The New York Times published several pieces on Reading and Writing in the Sunday Review section on March 18, 2012. At the time I read Jhumpa Lahiri’s eloquent essay called “My Life’s Sentences,” which I planned to reread sometime. I kept the whole section, intending to read the other pieces, “when I had time.” Of course I forgot about it all, until recently when I was reading Francine Prose’s (how did she get a last name like that?) book called Reading like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who want to Write Them. That sounded like me. Prose’s Guide is a very interesting and valuable book, with chapters on subjects like “Close Reading,” “Words,” “Sentences,” “Paragraphs,” “Narration,” “Character,” “Dialogue…” I’ll report on that book down the road; I’m only as far as “Paragraphs.” But reading Prose’s chapter on “Sentences” made Lahiri’s piece pop back into my head, so I did reread it, and I’m so glad I did. It’s wonderful! http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/03/17/my-lifes-sentences/
Of course you can read the whole thing for yourself, when you have time (!), along with the other pieces in the Review section which I still have yet to read. But in the meantime, I’ll give you some quotes from it to whet your appetite for the whole essay, which I promise is worth your while.
Lahiri, author of Unaccustomed Earth, The Namesake, and Interpreter of Maladies and one of the best writers writing today, begins by describing how in college she’d underline sentences that struck her, “that made me look up from the page…”:
“I noted them for their clarity, their rhythm, their beauty and their enchantment. For surely it is a magical thing for a handful of words, artfully arranged, to stop time. To conjure a place, a person, a situation, in all its specificity and dimensions. To affect us and alter us, as profoundly as real people and things do.”
She cites a sentence from Joyce’s “Araby,” which appears towards the beginning of the short story:
“’The cold air stung us and we played till our bodies glowed.’ I have never forgotten it. This seems to me as perfect as a sentence can be. It is measured, unguarded, direct and transcendent, all at once. It is full of movement, of imagery. It distills a precise mood. It radiates with meaning and yet its sensibility is discreet.”
It’s fascinating to me to hear her response to this sentence and her explication of what makes it special to her. It’s worth reading her words about it again. Prose’s book is making me more conscious of the kind of close reading Lahiri is talking about. It’s so easy, given our sped-up attention spans, to skim over things, especially words. But to slow down and pay real attention, to savor as both Lahiri and Prose do in the examples they give, is to increase our pleasure in reading and maybe our skills as writers.
Reading this Joyce sentence, I thought of something I try to do myself, which is make sentences do more than one thing. I notice in sentences I read how much a single sentence can accomplish, and not just in terms of providing information. As Lahiri demonstrates above, a sentence can do many things all at once. When people sense that their writing is thin or one-dimensional, it may be because their sentences are only doing one thing. Or maybe not the right things. I’ll try to give some examples of sentences doing more than one thing in a later post.
Lahiri describes her own writing process: Continue reading “On Sentences, Part I: Jhumpa Lahiri”