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"Do You Like Sentences?"
on January 25, 2011
Author Annie Dillard ("The Writing Life," 1989) was asked by a student, "Do you think I could be a writer?" Dillard's response: "Do you like sentences?" According to Stanley Fish, author of "How to Write a Sentence," it's as important for writers to genuinely like sentences as it is for great painters to like paint. For those who enjoy an effective sentence and all that it involves, this short (160 page) book is insightful, interesting and entertaining. For those who consider reading or writing a chore, perhaps this book can help one's interest level and motivation regarding sentences, though the author's intended audience is clearly those with a genuine interest in writing.
Fish would seem to be well qualified to write, having taught at the University of California at Berkeley, Johns Hopkins University, Duke University, and the University of Illinois at Chicago. However, as any student who has suffered with a highly qualified--yet thoroughly boring--professor knows, a significant part of the education/communication process involves instilling motivation. That's where Fish shines. If it might seem that a whole book on sentences has to be boring, Stanley Fish quickly overcomes this perception. His book is divided into 10 chapters: (1) Why Sentences?; (2) Why You Won't Find the Answer in Strunk and White [Strunk and White authored the classic, "The Elements of Style"]; (3) It's Not the Thought That Counts [nothing like a little provocation to get us interested]; (4) What Is a Good Sentence?; (5) The Subordinating Style; (6) The Additive Style; (7) The Satiric Style: The Return of Content; (8) First Sentences; (9) Last Sentences; and (10) Sentences That Are About Themselves (Aren't They All?).
Author Fish includes many examples of powerful sentences from a very wide range of writers, such as Herman Melville, Edgar Allan Poe, Cicero, Lewis Carroll, Michel de Montaigne, Agatha Christie, Charles Dickens and others. Here's one illustrative example from John Updike: Describing the home run Ted Williams hit at his last at-bat in Boston's Fenway Park on September 28, 1960, Updike wrote, "It was in the books while it was still in the sky." Think about that for a minute.
In conclusion, Stanley Fish is an enthusiastic writer, and he manages to convey and transmit his enthusiasm for writing clear, effective sentences in this highly readable book. If you are interested in writing (and reading), this book is worth your careful consideration.
UPDATE on January 29, 2011: I wrote the above from the viewpoint of the reader contemplating buying this book for his or her own use. As I think more about the book, however, there's another possibility worth exploring. Specifically, this book could make a fine graduation (or other) gift to a niece, nephew or friend's child. First, it's short and easy to read, which means it might actually get read. Second, good writing is important in any profession. Third, the book helps reinforce the point that if you want to get good at something, it pays to study experts in the field. Fourth, and perhaps most important, the book supports the point that success in writing--as in virtually all endeavors--comes from practice, practice, practice. That's a pretty useful message to send any student.