The Sentence That Grabs You—and Won’t Let Go


Inspired by a piece I heard recently on NPR about The American Scholar magazine’s list of best sentences in fiction or nonfiction, I asked my editorial colleagues to share their favorites and to explain why they chose the sentence they did.

Kris’s favorite:

“It was a pleasure to burn.” –-Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

This sentence captures the inherent human inclination toward destruction. Human actions are often driven by cathartic release (smashing plates, driving dangerously fast) instead of pursuing real solutions or expanding knowledge. It is a warning not to let these desires overpower us.

Amy’s favorite:

“Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless?”

–-Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

Who doesn’t love an angsty rhetorical question from a nineteen-year-old misfit? I’ve never quite gotten over Jane’s tenacious insistence that she’s a thinking, feeling human being who deserves respect. It was a radical assertion for a woman in Bronte’s time, and it still packs a punch in ours. Can you issue a challenge like this in ninety characters or less? Twitter’s waiting!

Jon’s favorite:

“This world is painted on a wild dark metal” —Shadow Country by Peter Matthiessen

This is the very last sentence in the book, and it seems to be the perfect way to wrap up a rough and violent story. The missing period is intentional; it’s the main character’s (spoiler alert) final and perhaps unfinished thought before death. I told a friend recently that I would tattoo this sentence somewhere if I were ever to get a tattoo.

Domenica’s favorite:

“Also, the scrapbooks we keep of thank-you’s on White House stationery, time-to-time communications from California and Borneo, the knife grinder’s penny post cards, make us feel connected to eventful worlds beyond the kitchen with its view of a sky that stops.”

-–A Christmas Memory by Truman Capote

This sentence captures the human longing to transcend the limits of the physical body and those of perception and experience. It gets at the instinctive human desire to move beyond, which drives our creative—and destructive—urges.

Leesha’s favorite

“…there could have been no two hearts so open, no tastes so similar, no feelings so in unison, no countenances so beloved.” -–Persuasion by Jane Austen

This sentence has all the glory of an old romance. The narrator knows the nostalgia of unrequited love, and yet there is the glimmer of hope, for the sentence is bound up in the context of a love that may return and reclaim its own.

Jenna’s favorite

“Speed was a causeway between life and death and you hoped you came out on the side of life.” –-The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner

This poetic sentence captures so much with so little. It invites us into the psyche of the female narrator and presents her desire for breakneck speed—this danger zone between life and death—as both exhilarating and terrifying. The brilliance of the line is that it calls attention to the narrator’s aura of reckless power—and to her tremendous vulnerability.

What’s your favorite sentence? Let us know, and be sure to check in next month for more from TFCB!

[Photo credit: Fahrenheit 451, Letterology blog]