These Are the Times That Try Men’s Souls
October 7, 2009 by 9 Comments
Style is one of the Newbery criteria. Defining it can be a challenging thing, but we often know it when we see it. See if you can spot which sentence–all very similar in meaning–is distinguished for its style. (You may recognize these examples from THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE by Strunk and White.)
1. Times like these try men’s souls.
2. How trying it is to live in these times!
3. These are trying times for men’s souls.
4. Soulwise, these are trying times.
5. These are the times that try men’s souls.
Clearly, the last sentence has that intangible combination of style that has allowed it to endure through several centuries. E.B. White suggests that we could talk about style in terms of rhythm or cadence or word choice, but that in the end it remains elusive and mysterious.
While style refers not just to sentence-level writing, but also the big picture that emerges from those sentences–things such as making inferences in WHEN YOU REACH ME or the humor and satire of A SEASON OF GIFTS–for the purposes of this post, I’d like to focus on sentence-level writing with some examples from Team Nonfiction because I think many of us have the assumption that fiction has an advantage in this department, and perhaps that has been so in the past, but it’s certainly not the case this year. Consider the following passages, selected randomly from books on my shelves, as examples of distinguished prose; all but the Murphy are first lines.
ALMOST ASTRONAUNTS by Tanya Lee Stone
One woman stands alone, off to the side of the crowd.
She paces back and forth–agitated, excited, impatient.
From the back, it is hard to tell her age; her faded brown leather jacket and blond ponytail reveal nothing. But if she were to turn to glance at the group of women on the observation bleachers behind her, you would see the lines of time etched on her face. You would see a smile tinged with sadness.
BUTTERFLIES AND MOTHS by Nic Bishop
There is no mistaking a butterfly. Its colorful wings skip in the air like petals blown by the wind. Blues, reds, and yellows dance in the sunlight. Some shimmer like tinsel.
A creature so beautiful should belong in a fairy tale. But butterflies are real. They dance through the woods and glide over fields. You can see them in parks and backyards. And they always catch your attention.
CHARLES AND EMMA by Deborah Heiligman
In the summer of 1838, in his rented rooms on Great Marlborough Street, London, Charles Darwin drew a line down the middle of a piece of scrap paper. He had been back in England for almost two years, after a monumental voyage around the world. He was in his late twenties. It was time to decide. Across the top of the left-hand side he wrote Marry. On the right he wrote Not Marry. And in the middle: This is the Question.
CLAUDETTE COLVIN by Philip Hoose
If, like Claudette Colvin, you grew up black in central Alabama during the 1940s and 1950s, Jim Crow controlled your life from womb to tomb. Black and white babies were born in separate hospitals, lived their adult lives apart from one another, and were buried in separate cemeteries. The races were segregated by a dense, carefully woven web of laws, signs, partitions, arrows, ordinances, unequal opportunities, rules, insults, threats, and customs–often backed up by violence. Together, the whole system of racial segregation was known as "Jim Crow."
A SAVAGE THUNDER by Jim Murphy
A retreat is a complicated and dangerous procedure. The trick is to get tens of thousands of exhausted, dazed, and sometimes wounded soliders away from the enemy as quickly and as quietly as possible. This is even more difficult at night in rugged and unfamiliar terrain.
What about each of these passages strikes you as distinguished (or does not strike you as distinguished)? And which books have you found exemplary of distinguished sentence-level writing this year?