram as a consolatory oration. Like the process of breaking down cloth into fibers and remaking it into paper, Tristram breaks down the words of contemporary authors like Robert Burton and Francis Bacon, pointing out the recycling nature of writing on both the levels of recycling words and recycling materials (Petrie 261). At this point in time all rag paper was recycled from some previous application, and in fact it may be more accurate to say that Tristram’s recycled writing mirrors the recycled nature of his medium, rather than the other way around.

Tristram knows that the medium of his work affects its message, and he plays with the concept of paper as a (former) textile in his work. The focus on the material that the pages of Tristram Shandy are made of allows Tristram to use metaphors that are bound in this materiality to play with parallel signification, connecting paper pages and their contexts. For example, during his cross country expedition in France, during which Tristram parodies the genre of travel writing, loses his notes in the coach that he sells off, and goes on a short trip to find the coaches’ new owners to retrieve his notes. When he finds them, the lady of the house has used his notes for paper ribbons, papillotes, in her hair. He continues:

“—O Seignieur! cried I—you have got all my remarks upon your head, Madam!——J’en suis bien mortifiée, said she——‘tis well, thinks I, they have stuck there—for could they            have gone deeper, they would have made such a confusion in a French woman’s noddle—She had better have gone with it unfrizzled, to the day of eternity.

                       Tenez—said she—so without any idea of the nature of my suffering, she took them from her curls, and put them gravely one by one into my hat——one was twisted this            way——another twisted that——ay! by my faith; and when they are published, quoth I,——

They will be worse twisted still.” (Sterne 439)

Here Tristram conflates the metaphor of twisting words with the literal twisting of the material his words are written on in the woman’s hair. Prior to this he also turns the literal words on this woman’s head into words that are on her mind. By moving from the physical words on her head to the possibility of those words taking root in her mind, Tristram emphasizes the importance of the link between the medium of a work and its effect, without the medium there can be no message. He then notes the possibility of complications that arise with mediums, for in mediation a message can become twisted. Tristram seems to recognize the irreconcilable nature of the need for a medium with the flaws that a medium produces, and makes a joke out of the whole ordeal.

Tristram does, however, seem concerned that his words will be taken (twisted) in a way that will result in his being censored, and he often comments on this. In Volume 7, chapter twenty, as he is attempting to decide whether or not he should tell the story of the obscene word that the abbess and the novice used to move a stubborn donkey, he states that “My ink burns my finger to try—and when I have—‘twill have worse consequence—it will burn (I fear) my paper” (Sterne 415). Tristram moves the burning from his metaphorical urge to write something bawdy to the concern that if he does so his work will be burned in protest. It is important that Tristram substitutes paper as a synecdoche for his work as it draws readers back to the materiality of writing. Tristram’s concern with being censored is bound up in the material nature of his work, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman does not exist outside of the medium of words on paper, and while it could be recorded orally or inscribed in another medium, that would have an effect on its meaning. Tristram knows that censorship does not take the form of removing ideas from the world, but that it attacks the material which symbolizes, contains, or transmits those thoughts. Reminding readers that censorship often takes the form of attacking the medium of objectionable ideas has significant implications, for instance it reinforces the importance of mediums and highlights the strength of the assumptions that are made about the link between books and knowledge. Books and paper are so associated with the transmission of knowledge and ideas that they are the target of censorship action.

Tristram later brings the materiality of paper into his defense of the morality of his work. In his defense, he states:

“For this cause, when your honors and reverences would know whether I writ clean and fit to be read, you will be able to judge full as well by looking into my Laundress’s            bill, as my book: there was one single month in which I can make it appear, that I dirtied one and thirty sheets with clean writing; and after all, was more abus’d, curs’d, criticis’d            and confounded, and had more mystic heads shaken at me, for what I had wrote in that one month, than in all the other months of that year put together.

——But their honours and reverences had not seen my bills.” (Sterne 517).

Tristram submits his laundry bills as evidence of the cleanliness of his writing. As mentioned previously, paper at the time was made from rags, so submitting a laundry bill is not as farfetched as it first sounds. Tristram first conflates cleanliness of thought with cleanliness of material so that he can claim that his paper’s material cleanliness is sufficient to vouch for its purity of content. He then pulls apart the differences between physical dirtiness and moral cleanliness, claiming that “I dirtied one and thirty sheets with clean writing” before then pointing out that dirtying pages with clean writing got him criticized, so why not reverse the whole process and write dirty words on clean, well washed sheets of paper? By conflating these two types of cleanliness Tristram takes to absurdity the assumptions made about paper and books in order to reveal them. Paper was not always associated with knowledge, in fact in its infancy it was considered to be inferior to vellum and parchment and on multiple occasions rulers at the start of the second century forbade official documents from being written on paper (Hargrave 223-24). Tristram here points out that readers and censors are making assumptions about his writing that they may not have fully examined and makes the issue absurd to draw attention to this. Obviously the cleanliness of Tristram’s paper has little to do with its purity of content, but what makes his assumption that these two types of cleanliness are interchangeable so much different from the assumption that books are vehicles of learning and knowledge?

Tristram mentions briefly in Volume 8, chapter 5, almost without prompting, that “For my own part, I am resolved never to read any book but my own, as long as I live” (Sterne 453). Why he would make this sudden declaration is perplexing unless one considers his preoccupation with the medium of his writing. Tristram demonstrates throughout his work an awareness and attention to the medium of his story, which is purported from the title to contain his life and opinions. However, when one considers what medium would be adequate to contain said life and opinions, it becomes apparent that Tristram’s attempt to narrate his life and opinions in novel form is doomed from the start. Tristram acknowledges this saying “instead of advancing, as a common writer, in my work with what I have been doing at it—on the contrary, I am just thrown so many volumes back” noting that he is living life and having opinions faster than he can write about them (Sterne 234). Since the novel format cannot contain his life and opinions, what format can? Only Tristram himself can truly contain his life and opinions, for no matter how hard he tries to adapt the novel format to present a more accurate picture of real individuals or how they think and form opinions, he always falls short. Tristram must only read his own book because everything that he experiences is part of his lived life and filtered through his opinions. He literally has no other option but to metaphorically read everything through the lens of his own life and opinions. Tristram’s figuration of this process as “reading” asks readers to consider their own lenses and biases as they consider his work, taking the process of making significance from symbols on paper and using it as a metaphor to point out a truth about how he signifies in his lived experience.

This book is made of cloth leaves rather than paper ones to remind viewers that at the time of publication, paper was rag paper and came from cloth. This is important for all the reasons outlined above, but the most important reason for this peculiar construction is to draw attention to the ways in which looking at paper in The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman allows readings that acknowledge the significance of paper as a medium for writing and signifying more generally, as well as the importance of mediums altogether. Tristram’s play with the slip between fabric and paper allows for different ways to read this novel that may not be otherwise accessible.



Works Cited

Barthes, Roland. “The Death of the Author.” Ed. Alistair McCleery. The Book History Reader. Ed. David Finkelstein. London: Routledge, 2002. 277-80 Print.

Blum, André. On the Origin of Paper. Trans. Harry Miller Lydenberg. New York: R.R. Bowker, 1934. Print.

Brewer, John. “Authors, Publishers and Literary Culture.” The Book History Reader. Ed. David Finkelstein and Alistair McCleery. Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2006. 318-26. Print.

Kirby, David. “What is a Book?.” Virginia Quarterly Review: A National Journal of Literature and Discussion (Univ. of Virginia, Charlottesville), 75.2 (1999): 292.

Hargrave, J. “Disruptive Technological History: Papermaking to Digital Printing.” Journal of Scholarly Publishing, 44.3 (2013): 221-236.

“text, n.1.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, March 2016. Web. 13 May 2016.

Petrie, Graham. “A Rhetorical Topic in ‘Tristram Shandy’.” The Modern Language Review, 65.2 (1970): 261-266.

Smith, David C. History of Papermaking in the United States: (1691 – 1969). New York: Lockwood, 1970. Print.

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