How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One

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The Millions Top Ten: September 2011

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for September.

This
Month
Last
Month

Title
On List

1.
2.

The Enemy
5 months

2.
3.

Farnsworth’s Classical English Rhetoric
6 months

3.


The Art of Fielding
1 month

4.
10.

The Bathtub Spy
2 months

5.
5.

Leaves of Grass
3 months

6.
4.

The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry
5 months

8.
7.

A Moment in the Sun
4 months

8.
9.

How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive
2 months

9.


The Getaway Car: A Practical Memoir About Writing and Life
1 month

10.
9.

Otherwise Known as the Human Condition
4 months

David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King graduates, along with The Hunger Games, to our Hall of Fame this month. Taking the vacated top spot is Christopher Hitchens’ timely The Enemy. With Ann Patchett’s The Getaway Car debuting on the list and joining another Kindle Single, The Bathtub Spy, it’s becoming pretty clear that these bite-sized e-book originals are gaining some serious traction, a trend that the media has been taking note of, of late.
Our other debut, meanwhile, is a plain old novel, certainly one of the big fiction releases of the fall, Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding. We first noted the book’s headline-grabbing deal in early 2010, and we highlighted it in our big second-half preview.
The big story next month will be seeing which heavyweight, literary new release will debut higher on our Top Ten, Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot (read the opening lines here) or Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 (read the opening lines here).
Near Misses: The Missing of the Somme, The Magician King, Swamplandia!, A Dance with Dragons, How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One, and The Tiger’s Wife. See Also: Last month’s list.

The Millions Top Ten: August 2011

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for August.

This
Month
Last
Month

Title
On List

1.
1.

The Pale King
6 months

2.
2.

The Enemy
4 months

3.
4.

Farnsworth’s Classical English Rhetoric
5 months

4.
5.

The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry
4 months

5.
8.

Leaves of Grass
2 months

6.
6.

The Hunger Games
6 months

7.
7.

A Moment in the Sun
3 months

8.
9.

Otherwise Known as the Human Condition
3 months

9.


How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive
1 month

10.


The Bathtub Spy
1 month

David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King remains in our top spot, but it will be headed (most likely along with The Hunger Games), to our Hall of Fame next month where it will join this month’s inductee, the book I co-edited, The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books. Thanks again to all the Millions readers who picked the book up. It was a great project, and I’m glad I had a chance to share it with you.
We have a pair of newcomers this week. Readers were clearly intrigued by Emily St. John Mandel’s review of Christopher Boucher’s unique new novel How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive. We also have another Kindle Single on our list. Tom Rachman, whose The Imperfectionists is already in our Hall of Fame, makes the list with The Bathtub Spy, a new short story published as an e-book original. Christopher Hitchens’ timely The Enemy has already had a nice showing on our list, suggesting that readers are warming to the pricing and perhaps the more bite-sized nature of this new format. Do Kindle Singles (and similar pieces offered on other platforms) undermine books or are readers now being introduced to the work of writers like Hitchens and Rachman via these low-cost "samples?" Something to ponder.

Meanwhile, the stay of George R.R. Martin’s latest, A Dance with Dragons, on our list turns out to be brief. Other Near Misses: The Magician King, Swamplandia!, How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One, and The Art of Fielding. See Also: Last month’s list

The Millions Top Ten: July 2011

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for July.

This
Month
Last
Month

Title
On List

1.
1.

The Pale King
5 months

2.
2.

The Enemy
3 months

3.
3.

The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books
6 months

4.
5.

Farnsworth’s Classical English Rhetoric
4 months

5.
6.

The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry
3 months

6.
8.

The Hunger Games
5 months

7.
9.

A Moment in the Sun
2 months

8.


Leaves of Grass
1 month

9.
10.

Otherwise Known as the Human Condition
2 months

10.


A Dance with Dragons
1 month

David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King is still in the top spot, and the rest of our top three are unchanged as well. New to our list is Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, which was the subject of a moving appreciation by Michael on the 4th of July. Meanwhile, Game of Thrones mania has hit our top ten, as George R.R. Martin’s latest, A Dance with Dragons, lands in the tenth spot. Janet recently reviewed the epic series of books for us.
And graduating to our Hall of Fame are a pair of breakout hits from summer 2010, The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman and Skippy Dies by Paul Murray.
Near Misses: Cardinal Numbers, The Magicians, The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, Swamplandia!, and How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One. See Also: Last month’s list

The Millions Top Ten: June 2011

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for June.

This
Month
Last
Month

Title
On List

1.
1.

The Pale King
4 months

2.
4.

The Enemy
2 months

3.
2.

The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books
5 months

4.
3.

The Imperfectionists
6 months

5.
6.

Farnsworth’s Classical English Rhetoric
3 months

6.
8.

The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry
2 months

7.
7.

Skippy Dies
6 months

8.
10.

The Hunger Games
4 months

9.


A Moment in the Sun
1 month

10.


Otherwise Known as the Human Condition
1 month

David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King is again in the top spot, but, interestingly, Christopher Hitchens’ "Kindle Single" The Enemy climbs further after its debut last month. The sudden proliferation of long-form journalism as ebook originals – Byliner has made a splash after releasing several of its own – will be an interesting trend to watch.
Debuting this month were filmmaker John Sayles’s massive and very well-recieved novel A Moment in the Sun and Geoff Dyer’s collection of essays Otherwise Known as the Human Condition. This is Dyer’s second book to crack our Top Ten, joining Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling with D. H. Lawrence.
Graduating to our Hall of Fame, meanwhile, are Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand and Atlas of Remote Islands by Judith Schalansky.
Near Misses:The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, The Tiger’s Wife, How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, and Unfamiliar Fishes. See Also: Last month’s list

The Millions Top Ten: May 2011

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for May.

This
Month
Last
Month

Title
On List

1.
1.

The Pale King
3 months

2.
2.

The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books
4 months

3.
3.

The Imperfectionists
5 months

4.


The Enemy
1 month

5.
4.

Atlas of Remote Islands
6 months

6.
9.

Farnsworth’s Classical English Rhetoric
2 months

7.
5.

Skippy Dies
5 months

8.


The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry
1 month

9.
7.

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption
6 months

10.


The Hunger Games

3 months

David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King retains our top spot, but that’s not where the real action was this month. In May, a pair of new titles debuted and a third returned to our list after previously slipping off. The biggest news story of May was the killing of Osama bin Laden by U.S. forces, and that event was the catalyst for the first appearance of a “Kindle Single” (or any e-book original, for that matter) on our list. Clearly, many readers wanted Christopher Hitchens’ take on this event, and Amazon managed to lock down the 17-page essay he produced. The Enemy would have appeared as a magazine piece not too long ago and would likely have therefore been pretty ephemeral. It will be interesting to see if this essay’s status as a Kindle Single affords it any staying power.
Also debuting was The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry, which our staffer Janet Potter reviewed this month. Returning to our list after a one-month hiatus is YA bestseller The Hunger Games, whose return was perhaps spurred by headlines surrounding the casting of the upcoming film version of the book. The other big mover was Farnsworth’s Classical English Rhetoric, climbing three spots. As I wrote last month, Only Millions readers would make a book of rhetoric a bestseller.
Departing from our list were The Finkler Question, Cardinal Numbers, and Unfamiliar Fishes. Finkler’s Booker glory has faded; Cardinal Numbers was touted in these pages by Sam Lipsyte, but that was back in December; and Unfamiliar Fishes, with its somewhat obscure topic, lost some steam after the book’s initial publicity push waned.
Other Near Misses: A Moment in the Sun, The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One, and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.

See Also: Last month’s list

The Millions Top Ten: March 2011

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for March.

This
Month
Last
Month

Title
On List

1.


The Pale King
1 month

2.
8.

The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books
2 months

3.
1.

The Imperfectionists
3 months

4.
2.

Atlas of Remote Islands
4 months

5.
3.

Skippy Dies
3 months

6.
5.

Cardinal Numbers
4 months

7.
6.

The Finkler Question
5 months

8.
7.

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption
4 months

9.
10.

The Hunger Games
2 months

10.


Unfamiliar Fishes
1 month

I knew it would end up atop our list, just not this month. David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King debuts in the top spot, based only on those early pre-orders shipping from Amazon. Our other debut is Sarah Vowell’s Unfamiliar Fishes, reviewed here on The Millions last week. Thanks to the generous interest of many Millions readers, the book I co-edited The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books vaults to the second spot on our March list (I hope everyone’s enjoying it!). Graduating to our Hall of Fame is one of last summer’s big books, Emma Donoghue’s Room, and getting bumped from the list after a brief stay is the Mark Twain Autobiography. Other Near Misses: Lord of Misrule, How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One, Just Kids, and Woman in White.

See Also: Last month’s list

The Millions Top Ten: February 2011

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for February.

This
Month
Last
Month

Title
On List

1.
3.

The Imperfectionists
2 months

2.
4.

Atlas of Remote Islands
3 months

3.
8.

Skippy Dies
2 months

4.
5.

Room
6 months

5.
7.

Cardinal Numbers
3 months

6.
10.

The Finkler Question
4 months

7.
9.

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption
3 months

8.


The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books
1 month

9.


Autobiography of Mark Twain, Vol. 1
1 month

10.


The Hunger Games
1 month

Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists surges to the top of our list, followed by Judith Schalansky’s Atlas of Remote Islands, and Paul Murray’s Skippy Dies. Meanwhile, the bottom of our list includes three very diverse debuts. The Late American Novel, co-edited by yours truly, is only just now "officially" out but it has been shipping from Amazon for a few weeks now. (To everyone out there who’s picked up the book, thanks for all your support.) Also, new on the list is the Mark Twain Autobiography that has gotten so much attention over the last few months. A few commentators, notably Adam Gopnik in the New Yorker, deflated the hype somewhat, but there is undoubtedly an enormous amount of interest in this literary legend. Finally, all the excitement around YA sensation The Hunger Games has landed the first book in the popular series on our list. Those three debuts took the spots left open by a trio of new Hall of Fame inductees, three books you could argue were the biggest literary reads of last summer, Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story, Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, and, of course, Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom.

Near Misses: How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One, Postcards from Penguin: One Hundred Book Covers in One Box, To the End of the Land, Just Kids , and Woman in White.

See Also: Last month’s list

Sentencing Guidelines: Stanley Fish’s How to Write a Sentence

I am having trouble with a sentence. The point I would like to make is that I wish Stanley Fish’s new book had taken a different approach. Complicating that is that I mean for it to be a first sentence, and, hence, it bears all the burdens of a first impression. As a place to start, consider:

Although I have generally loved Stanley Fish’s work, I found his new book disappointing.

Weakening this sentence is that awful “generally.” I have adopted, it seems, an academic’s defensive precision: “I certainly wouldn’t want to say I have loved all of Fish’s work, I haven’t read all of Fish’s work and I don’t want to be held responsible for it.” That “generally,” and the underlying thought it betrays, is weaselly, and, really, I can’t recall ever actually disliking one of Fish’s essays (which is not to say I never disagreed)[1]. It’s gotta go.

Although I have loved Stanley Fish’s work, I found his new book disappointing.

Of course, now it seems like my sentence is missing a word. I could replace it with something. “Always”? Too…breathless. Especially with “loved.” I’m not sure what to do.

I suppose this sentence is an example of the

Although [general condition], [exception to the general condition].

form. We use this form a lot, of course, in the (often false) hope of awakening interest in our readers. In order for this move to really work, the reader has to have some investment in the general condition, or else the general condition needs to be such a commonplace that it would be surprising that I would be disputing it. Mostly neither condition obtains, and what the construction of my sentence really represents is lazy, good-enough-to-get-started writing.

Let’s ditch the offending clause.

I found Stanley Fish’s new book disappointing.

At least this has the advantage of directness. But now, the sentence is about me, which I guess would be OK, especially if I was an important reviewer of books on writing, or if I was participating in some forum where Fish’s book was well known. As it is, though, this sentence has misplaced emphasis, about what I found rather than Fish’s book. I could invert it —

Stanley Fish’s new book disappointed me.

— but even inverted, it’s about my disappointment, and, worse, it now has an unfortunate schoolmarmy tone to it: “Stanley, you have not lived up to my expectations.”

Well, let’s just take me out of it.

Stanley Fish’s new book is disappointing.

In many ways, this is better. It is declarative. It takes an unsoftened stand. That the statement is my opinion isn’t really lost, since as the author of the sentence it is obviously my opinion. It might even awaken a reader’s interest: “disappointing how?” I could live with this sentence. However, I have altogether lost my original intention which was less about the disappointingness of Fish’s book and more about expressing my wish that he had taken a different approach.

You see, a while ago Fish wrote several editorials about writing in his New York Times column. In those, he argued, just like he does in his new book, that the form of a sentence is the proper focus for composition instruction. Much like what classical rhetoricians believed about eloquence, Fish argues you can teach students to write by teaching them to pour their ideas into the molds of well-formed sentences. Unfortunately, the notions of figure and trope in rhetoric kind of degenerated, like expositions of grammar often degenerate, into butterfly-pinning, and I don’t know of anyone who much teaches polysyndeton or aporia[2] in their public speaking course nowadays. What I had hoped for, I guess, was not an extension of his argument, or a further call to pay attention to form in writing instruction. I hoped Fish would actually begin to catalogue the forms themselves, to begin to set all of the available rhetorical variations into some sort of order.

I mean, take the form I offered before:

Although [general condition], [exception to the general condition].

There is a lot you can do with this. Students can be asked to produce a bunch of examples of the case, and thereby learn to use it fluently. You can notice that the “although” can be moved to the second clause with just a slight change in emphasis, and, I think, an improved sentence resulting. (“I have generally loved Stanley Fish’s work, although I found his new book disappointing.”) You could develop a notation system — like sentence diagramming! — that captured the relation of the clauses and the optional placement of the “although.” You could notice that the second placement of “although” can be replaced by “however” or “but,” but not the first, and try to explain why. You could observe that this species of sentence is a member of a larger genus, something like

[statement], [contrasting statement].

whose various members entail differing specific relations between the clauses, and who require differing coordinating words between. (For example, see Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein’s They Say/I Say.) You could provide rhetorical analyses of each form you identify, much like I did earlier when I concluded that my original sentence was merely lazy, since it offered an irritant that wasn’t particularly irritating as a way to pretend to coax interest. This all seems to me, as it does to Fish, to be good work for students to do.

So my disappointment with Fish’s book is that it doesn’t offer a program to catalogue all of the various forms of sentences and variations and genuses and species,[3] with rhetorical analyses for each. To try again to communicate this, it might be best to go back to my original statement of my intent:

I wish Stanley Fish’s new book had taken a different approach.

What I have lost here from the earlier attempts, besides my explicit disappointment, is the warmth toward Fish’s work that I have felt in the past. That, and there’s nothing here to really engage a reader uninvested in Fish’s approach. What I really want to express is the mixed feelings I have around my disappointment in Fish’s new book. Let’s go for that:

I admit, I found Stanley Fish’s new book disappointing.

I admit, I like this new sentence.[4] It doesn’t outright say anything about my affection for Fish’s work, but it implies it pretty well without breathlessness. What I think is nice about it is that it suddenly has a voice (the previous sentences seem to me to be generically academic), and it seemingly — aporetically — places the blame for my disappointment on me rather than on Fish’s book. It expresses shame over having to admit that I found his book disappointing, and shame, I think, can sell a sentence.

So, although it isn’t really fair to criticize an author for not writing the book you wanted them to write, I admit, I found Stanley Fish’s new book disappointing. I can think of all sorts of reasons Fish wouldn’t actually want to take on the project I outlined for him, I mean, just to start with, it is pretty much endless, and if one were to take it seriously, one would inevitably end up, just like the classical rhetoricians, butterfly-pinning all of the various forms one found, an activity which entirely loses the point, I think, of the instruction Fish intends. You can catalogue and dissect, like God’s own grammar teacher, or like the authors all of those sentence diagrams I was forced to study in fifth grade, and learn literally nothing about how to write effectively, a point which Fish’s book, and, indeed, most every recent book that tries to help us write better, makes.

Back when I was trying to learn to play jazz guitar, I came across a book, Patterns for Jazz, that seemed to me to hold the promise of finally figuring out how to play across chord progressions. Apart from a minuscule amount of discussion (most of which concerns “how to use this book”), the book consists of little musical phrases, mostly four and eight notes long, that are to be transposed and played across an array of chord sequences. You could — I did — play these patterns over and over in hopes of learning enough phrases for each chord that you could sound halfway competent when confronted with “All of Me.” This book, in short, is the jazz equivalent of the writing text I wanted Fish to write: “Here are the forms. Put them to use.”

I never learned to play jazz guitar. I don’t know if that should be attributed to a failure of pedagogy, or merely a failure of musician. But, in retrospect, I can see that I wasn’t really using the text in the way that the authors of Patterns for Jazz meant. The point they intended (I think) was that students should play the patterns so much that they would be able to spontaneously predict how any given note or pattern would sound in the musical context they found themselves in. That is, you practice the rote forms so that you know your instrument and the chords so well that you don’t need rote forms to create.

Fish doesn’t seem to make his students spend too much time filling in sentence templates. Instead, he suggests that they elaborate simple forms into complex ones, discover variations and manipulations of forms (much like my observation, above, that the “although” could occupy two locations interchangeably), and, in general, observe how relationships between things and activities are manifested in sentences, and learn how to create those relationships. Like the successful jazz musician, students learn to attend to form and context (“prehearing” is the word Patterns for Jazz uses) in order to express themselves competently. Although he doesn’t say so, I believe Fish already knows that the butterfly project is hopeless. In fact, at least in a sense, you could summarize his whole program (including his literary criticism) as a disciplined approach to paying attention to sentences. If you can do that, he says, and not allow yourself to get bogged down arguing or applauding what the sentence is saying, or likewise mired in grammar and correctness, you can learn to write.

Back | 1. This parenthetical is also weaselly, and for exactly the same reason.
Back | 2. This essay being an example of aporia.
Back | 3. That was polysyndeton.
Back | 4. [confession], [revelation].

Tuesday New Release Day: Vonnegut, Salinger, Crime-Fighting Victorian Women, and More

Lots of new books out this week: Where Mortals Sleep, previously unpublished short fiction by Kurt Vonnegut, with a foreword by Dave Eggers; A Life, one of what will be several biographies of J.D. Salinger arriving over the next couple of years; Stanley Fish tells us How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One; Brian Greene introduced the masses to string theory with The Elegant Universe, and now he’s back with The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos; Julie Orringer’s The Invisible Bridge is out in paperback; and finally, from Penguin Classics, The Penguin Book of Victorian Women in Crime: Forgotten Cops and Private Eyes from the Time of Sherlock Holmes.

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