Tag: italo calvino

4 Books to Read By This Underrated Fantasy Writer

If you’re a fan of fantasy, you’ve probably read J.K. Rowling, Leigh Bardugo, and all the other must-read authors that swoop you up into a world of dreams and magic. But you may or may not have read Italo Calvino, an Italian journalist known for his short stories and whimsical fiction. Born in 1923, Calvino seems almost ahead of his time in fantasy and immersive settings. These magical twists always come when least expected because, in a Calvino book, anything is possible. If you want to take a dive into Calvino’s world (and come out feeling like someone unplugged your connection to reality), here are four books to try.


1. Invisible cities


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image via atisuto17 on newgrounds.com


If you love urban fantasy, or you feel whispers of magic in the night lights of the city, Invisible Cities will feel absolutely unreal in the most beautiful way. In this collection of short stories, each chapter features the description of a whimsical city narrated by Venetian traveler Marco Polo who relays his travels through cities of memory, desire, design, the dead, and the sky.

There’s a spider-web city suspended above nothing but air on a series of nets, and inhabitants must climb around to get from place to place. There’s a city of waste where residents only use everything one time before throwing it away- one bar of soap per hand wash, one set of sheets and pillow per night’s sleep. There is a city that is forever under construction to prevent its destruction and a city of wells and buckets built over a massive lake.

Invisible Cities combines fantasy, metaphor, and social commentary in an absolutely breathtaking read.




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image via archzine.com


The first time you open If On A Winter’s Night A Travelerit’ll feel something like trying to read this. This book is about you, the reader, trying to read If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler by Italo Calvino, but you keep receiving incomplete copies missing parts of the plot, or completely different books altogether. As a result, If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler (and we never find out what that traveler does on a winter’s night) ends up combining about eight different plots for novels in total, each one more intriguing than the next. We never find out the endings. It’s just as frustrating as it is fascinating and addictive. In fact, this meta novel is more about the experience of the reader. Calvino uses the opportunity to make fun of books, readers, writers, publishers, translators, booksellers, and anti-readers in a way that’s strangely relatable.

If you love reading and meta stuff, this is definitely a book for you.





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image via dribble


When you were a kid, did you ever dream about running away from home and living in the forest, maybe building a treehouse where you can sulk in peace? The Baron in the Trees is the story of Cosimo di Rondó, a young Italian boy who had similar feelings after a fight with his family. He ran away into the trees and proceeded to live there for the rest of his life. Cosimo creates a whole world for himself in the trees, making friends, helping others, and solving worldly problems.

This book is for any fantasy lover who has elaborate dreams of escape into a world of their own making.




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Image via ioannagalanomati.blogspot.com


I like to think of Marcovaldo as cartoons come to life. Marcovaldo is an unskilled worker living in an Italian industrial city. He’s just trying to live a normal life and care for his family, but more often than not his imagination gets the best of him. Imagine the scene in cartoons where a person gets covered in a pile of snow and becomes a snowman. This happens to Marcovaldo. Imagine the scene where a person falls asleep on a raft in the middle of a lake and drifts over a waterfall, still sleeping. This also happens to Marcovaldo. Anything and everything happens to Marcovaldo, and fantasy just keeps intruding on the boring monotony of his working life.

If you’re a daydreamer who would rather chase fantasy than stay grounded in reality, you’ll probably relate to Marcovaldo as much as I did.


Basically, if you’ve never read Calvino and you’re in the mood for some fantasy that is also self-aware and unique, you HAVE to try one of these.




Featured image via telegraph.co.uk

life perpective

7 Books That Changed My Perspective on Life

Though you may read anywhere between one and 200 books this year, only a few will really stay with you. Very rarely do you read a book that shifts the bedrock of your mind. We start building our outlook on life when we’re very young. It’s not easy for new ideas to come along and be retrofitted into our worldview. It’s sort of like pulling the bottom brick from Jenga. You just don’t mess with it.


But, sometimes, you do come across words on a page that change you. When you look at the paper, you’re one person. When you lift your head up, you’re another. It’s scary, but also exhilarating. This should be why we read, after all—to give us something new to carry with us in life. Here are some of the books that did that for me.


1. The Tibetan Book of the Dead


Tibetan Book of the Dead

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Okay, I will admit that I wasn’t able to finish the whole thing. Also, I only took it out of the library after reading George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo. While my feeble intellect was not prepared for the enormous amount of discipline it requires to make the most of The Tibetan Book of the Dead, I did glean some new perspectives on perceiving the world. One of my favorite quotes was:


If, upon looking outwards towards the external expanse of the sky, there are no projections emanated by the mind, and if, on looking inwards at one’s own mind, there is no projectionist who projects thoughts by thinking them, then, one’s own mind, completely free from conceptual projections, will become luminously clear.


2. The Stranger by Albert Camus


The Stranger book cover

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It’s a book that famously opens with the death of the protagonist’s mother. He’s indifferent. He then kills someone and is sentenced to death. The book is about a lot of things, but it’s usually read through the lens of Camus’ absurdist philosophy, which is related to the existentialist philosophies popular when the book was written in the 1940s.


In some sense, it’s about the pointlessness of life, which, instead of inciting despair, should elate the reader. It’s liberating. Camus himself subscribed to this philosophy, as he wasn’t the mopey philosopher you might suspect. He was actually an accomplished athlete, and a bit of a womanizer. He also had a great sense of style, and was once asked to pose for Vogue. So even though you might see brooding sixteen-year-olds reading The Stranger (i.e. me), smoking a cigarette in a cafe, know that it’s a book that is, in some sense, cheerful.


3. The Peregrine by J. A. Baker


The Peregrine cover

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Watching BBC’s Planet Earth is what people of this generation do when they need to meditate and reconnect with nature from the comfort of their couch. J. A. Baker’s The Peregrine is, I imagine, the closest prose version of Planet Earth as we’ll get.


The book follows Baker over the period of one year as he leaves his English home and watches and records the flight of a peregrine falcon. The attentiveness and lyricism of Baker’s prose reads less like nature writing and more like a very long, very good Wordsworth poem. Not only does he capture the changing of the seasons and the falcon’s life, but also his own transformation. There’s something meditative and bare about Baker’s narrative. Everything seems very simple after reading The Peregrine, and that’s sometimes what a book needs to do.


4. Six Memos for the Next Millennium by Italo Calvino


Six Memos for the Next Millennium

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Calvino’s memos were originally meant to be lectures given at Harvard. Sadly, Calvino passed away before he was able to deliver them. The lectures were meant to cover six, essentially, literary virtues Calvino wanted the next millennium’s writers to keep in mind. Again, sadly, Calvino only made it to five.


The five memos are: Lightness, Quickness, Exactitude, Visibility, and Multiplicity. The unfinished sixth memo would have covered consistency. Though these may seem obvious, Calvino’s definitions are heavily based in classical and renaissance literature, particularly from Italy. For example, Calvino’s lightness has several connotations other than what may seem most obvious. He’s speaking of a physical lightness, but also of a more abstract lightness. Though I won’t claim to fully grasp his meaning, he touched upon lightness as a writer’s tool of sorting through life’s excessive heaviness. Which leads to the next book on the list…


5. The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera


Unbearable Lightness

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Kundera’ books are, like Calvino’s, always experimental and fresh. His classic The Unbearable Lightness of Being does not just possess the greatest title, but it also has some of the lightest, most tender prose I’ve ever read. Like the best writers on this list, his perspective cuts through social conventions and displays to the reader the bare truths of human life.


For Kundera, we only live once (indeed, YOLO), and that’s one of the biggest jokes on Earth. In one section of the book, Kundera writes:


There is no means of testing which decision is better, because there is no basis for comparison. We live everything as it comes, without warning, like an actor going on cold. And what can life be worth if the first rehearsal for life is life itself? That is why life is always like a sketch. No, “sketch” is not quite the word, because a sketch is an outline of something, the groundwork for a picture, whereas the sketch that is our life is a sketch for nothing, an outline with no picture.


6. Tender Buttons by Gertrude Stein


Tender Buttons cover

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I cannot promise you’ll enjoy Stein’s deconstructed syntax and wordplay (if you can call it that), but once you’ve spent enough time with it, it will change the way you perceive language. It will make you a better speaker, a better writer, and a better listener. Once you’ve given Tender Buttons the time it deserves (and it deserves your time, whether you love it or despise it), it will reward you by making you hear language, for possibly the first time, as the music that it is. Stein’s poetry teaches you that words are nothing but sounds, and sometimes those sounds, once emptied of their arbitrarily-given definitions, can communicate more primitive, more visceral feelings. This book’s a killer.


7. The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas


The Count of Monte Cristo cover

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Dumas’ epic revenge story is a masterclass in writing and, basically, in life. Dantes is the original superhero, cutdown by several capable archnemeses. Despite spending years in solitary confinement for a crime he didn’t commit, Dantes reenters society as a mysterious stranger.


Thus, Dumas marries two classic plot strategies: a stranger comes to town, and a person goes on a journey. Dantes is both the stranger and the person on a journey. Because Dumas is outstanding at plotting his stories, he makes a 1,000+ page book feel like it moves too quickly. He shifts perspectives when needed, but the reader never loses sight of Dantes’ ultimate goal. And when his elaborate scheme pays off, the feeling it leaves in the reader is unlike any other. It gives the illusion, unlike every other book on this list, that there’s some order to things. Still, careful not to leave his readers with a false sense of order, Dumas ends the novel in the only suitable way: “all human wisdom is contained in these two words, ‘Wait and Hope.’”


Feature Photo by Rob Mulally Via Unsplash

Spirited Away

Please, Hayao Miyazaki, Animate These Books

The books I love that haven’t been turned into movies or TV shows are especially dear to me. Their one true version is in my head. Only I know what those books look like. Whenever it’s announced one of these few survivors is getting an adaptation, a little piece of my brain chips off. It’s not necessarily sad to see a book become a movie or TV show, but it does feel like theft.


If it’s being adapted by a real visionary, though, it’s different. A director with a really clear style can sometimes suit a book perfectly. Studio Ghibli co-founder Hayao Miyazaki is one of those directors. His art style, writing style, and scene composition is consistently magical. There’s something distinctly literary about his movies. His movies continue to evolve too. His latest, The Wind Rises, is a historical drama about the designer of Mitsubishi jets during World War II.


If Miyazaki needs ideas for his next project, I’d love for him to ruin how I picture these books.


1. The Baron in the Trees by Italo Calvino


Baron in the Trees

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This lovely novel follows twelve-year-old Cosimo living in the French Riviera in the 18th century. After a fight with his annoying sister, Cosimo abandons the ground to live his entire life in the trees. Initially he has some help with things like food, but he eventually becomes totally self-sufficient. Although he left the ground to escape society, he finds his life in the trees does nothing but help the people below. He then falls in love with a girl, and that’s also nice.


It’s a perfect tale of youthful whimsy set in a slightly askew version of our world. Sounds pretty Miyazaki-esque to me.


2. A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki


Tale for the Time Being

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This one follows two narrators. The first is Ruth, based on the author Ruth Ozeki, who lives in Vancouver and finds a washed up diary from a Japanese girl, Nao, and starts reading it. The second is from Nao’s perspective, who’s forced to move from California to Tokyo after her father loses his job. It’s a story that deals with bullying, suicide, spirituality, and general adolescent angst. But it is so funny. Ozeki absolutely nails Nao’s voice. She’s never too much of a bummer or too heavy even when the subject matter is vicious. It’s really just a great book you should read.


Miyazaki might be perfect for this because Ozeki depicts Japanese culture in an unusual, very modern way. She’s not weighed down by its rich history that’s so often mythologized, but she uses it instead to depict what Tokyo is like today. And it’s not always pleasant fun.


3. The Long Ships by Frans G. Bengtsson


The Long Ships

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Bengtsson’s tour de force is the beginning and end of all Viking depictions. No others have to be made. The book follows Red Orm as he’s abducted by Vikings, then those Vikings get abducted by Andalusians, for whom he then serves as a slave. Through Red Orm, the reader gets to see some of the most significant moments of the Viking Age: Christianization, the turn of the first millennium, Harald Bluetooth’s reign, the Battle of Maldon, and many others. And it’s funny.


Miyazaki and…Vikings? It just sounds too delicious to pass up. His lively, light animation suits Bengtsson’s tone so well. It would be absolutely fascinating to see color applied to Vikings. Vikings are really popular right now, but nearly every depiction reduces them to stereotypes. A Miyazaki-helmed The Long Ships film would be a proper Viking saga.




4. Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders


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After his son Willie dies, President Lincoln visits his son’s tomb by himself several times. What he doesn’t know is that Willie is in a spiritual middle ground, stuck between life and death. He’s also surrounded by a lot of other ghosts who are also stuck between life and death. Saunders’ Booker-winning debut novel is funny, sincere, and wonderfully bizarre.


The world of Willie’s cemetery is very Spirited Away-esque. The ghosts have a proper culture. Miyazaki can give Saunders’ story a wonderful new dimension. His sense of humor is also tried and true.


5. ‘The Second Bakery Attack’ by Haruki Murakami from The Elephant Vanishes


An Elephant Vanishes

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It’s a funny one. Murakami’s short story follows two troubled newlyweds who decide to rob a McDonald’s. Their reasoning is hilarious. As a teenager, the husband robbed a bakery of bread, but the baker forced him to listen to Wagner in exchange for the bread. The husband couldn’t listen to Wagner, so he didn’t steal the bread. The wife thinks this placed a curse on her husband, so they need to try again. There are no bakeries open, though. Only a McDonald’s.


It’s a quirky story, and even though it’s based in the real world, the logic is very otherworldly. That’s typical of Murakami and sometimes Miyazaki too. They’re two major Japanese artists and it would be great to see them collaborate in some way even if it’s not a direct adaptation of one of Murakami’s books or stories.




Please, Miyazaki. Don’t retire for good before you adapt at least one of these! I’m counting on The Long Ships. Pretty please?


Feature Image Via Studio Ghibli

Pixar's 'La Luna'

Why Reading Italo Calvino’s Stories Feels Like Turning off Gravity

When my fifth grade report card came, my parents looked at it first. I was sat down on the couch, and my mom showed me the letter next to science: “F.” A big fat F. What followed was ten years of educational angst. I’d become too stressed by school to admit I enjoyed it. When the time came to study for the SATs, I didn’t. I just took the test, and then, having done badly the first time, retook it. Then, when my friends were visiting college campuses, I didn’t. I visited one, and decided I didn’t like it. I told anybody who’d listen college wasn’t for me.


It’s a good thing I changed my mind about school if only because that’s where I first got to read Italo Calvino. For those not yet consumed, one of Calvino’s most famous work, Cosmicomics, takes then-contemporary scientific theories and spins them into fables. The moments before the big bang becomes the setting for a steamy romance, and the formation of hydrogen atoms becomes a game which two shapeless characters play. ‘The Distance of the Moon’ tells of a time when the Moon orbited so closely to Earth that people could jump up on it with a ladder. If this seems familiar, it inspired Pixar’s short ‘La Luna.’


Matt Kish 'The Soft Moon'

COSMICOMICS: The Soft MoonArt By Matt Kish


Cosmicomics is Calvino’s clearest rethinking of how science works and how people interact to it, but this theme pervades his work. A crater on Mercury was actually named after him. At the time of his death, he was Italy’s most-translated writer. For me, even though my relationship with science almost derailed my entire education, Calvino’s relationship with science steered me back on what I think is my proper course.


Invisible Cities is essentially a conversation between Kublai Khan and Marco Polo, with Marco Polo recounting all the cities he’s explored. It’s told as a series of prose poems, each describing a different city. The thing is, each city is impossibly imagined. They can’t actually exist. One city, Octavia, is suspended above an abyss with just a net to protect them. Argia, another city, has earth instead of air. For Calvino, cities are not physical places, but extensions of ideas.


If Cosmicomics plays with scientific theories, then Invisible Cities deconstructs the very principles of science. Things like space and time don’t apply to Calvino as a writer. If they don’t apply to his writing, then they also don’t apply to his readers. Reading Calvino is like turning off gravity. Or maybe it’s like entering a supermassive black hole and somehow being able to exist just fine in it.



Art By Eda Akaltun


For example, take the short story ‘The Light-Years.’ The inciting scientific idea for Calvino is how fast light travels from distant stars. The speaker, Qfwfq (a fundamentally unimaginable protagonist), believes someone on a distant star somehow saw something embarrassing he’d done a hundred million years ago. He must therefore write a sign to them to try to find out what they know, but the light from his sign will only reach his observer in millions more years. Then, if they respond, their message can only reach him in millions more years. Time and space are never out of the question, but Calvino does twist them into distinctly unfamiliar concepts. Time doesn’t work the way we expect it to because Qfwfq is apparently eternal. Space doesn’t work the way we think because somehow someone on a planet hundreds of millions of miles away can witness a single embarrassing act and respond to it.


In books like t zero (a continuation of Cosmicomics), Numbers in the Dark, The Cloven Viscount, The Nonexistent Knight, and Mr. Palomar, Calvino plays with his readers’ understanding of the physical world. And I mean it when I say “play.” He’s playful and funny and irreverent. He’s also intimidatingly, sometimes frustratingly, intelligent.


His mom and dad were both accomplished botanists and his younger brother became an accomplished geologist. He was always surrounded by science and even studied botany at the University of Turin. Because he’s a literary punk rocker, though, Calvino took his askew perspective and mashed up his two favorite subjects: literature and science. From that came he most mind-bending books available.


Books, as a medium, allow for almost totally unrestrained entertainment. Even in today’s blockbusters, with their expensive CGI budgets that can make dragons photorealistic, there are still restrictions. Budget, technology, manpower. There will always be restrictions to what we can see. But literature has no restrictions. Calvino’s proof. Even science doesn’t apply to his stories.


In fifth grade, my love of education was almost obliterated by science. But because of Calvino, science (or the deconstruction of it) taught me how to love reading, writing, and just basically everything about learning things. It’s weird how the things you love can reduce you either to being totally mute or unintelligibly verbose. For Calvino and science, he wrote books and books on science. For me and Calvino, expect more articles.


Feature Image Via Pixar


7 Experimental Books That Will Turn Your Head Inside Out

It takes someone who just does not give a fly frick to push things forward. It’s true in art, politics, science, math. It’s true of all the things, but it’s especially true of literature. The avant-garde forward-thinkers are mainly put on the sidelines when regular authors are publishing regular stories, but sometimes the punk rock-minded writers need a spotlight.


Some of these writers are contemporary, some are from the 70s, and some are from a long, long time ago. They are all here, though, assembled in a list of glorious weirdness.


1. Cent Mille Milliards de Poemes (1961) by Raymond Queneau


Cent Mille cover

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This French book of poetry translates to English as A Hundred Thousand Billion Poems. The thing is, there are actually only ten sonnets inside. Queneau wrote ten sonnets with the exact same rhyme scheme, so each line in any of the sonnets has nine alternatives. There are fourteen lines in a sonnet, so that means there are 10^14 sonnets (a.k.a. 100,000,000,000,000).


Queneau collaborated with mathematician Francois Le Lionnais on the book, and from their collaboration sprung the experimental writing group Oulipo. Several of the writers on this list were at one point members of Oulipo. If you’re interested in reading some of Queneau’s hundred thousand million poems, follow this link and generate one or two!


2. A Void (1969) by Georges Perec


A Void

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As a member of Oulipo, Perec was also interested in the sort of writing Queneau did. Perec’s mainly known for the constraints he put on himself, as is the case in La disparition (translated as A Void), in which he doesn’t use the letter “e.” This sort of constraint is called a lipogram, and Perec’s a madman (genius) for sustaining one for 300 pages. But imagine translator Gilbert Adair’s challenge in then translating the French book into English, still without the eltter “e.” Yikes.


3. Tender Buttons (1914) by Gertrude Stein


Tender Buttons

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Stein is, basically, a punk rocker through and through. She’s a badass. Nobody was writing poetry like her when Tender Buttons dropped in 1914. Then again, a lot of people hate her, some considering her writing gibberish. I mean, you can hardly blame them. Though Tender Buttons is intended to be read as a single, long poem, its most famous piece is probably “A Carafe, that is a Blind Glass,” and it’s short enough to include:


A kind in glass and a cousin, a spectacle and nothing strange a single hurt color and an arrangement in a system to pointing. All this and not ordinary, not unordered in not resembling. The difference is spreading.


Though this may indeed sound like gibberish, what Stein wants her readers to do is to…not read. This is poetry, more than other poetry, that demands audio. You need to listen not to Stein’s words, but to her sounds. Her goal was a sort of verbal Cubism (i.e. bringing Picasso to poetry). Listen to the sounds her poem makes. Read it out loud three or four times. Stop hearing “not” as “not” until it becomes “knot” or “nought” or starts bleeding into the other words and brews an entirely new association. In short, Stein was weird and spectacular.


4. If on a winter’s night a traveler (1979) by Italo Calvino


Winter Night

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Oulipo writer number three, Calvino is, hands down, the greatest writer. Having written a series of cosmic fables (Cosmicomics, then continued in t-zero), turned Romantic narratives topsy-turvy (Castle of Crossed Destinies), and, essentially, reinvented architecture (Invisible Cities), Calvino’s postmodern masterpiece If on a winter’s night a traveler takes on literature in the most wonderfully meta way possible.


Following the story of a reader searching for a specific book, each chapter is split into two sections. The first is told in second-person and is about the reader (“you”) looking for the book in question. The second section is the beginning of a new book with no endings provided. While you may feel totally lost, being dropped in and out of different novels over and over, the ending coalesces nicely. Give it a try.


5. A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing (2013) by Eimear McBride



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Put simply, McBride’s novel is about a young girl who must deal with mounds of trauma as she moves to and then away from Dublin, Ireland. Though it sounds simple, McBride’s prose is unlike any other’s. She just doesn’t process words in her head the same way you or I do. In a somewhat Joyce/stream-of-consciousness style, McBride’s story unfolds in really tragic, bizarrely wonderful ways.


6. Hopscotch (1963) by Julio Cortázar



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Cortázar’s stream-of-consciousness novel is 155 chapters long, but the last 99 chapters are deemed “expendable.” Yeah. Basically, chapters 1-56 contain the book’s plot, and chapters 57-155 contain scenes or vignettes that add to the characters’ world or journey in some way. Sort of like deleted scenes.


Interestingly, Cortázar provides the reader instructions, outlining three possible routes of reading the book. The first is to read the first fifty-six chapters in their proper consecutive order. The second is to “hopscotch” through the 155 chapters by Cortázar’s design. Lastly, the reader can find their own way through the narrative in no particular order. That’s either totally freeing or way too much pressure.


7. The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1759-1767) by Laurence Sterne


Tristram Shandy

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Sterne’s 18th century masterpiece is one of English literature’s earliest, most groundbreaking works of humor. It’s an extraordinarily, laughably long book considering the vignettes Tristram tells of are really brief. His bungled birth leads to a crooked nose, which, according to a weird theory proposed by his father, means he’ll have a messed up love life (because noses are double entendres for penises, obviously). Even though the book purportedly tells Tristram’s life story, Tristram’s telling of his life is so disastrously sidetracked by his own digressions, obsessive thoughts, and hilariously offbeat philosophies on life and the order of things.


On one notable occasion, Tristram finds himself meditating on the difficulty of writing about a short scene of his life because it takes so many words to capture a single moment that by the time the moment has been adequately illustrated, a hundred other moments must be written up. In this way, Sterne writes the most seemingly absent-minded, yet truly thoughtful books on language out there.


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