How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One by Stanley Fish
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I don't really read many books on writing. Some who have read my work might say it shows. Touche. I've just found very few books on writing that are actually engaging and interesting. Frankly, they bore me. Besides that, they actually keep me from writing.
So why did I pick this one up, you might ask. Well, like many good things in life, I picked this one up after hearing about it on NPR in this interview with the author, Stanley Fish. I've always appreciated a good sentence, but after listening to the interview, I felt compelled to pay closer attention to sentences, trying to find the sparkling gems amidst the long veins of narrative coal out there. But it was a long time before How to Write a Sentence percolated to the top of my "to read" pile because, well, I was busy writing sentences. To quote Buck Murdock from Airplane II, "Irony can be pretty ironic sometimes".
The work itself is divided up into ten chapters, some more instructive than others. It is a good book, theoretically speaking, but pedagogy is lacking. I would have expected more instructions but, as any good (or lazy) teacher is wont to do, Fish leaves it up to us to learn how to apply the theory herein. The author does an excellent job of taking a few representative sentences and breaking them down into what makes them so good. Yes, there are a few intellectual liberties taken, as one must expect with a work that leans more toward the academic than the popular. But, for the most part, Fish clearly identifies what makes these representative sentences tick.
My biggest complaint was that chapter ten, on "Sentences That Are About Themselves (Aren't They All?)," should have begun on page 145 with the section on Joseph Conrad, rather than on page 133, which I felt was an indulgent exercise in intellectualympics. That, and Fish's annoying proclivity for setting forth a theory, contradicting the theory, then telling the reader that he has contradicted himself . . . with no further explanation or closure. This one aspect gave me a strong dose of the rage I felt in graduate school when a teacher or another student would start off on an argumentative thread without ever finishing the argument. I suppose that this is meant to show off the speaker's/writer's intelligence and academic prowess. I am not impressed.
Nevertheless, this was a good book about writing, but not a great one. Definitely more worth your time than the vast majority of books on writing (many of which I've begun and tossed across the room). But wouldn't your time be better spent actually writing? Get to it!
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