Stanley Fish’s excellent book, the impulse to construct each sentence of the review as a pristine gem becomes overwhelming. So if I may pervert Gustave Flaubert’s complaint, I fear this review “is like a cracked kettle on which we tap crude rhythms for bears to dance to, while we long to make music that will melt the stars.”
Authors often hear the advice to ignore individual sentences in favor of the total work whether story or essay. I believe Stanley Fish would disagree strongly. A building is composed of individual bricks and though it may be a beautiful edifice, if the bricks are rotten, the building cannot last. A gourmet meal may look appealing as a whole, but if each individual bite is a torment, it matters not the aesthetics of the table setting. A literary work is composed of individual sentences put together in a systemic manner that build up the structure, but are also strong enough to stand on their own.
In How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One, Fish leads us on a tour de force of sentence structure looking at structure and style as well as the importance of the first and last sentences. His examples are a true delight. Yet, this is not a mechanical “How to…” like Strunk and White’s seminal work. A human being is composed of more than bones and internal organs and a sentence carries within itself its own type of metaphysical wonder that appeals to the heart as well as the mind. In its own way, Fish’s work is a love letter to the simple sentence.
However, do not think it an easy read. For such a short book, there is amazing depth here. I found myself rereading several passages several times to make sure I grasped what Fish was communicating.
The bottom line is that I believe reading Stanley Fish’s inspirational work will make me a better writer as well as a better reader.