Monday, April 12, 2021

Little Women


Louisa May Alcott published Little Women in 1868, three years after the end of the American Civil War. It sold well immediately, and has been continuously in print ever since. 

The first sentence reads, "'Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,' grumbled Jo, lying on the rug." Are there any clues to the book's longevity in the first sentence?

The sentence contains a character, Jo, and implies someone to hear Jo's complaint. Jo has a worry – that there won't be any presents for Christmas. That's conflict: Jo wants presents and she fears she won't get them. 

What else do we know about Jo? She grumbles. She is willing to express herself. She is lying on a rug – while there may not be presents, her home has at least that much comfort. And who is more likely to receive presents and to lie upon the floor? Children. Jo is probably young. 

Youth could also explain her willingness to grumble, and her focus on presents as what makes Christmas its essential self. So we have a young person with a problem. It's not too dire – the lack of presents suggests some poverty, but the rug helps us see that she is probably not at risk of homelessness or starvation. There's enough tension to draw us in without scaring us too much. 

Many of the books that have been most loved by large numbers of people have been books for children or youth. Until recently, the marks of a book for children or young adults were: shorter length, simpler language, young main character, and world that was kinder than our own. More recently, books in these categories often have worse worlds than ours, and may run to many words. This sentence, with Jo's youth and her problem that is concerning but not life-threatening, fits the older form. 

One last point: Jo doesn't say outright that she wants presents. She argues instead that Christmas needs presents to be Christmas. It's an argument from someone who has learned that principles – such as what Christmas should be – are a better way to persuade than stating what she wants. In a very simple way, Jo is beginning to make her way in the world of words and ideas. She might be smart. That attracts young readers who want to be smart, too, especially girls. 

The first sentence of Little Women creates some tension and begins to build a character that young readers can connect to. 

Graphic design by Ken Silbert

Monday, April 05, 2021

Big Magic

Elizabeth Gilbert starts her memoir about creativity, Big Magic, like this: "Once upon a time, there was a man named Jack Gilbert, who was not related to me – unfortunately for me." 

My very first post in this series featured a sentence that referred to fairy tales. This one does, too. The words "Once upon a time" start many of those stories. It's a curious phrase that we seldom use for anything but starting a fairy tale. Look at how the pieces of the phrase don't quite hold what the whole phrase does. "Once" means this was a unique happening. "Upon" means placed on top of something. "A time" means one point in the past. That makes the whole phrase add up to "A unique happening posed on top a particular past moment." That's not completely off-base from what we understand when someone says, "Once upon a time...." yet the four classic words in the phrase also bring with them associations from every other story we've heard that starts that way. Not in the meaning (denotation), but in the associations (connotation), we hear, "I'm about to tell you a story that happened sometime, in the world of stories." 

Fairy tales take place in a mythic past. It's not a specific date – it's a time, that could have been recently or long ago. In that time, birds may talk or trolls guard bridges – "once upon a time" is not history, it is archetype. 

Gilbert starts her non-fiction book with the opening of a fairy tale. She places a specific, named person into mythic time: "Once upon a time, there was a man named Jack Gilbert...." The fairy tale opening makes Jack Gilbert seem like a mythic figure – a hero – it burnishes him with the same respect we hold for storybook characters. Jack Gilbert lived specific dates. With this opening, he seems to live during every time and no time. 

The next phrase is "who was not related to me." Here, the author Gilbert brings herself into the story as well. We need to remember her name and know that people with the same last name are often related for this phrase to make sense. If we remember her name, and if we know that people with the same name are often related, then we might have thought she was talking about a relative. The phrase "who was not related to me," clears up that misconception – and also draws our attention to the possibility that they could have been related. 

How much of language relies on shared assumptions! If our experience shows that people with the same last name are often related, then we might have wondered if the author and Jack Gilbert were related. The author then parries that question. It's not a question that everyone would come to. A Chinese friend once asked me, "Why do only related people have the same last name in the United States?" There are a scattering of people with my last name, Paradox, and, as far as I know, none of them are second cousins or closer to me. 

The final phrase is "unfortunately for me," a bit of humorous self-deprecation. Jack Gilbert is mythic – Elisabeth Gilbert is not related, unfortunately, implying she would have been better off if she had been related to him. She is less. She could have turned it around into a classic boast, "unfortunately for him," which would have suggested he would be better off if he were related to her, placing her higher than his mythic status. She went the humbler route. 

The word in the strong, final position is "me." Humble or not, she takes the last word. 

This sentence uses three techniques from the post-modern toolkit. The first is remixing – taking other works from the past and reusing them consciously. The second is self-reference: Elizabeth Gilbert calls out herself and her own work within the sentence. The third is humor, and I find post-modernism without humor almost unbearable. Remixes and self-reference without humor read arrogant and grabby to me. With humor, they take on a pleasant playfulness. 

Other critics differ from that conclusion. 

It's the playfulness in this first sentence that most leads me to want to read on. I like the punctuation very much. The commas and dash add lightness, emphasis, and places to breathe. I'm also curious about the mythic character, Jack Gilbert, and why the author wishes she were related to him – a minor mystery to solve. 

All in all, it is a playful and intriguing first sentence. 

Graphic elements by Ken Silbert


Monday, March 29, 2021



Jane Smiley won the Pulitzer Prize in 1992 for her tragic novel, A Thousand Acres. Moo is the next novel she wrote, and one I remember liking when I read it in the 90s. 

At first, the first sentence of Moo is a little daunting. It takes a long breath to read it, it has clauses and the formal, academic word "hegemony" in it, and there are no commas or dashes to allow a break or guide us to organizing the meaning: "From the outside it was clear that the building known generally as 'Old Meats' had eased under the hegemony of the horticulture department." I would probably punctuate it like this: "From the outside, it was clear that the building – known generally as “Old Meats” – had eased under the hegemony of the horticulture department."

The lack of internal punctuation gives this an academic flavor. So do the words "horticulture department." 

Then there's the curious structure. The basic English sentence needs an actor and an action: Anna reads. Anna is a person, capable of taking action. Reads is an action that Anna does. This sentence buries the actor and the action. The core of the sentence is "building ... had eased" – what? This is as if buildings had the will to take action, and the freedom to choose whether to slouch or to stride into that action. There's a hidden actor here – who brought the building, bit by bit, under the control of the horticulture department? 

Hiding the actor is also a feature of academic writing, although Smiley does it more subtly here than the more common use of passive tense. (Here's an example of passive tense: "The book was read by Anna." It displaces the person – Anna – to make the object – the book – seem the actor instead. The form "was ... by" is the most obvious version. Omitting the "by" part makes these a little harder to spot, as in the odious "Mistakes were made." By whom? Someone who doesn't want to admit it.) 

In this sentence, it is hard to tell who made the choices or who takes responsibility. "From the outside" suggests someone looking at the building, but who? The next phrase, "it was clear" again omits who is finding this clear. 

Look at "known generally" – once again, exactly who knows this remains fuzzy. 

How about that word "hegemony"? It means influence or control, with a nuance of one nation pressuring others to bow to them. "Under the hegemony of" is a phrase we use to describe small nations who always support the policies of the larger nation they border. "Had eased" is a tonal mismatch with "hegemony," as if the building had gratefully snuck into the shelter of the nearby, more heavily armed, "horticulture department." The word "hegemony" implies that the horticulture department – which studies plants, a relatively peaceful field  – is a belligerent conqueror of academic buildings, if not more. 

The contrast between "hegemony" and "horticulture" creates a bit of absurdity. They have similar forms – both starting with the letter "h" and both having four syllables – which emphasizes the contrast in their meanings.

Now the sentence begins to yield its secrets. Its academic form hides a war waged with plants. Smiley is taking the format of staid university writing to exercise dry wit on its papered-over conflicts. One more stroke points at her restrained humor: the words "Old Meats," so short and direct, in the middle of these long, evasive phrases. That's another break in tone which a purely serious author would avoid.

This sentence feels like a pecan to me. The smooth, hard surface holds a more complex and delicious interior. Moo's first sentence suits the entire book – it will appeal the most to readers who like dry wit,  know academia well enough to enjoy Smiley's tale of its absurdities, and are willing to dig a little to find the meaning. 

Photo by Angela Newman on Unsplash

Graphic elements by Ken Silbert


Monday, March 22, 2021

Cemetery Boys


When I go looking for first sentences, I start with books that already have some kudos: books by authors I've liked before, books recommended by people or publications I trust, books whose covers and descriptions interest me, books that have won awards, popular books. After that sort, I find that about one book in six has a first sentence that interests me. 

I also choose not to review bad first sentences by living authors without permission. The only such permission I've had so far was from myself. 

In the first sentence of Aiden Thomas' book, Cemetery Boys, there's one word that I really loved. Can you guess which one? Here's the sentence: "Yadriel wasn’t technically trespassing because he’d lived in the cemetery his whole life." 




If you guessed "technically," you were right. 

"Technically" is a word we use to point out a small difference from a bigger concept. Next to a legal term – in this case, "trespassing" – it means that someone has followed the law as precisely stated, but likely broken the wider understanding of the term. Technically following a law is what we mean when we say someone followed the letter but not the spirit of the law. 

We have a person, Yadriel. He isn't "technically trespassing" – but we just know, by someone's reckoning, that he could still be in trouble. It's a beautiful nuance. 

The word "cemetery" here is also a savory one. Cemeteries gain a little eeriness and foreboding from holding the dead. We suspect Yadriel is in trouble because of "technically trespassing," then the trouble gains a supernatural shading with "cemetery." 

The final word of the sentence is "life" – a surprise when connected with "cemetery." Yadriel has "lived in the cemetery his whole life" which is strange and intriguing. Cemeteries usually hold the dead rather than the living. What is Yadriel doing there? 

This sentence is a true hook, inciting tension, intrigue, and surprise in thirteen words. I like it very much. 

Graphic elements by Ken Silbert

Monday, March 15, 2021

The Sound and the Fury

Last week, I looked at a sentence published in 2019. This week, I have a sentence from the Western Canon, in this case defined as those books that English professors often chose as examples of great literature in the late 20th century. Canon is a tricky concept. Writers and readers can enjoy having the same works in common, but defining some works as canon leaves many other works neglected. Who gets to choose canon? We argue for it, and the set of included books changes over time. 

William Faulkner first published The Sound and the Fury in 1929, more than 90 years ago. The first sentence is: "Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting." 

The sentence has an almost perfect alternation of stressed and unstressed syllables. This is how I'd place apostrophes after the syllables I would stress when reading: "Through' the fence', be'tween' the curl'ing flow'er spa'ces, I' could see' them hitt'ing." Except for the stress on the first syllable of "between," the pattern of one stressed syllable followed by one unstressed syllable continues throughout the entire sentence. That one syllable that breaks the pattern might not be stressed for some – due to someone else's ear or a different regional way of speaking – making a completely rhythmic sentence. Or, as I read it, it gives a little break to the rhythm for more natural speech, and a little emphasis to the start of the second phrase of the sentence. 

That much rhythm creates a poetic effect. Faulkner paid attention to the sound of the words as well as to their meaning. 

"Curling flower spaces" also strikes me as poetic. It is strange and fresh – it makes us look at the space shaped between the flowers, and see that it curls – an unexpected image. It is closely observed, true, and surprising, like many of the strongest lines of poetry. 

"Through the fence" places us behind bars. The fence constrains the narrator and limits their forward motion. 

"I could see them" brings people into the sentence. Now the narrator is "I" and we share their viewpoint, and there are others, beyond the fence. 

The strong, final word is "hitting." It's a word that carries violence, creating tension in the sentence, and making this sentence a hook. It's also a word that normally can't come last, as the verb "hit" calls for something to hit. What are they hitting? Each other? A ball? A cat? We don't know. The narrator speaks poetically and strangely, and that is a mystery to draw us on.

The Sound and the Fury has many sentences noted for their beauty. It also contains the n-word and spends its time with a corrupt and prejudiced family. I believe that, ultimately, it condemns them. Your mileage may vary. To a reader of our times, it offers an example of craft and a view into the mindset of another time. It is a complex reading experience, which works well for having English students increase their skills. Whether these strengths make it worthy of a place in the canon is an ongoing discussion. 

Graphic design by Ken Silbert


Monday, March 08, 2021

Space Opera


How do we recognize that one sentence is like another? 

I saw this sentence on Twitter, in a thread of favorite first sentences. I immediately thought, "That's inspired by The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy." I had only the sentence to go by.

In Catherynne M. Valente's acknowledgments for the book Space Opera, she clearly states that Douglas Adams and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy inspired that book. What is it about her first sentence that told me that? Here it is: "Once upon a time on a small, watery, excitable planet called Earth, in a small, watery, excitable country called Italy, a soft-spoken, rather nice-looking gentleman by the name of Enrico Fermi was born into a family so overprotective that he felt compelled to invent the atomic bomb." 

The first sentence of Hitchhiker's is: "Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun." (See my previous blog post for more details on how that sentence works.) 

Both sentences have multiple adjective-laden phrases. Both choose slightly unexpected details. For example, Adams uses "unregarded" and "unfashionable" for objects in outer space, while Valente calls both "Earth" and "Italy" "small, watery, and excitable." Those bring the absurd flavor of Adam's sentence into Valente's. Although Valente's first phrase, "Once upon a time," places the sentence in time, her next two, like Adams' second and third phrases, place the action in space. They both take a wide perspective. In Valente's case, it is speaking of our entire planet as "small." 

And both sentences end on a surprise. In fact, "bomb" is a more direct surprise than "sun." Valente's sentence may in fact push farther than Adams' sentence does. Her sentence is longer, with more phrases and more adjectives per phrase. His stops when it has well-defined a place. Hers adds a person, his upbringing, and his invention. 

The two sentences have a similar humor, with absurdity and twists in perspective, a similar galactic perspective, and both use the comedic technique of ending on a surprise. 

What a surprise Valente's sentence holds! We expect someone with an overprotective childhood to grow up anxious and afraid to try new things. Instead, she tells us that Enrico Fermi went to the other extreme: inventing a bomb that destroyed cities, lives, and our understanding of the world. It's an explosive ending. 

The first sentence of Space Opera, by recalling and exceeding Hitchhiker's, promises that if we liked Adams' book, but think it could have been more intense, we'll like this one. 

I'm happy to report that Space Opera delivers on that promise. If you read Hitchhiker's and Space Opera, you'll find even more ways that they share a flavor and ways that Valente takes her story in her own direction. It pleases me that first sentences can imply these correspondences, the way a seed contains the information for an entire plant. 

I'm also happy to report, that with the longer sentences and more vibrant descriptions, Space Opera is well-served by Valente's deployment of that great new invention, the comma. 

Monday, March 01, 2021

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

The international sensation of the book world before Harry Potter was The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. It was fresh, it was funny, it sold a ton of copies, created a passionate fanbase, and spawned a series of sequels. Hitchhiker's was an event and a cultural touchstone. If it seems less familiar now, that may owe to its publication in 1979 or to Douglas Adams' death at 49 in 2001. 

Its first sentence takes a curious perspective: "Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun." Let's take it one phrase at a time. "Far out" describes a location – as well as being a space age exclamation of delight. To whoever is speaking, something is either distant or wondrous. 

"In the uncharted backwaters" has a slight tension in it. "Uncharted" means not yet explored or mapped (from the point of view of the speaker); "backwaters" suggests less important or less traveled – if it isn't explored yet, how do they know it is less vibrant? This is the self-centered perspective of someone who treats their own knowledge and culture as the measure of the world. 

"Of the unfashionable end" – this again shows the speaker's judgment – they are speaking of something that doesn't match their idea of attractive culture. Strangely, while "far out" is hazy, "uncharted backwaters" are most often on a continental scale, but here we have "unfashionable end" which we most often relate to a part of town. Our guess at the scale the speaker intends keeps moving. 

"Of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy" – suddenly, the scale is both vast and precise, and it's not what we would have expected – the previous words leaned toward a much smaller area. Can an entire arm of the galaxy be unfashionable? Surely that vast region could contain multitudes of levels of society. 

The last part of the sentence tells us what we can find in this location. There, "lies a small unregarded yellow sun." The speaker finds that sun small and "unregarded," another word like "backwater" and "unfashionable" that suggests unimportance. This sun, on the scale of the galaxy, and from the perspective of the speaker, is nothing of note. 

But wait! Our sun is a yellow sun in the western spiral arm of the galaxy. Does the speaker mean that the star that gave us birth, that provides our light and heat and made us possible, is no big deal? The sting in the end of this sentence, as it lands on the word "sun," normally the magnificent and huge energy source around which our world literally revolves, is that our sun is inconsequential, and so we, who depend on it, are even more so. We are used to measuring the world from our point of view. Here, instead, we find ourselves at the small end of someone else's hierarchy. 

I see two main sources of humor in this sentence. One is the mixing of levels, from neighborhood to galaxy, that creates a wry absurdity. The other is that final reversal of perspective, a surprise hinging on the strong final word. 

I also note that the sentence appears to predate the invention of commas. 

Graphical elements by Ken Silbert

Photo by Kyle Goetsch on Unsplash