Never Abolish the To-Die-For Sentence

Word came—via Twitter, Tumblr, I don’t remember, something that starts with a t—that The New Yorker has been featuring on its Web site the five best sentences of the week. That was good to hear, as I collect great sentences, the way some people collect beach glass, small statues of turtles, or perceived insults.

I was disappointed to find, however, that “Backblogged: Our Five Favorite Sentences of the Week” consists of sentences from a rather small subset of published work, The New Yorker itself. No one admires The New Yorker more than I do. However, I judge a magazine, even The New Yorker, to be too small a sample to yield each week five sentences worthy of collecting: that is to say, sentences which you cannot think of a way to improve and which might have a chance of living on when the immediate circumstances of their publication are long forgotten. Here, for example, is Backblogged’s latest crop:

  1. “Henry Miller was one of those rare writers who actively and energetically hated New York, calling it late in life ‘that old shithole, New York, where I was born.’ ” From “Henry Miller, Brooklyn Hater,” by Alexander Nazaryan.
  2. “It used to be the case that L.A. seemed utterly different from Eastern cities in one crucial way: It was already hauntingly apocalyptic, a place of steep hills, deep predator-filled canyons, terrible earthquakes, and winds bearing plutonium from Japan.” From “Leaving Los Angeles,” by Meghan O’Rourke.
  3. “Cicadas have no natural predators, in the sense of an animal that depends on them as a primary food source—it would be problematic to wait nearly two decades between meals.” From “The Song of the Cicada,” by Michael Lemonick.
  4. “For Berry and the others to be rescued, in other words, two things had to happen: she had to never forget who she was, and that who she was mattered; and Ramsey needed to not care who she might be at all—to think that all that mattered was that a woman was trapped behind a door that wouldn’t open, and to walk onto the porch.” From “What Charles Ramsey and Amanda Berry Knew,” by Amy Davidson.
  5. “I never told anyone—not the people I worked with every day, or the victims I convinced to go on camera to share their stories—how my own life was changed by a gun.” From “Guns and My Mother,” by Arkadi Gerney.

They’re all fine sentences, don’t get me wrong. But collectable? One and 5 are gimmicky at the core, their impact dependent on a single surprising word. In 4, a cascade of prepositions, pronouns, conjunctions, and abstract verbs pile on top of an interesting thought and pretty much bury it. Three is witty and nicely uses litotes in the essential word problematic; but the phrase in the sense of was clearly chosen for rhythm rather than meaning. (A species’ natural predator is an animal dependent on it as a primary food source, right?) O’Rourke’s sentence is the closest thing to a keeper; the list after the colon is vivid and beautifully paced. But the initial clause is marred by the overstated utterly and crucial and the wordy “It used to be the case that … ”

Of course, there are lots of other places where you can find personally curated sentence collections. A good one is a Tumblr called The Beautiful Sentence, which has been in business for exactly one year, as of today, and whose “About” reads: “Sentences with sound and sense. Emily Gordon, lepidopterist.” Gordon ranges widely, like a good shortstop: she’s got old and new, print and Web, demotic and mandarin. A few of her recent selections:

  • “The dad was too irritated to see how his outburst made the child a thousand times less likely to stop complaining, bizarrely laying responsibility for how fun the entire vacation was, possibly the vast Grand Canyon itself, on the kid’s grouchy little blond head.”—Amy Shearn, Huffington Post
  • “To condemn a woman simply for mentioning what she’s wearing is to miss the point that she has no choice but to wear something, and that the world we live in is such that people will derive meaning from her clothes in a way they do not from the spaghetti-sauce stains and baggy khakis of the male-poet set.”—Michelle Dean, Los Angeles Review of Books
  • “Slaves are generally expected to sing as well as to work.”—Frederick Douglass, My Bondage and My Freedom
  • “Ashley Tisdale parades her slim pins in animal print jeans as she picks up a calorific meal at In-N-Out Burger with pup Maui”—Daily Mail  headline

From these and other examples, I take it that some of the elements of a great sentence are shapeliness, pacing, conviction, surprise in both diction and idea, precision, wit, the evidence of the intelligence and personality behind it, and a strong sense that, having come up with it, the writer celebrated by utilizing some whiskey he or she had been saving at the back of the cabinet.

My own collection is a hodgepodge. One particular sentence from The New Yorker, by Ian Frazier, made me do a virtual spit-take when I first read it the week of April 19, 1982, and has been a favorite ever since. You actually need to read the previous sentence (which is also a good one) to get the full effect. Frazier is talking about a fishing-store owner. “Garen has a style of garment which he loves and which he wears almost every single day of his life. This garment is the jumpsuit.”

Another New Yorker one-two punch was penned in 1937 by A.J. Liebling, in a profile of the boxing cornerman Whitey Bimstein. Liebling says Bimstein’s assistant is “a Mr. Emmet.” Then: “Mr. Emmet, a Bostonian, is so called because, as he explains, ‘I always hanged in Emmet Street.’ He forgets his former name, which was polysyllabic.”

Here are a few more selections on my current playlist:

  • “He do the police in different voices.”—Dickens
  • “I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.”—Shakespeare
  • “Raid Kills Bugs Dead”—Lew Welch
  • “Without supposing that the man in the street has any penetrating instincts denied the expert, or is immune from demagoguery, we may nevertheless think it reassuring that political power is shared between experts and nonexperts rather than being a monopoly of the former.”—Richard Posner
  • “‘Shut up,’ he explained.”—Ring Lardner
  • “If you feel like loving me—if you’ve got the notion—I second that emotion.”—William (Smokey) Robinson

The collection is always changing. A recent addition is from a Washington Post article by Michael S. Rosenwald about gun shows. Rosenwald encounters a man at the show who says his name is Tom. Rosenwald writes:

“Asked his last name, Tom said, ‘Why?’”

Currently my favorite sentence is from the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry on Horace de Vere Cole, a “practical joker” (that is the DNB‘s summary phrase) who died in 1936. My friend Wes Davis alerted me to the sentence several years ago, and I return to it whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth. Actually, there are several contenders in the Cole entry, which was written by Richard Davenport-Hynes. The final line is a classic of over-the-top understatement: “His widow married Mortimer Wheeler (1939) and shot Lord Vivian (1954).” Still, nothing can top the one Wes told me about, which describes the aging practical joker in the winter of his years:

“His advanced deafness prevented him from realizing that his carefully timed coughing was inadequate to cover his explosive breaking of wind.”

I would be delighted to hear of the favorite sentences of Lingua Franca readers.




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