What’s the best sentence in the English language? New York Times columnist Stanley Fish’s new book, How To Write a Sentence and How to Read One, does exactly what its title suggests: explores the mechanics of superior sentence construction and also steps back and appreciates some of the greats. Fish picked five of his favorite sentences over on Slate, and they’re pretty hard to argue with. His picks include:
John Bunyan (from The Pilgrim’s Progress, 1678): “Now he had not run far from his own door, but his wife and children perceiving it, began crying after him to return, but the man put his fingers in his ears, and ran on, crying, Life! Life! eternal life.”
Ford Madox Ford (from The Good Soldier, 1915): “And I shall go on talking in a low voice while the sea sounds in the distance and overhead the great black flood of wind polishes the bright stars.”
Gertrude Stein (from Lectures in America, 1935): “When I first began writing I felt that writing should go on I still do feel that it should go on but when I first began writing I was completely possessed by the necessity that writing should go on and if writing should go on what had commas and semi-colons to do with it what had commas to do with it what had periods to do with it what had small letters and capitals to do with writing going on which was at the time the most profound need I had in connection with writing.”
Of course this sent me scurrying to dig up my favorite lines, but they all seem sort of weak in comparison to those heavy hitters. Still, in the spirit of sharing, my two nominees:
W.E.B. Du Bois (from The Souls of Black Folk, 1903):“Fly, my maiden, fly, for yonder comes Hippomenes!”
Basically anything from the chapter “Of the Wings of Atalanta” would be an acceptable nomination, but the closing line just destroys me.
F. Scott Fitzgerald (from The Great Gatsby, 1925): “That any one should care in this heat whose flushed lips he kissed, whose head made damp the pajama pocket over his heart!”
We’re not going to make this list without some line from Gatsby, right?
Let’s hear it, PopWatchers: What are your nominees for the best sentence in the English language? Is it a Shakespeare line? Chaucer? Joyce? Nabokov?