Thursday, February 24, 2011


Gertrude Stein, says Stanley Fish, did “not know that anything has ever been more exciting than diagramming sentences.” You may say that she must have lived a rather dull life. But I suspect that for her, life was particularly interesting because she paid attention to the structures that underlie our existence. To diagram a sentence is to study anatomy. The structures of language are both the substrate and the surface of human existence, just as the physics of mass and motion frame the mountains and the plains.

In How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One, law professor and New York Times blogger Stanley Fish takes readers on a tour of sentences. Here’s an old favorite, he says, quoting a line from the 1960 film The Magnificent Seven: “If God didn’t want them sheared, he would not have made them sheep.” There’s a fearful symmetry in a sentence like that, and a sense of inevitability.

Ah, here’s another one: “Interior decorating is a rock-hard science compared to psychology practiced by amateurs.” That was Justice Antonin Scalia hurling a stony epigram at his majority mates on the Bench. Fish slowly mines that quip with a five-part sentence of his own, linked by three semicolons and one colon, to demonstrate the gathering speed with which Scalia’s sentence hurtles.

Good sentences are not respecters of persons. Fish draws on not only literary giants and Supreme Court justices, but also actors and schoolchildren. “I was already on the second floor when I heard about the box”—that’s the opening sentence of a fourth-grader’s essay that “draw[s] readers in and make[s] them want more.”

The thought doesn’t count, says Fish. Great sentences are great first because of the way they work. Their shape and structure carry thoughts, perhaps great ones. But as in a finely crafted automobile, the machinery comes first. And so, with Fish, we can call famed nonsense like this a well-nigh perfect sentence: “’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves / Did gyre and gimble in the wabe; / All mimsy were the borogoves, / and the mome raths outgrabe.” Lewis Carroll’s lines set an epic mood. They present a problem to be solved and distress to be soothed. They describe action, albeit action that gyres rather than shooting straight.

My favorite chapter in Fish’s slender volume is the one he devotes to “First Sentences.” Good first sentences, says Fish, will “lean forward and point to future, if presently inchoate, vistas; they draw readers in and equip them with quite specific expectations.”

A leaning-forward sentence can be as simple as Philip Roth’s “The first time I saw Brenda she asked me to hold her glasses.” Or as complex as Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “A throng of bearded men, in sad colored garments, and grey steeple-crowned hats, intermixed with women, some wearing hoods and others bareheaded, was assembled in front of a wooden edifice, the door of which was heavily timbered with oak, and studded with iron spikes.” Roth sets the reader up for the future with narrative hints of plot and character. Hawthorne does not narrate, but sets a stage with “mood, metaphor, and imagery.”

I have long tested books by their first sentences. The first sentence is far from being the only test of a book, but it is a good predictor of how much pleasure I can expect to derive from reading it.

After finishing Fish, I looked at some of my favorite books, books that had shaped me in some way, to see which ones had good first sentences. Many of my favorite books had turgid first sentences, bloated beyond their capacity to mean. Others relied on clear statements of purpose or thesis that despite their utility were rendered in prose that recalled Hamlet’s “weary, flat, stale, and unprofitable.” These books shaped me, but their style was not always a delight.

Five, however, stood out as good examples.

Peter Drucker’s The Effective Executive has shaped my professional life. The first sentence of the preface has what Fish calls an “angle of lean”: “Management books usually deal with managing other people.” Drucker’s opening line implies contrast and therefore uniqueness. This management book is not your usual management book, it says. It is not about managing other people, but about managing yourself. The sentence pricks conscience (I am bad at managing myself) and provokes a sense of need (I could sure use some help in that department).

Drucker’s book is a classic because it meets that need.

Another, very different first sentence graced the opening chapter of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s The Sabbath“He who wants to enter the holiness of the day must first lay down the profanity of clattering commerce, of being yoked to toil.” The next sentence heightens the poetic diction by further upping the alliterative ante: “He must go away from the screech of dissonant days, from … the betrayal in embezzling his own life.”

That sentence puts us on notice: Heschel’s theology of the Sabbath will be aesthetic and experiential rather than legal or philosophical. The poetic diction that forms the posts and lintels of the book’s doorway prepares the reader for a new appreciation of the divine presence, as Heschel links Shekinah and Shabbat.

Florida journalist Dan Wakefield’s memoir Returning: A Spiritual Journey opens thus: “One balmy spring morning in Hollywood, a month or so before my forty-eighth birthday, I woke up screaming.” The sentence lulls the reader (“balmy spring morning”) and signals a happy occasion (a birthday) in a happy place (Hollywood) before delivering its punch-in-the-gut line (“I woke up screaming”). That is more than an “angle of lean.” It is the trajectory of a smooth stone leaving a slingshot. The sentence propels the reader into the narrative at tremendous velocity.

Like the first sentence of Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (quoted above), the first sentence of Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma sets a scene:  “Air-conditioned, odorless, illuminated by buzzing fluorescent tubes, the American supermarket doesn’t present itself as having very much to do with Nature.” But where Hawthorne’s mood and metaphor are dark, muddy, hooded, cloaked, septic, and spiky, Pollan’s are cool, crisp, sterile, and overlit. Pollan does more than set a stage. He stages an irony. He follows “ … the American supermarket doesn’t present itself as having very much to do with Nature” with “… what is this place if not a landscape … teeming with plants and animals?” The fluorescent tubes light the stage, but the irony creates the angle of lean.

Finally, consider M. Scott Peck’s line, “Life is difficult,” with which he opened The Road Less Traveled (694 weeks on the best-seller list by the time he died). “Life is difficult” tersely telegraphs the sum of a psychologist’s vast experience. Like Drucker’s opener, it creates a sense of need and offers a promise. (My colleague Mark Galli admits to having been inspired by Peck when he surgically altered evangelist Bill Bright’s bromide as an opener for Jesus Mean and Wild: “God loves you and has a difficult plan for your life.” Not at all bad.)

Fish’s book—if you are a lover of sentences—will send you scurrying for your favorites as well. Perhaps you love the satiric style, and this book’s chapter devoted to such sentences will inspire you to glean your own favorites and paste them in the comments section of this blog. Perhaps Fish’s chapter on the subordinating style will compel you to collect sentences that clarify the relationships between things. Perhaps it will be his chapter on the additive style.

Or the one on great last sentences.

1 comment:

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