Sentences Can Save Us

0061840548.01.MZZZZZZZ Amitava Kumar in bookslut:

I’m not much of a sentence man myself, although I wish I were, but I have a notion that those who are usually express their fetish by quoting first sentences from novels. (“Call me Ishmael.” “ It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” “A screaming comes across the sky.” “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.” Etc.) In his new book, How to Write A Sentence, literary critic Stanley Fish devotes a chapter to first sentences and another to last sentences, but his taste isn’t reducible to a vulgar fetishism.

Like all academics, Fish also wants to understand. Part formalist, part forensic reader, he is interested in drawing our attention to a wide range of sentences and then explaining to us why they work. Here’s an early example from Fish: John Updike’s sentence telling us of the home run hit by Ted Williams in his last at bat in Fenway Park in September, 1960: “It was in the books while it was still in the sky.” This is part of what Fish has to say about what makes the depiction of that instant so effective in this sentence:

…he confers that mythical status on the moment before it is completed, before the ball actually goes out of the park. Indeed, in his sentence the ball never gets out of the park. It is “still in the sky,” a phrase that has multiple meanings; the ball is still in the sky in the sense that it has not yet landed; it is still in the sky in the sense that its motion is arrested; and it is still in the sky in the sense that it is, and will remain forever, in the sky of the books, in the record of the game’s highest, most soaring achievements. On the surface, “in the book” and “in the sky” are in distinct registers, one referring to the monumentality the home run will acquire in history, the other describing the ball’s actual physical arc; but the registers are finally, and indeed immediately (this sentence goes fast), the same: the physical act and its transformation into myth occur simultaneously; or rather, that is what Updike makes us feel as we glide through this deceptively simple sentence composed entirely of monosyllables.

You, dear teacher, could use the above passage to teach your undergrad to slow down and appreciate what he or she had just read. But Fish’s aim is more specific and goes further: he wants your student try to write a perfect sentence. To write a sentence like Updike’s, your student will have to take note of the form and imitate it by “arranging clauses in somewhat the same way.” Fish is upbeat about the results, including his own, and quite encouraging: “And once you get the hang of it — of zeroing in on a form that can then be filled with any number of contents — you can do it forever.”