Text is composed of lines both literal—the ink on the page—and conceptual—the story line or plotline that, like thread unwinding from a spool, guides us through the turns of a narrative. When we depict someone reading, we tend to signify text with a continuous wiggly line on the pages or the cover of a book. This kind of squiggle, hovering somewhere between text and image, conveys the singular shape of a narrative text. It’s a figure for the act of reading.
One of the most recognizable literary lines of the eighteenth century is precisely such a squiggle. It occurs in the ninth chapter of the fourth volume of Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, during a conversation between Tristram’s Uncle Toby and his faithful manservant, Corporal Trim, about bachelorhood and celibacy. The corporal, a character usually prone to long, sentimental speeches, declares, “Whilst a man is free—,” and gives “a flourish with his stick thus—” Read More