Recently a friend of mine sent me an article about a new book by Stanley Fish, How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One.  Before I even read the article, I knew the book would be a must read.  Fish is a widely respected literary critic who has taught at UC-Berkeley, Johns Hopkins, Duke, and the University of Illinois at Chicago, and who, more recently, has been a regular columnist/blogger for the New York Times.  While I don’t read his posts religiously, I do enjoy them whenever I get to them – both because he is a thoughtful man with an interesting perspective on the world, and because he is a consummate wordsmith.  If Fish has something to say about writing, it is worth listening to.

How to Write a Sentence did not disappoint.  Part how-to book, part literary analysis, and part appreciation of the art of the good sentence, the book leads the reader on a tour of some of the best-crafted sentences in literature and film, explaining how and why the sentences are so powerful.  Fish’s approach is considerably different than that of another modern classic, Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style (cf. the puckishly titled chapter “Why You Won’t Find the Answer in Strunk and White”).  Rather than provide rules drawing on grammatical concepts foreign to many people today, Fish analyzes the logical structure of sentences, explaining the components essential to all sentences and then offering ways to expand on the basic unit.  He summarizes his approach concisely toward the end of the first chapter: “Sentence craft equals sentence comprehension equals sentence appreciation” (11, italics original).  In order to write good sentences, one must understand and appreciate good sentences.  Going against received wisdom, Fish advocates imitation as an important way of learning to write well.

Along the way, Fish makes a number of important observations.  In the third chapter (wittily titled “It’s Not the Thought That Counts”), he argues that content alone is insufficient.  In order to write persuasive and compelling sentences, one must master the forms of writing: “It is true that you can’t get form from content, but it is also true that without form, content cannot emerge” (27).  Likening the writing of sentences about nothing to practicing musical scales, Fish recommends writing nonsensical sentences over and over again until one has mastered the forms.  Only once a writer has mastered the forms will he be equipped to convey his thought intelligently and eloquently.  By “forms” Fish does not mean the typical grammatical terms found in many books on writing, but rather the logical structures that make a sentence coherent and intelligent.  While these structures can be analyzed with grammatical terms, one need not understand the finer points of the gerundive or the pluperfect in order to put Fish’s lessons into practice.

The middle three chapters of the book explain and analyze three different sentence styles, the subordinating style, the additive style, and the satiric style.  Fish then moves on to discuss first and last sentences.  A final chapter before the epilogue focuses on “sentences that are about themselves.”  Throughout the book he treats the reader to some of the finest sentences ever crafted, thus delighting as well as instructing the reader.

What struck me most as I read How to Write a Sentence was some of the borderline theological implications of Fish’s argument.  My favorite sentence in the book, and one, in my humble opinion, that would be in good company with the sentences Fish analyzes, is the following from chapter four: “It is often said that the job of language is to report or reflect or mirror reality, but the power of language is greater and more dangerous than that; it shapes reality, not of course in a literal sense – the world is one thing, words another – but in the sense that the order imposed on a piece of the world by a sentence is only one among innumerable possible orders” (37).  I know Fish is not himself a Christian (though his work on Milton has given him profound religious sensibilities), but the idea behind this sentence in many ways resonates with the prologue to the Gospel of John.  Moreover, it speaks to the potential language has, both for good and for evil.

Despite his erudition and eloquence, Fish manages not to take himself too seriously, making the book all the more appealing.  Any academic who can call his approach to learning to write a sentence “the Karate Kid method” and who draws examples not only from fine literature, but also from the essay of a fourth-grader, is okay in my book.  At a brief 160 pages, How to Write a Sentence is a quick and delightful lesson in the fine art of sentence craft.  To borrow the words of the anonymous child in St. Augustine’s Confessions, “Take and read.”

Eleven down, (at least) forty-one to go.