J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Thursday, June 09, 2011

“Throw down the book at once”

Sunday’s Boston Globe alerted me to this year’s 250th anniversary of the third volume of Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne, and its Marbled Page. Actually, I hadn’t thought of the Marbled Page in capitalized terms before.

Sterne and his narrator introduce that page by saying:
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 next marbled page (motly emblem of my work!) than the world with all its sagacity has been able to unraval the many opinions, transactions and truths which still lie mystically hid under the dark veil of the black one.
Since the facing page was originally created with hand-marbled paper, each edition was different. The fact that the effects of marbling aren’t entirely under the craftsperson’s control added another layer of randomness. So, yes, that meaning could be difficult to penetrate. Unless the meaning was randomness itself.

Of course, by the time I read Tristram Shandy as a Penguin paperback, this page had been thinned out to a uniform grayscale image of a single piece of marbled paper, probably chosen by the publisher decades before. Still, it was fun to see Sterne playing with the book form.

This fall the Laurence Sterne Trust, which maintains the author’s home Shandy Hall, will host an exhibit celebrating this anniversary called “The Emblem of My Work”. The exhibit has its own website, naturally. Different artists have been invited to interpret the marbled Marbled Page.

This exhibit follows a similar celebration two years ago of Volume 1’s all-black page (“the black one”), which signaled a character’s death. That exhibit, too, had a website. I have to say, though, that a lot of those Black Pages aren’t very black.

TOMORROW: Tristram Shandy and the American generals.

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