Friday, January 11, 2013

Stanley Fish's Sentence Style: Better than Strunk and White

Fish, Stanley. How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One. New York: HarperCollins, 2012 (2011).

Airplane travel, for me, has always afforded a unique and wonderful opportunity to catch up on pleasure reading. I have read thousands of pages of novels while suspended above the earth, and I purchased Fish's exquisite compilation with the specific goal of reading it on my most recent cross-country jaunt.

I failed.

How to Write a Sentence is one of the most glorious books I have ever read. Fish's passion for words and writing--his own or the works of others--is evident in, appropriately, every sentence, whether written by this book's author or included as a model sentence upon which Fish's readers can base their own literary attempts. However, the very gloriousness of its language turns this book into something that cannot easily be dashed through on an airplane flight, or tossed off in a lazy hour at the beach. I found myself reading unexpectedly slowly, savouring the words and structure of each paragraph, tucking the book into the seat-back pocket between chapters to re-consider its contents before retrieving the volume, only to re-read the same pages over again. On a three-hour flight, I managed to read fewer than a hundred pages (this is probably only really shocking if you know me in person). Fish's ideas have lingered with me all week, and I find myself itching to practice his model sentences at odd times.

Everyone should read this book. If I am ever allowed to teach Freshman Composition, I would assign this book to my students in a heartbeat; I wish I could send a copy to every one of my former secondary-school students. It is at once inspiring and elegantly readable, the perfect companion for lovers of literature and aspiring writers all at once. How to Write a Sentence is a companion and a textbook simultaneously: Fish introduces his reader to books and sentences he loves (as if having a conversation) and then offers instructions for replicating the style and form of each example. Read this; assign this; practice following its guidelines; read it again.

I don't want to give away any of the delights of this book, but I think it is as revolutionary and fresh for its time as Elements of Style was back in the early 1900s. Nearly a century later, How to Write a Sentence gives readers--and aspiring writers--fresh models and useful exercises that point out stylistic technique in concrete, practical ways. Read this book, but slowly. It is a delight among books.