You’ve probably already read The American Scholar‘s list of the “Ten Best Sentences“. It went instantly viral in a way that only lists can these days, following me in the form of NPR spots, e-mails, workplace small talk, and newsfeeds. (And sadly, you know “viral” isn’t an exaggeration when a literary magazine gets more traffic than its servers can handle.)
Of course, there’s almost no real merit in such a subjective ranking. Even the biggest awards don’t actually determine which book or film is “better”than the rest. That’s what makes art so enduring: how intimate it feels, how much its power relies on the experiences and values and knowledge of each individual admirer.
And if the best art is personally significant, literature is the crowned king. These quotes were pulled from books that continue to capture the cultural zeitgest, even as time turns their original settings foreign. They’re universal – that holy grail of literary appeal, which writers are taught to achieve through the personal — because of the precise way in which they were written. Each word contributes to the perfect union of form and function.
So there’s definitely something to this list. It’s about the power of words, and the precise but intangible talent required to sharpen them into such stunning tools. These sentences mean more in context, of course; they’re impactful for the way they begin or end or enrich a particularly narrative. Toni Morrison’s entry is the last sentence of Sula, for example, and it’s almost physically painful to see its full power dwindle out of context. But they made the list because of the way they’re crafted: to express an idea so succinctly and so rhythmically that it leaves a gratifying aftertaste in the brain.
Dickensian poverty & the bootstraps mentality
Much of the Top Ten seems particularly rooted in this always-yet-never-changing culture of ours. They picked some pretty poetic prose, to be sure, but the social implications are obvious in these passages’ themes. You know, those themes that are easy enough to accept as universally human, but don’t really mean anything until we scale them down to accessible specifics. Take, for example, Charles Dickens’ reflection on the legal “fictions” of inequality:
There are many pleasant fictions of the law in constant operation, but there is not one so pleasant or practically humorous as that which supposes every man to be of equal value in its impartial eye, and the benefits of all laws to be equally attainable by all men, without the smallest reference to the furniture of their pockets.
Nicholas Nickleby should be required reading for anyone who has ever uttered the phrase, “pull yourself up by your bootstraps”. 175 years after it was published, most of the world still lives in Dickensian levels of poverty; the most optimistic reason being that socioeconomic privilege has a way of diluting compassion. Never mind the “furniture”; some Americans don’t even have “pockets” to fill, with anti-union labor laws and racial profiling and half-assed education policies robbing them of every last opportunity to succeed.
From Pride & Prejudice to Perez Hilton
Jane Austen’s entry is a far less scathing social critique, but it’s relevant all the same:
For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbors, and laugh at them in our turn?
If you handed me all ten books, I’d never expect to find my first talking point in Pride and Prejudice. But there it is, a perfect example of Austen’s ridiculously, wickedly accurate social observations.
I understand why this line has such lasting sway. It still applies to the human race — now more than ever, some might think, flashing to celebrity gossip and reality TV — and almost certainly always will. Schadenfreude isn’t all fun and games; when we derive joy from the misfortune of others, humiliation becomes a commodity. Programming and advertising strategies begin to revolve around pigeonholing and exploiting the mentally ill, the unintelligent, the dysfunctional. But the socially desirable aren’t immune, either; the more successful you are in the entertainment industry, the brighter the spotlight on your flaws and mistakes.
We hear it all the time: celebrity is a double-edged sword because the laws of physics seem to apply to human decency too. An It Girl emerges, and even before the magazine covers come the admonition: we lift them up until it’s time to knock them back down again. Fans dreading “overexposure” keep themselves in check, and PR teams try to “vet” their stars with all the precaution of a presidential campaign.
Enjoy it while it lasts, we say — and actresses remind themselves publicly too — because for women, the backlash is even more inevitable. When your name is your brand, gossip can permanently change the course of your career. I can’t even walk into a grocery store without being bombarded by horrifying double standards. Beyond the objectification — the women reduced to bikini bodies and post-pregnancy bodies — there’s the trend of defining women according to the men in their lives (homewrecking temptresses breaking up marriages, childless women aching for babies, jealous wives hawk-watching their straying husbands). And, of course, the trend of pitting successful women against each other, because even if there’s a crowd of men at the top, collaborating and competing, apparently there’s only room for one woman.
Zoom out: male privilege!
In context, Austen’s sentence is even more powerful. It comes out of Mr. Bennet’s mouth at the end of the fifteenth chapter, as he’s empowering his daughter to laugh off a hypocritical letter from a rejected suitor. Elizabeth rejected her clergyman cousin’s proposal, you see, so he sent her father a passive-aggressive moral indictment of the family. But before that line comes this exclamation: “That is his notion of Christian forgiveness!”
His scoff makes me want to cheer. Because the letter is just a pre-Victorian version of something very familiar. It’s every indignant speech and patronizing article and talking-heads rant from today’s privileged cowards and hypocrites. It’s full of the same hatred that disguises itself as “family values” to drive sexist and racist and homophobic legislation. It’s typical of the same male privilege that defines rape culture, in which men are entitled to their desires and women are judged — if not forced to comply — when they don’t accommodate those desires.
There’s no such thing as “reading too much into” literature. THAT’S THE WHOLE POINT. And I’ve taken some liberties; Austen’s Mr. Bennet wasn’t decrying the sexist nature of gossip culture, he was just trying to lighten the mood. But in context, his reaction is commendable. It’s a skill I need to learn, too. I can’t even laugh at ignorant hypocrites when I’m supposed to laugh at ignorant hypocrites (sorry Jon Stewart; you’re spot-on, but I can only handle those clips in small doses). This unrelenting desire to DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT, ALREADY! renders me incapable of ignoring even the smallest racist or sexist slight (never mind the comments that trivialize or overlook animal abuse). I know how self-righteous I must sound to co-workers, launching into group-chat tirades about white privilege when someone implies that Richard Sherman was overreacting to use of the word “thug”. (No one wants to hear about white privilege when they’re inserting themselves into a story about the disenfranchised. No one wants to accept that “reverse racism” reeks of an inability to sit back and listen to someone else’s narrative for once.)
I’m not smart or patient enough to help someone recognize their own privilege; just the word prompts kneejerk defensiveness, and I still don’t know how to gently and effectively foster the realization that life would be very, very different if you weren’t born white, or male, or straight, or cisgendered, or not homeless, or healthy, or wealthy, or whatever your privilege(s) may be.
Recognizing a social imbalance doesn’t make the imbalance your fault. It’s definitely the first step in correcting it, though; awareness is everything, so I keep trying to plant those seeds. But these authors did it first, did it best, did it in a way that’s still changing minds and luring readers. They slipped inequality into their plots and revolt into their language. They crafted some of literature’s “best sentences” by homing in on the ways we treat each other, and giving us a way to relate to suffering that, otherwise, is all too easily dismissed.