Meditation over a sentence

“….how to read well: i.e. slowly, profoundly, attentively, prudently, with inner thoughts, with the mental doors ajar, with delicate fingers and eyes.”  Friedrich Nietzsche

 

“I take no sides. I am interested in the shape of ideas. There is a wonderful sentence in Augustine ‘Do not despair; one of the thieves was saved. Do not presume; one of the thieves was damned.’ That sentence has a wonderful shape. It’s the shape that matters.” Samuel Beckett

 

“Sentences are made wonderfully one at a time.” Gertrude Stein

 

Get one of your favorite novels.  Go on.  I’ll wait.

Now, flip to the last chapter.

And read the first sentence of that chapter.

 

Have you ever really paid much attention to that sentence? We don’t hold it in as much esteem as the first sentence of the book (the one that must, apparently, draw the reader in; what pressure). Or as the last sentence of the novel (the one that leaves the lasting impression).

 

Of course, you might be thinking, we could be drawing our attention to the first sentence of any of the chapters. In fact, to any sentence in the novel.

 

The very fact of singling out one sentence from a beloved novel achieves my purpose. But, today, I’m asking us to focus on the first sentence of the concluding chapter; the first of the last.

Think about what it means in relation to the storyline. Then, isolate it from the plot, and consider it as a solitary sentence.

 

Appreciate the author’s word choice (substitute one of the words for a synonym- see how it changes).

 

Read it aloud.

Maybe it’s not the most interesting sentence in the book, maybe it’s quite beautiful.

Either way, take pause and reflect.

 

And if you’re so inclined, share that sentence with me.

 

 

Here’s mine – from Another Country by James Baldwin, one of my favorite books:

 

“The sun struck, on steel, on bronze, on stone, on glass, on grey water far beneath them, on the turret tops and the flashing windshields of crawling cars, on the incredible highways, stretching and snarling and turning for mile upon mile upon mile, on the houses, square and high, low and gabled, and on their howling antennae, on the sparse, weak trees, and on those towers, in the distance, of the city of New York.”

 

I had never really noticed this sentence before. Never noticed its length. It’s almost like a poem.

 

©readinginterrupted.com

©readinginterrupted.com

 

 

 

 

 

86 thoughts on “Meditation over a sentence

  1. What a wonderful idea. I grabbed “Memoirs of a Geisha” off my shelf, because it’s one of my favorite books. The first sentence of the last chapter reads: “Now, nearly forty years later, I sit here looking back on that evening with the Chairman as the moment when all the grieving voices within me fell silent.”

    That’s a pretty powerful sentence, I think. It’s grounded in the story but can also stand alone. As for your example, it’s lovely. But I suspect if I’d included a sentence that long in my latest manuscript, my editor would’ve red-lined it. 😉

    • I love that sentence from Memoirs of a Geisha. You’re so right, it is grounded in the story (makes me want to read the book again, in fact) but also stand alone. “..when all the grieving voices within me fell silent.” That’s quite beautiful.

      I know, that Baldwin sentence is so long, right? It reminds us to respect everyone’s style and that the rules of syntax shouldn’t always be followed, haha!

  2. “The day dawned bleak and chill, a moving wall of gray light out of the northeast which, instead of dissolving into moisture, seemed to disintegrate into minute and venomous particles, like dust that, when Dilsey opened the door of the cabin and emerged, needled laterally into her flesh, precipitating not so much a moisture as a substance partaking of the quality of thin, not quite congealed oil.” The first sentence of the last chapter of The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner

    Faulkner got away with highly stylized sentences like these. Probably why some people find him impenetrable. I love many of his books and short stories!

    • Now that’s a sentence! What a fascinating description of the gray light. His sentences are often worthy of rereading carefully, even aloud. There’s a sonorific quality to this sentence, no? I’ve never read his short stories so will have to read those sometime.

  3. “Friends again, yet aware that they could meet no more, Aziz and Fielding went for their last ride in the Mau jungles.” – my go-to favourite, A Passage to India, E.M. Forster.
    What an interesting exercise. That sentence encapsulates so many themes of the book — friendship, culture, empire, love, spiritualism. Pure Forster.

    • It really is pure Foster. And you’ve got me thinking, maybe choosing to look at the first sentence of the last chapter isn’t so random as I had thought. These sentences seem to reflect the themes of the books so well.

    • It’s so interesting to isolate just one sentence from a book. I’ve noticed it’s given me more appreciation for the author’s style and slowed down my reading at times.

      • I definitely need to force myself to do this more. Usually, I get so sucked into a plot that I read a 100 miles an hour to figure out what will happen faster.

  4. “Happy for all her maternal feelings was the day on which Mrs Bennet got rid of her two most deserving daughters.”

    Pride and Prejudice, obviously. Not as poetic as most of the ones people have quoted, but I do think it’s a great sentence that sums up much of the story of the book. In fact it could almost work as the blurb. Very interesting, Letizia – I had never thought of looking at that particular sentence, though I do often pick out particular sentences that I feel sum up the author’s style to quote in reviews. I suspect I’ll be more aware of last chapter openings for a while now…

    • You’re so right, it could almost be the blurb for the book. The construction of the sentence is so unique as well. The one is so recognizably Austen. Thanks for sharing that one with me!

  5. Does not work as well with not so high-browed novels. My favourite historical romance by Georgette Heyer, The convenient marriage, situated in and around London 1786:
    “The Viscount, resplendent in maroon velvet, with a fall of Dresden lace at his throat, and his hair thickly powdered and curled in pigeon’s wings over the ears, came at his sister’s urgent request to dine in Grosvenor Square before taking her on to Vauxhall.”
    The aforementioned sister is constantly in distress in this book. This sentence is focussing on one of the side characters, describing his appearance diligently, though that does not matter much for the story. The book was written 1934, a time when elaborate description was still used widely, though not by the artists among the writers.
    Mrs. Heyer never saw her novels as art, though. Her comment on her own work: “I should be shot for the nonsense I write!”
    The sentence here is still building up to the final solution, this being a romance it must be a declaration of love. Not a trace of that to be foreshadowed in this sentence. Only the “damsell in distress” is mentioned here, her husband is completely left out of this.
    Still I really love this book – most admirable male character in Georgette Heyer’s novels. Taking his wife’s antics with humour and great patience.

    • I love that sentence though! What style and such flair! You can read the author’s tone throughout the book and it provides such a visual description. “curled in pigeon’s wings over the ears” is especially appealing!

      thanks for dropping by!

  6. ‘Gandulf stood behind Aldyth, smoothing her hair with a brush.’ Naomi & Deborah Baltuck’s ‘Keeper of the Crystal Spring’. Definitely easing towards an easy, peaceful conclusion after an epic, turbulent story.
    You’re right Letizia, we tend to read books as a single entity though the writer may have pondered long over some individual sentences. The writer’s fate, to be gobbled up by the reader eager to get to the end and onto the next book 🙂

    • It’s so good to gobble, gobble sometimes, though, isn’t it? Flaubert famously spent days over one sentence so I feel guilty reading his works quickly (although I often do, waiting to know what happens next).
      I haven’t read Baltuck’s book but I like your analysis of that line, that it’s the start of a more peaceful conclusion after a turbulent story. Very interesting.

  7. It seems obvious now that I’ve read your post – the first sentence opens the conclusion of the story. Another case of the reader not being aware of the art.

    “I was sitting in Joe’s Lunch Room drinking coffee with a napkin under the cup which is said to be the mark of someone who does a lot of sitting in cafeterias and lunch rooms …” — Naked Lunch, William S. Burroughs

    • That’s a sentence that seems so seemingly simple but is very engaging. I not only want to read more but I want to know the back story as well. Not to mention that I will pay attention to napkins under coffee cups now….

      Thanks for reading my post and taking the time to comment!

  8. I really struggled with this challenge. In the end I came up with this:

    ‘The endless hope, a bare continuing to exist, is enough for the anti-hero’s future; leave him, says our age, leave him where mankind is in its history, at a crossroads, in a dilemma, with all to lose and only more of the same to win; let him survive, but give him no direction, no reward; because we too are waiting, in our solitary rooms, where the telephone never rings, waiting for this girl, this truth, this crystal of humanity, this reality lost through imagination, to return; and to say she returns is a lie’.

    To restrain a sentence of that length and to inject it with passion, and hope, and yes, futility too; that is the skill of a consummate artist. John Fowles seems to possess that precious sense of balance in his earlier work and this should be listed with the classics, I think. ‘The Magus’; written a long time ago, but I still return to it now and then.

    That quote from Beckett concerning balance is a very apt one – especially from the master!

    • Isn’t that Beckett quotation great? I love how he points out the balance in that line too.

      The Fowles’ sentence is powerful, the length almost leaving us breathless but for the commas and semicolons allowing us a moment to catch it momentarily. I have yet to read it, but will now, thank you.

  9. “At the head of his tombstone are three eroded letters; my fingertips read them for me. R.I.P.” The Moors Last Sigh, Salmon Rushdie. Brilliant writer 😀
    What a great idea, Letizia. Now I want to read the book again! lol 😀

    • A great first sentence of a concluding chapter, Dianne. In fact, it could almost be the first sentence of a book, it seems. I could never fully engage with Rushdie’s novels, never finish one, but I never tried The Moors Last Sigh and it’s been years since I tried so you’ve made me want to give him another go. Thanks!

  10. What a wonderful exercise. Here is the first sentence from the last chapter of Flush by Virginia Woolf. “Flush was growing an old dog now.” Short, like the book. 🙂

  11. Fanntastic, utterly brilliant! I wanted to share a first sentence with you but I got to thinking that perhaps they contain spoilers so after obsessing for a good while I have decided to share one in the future when I find a suitable one.

    I think there is a tendency of readers to think of the whole story and not dwell so much on the beauty of certain sentences. I do love those certain phrases that make you stop and reread them for the sheer joy of it.

    I think I may need to change my reading style and appreciate the books I read more. All this time reading and you help to consider even more facets of my passion. Cue huge smile.

    • I’m looking forward to reading what your sentence is. What I have found reading everyone’s sentences is that regardless of the book, the sentence is interesting. It can tell us about the author’s style, the plot, or simply just be a beautiful sentence, even in its simplicity.

  12. You’re so brilliant and this is so fun! I had to grab The Secret Garden…”In each century since the beginning of the world wonderful things have been discovered.”

    That just totally blew me away. Okay, now I’m curious about what I have in my books. Don’t they’re quite as profound. 🙂

    • What a great first sentence to a concluding chapter, Britt. So simple yet what a statement, right?

      I like the idea of looking at one’s own novels – I bet there are gems in there too!

  13. “Nothing pleases me more than standing on the porch of this old homestead, breathing the crisp air and watching Nature take her course around me.” The Roan Maverick by C R Strahan

    I’m always up for a fun exercise like this, but I was surprised at how profoundly the sentence summed up the story! Wow! (I’m going to have to test it out your theory on other favorite books!) This is a simple sentence – but so heavy with feeling and meaning, coming at the end of this particular story. It just goes to prove MY theory that books become independent, ‘living’ things, with minds of their own – possibly even from moment of their inception! 😉 How long did it take you to figure this particular thing out about books? Amazing… Thanks for sharing!

    • I haven’t read Strahan’s book (this post is increasing my ‘to be read’ list!) but that sentence is lovely in so many ways. It’s simple, I can identify with it. And, as you point out, it connects with the story in a meaningful way. It’s so important to remind ourselves that a story is constructed one sentence at a time, and how beautiful those sentences can be. Thanks for your great example.

  14. “The verdict to be passed on the third planet around Sol was never in doubt.” Stranger in a Strange Land; Robert Heinlein.

    A good summary, even if it leaves a lot of questions. But then again, so does the book. 🙂

  15. ‘They say the dead don’t talk.’ From The Passion by Jeanette Winterson. Of course, you know from the way it’s said that, in fact, they do…Great post Letizia, you’re giving me lots of food for thought. I do have a couple of notebooks in which I write quotes from books that I love, so not all the wonderful sentences are lost 🙂

    • That’s one of the best sentences so far – short, complex, clever, balanced.

      A great idea to have notebooks of quotations. I used to do that but lost the habit for some reason.

  16. Okay, I played the game, looked up several first lines of the last chapter…some are beautiful and full of promise, others are short to the point of being abrupt. The Catcher in the Rye: “That’s all I’m going to tell about.” I think this says volumes about the author as well as the book. On the other end of the spectrum: “Then as autumn flares with the false heat of summer before it dies into the winter, so with the quick love Wang Lung had for Pear Blossom.” Pearl S. Buck, The Good Earth. Fun!!!

    • Wonderful examples of how different styles can be! I love the abruptness of Salinger’s sentence. And the poetry of Buck’s description. The contrast is especially interesting!

  17. I love this post dear Letizia… Have you ever done this exercise… which basically consists on putting together the first and the last sentence of book… I have once read that before you buying a book you should do that because if they do make sense… well that’s because the book as a “whole” is wort while…
    You can try it with “A hundred years of Solitude”… The result is harmonic and consistent!!!. (*)
    All the very best to you… Graças a minha amiga ⭐
    Aquileana 😛

    (*) In Spanish: First sentence of the book & Last sentence of the book. Check it out here: http://wp.me/p60vo-7V

    • What a great idea; I have never heard of this exercise before. It’s puts a lot of pressure on the first and last sentence of the book, but now I want to look at all of my favorite books and see if they are “whole” in this way. Wonderful!

    • Yes, easier than sit-ups, haha! Beckett’s prose is very rhythmic, it’s true. The lack of events and restrained character development becoming the plot itself when he’s at his best, yes!

  18. I did not reach for a novel. Instead, I chose Resistance (Notre Guerre) by Agnes Humbert – A woman’s Journal of Struggle and Defiance in Occupied France. (Translated by Barbara Mellor)

    “You have to have been locked up for four years to know how strange it feels to walk downstairs freely, push open your prison door and walk outside, in order to do something that nothing and nobody can stop you from doing any more.”

    These are simple words, void of contrivances, but there is power that comes through because of all that has come before. There is a momentum that builds throughout a story (fiction and non-fiction) – we have a vested interest in the outcomes. When I read those words, I physically felt that I was walking into freedom.

    • How interesting to do this exercise with nonfiction! But, of course it would work as well as sentences are powerful and poetic in all books. I haven’t read this book but from your description I can imagine the sense of freedom one feels upon arriving at this momentous sentence. Great example.

  19. Lovely and thought provoking activity. It would be interesting to do a comparison of what holds best: classics or trending (lack of a better term). Your Baldwin example demonstrates how writers of longevity are true wordsmiths in how they shape the language to transcends mere plot movement and actually dance the words across the page creating poetry out of prose.
    As for my sentence: “He would be there all night, and he would be there when Jem waked up in the morning.” That’s Atticus for you, the perennial role model for fathers.

    • What a wonderful example. Lee’s prose is always such a pleasure to read, what a way she had with words and the construction of sentences. You make a great point, it would be interesting to see if the difference between literary fiction and popular fiction is within form itself. That’s when popular fiction can also be literary fiction perhaps.

    • I’ll hold off on looking at my copy because that’s a good choice and I want you to look (who knows what other gems you’ll find there – you have such a good eye!).

    • That’s a great idea too. I often do this with poems but rarely with short stories. I will do this with short stories from now on, thanks for the suggestion!

  20. What a great suggestion, Letizia. I just pulled out a Fine Balance which I love, One Hundred Years of Solitude, Life of Pi and the Book Thief. It all makes sense to me. Even someone else’s suggestion of first line and last line of book is useful.

  21. Letizia I love your outlook on reading. My daughter picked the book, see if you can tell me who it is.

    For a moment, there was silence as Harry, Ron, Ginny and Lockhart stood in the doorway, covered in muck and slime, and (in harry’s case) blood.

    long sentence but a goody.

  22. “It’s after the show — a damn good show, too, although not of the magnitude of either the Benzini Brothers or Ringling, but how could it be? For that you need a train.”

    This is the first sentence of the last chapter in WATER FOR ELEPHANTS. What struck me immediately is how this sentence could easily double as the opening sentence to the first chapter. You already get a sense of what the book might be about, or simply where and when it took place.

    Fun exercise!

    • That’s such an interesting idea, that this sentence could be the first sentence of the book. It’s a really good point, Kate. I want to reread this book now too.

  23. “Aaron sat beside Scott’s bed, looking through the newspaper while his guardian slept.”
    If you had read the book (Operation Alpha Papa) the scene–including Aaron’s thought processes–would make perfect sense. This is a YA crime/mystery novel, which I’ve read six times. It’s the third of five books already published, with # 6 currently being edited and #7 in the pipeline.

  24. I love how you get us thinking about our reading in a much deeper way. I would never have thought of deconstructing the first sentence of the last chapter in this way. I grabbed one of my all time favourite novels, ‘Rebecca; by Daphne Du Maurier’. It reads: ‘We went and stood by the car’ so I was disappointed it didn’t say more. But the group had just heard the truth about Rebecca, how she really died, her illness, and that this meant that Maxim was innocent of murder charges. So after all the incredible turmoil things were now going to be alright. Perhaps in this case the most telling is the last sentence of the preceding chapter which reads: ‘A man with one leg and barrel-organ began playing ‘Roses in Picardy’, at the end of the road. An innocent and safe sight as they walked out of the doctor’s office, their lives profoundly changed forever. Thanks Letizia for this wonderful reading exercise, love coming over here to find out what you will be sharing next 🙂

    • I loved reading Rebecca. That last line of the preceding chapter is so interesting. and the first sentence of the concluding paragraph works so well in its simplicity, as a sort of balance, a finality to it. So interesting! Thanks for dropping by, Sherri, as always!!

      • Yes, I thought that too…not particularly interesting as it stands alone, but in its simplicity knowing all that has happened before that moment and all that was revealed in the doctor’s office not moments before, it is actually quite profound. Thank you again Letizia for making me think ‘outside the box’, love it 🙂

  25. I made a grab for The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion. It’s not one of my absolute favourites (all those have been left behind in the move =[) but I read it recently and liked it well enough.

    “We went to Disneyland – Rosie, Phil and I.”

    It’s really simple. But once I think of how much it took Don, the main character, to get there, it really does leave a nice impression. 🙂

    • There’s something quite beautiful about simple sentences, especially when they represent the culmination of a long journey, figurative or literal. Thanks for sharing that one with me, Zen. I hope you start building up your new library of books soon!

  26. Hi Letizia, as others have said, what a fabulous idea for a post. I have been, as I am sure others have too, reading a lot of books about WWI recently, so I went to ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’.

    It’s easy to put whatever meaning one wants onto something, isn’t it – a bit like poetry or a horoscope. But the text I found seemed particularly fitting and poignant:

    “It’s Autumn.”

    • How apt to reread All Quiet on the Western Front now. I should read it again now too. It’s such a good book. And what a poignant start to the concluding chapter, the end is near in so many ways.

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