At the end of my 18th-century British lit course, my professor, in good humor, had us make a confession. Who had given up on Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman and who had persevered? She promised no punishment, but I knew she would admire anyone with the stamina to struggle through all nine volumes of esoteric wit. Jokes with footnotes. It required a certain level of determination.
There were only about five of us out of twenty-five who raised our hands. Add to this the fact that I was lying, and the number was pretty small.
Hypocritical though it was, I raised my hand as a vote for Lawrence Sterne. His hefty book was a miraculous object to me and its inaccessibility was part of its allure. It was a fixed point in history, a doorstopper, you might say, and I felt I had to reckon with it. Having chosen sides, I justified my dishonesty as a principled opposition to social media, distraction, quick-reads, and consumerist education. This was a battle for the book.
But then something happened. I left the university and moved to Chicago to work as a journalist. Needless to say, I’ve since been forced to accept some automatic updates. It was inevitable, but I’m still surprised by how quickly and how permanently these changes can encode themselves in a lifestyle. Once you pass the thirty-open-tabs threshold you can’t go back. Every click becomes a rapid-fire Ctr + click. A little over a year ago I didn’t have a cell phone but have since been exposed to the crack-cocaine of watching a personal Reddit post hit 100 views in an hour, and have been conditioned to covet likes on my blog posts as if they were acceptance itself, in pure form.
Trying to pick Tristram Shandy back up to finish it seems pretty unlikely to me now, and I’ve only had an Internet presence for six months. Perhaps it’s a phase, but these days I can’t even make it through the lengthier Tumblr posts. And it frightens me to think that I’m still a half-generation behind most of my peers, that whatever my increasing intolerance for lengthy ideas, whoever just reblogged my latest post is likely more intolerant.
This disturbs me because Tristram Shandy, even if I’ll never finish it, still holds a meaningful place on my bookshelf. It really is a work of staggering genius and a work that the genius Sterne spent much of his life writing. It was self-aware and funny before funny self-awareness was taught in writers’ workshops. And what is it now? Unread. It’s a classic of literature, one of the rare survivors, a recognized achievement of human ingenuity. Yet there were fewer students in my lit course who read the book from cover to cover than there were students writing their own novels. Do the math, Sterne: Your book is a museum piece.
True, it has survived long enough to have been typed by some nameless nerd into Project Gutenberg, but isn’t that another kind of funeral rite? I came across the HTML version of Tristram Shandy the other day and it made me nauseous. The nine-volume novel scrawled down one endless webpage in digital type struck me as if it were Sterne’s body itself lying across a curb in a stream of half-conscious foot-traffic.
In HTML format, I can study the novel’s corpse like a coroner and find out in a matter of seconds that the word “baby” does not appear in its (former) pages. I can extract quotes for use on my blog. Quotes I have no context for. But I’ll never hole up and read through the entire work as if it were a work. That would be hubris: to think that the world needs someone who has digested the whole of Tristram Shandy when there is a population of online termites who can do the work collectively, grain by grain, tweet by tweet until Sterne’s genius is consumed and his fibers spread across the knowledgescape.
I’ve joined the colony of termites and I’ve learned to take pleasure in my duties. It seemed at first that trading in my heroic writer-dreams to become a single coordinate in cyberspace* would be devastating. But is it all that different? Aren’t we just re-discovering the way human culture has looked all along?
To be clear, I’m defending the Internet as a public forum not as a public sphere and I think you can make a distinction between the two. The first is a formal arena for the circulation of knowledge, and the Internet has proven itself–even to a Luddite like me–that it has the potential to replace print publications without degrading society. The second is a social place where physical presence has no possible surrogate. It’s where pheromones hang in the air and a financial products trader can get a beer sloshed at his oblivious face.
Still, in the public forum online, there’s nothing defensible about mass-producing low-grade content, hoping that something genius will emerge out of endless repetition of superficial updates. A thousand worthless essays are hardly worth more than one worthless essay, and to write crap in the name of notoriety (or simply Google rankings) has and always will be irresponsible. But genius isn’t threatened by raucous debutantes. Rather, it could be supported by them and what they get wrong in the process of human knowledge.
The era of the novel had its own problems to work through. Authors and critics may have intended to revere great books like Tristram Shandy as static achievements. But they never really were static to begin with. In fact, Sterne was already privy to this in 1759. With its meta-footnotes and feigned paranoia of a dim-witted readership, Tristram Shandy was itself an insult to the pretensions of the eternal text, the bigotry of the masterpiece. From the preface:
“Writing, when properly managed (as you may be sure I think mine is) is but a different name for conversation…. The truest respect which you can pay to the reader’s understanding, is to halve this matter amicably, and leave him something to imagine, in his turn, as well as yourself.”
Sterne was baiting his hook with principle, but letting his line float out into the stream of things. That, for neo-Luddites, could be a manifesto: to take responsibility for our own technologies, but remain open to their possibilities.
[*A dated word I will never give up on.]