They were the best of sentences …
The editors at American Scholar magazine have more guts than one would guess. The magazine, a quarterly, calls itself venerable, having been published since 1932 by the Phi Beta Kappa Society, the academic honor society.
The magazine decided after some water-cooler talk to list 10 best sentences in fiction and nonfiction. Not great sentences, but best sentences. What made it courageous (or foolhardy) is that someone else could pick 10 other sentences that would be just as valid. Why not start a fight? That doesn’t sound very venerable. Fun, maybe, but not venerable.
Certainly some of the greatest works of fiction are represented. This is one from “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald:
“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.”
The list shows the dedication and attention to detail the American Scholar editors have. Most of us, after all, have trouble remembering the book after a while, much less particular sentences. Somehow, an editor here who has read “Gatsby” half a dozen times, most recently a year or so ago, can’t remember that sentence.
Joan Didion, the prolific writer, penned this sentence in “Slouching Toward Bethlehem”:
“It was the United States of America in the cold late spring of 1967, and the market was steady and the G.N.P. 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.”
And in the minds of some devoted readers, no list of great sentences would be complete without one from Jane Austen: “For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbors, and laugh at them in our turn?” (“Pride and Prejudice”).
Maybe she had the editors of American Scholar in mind.