Beginning this new year of reading a book a week, I thought a book on reading seemed appropriate. The full title of this book is How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One. I think the simplicity of it is genius, and it sounded compelling enough to read.
The book recounts a story where a writer was asked by a student if he could be a writer. The writer asked, “Well, do you like sentences?” This is akin to a painter liking the smell of paint. We often overlook the simplicity of a sentence for the grandeur goal of a novel or screenplay, but forget the beauty of sentences.
This book is part academic, part of the joy of writing, and part teaching writing, although I’m not sure of the exact divisions. Fish collects and analyzes dozens of famous and not-so-famous sentences to show how and why they work so well. As an English teacher, I loved most of what this book had to offer. I wrote many of his exercises for me to replicate in the classroom.
My two favorite chapters are the ones of first sentences and on last sentences. Fish shows how those excellent opening lines have an “angle of lean,” and they point to something about the story that is to come. I enjoyed hearing his thoughts on some famous opening lines. As for closing lines, there is a good deal on the last line of The Great Gatsby, one of my favorites to teach.
If you are an English teacher, you will enjoy this book. Or if you are a writer. If you like to read, you’d probably find something interesting. If you own more than two video game consoles, well, try something else.
Hear an interview with Stanley Fish on NPR