Thursday, February 17, 2011

How to Read a Sentence by Stanley Fish

"Some people are bird watchers," Stanley Fish tells us in the introduction to How to Read a Sentence, "others are celebrity watchers; still others are flora and fauna watchers. I belong to the tribe of sentence watchers." He is a sentence fetishist, determined not only to make us aware of the sublimity of the well-written sentence, but to deconstruct it for us so we might make our own. Fish, as a professor of law, has faculties finely tuned for this business.

Grammar and sentence-making, Fish says, are being taught in entirely the wrong way in our schools. Rote memorization of parts of speech (What the hell is a gerund, an English teacher at my school asked today) is ineffective and confusing. Instead, we must come to understand sentences as logical constructions made of forms, commonsense relationships between words and phrases that we more or less know intuitively. The key is imitation. For example, he takes this sentence by John Updike, about Ted Williams' home run in his last at bat in Fenway:

It was in the books while it was still in the sky.

...and dissects the way that "while" provides the "fulcrum of the sentence," and that on either side of that fulcrum are different registers (one literal, one less so) that must be reconciled, and then notes that we too can imitate this:

Here is my (relatively feeble) attempt: "It was in my stomach before it was off the shelf."

...and that by this imitation we may not create a masterpiece, but we expand our own ability to express the thoughts which are most vital to us.

It is unclear to me exactly who this book is written for--it seems most appealing to other sentence fetishists, who probably don't need Fish to explain much to them, though it offers some appeal in the way a trainspotter might be fascinated by watching a locomotive being repaired. It seems unlikely that anyone will go through the kind of exercises that Fish recommends, unless, of course, he or she happens to be a student in Fish's freshman comp class at Florida International. Probably its most appropriate audience is folks like me, sentence fetishists charged with the grammatical tutelage of America's future. (I would say also you, Danny, were it not true that you hate sentences.)

All told, the most fascinating aspect of How to Read a Sentence is the catalogue of great sentences that Fish marshals for his tinkering. I am pleased to say that Fish includes quite a bit from The Good Soldier, "nearly every sentence of which merits a place in this book." In a recent contest on Slate, Fish judged the best of reader-submitted sentences, of which I am pretty fond of this one, from the Bible:

Then Amnon hated her with very great hatred; so that the hatred with which he hated her was greater than the love with which he had loved her. (2 Samuel 13:15, RSV)

And without further ado, here is, while not My List of Greatest Sentences, perhaps My List of Greatest Sentences That I Chanced Upon While Leafing Through my Bookshelf for This Review:

Updike, describing the way men “bump” into women in Rabbit, Run:

Either they give, like a plant, or scrape, like a stone.

Ford, in The Good Soldier:

But still, she listened to you and took in what you said, which, since the record of humanity is a record of sorrows, was, as a rule, something sad.

Forster, talking about newlyweds in A Room with a View:

Ah! it was worth while; it was the great joy that they had expected, and countless little joys of which they had never dreamt.

Austen, being snarky in Persuasion:

The real circumstances of this pathetic piece of family history were, that the Musgroves had had the ill fortune to lose him before he reached his twentieth year; that he had been sent to sea, because he was stupid and unmanageable on shore; that he had been very little cared for at any time by his family, though quite as much as he deserved; seldom heard of, and scarcely at all regretted, when the intelligence of his death abroad had worked its way to Uppercross, two years before.

What are your favorites?


lawnwrangler said...

you're right, i love this post.

Brent Waggoner said...

The last sentence of Joyce's The Dead, of course:

"His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead."

And this, from David Foster Wallace's "The Depressed Person":

"The depressed person was in terrible and unceasing emotional pain, and the impossibility of sharing or articulating this pain was itself a component of the pain and a contributing factor in its essential horror."

Because it both communicates what it's trying to say, and yet obscures itself enough to blunt its emotional impact, much like the depressed person himself does throughout the story when he tries to share his problems with others.