Brain Pickings

How to Write a Sentence: A Manual for the Art of Language

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This week has been a mecca of publishing gems: From J. D. Salinger’s highly anticipated biography to a priceless collection of Kurt Vonnegut’s unpublished fiction to an innovative modernization of Gogol’s Dead Souls for the Facebook age to TED’s bold entry into publishing with the freshly launched TEDBooks imprint. But perhaps most notable among them is Stanley Fish‘s humbly titled yet incredibly ambitious How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One — an insightful, rigorous manual on the art of language that may just be the best such tool since Strunk and White’s legendary 1918 classic, The Elements of Style.

In fact, in many ways, Fish offers an intelligent rebuttal to some of the cultish mandates of Strunk and White’s bible, most notably the blind insistence on brevity and sentence minimalism. As Adam Haslett eloquently points out in his excellent FT review:

[Pared-down prose] is a real loss, not because we necessarily need more Jamesian novels but because too often the instruction to ‘omit needless words’ (Rule 17) leads young writers to be cautious and dull; minimalist style becomes minimalist thought, and that is a problem.”

To argue his case, Fish picks apart some of history’s most powerful sentences, from Shakespeare to Dickens to Lewis Carroll, using a kind of literary forensics to excavate the essence of beautiful language.

How to Write a Sentence isn’t merely a prescriptive guide to the craft of writing but a rich and layered exploration of language as an evolving cultural organism. It belongs not on the shelf of your home library but in your brain’s most deep-seated amphibian sensemaking underbelly.

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