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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!
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?