Book News & Features
4:38 pm
Wed March 26, 2014

It Was The Best Of Sentences ...

Originally published on Thu March 27, 2014 1:41 pm

Have you ever had a sentence stop you in your tracks? Editors at The American Scholar magazine have put out their list of the "Ten Best Sentences" in fiction and nonfiction. Associate editor Margaret Foster says the inspiration came from water cooler talk around the office.

"We're sometimes struck by a beautiful sentence or maybe a lousy sentence, and we'll just say, 'Hey, listen to this,' " she says.

Her choice was the last line of Toni Morrison's novel Sula:

"It was a fine cry — loud and long — but it had no bottom and it had no top, just circles and circles of sorrow."

Foster has thought a lot about what makes a sentence powerful — parallel sentence structures and the use of repetition.

"But it is, in the end, very subjective," she says. "I mean, who are we to say what the best sentence in The Great Gatsby is?"

That book, by the way, made the list with this sentence:

"Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby's house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder."

Other writers who made the list include Joan Didion, James Joyce, Jane Austen and Truman Capote. The sentence they chose from Capote's book In Cold Blood:

"Like the waters of the river, like the motorists on the highway, and like the yellow trains streaking down the Santa Fe tracks, drama, in the shape of exceptional happenings, had never stopped there."

Foster says that while brainstorming sentences, editors at the magazine tried to remember what stuck with them over the years.

"What do you remember reading when you were younger that just blew you away, stopped you in your tracks and grabbed you by the lapels?" she says.

You can read the rest of the sentences from The American Scholar list here. Contribute your own favorites in the comment section below.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

A few moments now to contemplate a few sentences.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The journal The American Scholar has put out a list of the 10 best sentences in fiction and non-fiction, chosen by their editors.

MARGARET FOSTER: In the office, we talk a lot. And we're sometimes struck by, you know, a beautiful sentence or, you know, maybe a lousy sentence and we'll just say, hey, listen to this.

SIEGEL: That's Associate Editor Margaret Foster. Her choice was the last line of Toni Morrison's novel "Sula."

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Reading) It was a fine cry - loud and long - but it had no bottom and it had no top, just circles and circles of sorrow.

CORNISH: Margaret Foster has thought a lot about what makes a sentence powerful: parallel sentence structures and the use of repetition.

FOSTER: It's hard to describe but it is, in the end, very subjective. I mean, who are we to say what the best sentence in "The Great Gatsby" is?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Reading) Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby's house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams, for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.

SIEGEL: That sentence from F. Scott Fitzgerald's classic, "The Great Gatsby." Other writers that make that list: Joan Didion, James Joyce, and Truman Capote.

FOSTER: You know, who doesn't love "In Cold Blood," the introduction when he's setting up the tiny town in Kansas? I just remember being moved by it. That's what we all talked about. What do you remember reading that just blew you away, that just stopped you in your tracks and grabbed you by the lapels?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Reading) Like the waters of the river, like the motorists on the highway, and like the yellow trains streaking down the Santa Fe tracks, drama, in the shape of exceptional happenings, had never stopped there.

CORNISH: The words of Truman Capote and one of The American Scholar's 10 best sentences. Their whole list is at our website, npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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