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The Great Gatsby, F. Scott FitzgeraldChoose Your Own Advent is a yuletide celebration of literacy. We’ll spotlight a different novel every day until Christmas, hopefully helping you find one you’d like to read in the new year.

Title: The Great Gatsby
Author: F. Scott Fitzgerald
Year: 1925

When it comes to my experience as a reader, there’s something I don’t believe I’ve talked about before. I’ve thought about doing so, but never had a reason. Now, here, with this book, it becomes a bit relevant.

When I read, I don’t picture characters.

I don’t know if that’s just me, if that’s just the way readers usually operate, if there’s a word for whatever imaginative blindness I have, or what, but as much as I might easily see a setting, or an event, or an object I’m reading about, I don’t see physical human characters in my mind’s eye.

An author can tell me that a character is, say, 5’6″ with red hair. And I’ll hold on to those details in case they become relevant. (As a lifelong reader I can say that they almost never do.) I might be able to picture the shirt that they’re wearing, or their shoes. I can picture the way they walk. I can hear, sometimes, the way they sound. It depends on the level of description how much or little about a character I’ll actually envision while I read about them…

…but I don’t see faces. I don’t see distinct shapes. Characters are just…I don’t know. To me, I suppose, they occupy my mental space more than my visual space. Novels often afford us glimpses inside of minds…we’re privvy to thought processes, to motivations, to the unspoken beauty and ugliness we don’t get to see in others in our actual, daily lives.

Maybe that’s why. In real life, I can see as many faces as I like. When I’m reading a book, however, I have a unique opportunity to see beyond the face…so my mind doesn’t even stop there for a moment.

I don’t know if others read that way. I’d be interested to know. But I suspect they don’t, because one of the common complaints when a novel is turned into a film is that the characters don’t look the way readers pictured them.

I’ve never had that problem.

I’ve never pictured them.

Well, almost never.

The Great Gatsby is an incredible novel, and one of my absolute favorites in the language. That makes it significant in one way. It’s also significant in another: it contains one of the only characters in literature of whom I do have a clear, inescapable mental picture.

That character isn’t Gatsby. It’s not the object of his desires. It’s not even our narrator.

It’s Tom Buchanan. One of literature’s truest and least redeemable bastards.

I don’t know why Tom stands out to me. The Great Gatsby resonates, but it doesn’t haunt. Tom, however, does. He imposes himself on my psyche. He forces himself to be seen. He doesn’t accept the fact that I just don’t envision characters that way on the whole. No; Tom barges in anyway, and he’ll leave when he’s damned well ready.

I see Tom. I am in his imposing and uncomfortable presence any time he’s within the scope of the narration. He’s there.

I know Tom, or people like him, obviously. That probably helps. Or hurts. He’s not an invention of Fitzgerald’s; he’s a very clear and recognizable figure that Fitzgerald simply translated perfectly to the page.

I wouldn’t even be surprised if Fitzgerald based him strongly on somebody he knew. Fitzgerald, for the purposes of the novel, would have to answer the question of who Daisy–the undimming light of Gatsby’s soul–would have to end up with. And as great an author as the man was, I don’t think he could have come up with a better answer than Tom Buchanan. The self-satisfied, smug, unsinkable jackass we all already know.

Tom always stuck out to me that way. He’s the character I think of first whenever this novel comes to mind. The first time I read it was in high school, when it was assigned reading. I didn’t enjoy it very much, but Tom made his impression. When I revisited it in college, his image came immediately back to me. That son of a bitch had just been waiting to make me uncomfortable all over again.

The Great Gatsby is a book that wasn’t enjoyed by first-time readers when it was published, either. It wasn’t until after Fitzgerald died that it saw any kind of significant critical reappraisal. That’s nice; I don’t feel so bad for having to come back to it much later, when I’d become less of an idiot.

What I noticed about it the second time–what actually made me come to appreciate it in ways I could not before–was that The Great Gatsby is a love story told by a man who hasn’t experienced love.

Nick Carraway has the responsibility of telling the story simply because he was there. Not because he understands it, because he’s qualified to speak about it, or even because he can explain it. He’s our de facto narrator simply because he was there…something that, itself, seems to be a bit of a theme in Nick’s life. He’s never the most important person in his own story. I’d be surprised if he ever breaks the top five.

And that makes The Great Gatsby a complex book as much as it is many other things–worrying, humbling, tragic, profound. Nick’s lack of qualification to speak at any length about the book’s actual subject matter is what frees it to become a great novel. Nick reflects on life in a way that allows him to raise questions and sometimes propose answers, but never necessarily get nearer to any actual truth. He’s a passenger, much like the readers themselves. He’s not a tour guide; he’s sitting next to you, looking out the window, unable to truly understand most of what’s passing him by.

But he’s great to listen to. He’s respectful. He’s sincere. And, bless his little heart, he really does wish he had more insight to share with you.

Nick is sweet to a fault. He’ll always be a good man, which is why he’ll never get anywhere. He’s too polite and too self-aware to make an impact, and the tide will always decide his direction for him.

It’s why the Gatsbys and the Daisys and the Jordans can flit through his life, take from him what they need, and move on–in some way, always move on–without him.

And it’s why I’ll never know his face, while I’ll always remember Tom’s.

Mostly Harmless, Douglas AdamsChoose Your Own Advent is a yuletide celebration of literacy. We’ll spotlight a different novel every day until Christmas, hopefully helping you find one you’d like to read in the new year.

Title: Mostly Harmless
Author: Douglas Adams
Year: 1992

When I decided to do this feature, I made a list of all the books I would conceivably want to include. I hit twenty-four easily, as you might imagine, and every book on that list felt right. Each of them, indeed, was one that I wanted to write about. That I wanted to share. That I felt belonged.

Except for one. This one.

Now, I’ll make this clear: I like Mostly Harmless. Quite a lot. My reasons for second guessing it have nothing to do with its quality…except maybe in a relative sense. It’s not Douglas Adams’ best work. (That would be Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency.) It’s not even the best book in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series. (That would be Life, the Universe and Everything.) It’s not a book that stands out even to his fans, and if it does it’s probably because it’s one of their least favorites.

But I put it on my list. Before I really started thinking about it, when I was just spitballing titles and seeing what came up, I put it on my list.

And I think it’s because it taught me something important. It will always have a place in my heart for that reason alone.

Before I get to that, though, I do have to reiterate that I genuinely do love the book. I think it’s just about as funny as anything Adams wrote, I think it offers a great (if abrupt, and rather dark) ending to the series as a whole, and I think it’s just good. It probably also helps its reputation in my mind that it follows on from the rather dreadful So Long, and Thanks For All the Fish. I remember reading the first four Hitchhiker’s Guide books in a collection when I was in my teens. I loved the first three…and couldn’t believe how disappointed I was in the fourth. I had to do some research to discover that there even was a fifth book, and I bought it as soon as I could.

I’m glad I did.

Because I love Mostly Harmless. It ended the series on a higher note. It gave me a qualitative kind of closure, even if we can argue about the value of that closure in a narrative sense.

When I reflect on the series as a whole, one of the moments that stands out to me above any other is a sequence from this book, in which Arthur Dent–aimless, luckless refugee from a destroyed Earth–slides into the quiet life of a professional sandwich maker.

After four full novels of adventure, absurdity, cosmic mysteries, confounding truths, dangerous scrapes, bizarre (and insulting) alien creatures, and maybe at least a little bit of single-handedly saving the universe, Arthur finds himself at peace.

At peace making sandwiches.

It’s a perfectly bathetic conclusion to his adventures, and the fact that it’s not exactly his conclusion does nothing to hinder its perfection. If Arthur Dent could have chosen to stop, that’s indeed where he would have stopped. Making sandwiches. One of the few things he’s ever been truly good at. He’s seen the literal end of the universe, and yet is happy to surrender to the repetitive comfort of a simple joy.

It’s probably not a highlight for many of Adams’ fans. For me, it’s a highlight of reading in general.

But that’s still not why I decided to write about this one.

No.

See, when I read Mostly Harmless, I did something I can’t actually imagine doing today: I wrote a letter to thank the author.

It’s important to remember what things were like then. Now we can tweet at authors. Leave a post on their Facebook page. Email their agents. We can do whatever we like, however we’d like to do it.

In a sense, I think, that means less.

Back then, I had to look up an address for him. (I have no idea how I found it. I may have just written to the publishing house.) I had to sit down with a sheet of paper, get my thoughts together, and write them down. I had to buy postage. I had to mail it off, and hope that the international mail service would get it where it needed to go.

Here’s something else interesting: I forgot I wrote to him.

I only remembered years later, when he wrote back.

I think I was in college at the time. I got a letter from an unfamiliar address overseas. It was from Douglas Adams.

He sent me an autographed photo. To this day it hangs on my wall. That was more than I ever could have dreamed of asking of him. (In fact, I’m nearly positive I didn’t ask it of him.)

But he did more than that: he wrote me a letter in return.

A form letter would have been nice, but he answered my questions. He responded to the things I said. It wasn’t long, but it was personal. I must have expressed my appreciation for Mostly Harmless to him, because in his letter he said, “Mostly Harmless is your favorite? I think you’re out on a limb there!”

Yes, I can confirm that I enjoyed the book more than its author did.

It’s important to remember what I was like back then, too. I was a kid. I didn’t read much. I wasn’t well-spoken. My handwriting was terrible, and I am one thousand percent sure I had nothing interesting to say or to share with him. Of all the things in the world that he could have spent his time reading, he chose to read my letter. Because he appreciated it. And then he actually took more time out of his day to write back.

To this day, I remember what it felt like to get his letter. I remember I felt like the most important, fortunate guy in the world. I’m sure that’s why he took the time to reply.

In the years since, people have told me that that’s just who he was. He’d get fanmail, and he’d sit and read every piece, and respond to them, taking as much time as it took. He must have made a lot of people feel like the most important, fortunate people in the world.

That’s the definition of a hero.

He died in 2001. He wasn’t even 50. The world lost a beloved man who seemed to love all of his fans just as much in return.

His letter changed me. As a person, and as a writer.

I’m nowhere near as famous as Douglas Adams was. I wouldn’t dare say I’m anywhere near as talented, either.

But I get fanmail, too. And comments. And Facebook requests from people who read something I wrote on some site at some point and want to connect, for whatever reason.

I make it a point to be gracious. To let them know I appreciate everything they took the time to say. (And I really do.) To thank them for reading, because I know that reading anything I write is an investment of time on their part, and I want to be respectful of that.

I’m not Douglas Adams. I very likely never will be.

But if I can make anybody in this difficult world feel even a little better when they hear back from me…I’m going to do it.

Against the Day, Thomas PynchonChoose Your Own Advent is a yuletide celebration of literacy. We’ll spotlight a different novel every day until Christmas, hopefully helping you find one you’d like to read in the new year.

Title: Against the Day
Author: Thomas Pynchon
Year: 2006

I thought I’d write about Gravity’s Rainbow. I really did. It’s my favorite novel (full stop), and God knows I can ramble on endlessly about it. This would be the easiest entry to write. Hell, in my head, I’ve already overwritten it.

And if I didn’t write about Gravity’s Rainbow, maybe I’d write about V., Pynchon’s first novel. Or The Crying of Lot 49, which is the first novel of his that I read. Or Bleeding Edge, as it’s his most recent. Or Vineland, which is the novel of his I recommend the most to new readers. Maybe Inherent Vice, since I re-read that recently and might like to talk about it in a context other than comparing it to the film. Or Mason & Dixon, since the warm friendship at its core fits so well around the holidays.

In short, I genuinely didn’t expect to be writing about Against the Day…a book of his that I’m not even sure I like.

It’s overlong. It’s messy. It’s full of long stretches in which nothing interesting happens, and which often do little more than spew historical reference points. It raises great ideas and neglects to follow through on them. Its threads often fail to cohere. It’s too busy, too dense, too confusing.

But it’s also full of brilliance. Not consistent brilliance, but it’s there, and when it is, it’s true brilliance. Against the Day isn’t for a reader looking for a great novel, but it will reward readers by being an intermittently great novel.

That’s not why I’m writing about it, though. If I wanted to celebrate Pynchon’s greatness, we’d both be better served if I looked almost anywhere else. No, I’m writing about it because I read it again this year, my fourth or fifth time, probably, and I saw something in it that I’d never seen before. A theme, and an important one, made itself apparent.

And the book became something else to me.

Not better, necessarily. But something different. And as I read with this theme in mind, I found myself experiencing a version of Against the Day that I had not before.

The novel is full of themes. My inability to pick up on it earlier isn’t due to the fact that I wasn’t reading carefully; it’s due to the fact that other things were demanding my attention. There’s the theme of light. The theme of power. (Electrical power and social power.) There’s the theme of justice. The theme of capitalism. The theme of transience. The theme of doubling, doubled lives, doubled events, doubled worlds…

And all of that is still in there. So much more is there as well.

But this recent time…I found something else. Something that I needed to find when I found it. Something that helped me to understand the book in a new way, and maybe to understand myself.

It was time. Specifically, our inability to conquer it.

Time.

We are always at the mercy of time. And reading the book through that filter, every moment took on a new meaning for me. Sometimes because it very specifically tied into the theme. Other times it was just because the theme reminded me that these moments, any of these moments, all of these moments, would never happen again. Everything is temporary. Everything ends.

Pavilions set up to be dismantled. Cities whose cultures are destroyed by tourists. Civilizations that met a nasty end long before we were around to observe or record it. Battles we are destined to lose. Rebellions fated to be crushed, by those who are later crushed themselves. Ambitions that bring us so close to progress that, at once, are torn down by those who don’t wish to understand. A child’s doll left behind. A particular sunset we’ll never see again. A train pulling out of the station and the knowledge that whoever is present will never be here, never exactly here, again.

All that will exist will pass. All that exists now has already passed. Tomorrow will pass as well. We can’t help it. We can’t stop it. Our lives, as we live them, are pulling away.

I recognized it early in the novel this time, as one character reflects on his daughter getting a haircut. The narration fixes us within his mind, within his sphere of observations, as we learn about the barbershop, how it looks, where it’s located, what it smells like, the kinds of people who frequent it, what else goes on here, and then…it’s over. The haircut is over before we ever really saw it. We let ourselves get distracted. We looked around. We occupied our time with other things. And that moment was gone before we even thought to live it.

The simplest little thing, inconsequential, unimportant, becomes consequential and important simply because we missed it, because it’s one of many things we are destined to miss, because one day we, too, will die, and so much of our lives will have passed without us even thinking to pay attention.

That character’s little girl moves away. Not even all that far into the book. Not even all that many years later. A few blinks of the eye. A few nights nobody thinks to prolong. One day, she will be gone. And he won’t have this memory of her, because he didn’t think to pay attention.

I believe Against the Day is Pynchon realizing that he won’t live forever. That he’s an old man now, and that the vast majority of his life, his creativity, his productivity, is behind him. Against the Day is his meditation on his own mortality, in the only way that he can meditate: by having lots of characters crash into each other and stumble around and work hard to find some kind of direction that always–always–seems to elude them.

Against the Day becomes a deeply sad book if you read it like that, but it also, to me, became a more important one. It’s a jumbled reflection on a lifetime’s worth of missed, forgotten, and ignored moments. For everything you remember, there’s more that you forget. For everything that you do, there’s more that you don’t. For everyone you meet, there are more missed connections that could have changed everything.

His novel even features characters that don’t grow up…that are frozen, in a sense, in time. Forever young, as the world ages around them.

It must be nice, Pynchon may think, to be able to float above…observing…recording…touched by emotion but untouched by time.

Lonely, painful, with many generations’ worth of loss and longing and sorrow that you’ll never be free of…but, still, it must be nice…

In one scene, two dogs meet. One of them lives in the city, and has dreams of flying. The other lives on an airship, and dreams of living on the ground.

The Big Sleep, Raymond ChandlerChoose Your Own Advent is a yuletide celebration of literacy. We’ll spotlight a different novel every day until Christmas, hopefully helping you find one you’d like to read in the new year.

Title: The Big Sleep
Author: Raymond Chandler
Year: 1939

A few years ago I had a project planned for National Novel Writing Month. I participate in that whenever I can, and I never regret doing so. (Even if I don’t hit my goals.) This particular project was a bit of a pastiche of the detective fiction genre. I was cheating, because I hadn’t read much detective fiction; I just thought I’d have some fun with it. It wasn’t anything I’d need to take seriously.

Fast forward a few years. My humble little draft from a silly writing exercise actually evolved into something of…well, merit. I liked it. I liked it quite a lot, actually. And instead of just being some silly riff on established conventions, it had a story and characters that I was proud of. It was worth turning into something real.

I mention this now because Detective Fiction–my manuscript–actually spurred my legitimate interest in detective fiction. When I started writing my novel, I had read very little of it. After National Novel Writing Month I read more. I came to understand and appreciate it. I came to respect it. And my writing became more respectful as a result.

See, I think I got it in my head that detective fiction…well, that it wasn’t very good.

I think I thought it was enjoyable. Thrilling. Fun. You know…things along those lines. It was like a piece of candy. Pleasant enough, but no replacement for a full, proper meal.

Then I actually read some of it. And more of it. By now I’ve read a lot of it. And I like it.

Raymond Chandler is where I started. Specifically, I started with The Big Sleep. It’s not my favorite of his (that would be The Long Goodbye, but I’ve already written extensively about that one). I’ll always have a place for it in my heart, though, because it’s the novel that showed me that detective fiction done well is really just literature.

Impressive, engrossing, important literature.

The Big Sleep was the first of Chandler’s novels, and was obviously then the first to feature his famous protagonist Philip Marlowe. It incorporated many aspects and plot beats of Chandler’s earlier short stories, but the net effect is one of surprising cohesion. It doesn’t feel stitched together from disparate source material, even though–to be blunt–it was.

Many of his novels were constructed this way. It’s just how Chandler operated. The same way a musician or a comedian might try out new material on stage, where the stakes are relatively small, Chandler sent short stories out into the wild to learn what worked and didn’t work before he immortalized them in novels.

The best part is that if you didn’t know already that he did this, you wouldn’t be able to tell.

Chandler understood his craft, and he knew that what made a short story successful wasn’t the kind of thing that would make a novel successful. The fact that he could turn one into the other and make it seem so effortless is, to be totally honest, deeply remarkable to me. Chandler was a great writer, and possibly an even better rewriter.

With Philip Marlowe, Chandler left his mark on the medium. That’s thanks in large part to the indelible performance of Humphrey Bogart, who played the character in the first cinematic adaptation of The Big Sleep. Between that and his performance as Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon five years earlier, Bogart provided a template for how troubled noir detectives should be played, and it’s hard to argue that anyone–ever–has improved upon his interpretation.

You don’t get much Marlowe in this book. Or, rather, you get a lot of what Marlowe says, and does, and thinks. But he’s less a character than he is a gradually more astute foil to the Sternwood family, who enlists him to help them out of a sticky blackmail situation, and to whom he’s able to trace back a web of crime and deceit that renders their initial concern irrelevant.

Of course, their patriarch, General Sternwood, knew nothing of this. He thought he was protecting his family rather than exposing them when he called Marlowe in. The general is an old man…a sickly invalid from an earlier, more honorable generation. His two daughters, born into money, seem dead set against inheriting his dignity.

It’s a strong enough mystery, but an even better study of generational gap, of parental love backfiring, of the rich being able to afford not caring about the consequences of their actions. It’s profound without necessarily being deep. It’s a simple story with an undercurrent of tragedy that touches much more than the actions of two spoiled children.

It’s, to be frank, great.

It’s also a Fiction into Film I’ll be doing at some point, as one of the great pleasures of reading The Big Sleep right now is identifying all of the ways that it influenced The Big Lebowski. (Note as well the similarity of the titles.) That’s a film about an aimless stoner drifting into a noir mystery for which he’s not equipped, and in which he’s not all that interested. It’s basically The Big Sleep with the wrong protagonist, and reading Chandler’s original will–repeat, will–give you greater appreciation for the Coen brothers’ inspired riff.

The Big Sleep lends itself well to reinterpretation and to parody–whether that’s on my part or the Coens’–and that’s because it’s such rich source material.

I get the feeling that a lot of people, even around the time of its publication, picked up The Big Sleep expecting little more than I expected. Some guns, some goons. Some tough talk. Dames. Double crosses. A mystery pieced together by an outsider.

Maybe it would be enjoyable. Thrilling. Fun. You know…things along those lines.

Instead, it taught us that the genre could achieve greatness. And, to this day, there’s been no better evidence of that than the works of Raymond Chandler.

The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, Laurence SterneChoose Your Own Advent is a yuletide celebration of literacy. We’ll spotlight a different novel every day until Christmas, hopefully helping you find one you’d like to read in the new year.

Title: The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman
Author: Laurence Sterne
Year: 1759

The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman is a masterpiece. Full stop. It is one of English literature’s greatest achievements, and a riotous deconstruction of the writing process in general. It relishes the subversion of expectation, pulses with comic tension, and plays its biggest (and best) jokes on the readers themselves.

Now look at the date of publication. It will give you a very good idea of just how far ahead of its time this was. Sterne was breaking conventions before many authors, readers, or critics had any idea of what those conventions were.

There’s one piece of advice that every young author, rightly, receives at some early point, and this novel seems like it was written as a longform monkey’s-paw response; Tristram Shandy is “write what you know” taken to its absurdist (and absurdest) conclusion.

The novel itself is actually a memoir, written by the fictional Tristram Shandy. Our autobiographer takes it upon himself to set down the events of his life in text, and nine volumes of that memoir later he’s barely even started.

And that’s the main joke of the experience. You sit down to read about the life and opinions of Tristram Shandy, and indeed he sat down to write them. But other things occupy his mind. Digressions give way to further digressions, which lead him naturally to speak about and explain things that had nothing to do with the story he originally meant to tell. Tristram Shandy is a constant, recursive twist through a nimble mind…the product of a fictional writer who enjoys writing so much that he cannot stop doing it, even when his pen takes him, as it so quickly does, to places he never intended to go. Tristram’s memoir, in a sense, is writing itself, with our narrator pulled along behind his own runaway tale.

And it’s beautiful.

One gets the sense that Sterne himself was improvising as well. Not entirely, of course, and he clearly builds to certain setpieces, but one does have to wonder how many of the book’s aimless flights belong to Tristram, and how many belong to Sterne.

But it’s an artful lack of focus, which is why it works so well. The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman does everything no book should ever do. It obsesses over irrelevant details. It gets lost in unnecessary explanation. It can’t decide what it wants to say…or even what it is, as Tristram’s autobiography turns into many, many, many other things, none of which, of course, are autobiographies.

It does these things deliberately, however, which is what makes all the difference. We’ve all read frustratingly aimless books. Many of them are actually fairly popular, whether or not the critics understand their success. Writing is difficult, after all, and there’s always a temptation for authors to include what they believe to be some well-written passage or other, even when it doesn’t naturally fit the novel they’re writing.

Tristram Shandy, then, is the phoenix that rises from the ashes of amateur mistakes…and that’s a damned big pile of ashes.

The novel opens with Tristram’s conception…an event for which, of course, he was not present, but there’s no reason he can’t set it down in immaculate detail, complete with his own interpretations of his parents’ thought processes.

He won’t be born for another several volumes, so in the meantime we learn about his father’s obsession with choosing for his son the perfect name (which, as this is a comedy, is not “Tristram”), his mother’s difficulties in retaining her preferred midwife, the tragedy of the family’s forgetful maid, the sickly horse of the family’s parson, the war wound his uncle Toby received at the Siege of Namur, the hobby that Toby then developed of re-enacting the battle with whatever implements were at hand, which eventually leads to the unexpected circumcision of Tristram…but, whoops, there I go, too, explaining much more than I had intended.

Tristram’s problem, as you might imagine, is that if it takes him hundreds of pages to even tell the story of his first day on Earth, how will he ever cover the rest of his life? It’s a good joke, but it takes on a fairly sad real-world resonance if you know that Sterne himself was consumptive, and slowly dying as Tristram Shandy was, volume by volume, released to the world. He died the year after the last volume was published, and there have been suggestions that he intended to write more…that Tristram only stopped writing because his creator did.

There’s an undercurrent of tragedy in Tristram Shandy…an assurance that no matter how much we’d like to cling something, we’re destined to be swept forward, or at least away. There’s the parallel condemnation / celebration of myopia, as Tristram finds tens of thousands of words in the smallest of observations, but loses his chance to write about so many other things as a result. There’s the reminder that however much time we spend doing something, it’s time we cannot spend doing anything else.

And, of course, that it’s time we can’t get back.

It’s also, however, a reminder of the enduring power of writing. Tristram and Sterne are still remembered, still read, still enjoyed centuries later. They can still speak to us. They can still share with us. They can still make us laugh, even as they remind us that the time we spend reading what they say is time spent away from our own lives.

But that might be a good thing. That may in fact be the novel’s greatest gift.

Life happens without structure. To seek to impose structure upon it is to invite it to fight back, to resist regimentation, to rebel against your purest intentions.

That’s a struggle all writers face. Sterne embraced it, and gave the world literature’s finest self-reflexive satire.

Not all of us are authors, but we each seek to impose our own structure as well. Nearly always we find, instead, chaos.

Sterne would invite you to embrace that.

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