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Carleton Celebrates 300 Years of Sterne’s Seminal Novel with a Marathon Reading of Tristram Shandy

January 24, 2014

In commemoration of Anglo-Irish humorist and novelist Laurence Sterne’s 300th birthday, Carleton College will hold a 24-hour marathon reading of “The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy: Gentleman” on January 29 and 30. Faculty, students and staff, including President Steve Poskanzer, will gather on the north balcony of the Sayles Hill Campus Center and take turns reading from this classic book, beginning at 12:50 p.m. on January 29 non-stop until 11:50 a.m. on January 30. The marathon reading will conclude with a celebration featuring cake and conversation.

Published in nine volumes between 1759 and 1767, “The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy: Gentleman” (or simply “Tristram Shandy”) is considered to be one of the greatest literary achievements, filled with digressions and diversions, Lockean psychology, and references to metaphysical poets of the 17th century.

As the titles suggests, “Tristram Shandy” is his life story and Shandy serves as both narrator and commentator, discoursing at length on sexual practices, insults, the influence one’s name, and noses, as well as explorations of obstetrics, siege warfare, and philosophy as he struggles to marshal his material and finish the story of his life.

But it is one of the central jokes of the novel that Shandy cannot explain anything simply, that he must make explanatory diversions to add context and color to his tale, to the extent that his own birth is not even reached until Volume III.

Timothy Raylor, Carleton professor of English, calls the novel “clever…[yet] generous and humane, with a cast of endearingly lunatic characters going about their business with genial misapprehension.”

Sterne “plays tricks with the form of the novel and with the physical artifact of the book,” explains Raylor. “A black page mourns the passing of one character; a page is left blank for you to draw your own picture of another. There’s a chapter that lasts only a sentence, and another that goes missing, making the pagination go haywire.”

Raylor compares the novel to “finding the source for everything I thought funny: Monty Python, Dickens at his zaniest, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.”

Last year a similar event took place at Carleton, with the 24-hour marathon reading of Charles Dickens’ “David Copperfield,” in celebration of the author’s 200th birthday.

This event is sponsored by the Carleton College Department of English. For more information, including disability accommodations, call (507) 222-4322. The Sayles Hill Campus Center is located off College Street on the Carleton campus.