I recently came across an article that said Editors at The American Scholar had come up with a list of the ten best sentences in literature. Now, first of all, I was intrigued to see how many of these sentences I’d come across in my study and pleasure reading (none by the way). Secondly, I was troubled by how such a list could exist…
Literature, for me, is all about an investment. If I don’t want to invest a bit of my life into finding out more about the characters and what they might do, then it isn’t worth getting to the end of the book. Life’s far too short, time is money, blah blah blah. And that’s exactly why I think such a list is so problematic.
Lists which proclaim to tell you the 100 novels you should read before you’re 30, before you die, or the definitive guide to literature are always controversial, because let’s face it, we’re not all the same. We’re actually quite different, and thank bloody hell for that, or wouldn’t the world be boring. People who try to post a definitive guide are either criticised for their use of modern books, only canonical books, or for neglecting black writers, women writers, or generally only including Dead White Males. You can’t win. And that’s the whole book we’re talking about.
I personally find it quite interesting to read what people list as their top 100 books, because I like to mentally tick off what I’ve read, and though I do occasionally think that whatever book should have made it, I respect that if the writer really has read all 100, then there must be a reason for them all to be there. But sentences is a whole different matter.
One sentence cannot sum up a novel. A blurb can only begin to hint at the entire content and a novel and that’s a whole paragraph. One sentence cannot sum up a whole novel when you’ve spent hours in bed, genuinely emotionally invested in a character. When I read Life on the Refrigerator Door and cried my absolute eyes out, I couldn’t pick out one single sentence which summed up all the anguish which lead me to that point. Because it was the whole novel. That isn’t to say I don’t think that some sentences are really beautiful. You only have to pick out sentences from writers like John Green’s Fault in the Stars like ‘As he read, I fell in love the way you fall asleep: slowly, then all at once.’ For me, the most poignant sentences aren’t the most obscure, pretentious or complicated – they’re the ones you wish you’d written; the ones that describe things the way you’ve been trying to for years but just couldn’t quite find the words; the ones that use the words you hadn’t even thought about but somehow it’s exactly how you imagine it. They’re the beautiful sentences, and they will never work as well plucked out of context as they will when you’ve not put the book down for six hours because you literally cannot bear to rip yourself from the protagonist.
While I agree good writing is good writing, and some sentences are just beautiful, I find it very difficult to see how anyone, literary critic or not, can pull out a few isolated snippets and hold them up as the best sentences in history. I can already think of sentences in the list I’d pick before the ones the editors have chosen – have a look at the original article, and see if you can too.