Before McSweeney’s and Everything Is Illuminated and even Pale Fire, there was Laurence Sterne‘s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman — THE modern proto-hypertext and a novel that’s been begging lo these many years to be turned into graphic-design porn.
Sterne, the 18th-century godfather of visual writing, filled his meandering cock-and-bull story with all sorts of glyphic ephemera — a blacked out page to connote mourning, a blank page on which readers could sketch their impressions of a foxy widow, and so on. In Sterne’s hands, how the text was presented was every bit as important as the text itself if not, perhaps, more so. Now, an innovative publishing company has rescued old Shandy from the corsetry of “classic editions” and given it the graphical treatment it deserves.
UK-based Visual Editions — whose strapline is, refreshingly, “great looking stories” — tapped the London design firm A Practice For Every Day Life “to breathe new life into the book,” the press release says. All the publishers asked was that the designers stay faithful to Sterne’s spirit, which eliminated oh, pretty much nothing.
The result is a visual free-for-all. The book’s got pages of dotted spot varnish to represent sweat and a folded page for a shut door. One page, marbled in the original Shandy, is here a moire of a black-and-white photograph — a reference to contemporary printing techniques in the same way that marbling was high-tech in Sterne’s day.
All told, it’s a perfectly insane way to illustrate a perfectly insane book. And that’s the point. As Will Self writes in the introduction: “Were you to find yourself picking apart a lucid, non-discursive exposition of the novel ” its themes, its techniques, its plot ” you would know that you had finally gone mad.”
We’ve talked about the crucial role design will play in saving print from the death blows of the Internet. In short: If you want people to buy physical books, you have to give readers something they can’t find in a digital copy. Obviously, not every novel lends itself to the visual alchemy of Shandy. Still, Visual Editions has given us an excellent example of the power of graphic design to augment the wonders of prose.