Wednesday, April 4, 2012

How to Write a Sentence: and How to Read One by Stanley Fish

Stanley Fish treats sentences as an art form, and How to Write a Sentence: and How to Read One could be a (very short) textbook for Sentence Appreciation 101, if such a course existed. Fish also shows you how you can imitate great sentences by parsing their underlying forms and copying those forms.

The chapter on first sentences is particularly good. Fish uses the first line of Agatha Christie's Nemesis as an example of a sentence that "leans" into the story that follows, "beckoning us to the next sentence . . . promising us insights, complications, crises, and, sometimes, resolutions":

In the afternoons it was the custom of Miss Jane Marple to unfold her second newspaper.

He goes on to analyze the first sentences of authors as varied as Elmore Leonard and Ralph Waldo Emerson, as well as last sentences from everything from the movie Some Like It Hot to Joseph Conrad's The Heart of Darkness.

I would recommend How to Write a Sentence to any reader who simply must underline or copy down passages as they read. I would not recommend it to anyone who dislikes literary analysis or someone looking for straightforward advice on how to write (despite its title).

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