O Me of Little Faith

O Me of Little Faith

Stanley Fish’s Favorite Sentences (and Mine, too)

This week I stumbled onto a blog post at Slate in which Stanley Fish, the literary critic and New York Times columnist, lists what he thinks are the top five sentences in the English language. The author of the new book How to Write a Sentence, Fish says he carries sentences around with him “as others might carry a precious gem or a fine Swiss watch.”


Of course, picking the best sentences in the history of English is so subjective as to be almost meaningless — it’s like choosing the best grain of sand on a beach — but it’s a fun exercise and hard to disagree with some of Fish’s choices.

I particularly liked this memorable line from Pilgrim’s Progress, by John Bunyan:

“Now he had not run far from his own
door, but his wife and children perceiving it, began crying after him to return,
but the man put his fingers in his ears, and ran on, crying, Life! Life!
eternal life.”


And this one from Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier is hard to argue with:

“And I shall go on talking in a low voice
while the sea sounds in the distance and overhead the great black flood of wind
polishes the bright stars.”

You can read Fish’s other choices — along with his commentary — here.

As a writer and reader, I love the idea of carrying around favorite sentences like treasured possessions, and since reading Fish’s list I’ve been thinking about my favorite sentences in literature. I wouldn’t say these are the “best” passages ever written, but they are sentences that have stayed with me and, yes, they really do pop into my mind from time to time.


The last line of Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It:

“I am haunted by waters.”

Because I am. I’ve always been fascinated by rivers, lakes, the ocean, and bodies of water…whether fishing them, swimming in them, or floating on top of them. Not sure why. But every so often I will actually be standing in a trout stream with Maclean’s words running through my head, including the sentences preceding that last line: “On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are words, and some of the words are theirs.”


I’m haunted by those sentences.

Another favorite sentence that creeps into my mind on a semi-regular basis is also water-related (and fly-fishing related). It’s the climax of a chapter called “The Line of Light” in David James Duncan’s The River Why:

“And I knew that the line of light led not to a realm but to a Being, and that the light and the hook were his, and that they were made of love alone.”

The River Why is one of my favorite books of all time. The chapter describes a battle between the narrator, Gus, and a near-mythical Chinook salmon…and there at the end, the whole thing turns metaphysical and quasi-religious. But the writing is extraordinary.


And one more:

The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can…

This passage, of course, is Bilbo’s traveling song from J.R.R. Tolkein’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy. It appears several times, with different words, but the opening lines always seem to be marching through my brain, in time with my feet, when I go backpacking, or running, or take an especially long road trip.

Anyway, those are a few of the sentences I carry along with me. What are yours?

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posted February 3, 2011 at 10:36 am

I misread one of them as “I am haunted by wafers”, and thought that there’s a sentence I can agree with.

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shawn smucker

posted February 3, 2011 at 10:49 am

If your lucky enough to find a way of life you love, you have to find the courage to live it – “A Prayer for Owen Meany” by John Irving.
I noticed you were calling for fiction recommendations – have you read Prayer for Owen Meany? If not, you really should. In my top three of all time.

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David N.

posted February 3, 2011 at 11:27 am

There are so many, but this one from Gilead by Marilynne Robinson always sticks with me: “I think sometimes of going into the ground here as a last wild gesture of love – I too will smolder away the time until the great and general incandescence.”

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Tess Mallory

posted February 3, 2011 at 11:32 am

Great post, Jason, and I love all of your sentences. I, too, am drawn to words written about rivers and oceans. I’ll have to look up my favorite sentences in some books where I know I have some! But here is one from Anne Jackson’s new book, Permission To Speak Freely — it always makes me tear up when I read it:
“Someone is waiting for the little ounce of courage that your voice can give them, so they can begin to find their own freedom.”
Yep, here come the tears. :))

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posted February 3, 2011 at 11:41 am

“Clocks slay time. Time is dead as long as it is being clicked off by little wheels; only when the clock stops does time come to life.”
William Faulkner
“Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there, wondering, fearing,doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before” Edgar Allan Poe
“I cannot recall what I started to tell you, but at least
I can say how night-long I have lain under the stars and
Heard mountains moan in their sleep” Robert Penn Warren, A Way to Love God
“A man may be a fool and not know it — but not if he is married.
H. L. Mencken

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bryan a

posted February 3, 2011 at 11:42 am

i was shocked and slightly disappointed to find nothing from my blog on your list.

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+ Alan

posted February 3, 2011 at 11:47 am

Wow, Jason – you stole my Norman McLean line. That’s what I immediately thought of when I saw this. This sentence, just before the end, always gets me, along with the surrounding words…
“Then in the Arctic half-light of the canyon, all existence fades to a being with my soul and memories and the sounds of the Big Blackfoot River and a four-count rhythm and the hope that a fish will rise.”
Amazing. At just about this point, actually just a little before, tears start welling up in my eyes. They did when I originally read it, before the movie, and still do every single time at this point in the film. Great stuff.

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posted February 3, 2011 at 1:50 pm

One of the sentences from Max Ehrman’s Desiderata has always stuck with me:
You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here.

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Jason Boyett

posted February 3, 2011 at 2:33 pm

Yes, “Owen Meany” is definitely one of my favorite books of all time, and our 8 year-old is named Owen for that very reason. “I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice” is another one of those sentences that always seems to come rattling around my brain.

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posted February 3, 2011 at 5:44 pm

Courage is when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. -Atticus Finch, To Kill a Mockingbird
This sentence accompanies me everywhere I go. Particularly useful at mile 18 of a marathon.

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posted February 3, 2011 at 6:11 pm

“Some days are diamonds, some days are stones.” A John Denver lyric and good mantra for a mom.

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posted February 3, 2011 at 11:36 pm

“From my first breath in this world, all I wanted was a good set of lungs and the air to fill them with…”
And so begins Leif Enger’s Peace Like a River, one of the best pieces of writing, and best stories, in the last 10 years.

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posted February 4, 2011 at 9:53 am

I love this. I carry several quotes around in my planner but this is one of my favorites from Paulo Coelho’s ‘The Alchemist':
“The Soul of the World is nourished by people’s happiness. And also by unhappiness, envy, and jealousy. To realize one’s destiny is a person’s only real obligation. All things are one.”

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Tess Mallory

posted February 4, 2011 at 1:21 pm

Here’s another one that I just found recently and love by Anne Lamott:
“Hope begins in the dark, the stubborn hope that if you just show up and try to do the right thing, the dawn will come.”
I love that quote so much, and here are others from her book on writing Bird by Bird —
On being afraid to write perfectly from the very start: “Perfectionism, on the other hand, will only drive you mad.”
On finding your way in your latest endeavor: “Think of a fine painter, attempting to capture an inner vision, beginning with one corner of the canvas, painting what he thinks should be there, not quite pulling it off, covering it over with white paint, and trying again, each time finding out what his painting isn’t, until he finally finds out what it is.”
I love these. Her book is changing me as a writer. :)

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Laurie Cutter

posted February 5, 2011 at 11:57 am

“Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs/ About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green/ The night above the dingle starry…” & the end of his poem, “Time held me green and dying/ Though I sang in my chains like the sea.” — from Fern Hill by Dylan Thomas
“All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.” — Julian of Norwich
(I first read these words in a memoir of Madeleine L’Engle’s, and they return to comfort me at odd times)

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Luna Lindsey

posted February 7, 2011 at 7:32 pm

From Titus Groan, by Mervyn Peake:
“When?” said Flay, who left out most of every sentence.
And another from the same book:
Thereon were seated in a hundred decorative attitudes, or stood immobile like carvings, or walked superbly across their sapphire setting, inter-weaving with each other like a living arabesque, a swarm of snow-white cats.
This book is packed full of brilliant sentences, so here is one more:
The long shelves surrounded them, tier upon tier, circumscribing their world with a wall of other worlds imprisoned yet breathing among the network of a million commas, semi-colons, full stops, hyphens and every other sort of printed symbol.

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posted February 8, 2011 at 12:04 pm

Great topic. Love reading people’s thoughts. Thanks, Jason.
“There is a lot I don’t know about this thing of being dull. I better find out because I might be it.”
Louise Fitzhugh, Harriet the Spy
“Ever since the English language in all its vertiginous, high-hurdling glory had been passed down to me by a word-stung mother, I had enjoyed getting my hands dirty anywhere the language would grant me a letter of transit.”
Pat Conroy, My Reading Life
“A sheltered life can be a daring life as well. For all serious daring starts from within.”
Eudora Welty, One Writer’s Beginnings
“On any person who desires such queer prizes, New York will bestow the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy.”
E.B. White, Here is New York

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Lauren Wills

posted March 15, 2014 at 11:19 pm

Chiliad by Simon Otius, at unhappened [dot] com, is almost wholly written in notable sentences. Here is the opening sentence:

“To avoid giving the impression, – most particularly here at the very gatehouse of this, for the most part, linear narrating of what is believed a remarkable enough history, one that may, — making its slow but inexorable way to credit, — challenge the very tenets of traditional biography, – that words, – generally believed good-fellows, merry men nearly all, – are already right eager, – by building a labyrinth of intricable mystery, – to confound the unwary reader at the very onset : it will prove very useful if a few, simple, but important facts, concerning the family Troke, and their seat, are first supplied.”

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