When Brevity Fails

In the years I wrote for a newspaper, my editor had a number of basic rules. Keep sentences short. Use simple words. Put no more than one idea in each sentence.

This system put a choke chain on my rambling verbosity, but, although I learned to keep it short, tight and focused during the decade I worked there, I never truly embraced the doctrine of “cut till it bleeds, and then cut a little more.”

Newspapers, struggling to survive even before the advent of global communications giants, online competition, and ubiquitous Twittering, have to make every column inch count. There’s no room, and certainly no budget, for fanciful prose. I respect that.

But it ain’t me, babe. I am a lover of sentences. I like ‘em long, cadenced, complex and poetic. Sometimes when I’m reading a novel I’ll come across a sentence that simply thrills me with its richness, its daring, its lift and style. People who want to cut to the chase all the time don’t get it. Reading is a journey. You’re supposed to look out the windows and take in the scenery. You’re supposed to try new foods, sample new experiences, be stimulated, renewed, and maybe even a little frightened by the grandeur and terror of it all.

Okay. I know, some of you might be skimming to the bottom even now. Well, that’s okay. Go on. I can’t make you love what I love. But for anyone who is mildly interested, I am starting a semi-regular feature on this irregular blog on favorite sentences. It’s possible some of them may be short. After all, context is everything. But I can assure you that many, if not most of them, will be the kind that would have made my former editor gnash his teeth and snort impatiently. Too bad, Lou. I’m free now. Free, do you hear?

And so, without further ado (hah), here is this week’s wondrous sentence. It comes from a short story by Joshua Ferris, who wrote the National Book Award Finalist novel “Then We Came To The End,” which is a deeply funny and insightful take on the twisted social hierarchy of the modern office. The sentence appeared in The New Yorker in a story called “The Valetudinarian” and it gave me chills. I feel that it delivers in one sentence, in a highly literary and more serious way, the message I hoped to convey in my light comic novel “Potluck.” As if. At any rate, here it is, this week’s Great Sentence:

“The infielder missed, and the ball went long, and when he saw that he was free for a run to third he jumped up and took off, despite the hairline fracture that would make itself known—through a pain that came with a dawning awareness of what lay in store—only later, long after he passed the third-base coach gesturing like mad and made it home, graceful as a dancer, bodiless, ageless, immortal, a boy on a summer day with a heart as big as the sun, with all his troubles, his sorrows, his losses, all his whole long life still ahead of him, still unknown, unable on that still golden field to cast its tall, unvanquishable, ever-dimming shadow.”

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