The Paris Review

How to Read a Squiggle

William Henry Bunbury’s print The Siege of Namur, published in The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, by Laurence Stern.

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 , 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,

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