Most writers say the first sentence is the most important line in a book. It sets the tone, invites the reader to keep reading or bores him away, and often makes the difference between publication and rejection. As my love of reading, and words in particular, grows, I’ve become more interested in learning what makes a great sentence. This reminds of me of an anecdote in a book about writing sentences where a young, aspiring author meets with a publisher whom he tells he cares about one thing and one thing only: he wants to write great sentences. Not just great books. Great sentences. I love the passion and particularity of that anecdote.
So in this spirit, I’m trying something new here. On Fridays, I’ll post a few first sentences that strike me as excellent – worth examining as much as enjoying. Hence, “First Sentence Friday.” (Now, if you can think of a more fun and catchy name that doesn’t connote the kind of sentences handed by cold, mean judges, do let me know.)
Today’s sentences come from three classic works by the authors above – from early 19th-century England, the American Roaring Twenties, and mid-century Latin America, from the hand of the recently deceased master, Gabriel García Márquez:
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” (Pride and Prejudice,1813)
“In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.” (The Great Gatsby, 1925)
“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” (One Hundred Years of Solitude, 1967)
What does it look like for a father to wisely and lovingly instruct his children in the realities of life? It looks like James Garfield (1831-1881), twentieth president of the United States, turning to books – those reliable and patient teachers – to teach his children a lesson in the difficulties of life, from Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President (Anchor, 2012) by Candice Millard (given to me by my dear parents-in-law):
“Searching for a way to teach his children this hard truth [the inevitability of death], to prepare them for what lay ahead, Garfield had often turned to what he knew best – books. After dinner one evening, he pulled a copy of Shakespeare’s Othello off the shelf and began to read the tragedy aloud. ‘The children were not pleased with the way the story came out,’ he admitted in his diary, but he hoped that they would come to ‘appreciate stories that [do not] come out well, for they are very much like a good deal of life'” (19).
William Wilberforce’s journey to faith was not in isolation. He had the good fortune to be helped by Isaac Milner, a rare genius and physical giant of a man who, though not personally committed to Christianity, was a theologian in his own right, well equipped to explain and defend the great doctrines of Christianity which he respected. On a voyage across the English Channel and through France, they read a book titled The Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul, of which Milner declared to Wilberforce, “It is one of the best books ever written” (47). Together they read, examined, discussed and reflected on its contents (what one would give to listen in on their conversations!), and the wheels of their souls began turning. Before long, Wilberforce, age 26, put his faith in Christ.
Shaken out of his carefree, pleasure-seeking attitude to life by his newfound faith, Wilberforce was at first harsh with himself. He resolved to eradicate his vices and replace them with virtuous habits, even making a list of the number of times he failed or prevailed in each vice or virtue each day. What floored me, however, was the agreement he entered into with his friend Isaac Milner to, in their own words, “exercise the invaluable practice of telling each other what each party believes to be the other’s chief faults and infirmities” (67).
This episode offers two practices that can enrich friendship and lead to personal improvement:
1) As seen above, friends can be candid with one another about the other’s “faults and infirmities.” This requires not only a close friendship but strength of character, for it entails humility, candor, and above all, genuine love, which will guard against mean-spiritedness and over-sensitivity.
2) The other is reading books together. A person reading alone is a happy sight; but when you see two friends reading together, you know something special is taking place. There are few pleasures like going through a good book with a kindred spirit. Not only do you gain a deeper understanding through discussion as well as another perspective, but you also gain a more intimate knowledge of your friend.