Normally I read for the sake of the overall narrative or argument, but now and then I have to stop to enjoy and admire a particular passage. Certain sentences are so evocative they’ve stayed in my head for years.
A friend recently sent me an essay called “The Problem of Reading” by photographer and writer Moyra Davey. Among others, she quotes Virginia Woolf on how to read. Davey says:
[Woolf] claims the best way to understand what a novelist is doing is not to read but to write: recall a scene from your life that has struck you in some way, she suggests, and put it to paper. See how easily the feelings you meant to transmit evade you. Now turn from your muddle … and read the opening pages of Austen, Defoe, or Hardy, and you will be in no doubt as to their mastery, each conjuring up a world uncommonly vivid and unique.
I have never tried this experiment in the way she recommends, but I’ve often found that, when I try to capture an event or experience in a journal entry, the result generally seems rather limp compared to my memory of the thing. On the other hand, there have been many times when I’ve read a sentence in a book and thought yes, that’s it exactly. For instance, there’s this from Woolf’s novel Night and Day: “…Mr Denham found himself sitting silent, rejecting possible things to say…” —which precisely expresses the acute discomfort of being in the same room with someone you very much want to speak with and finding no way to begin, but much more succinctly than I just did.
I love it when I come across a sentence or a turn of phrase that makes a character leap out from the page. There’s this one from Leaven of Malice, one of Robertson Davies‘ best novels: “Mr. Shillito was seventy-eight years old, and frequently put people into a position where they had to tell him that he did not look it.”
Then there’s this one by Alice Munro, from “Miles City, Montana” (published in The Progress of Love), which I find memorable, I think, because of how it concludes a story by opening rather than closing a space:
So we went on, with the two in the back seat trusting us, because of no choice, and we ourselves trusting to be forgiven, in time, for everything that had first to be seen and condemned by those children: whatever was flippant, arbitrary, careless, callous— all our natural, and particular, mistakes.