Recently, the editors at American Scholar magazine came up with a list of their ten favorite sentences in the English language. Since I’m busy with a book fair this weekend, I thought I’d share this with you. Of the ten selections, eight are from what would be considered literary fiction and two are “new journalism.” Now all of these sentences are wonderful. They are great examples of literature, but are they the best?
The problem with any discussion about “the best” in any kind of art is that so much of it is directly influenced by personal taste. Ask any ten people of my generation to name the three best rock and roll bands of all time and you are likely to get ten different answers. (There is a good chance The Beatles will appear on all ten lists, but there is no guarantee. Some people don’t like The Beatles.) The same goes for best sentences. In this particular list there is a notable exception of anything from any genre writers.
That being said, they are all magical, wonderfully crafted sentences. My goal (and I think it’s all our goal, deep down inside) is to someday be able to craft sentences as beautiful as these on a regular basis.
So here they are, the ten best sentences in the English language, as named by the editors of American Scholar, followed by my own nomination:
“Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, has 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.”
F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
“I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.”
James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
“This private estate was far enough away from the explosion so that its bamboos, pines, laurel and maples were still alive, and the green place invited refugees—partly because they believed that if the Americans came back, they would bomb only buildings, partly because the foliage seemed a center of coolness and life, and the estate’s exquisitely precise rock gardens, with their quiet pools and arching bridges, were very Japanese, normal, secure; and also partly (according to some who were there) because of an irresistible, atavistic urge to hide under leaves.”
John Hersey, Hiroshima
“It was a fine cry—loud and long—but it had no bottom and it had no top, just circles and circles of sorrow.”
Toni Morrison, Sula
“Anger was washed away in the river along with any obligation.”
Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms
“For what do we do, but to make sport for our neighbors, and laugh at the in our turn?”
Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
“It was the United States of America in the cold late spring of 1967, and the market was steady and the GNP high and a great many articulate people seemed to have a sense of high social purpose and it might have been a spring of brave hopes and national promise, but it was not, and more and more people had the uneasy apprehension that it was not.”
Joan Didion, Slouching Towards Bethlehem
“There are many pleasant fictions of the law in constant operation, but there is not one so pleasant or practically humorous as that which supposes every man to be of equal value in its impartial eye, and the benefits of all laws to be equally attainable by all man, without the smallest reference to the furniture of their pockets.”
Charles Dickens, Nicholas Nickelby
“There is nothing more atrociously cruel than an adored child.”
Vladamir Nabokov, Lolita
“In many ways he was like America itself, big and strong, full of good intentions, a roll of fat jiggling at his belly, slow of foot but always plodding along, always there when you needed him, a believer in the virtues of simplicity and directness and hard labor.”
Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried
And now, my addition to this list:
“Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.”
Shirley Jackson, The Haunting of Hill House
Quote your favorite sentence in the comments.