Like a lot of classic literature that’s free from the shackles of copyright, Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman exists in numerous editions of wildly variable quality, price, heft, and typo-riddenness.
So which should you get? With some public-domain novels it might be worth taking a risk on a free e-book. But Tristram Shandy is different. In a nutshell: You should buy the Penguin Classics edition, edited by Melvyn and Joan New.
The Penguin edition has the best endnotes, and in the case of Sterne’s weird, wild novel, the endnotes matter. Unlike more conventional narratives—where character and story drive the proceedings and endnotes can be a distraction—Tristram Shandy is as obsessed with ideas as it is with people and plots. Remember that the novel is about Tristram’s life and opinions.
And unless you happen to be an 18th-century cleric obsessed with Jonathan Swift, military fortifications, dirty jokes, and learned debates about the place of the soul in the brain—unless, in other words, you happen to be Laurence Sterne—you’ll need a good edition to guide you through the novel’s dizzying allusions, puns, and plagiarisms (more on that in a moment).
Based on the work of a team of editors headed by University of Florida professor Melvyn New, the Penguin edition searches out the nooks and crannies of Sterne’s immense learning. Paging through the endnotes, you’ll discover that 18th-century thinkers had odd ideas about conception (did a little copy of the future person arrive prepackaged in the father’s sperm or the mother’s egg?), that the buccinator is the muscle responsible for blowing air out of the body, and that cabbage-planting is a really dirty pun.
Without this sort of editorial apparatus, you’ll miss some of the novel’s best jokes. For example, if you work out the math, Tristram’s father seems to have been away on a trip during the month his son was conceived. Likewise, Tristram’s attack on plagiarism is itself plagiarized from Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy.
Some readers—those who simply want to get on with the story—can be put off by this kind of thing. For them, the good news is that Sterne is on their side. The novel’s most pointed satire is aimed at the impulse to capture and catalogue every last reference. For instance, Walter Shandy, Tristram’s beloved father, sets out to write a book—the “Tristra-poedia”—containing all human knowledge, so as to give his son a head start in life. But the project takes too long, and while Walter is scribbling away on his own, Tristram grows up in the care of his mother and maidservants.
And that’s the ultimate lesson of Sterne’s novel: Life outpaces knowledge.
The Penguin edition might be the closest we’ll ever get to a “Tristra-poedia” for Tristram Shandy: a nearly complete catalogue of Sterne’s borrowings, references, and obsessions. But, like Walter’s impossible encyclopedia, the editors’ notes can be a snare as well as an aid. After all, many people begin Tristram Shandy, but few finish it—thanks in large part to its well-documented distractions and digressions.