A long time ago now, editors at the American Scholar selected the Ten Best Sentences in literature. Their list included prose from James Joyce, Toni Morrison, Jane Austen, Ernest Hemingway and others. They even included a bonus sentence from Truman Capote. The folks over at Book Riot also joined the party. Reading these lists back when they were posted back in 2014 got me to thinking about which sentences I would select as the best in literature. I decided to post my own. I even went as far as to create a draft post ready to slot in my chosen sentences. Then I got busy with completing my MA, writing two currently unpublished novels plus loads of short fiction, and applying and then studying for a PhD. Posts like this one drifted into the rear view.
Fast forward six years, and as break from the heavy thinking and writing of my thesis, I decided to finally do this. Some of the sentences below (but by no means all) were discovered as part of the preclosural analysis of British short stories completed as part of my research. Fans of short fiction and preclosure theory out there (an admittedly small group of which I am proud to be a member) might want to try and guess which ones.
And so, better late than never, here’s ten of my favourite sentences:
‘He felt that his whole life was some kind of dream and he sometimes wondered whose it was and whether they were enjoying it.’
– Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
‘To see things clearly, to register, to comprehend, well, that was surely a great blessing.’
– Nicola Barker, Gifts
‘You could say it was a shame, but the truth is there are worse things have happened in this world.’
– Claire Wigfall, The Numbers
‘Thus in short he settled to live – feeding all on the sense that he once had lived, and dependent on it not alone for a support but for an identity.’
Henry James – The Beast in the Jungle
‘It seems to me sometimes that we never got used to being on this earth and life is just one great, ongoing, incomprehensible blunder.’
W. G. Sebald – The Rings of Saturn
‘Describing something is like using it – it destroys; the colours wear off, the corners lose their definition, and in the end what’s been described begins to fade, to disappear.’
Olga Tokarczuk – Flights
‘I leafed through the paper while I thought: all you have to do is just let everything take its course, just refrain from trying to bring things to a halt.’
Kjell Askildsen – Martin Hansen’s Outing
‘You learn what people expect you to do and then do it.’
Anthony Cartwright – The Afterglow
‘We’re standing here, breathing air into those funny spongy bladders we call lungs, our torsos shaking slightly from the pump action of that muscle we call a heart, our legs getting uncomfortable from balancing on our foot-bones too long.’
Michel Faber – The Book of Strange New Things
If these kinds of sentences are your thing, there are plenty more over on Bookfox’s list of 100 Beautiful Sentences and Buzzfeed’s list of 51 of the Most Beautiful Sentences in Literature.