In her book, The Writing Life, Annie Dillard tells the story of a well-known writer who was collared by a university student, who asked, “Do you think I could be a writer?”
“Well,” the writer said, “I don’t know…. Do you like sentences?”
The writer could see the student’s amazement. Sentences? Do I like sentences? I am twenty years old and do I like sentences? If he had liked sentences, of course, he could begin, like a joyful painter I knew. I asked him how he came to be a painter. He said, “I liked the smell of the paint” (Annie Dillard, The Writing Life).
Something there is that loves a sentence (a Robert Frost allusion that is itself a reference to a memorable sentence; see what I did there?). One of the most memorable for me occurred late in the Wendell Berry novel, Jayber Crow, after several scenes in which the men of the town would include the title character in their moonshine-drinking sessions in the woods in which one drinker’s swig would sound to Jayber’s ears like, “good-good,” and another’s like “good-good-good-good,” and so on. I was mowing the lawn, listening to the audiobook on headphones when the following sentence stopped me and I stood, stunned, by the sentence’s beauty and resonance with me:
I am a man who has hoped, in time, that his life, when poured out at the end, would say, “Good-good-good-good-good!” like a gallon jug of the prime local spirit (Wendell Berry, Jayber Crow).
Wow. What a sentence. Good writers admire a good sentence. So I asked some of my social media friends what sentence from a book rocked their world. Here are some of those sentences, followed by the author, title, and (in parentheses) the friend who answered my question:
“There are many kinds of joy, but they all lead to one: the joy to be loved.” Michael Ende, The Neverending Story (Andrew Ronzino).
“Releasing her wrists, he touched her face tenderly, tracing the mark of the lion.” Francine Rivers, An Echo in the Darkness (Rachel McDaniel).
“Those who do evil are not our enemies. They are victims of the enemy.” David Roper, Seeing Through: Reflecting God’s Light in a Dark World (Rhonda Stark Krill).
“You cannot help being a female, and I should be something of a fool were I to discount your talents merely because of their housing.” Laurie R. King, The Beekeeper’s Apprentice (Rebecca Rodden).
“People do not resist change, per se. People resist loss.” Martin Linsky, Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive Through the Dangers of Leading (Edie Sodowsky).
“Never make a principle out of your experience; let God be as original with other people as He is with you.” Oswald Chambers, My Utmost for His Highest (Edie Sodowsky).
“The darker the night, the brighter the stars.” Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Crime and Punishment (Janine Rosche).
“In my first memory, I am three years old and I am trying to kill my sister.” Jodi Picoult, My Sister’s Keeper (Shellie Arnold).
“Live for the applause of nail scarred hands.” Mark Batterson, Chase the Lion (Danya Barrows).
“Fair is whatever God wants to do.” Leif Enger, Peace Like a River (Paula Geister).
“Sometimes, even if you know the answer, you’ve got to let the other person take a shot.” Karin Slaughter, The Good Daughter (A.E. Schwartz).
“Worry does not empty tomorrow of its sorrow, it empties today of its strength.” Corrie ten Boom, Clippings from My Notebook (Shannon Morgan Cook).
“It’s not about you.” Rick Warren, The Purpose Driven Life (Alice Hale Murray).
“If his destiny be strange, it is also sublime.” Jules Verne, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (Raelyn Pracht).
“Far from being an escape from reality, good literature is a window into reality.” Gladys Hunt, Honey for a Woman’s Heart (Nancy Lohr).
“I like good, strong words that mean something.” Louisa May Alcott, Little Women (Molly Jo Realy).
“The heart has two chambers; one for John, and one for Judas.” Ted Decker, Tosca Lee, Burn (Kari Grace).
“Marilla, isn’t it nice to think that tomorrow is a new day with no mistakes in it yet?” L. M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables (Leslie DeVooght).
There were too many responses to include them all, so I will write another post of memorable sentences in a few weeks. Feel free to comment with yours, for the enjoyment of all.
I keep a little notebook to record these treasures as I find them.
“It’s less important to seek after miracles than it is to hunger after the miracle-giver.” From Mammi, in “The Love Letters” by Beverly Lewis.
Shirlee, thanks for the comment.
So many good ones!
Just yesterday I took a screenshot of where I was in a particular audiobook because there were so many beautiful sentences of description packed in that spot I wanted to go back and listen to it later. I may not write them down but I NOTICE and APPRECIATE excellent sentences!
Yes, audiobooks do make it harder to note and remember the good sentences…but they’re still there!
Love this post!
A recent favorite sentence: “Having acknowledged that a man must master his circumstances or otherwise be mastered by them, the Count thought it worth considering how one was most likely to achieve this aim when one had been sentenced to a life of confinement.” from “A Gentleman in Moscow” by Amor Towles
Damon J. Gray
“Good is the enemy of great.” Jim Collins, Good to Great
“Can’t never could.” I don’t know who the author of this quote is, but I’ve repeated it to my children for years.
You are good at using good sentences!
“He might have been stretched out out to relax for a moment, except that his head lay several feet from his body.” – Gordon Prange, ‘December 7, 1941’
Norman Maclean is a masterful writer in “A River Runs through It.” There are so many highlighter-worthy lines, beginning with the first line: “In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing.” It sounds a bit sacrilegious but his father was a Presbyterian minister.
I open my own novel with one of his lines from the book: “It is a strange and wonderful and somewhat embarrassing feeling to hold someone in your arms who is trying to detach you from the earth and you aren’t good enough to follow her.”
And the last paragraph: “Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs. I am haunted by waters.”
This is not from a book but from one of my daughters-in-law. “If you’re not going to learn from your mistakes, why make them.”
Hey Bob. I read through all these and realized my suggestion might make me sound like an ax murderer! LOL — maybe you could assure others I’m not? Since you didn’t ask for sentences from scripture, I didn’t feel comfortable including it before, but I will here, because it speaks so much. “Jesus wept.” (John 11:35). Can’t you just see Him? –I agree with you, the best sentences make us stop and see and feel. Lovely post, Bob.
“The world breaks everyone and many are strong at the broken places.” – Ernest Hemingway
“There are some things you learn best in calm, and some in storm.” – Willa Cather
“The good may die young, but badass lives forever.”
Nancy B Kennedy
“Evelyn was an insomniac, so when they say she died in her sleep, you have to question that.” — Garrison Keillor, “Pontoon.” Best opening line ever!
Certainly pulls me out of my world enough to say, “What?! This I’ve got to read!”
“Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away.” Maya Angelou
“For the heart is not judged by how much you love, but by how much you are loved by others.” Wizard of Oz
“For this is what it means to be a King: to be first in every desperate attack and last in every desperate retreat, and when there’s hunger in the land (as must be now and then in bad years) to wear finer clothes and laugh louder over a scantier meal than any man in your land.” – C.S. Lewis, from “The Horse and His Boy”
Read it when I was 10 or 11 and it has stuck with me for more than 30 years. I’ve always tried to keep it in mind when entrusted with leadership roles.
Diane Virginia Cunio
Hey Bob, Thanks for sharing these. My favourite is Mark Batterson’s, “Listen for the applause of nail scarred hands.” That’s profound.
“I write this sitting in the kitchen sink. That is, my feet are in it; the rest of me is on the draining-board, which I have padded with our dog’s blanket and the tea-cosy…” –Dodie Smith, from I Capture the Castle.
More than one sentence, but each successive one is more enchanting than the ones before. I read that when I was 10, and that solidified my desire to become a writer–more than seven decades ago.
Lois, we write wherever we can, eh? That’s a beautiful grouping of sentences!
Sheri Dean Parmelee, Ph.D
Bob, I love words….words like recalcitrant, titillation, explicate, zither, zap, splat, splash, and tug.
You picked my favorite sentences, so I will have to think about your question some more.
For being lyrical and poignant: “If I know a song of Africa, of the giraffe and the African new moon lying on her back, of the plows in the fields and the sweaty faces of the coffee pickers, does Africa know a song of me?” Karen Blixen, Out of Africa
Jane C Baker
I like “Miss Eula had a voice like slow thunder and sweet rain.” From Chicken Sunday by Patricia Palocco
I loved this. One of my favorites is this:
Don’t be afraid of dying. Be afraid of a life without living. — From the film, Tuck Everlasting.
Marian, I like that one also. Thanks for sharing!
Basically everything Billy Coffey writes.
“I sacrificed my sleep, my perky breasts and my waistline for him, and when he crashed on his bike he ran to his father.” The Air We Breath by Christa Parrish
Love Christa Parish’s writing and this in particular ?
My walls are bare. I could frame all these book quotes and have encouragement each moment from the meaning and depth shared here. Thanks for the breath of thought-provoking air in the middle of the week.
I love words. I love sentences. I love the magic of putting it all together in new ways. Here are a few favorites:
“True! –nervous –very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad?” (Edgar Allan Poe, The Tell-Tale Heart) It’s hard to choose a Poe sentence because they’re all near perfection, but this has long been one of my favorites.
“But he that hath the steerage of my course, direct my sail.” (Shakespeare, Romeo & Juliet) Like Poe, Will gives us plenty of lovely sentences to choose from!
And the worship pastor at my church quoted Zephaniah 3:17 on Sunday & it’s pure, heart-beating poetry:
“The Lord your God is in your midst,
a mighty one who will save;
he will rejoice over you with gladness;
he will quiet you by his love;
he will exult over you with loud singing.”
Dean Ortner Ph.D., Ph.D.
“If I see anything like that shaping up I’ll bury you so deep, by the time light ever hits your bones they’ll think they have found the missing link.”
“A mind, like a home, is furnished by its owner, so if one’s life is cold and bare, he can blame non but himself. You have a chance to select from some pretty elegant furnishings.”
Louis L’Amour, “Bendigo Shafter”
This place is so lonesome that even the echoes follow us around for company.
Haycock, Ernest; “The Silver Desert”
You shared this one with me, Bob and it remains one of my favorite first line. “The last camel died at noon.” Ken Follett’s The Key to Rebecca
But one of my favorite sentences is from the Help by Kathryn Stockett speaking of Miss Lefolt; “Her legs is so spindly, she look like she done growed em last week.”
Nothing was more natural than that these things should be the other things that they absolutely were not.
— Henry James, The Turn of the Screw.
I’m not sure that he read that line out loud, but I sure did, more than once.
But the line from The Help, posted in the preceding comment by Diana, has convinced me to read that book! I enjoyed the movie and the book is usually a richer experience.