Jenny Davidson on the Glimmer Factor, Sentences, Chocolate, and More

Jenny Davidson, A Life in Sentences

“All sentences are not created equal. Some are more interest­ing, more intricate, more attractive or repellent than others.”—Jenny Davidson

The following is an excerpt from “The Glimmer Factor,” the opening chapter to Reading Style: A Life in Sentences by Jenny Davidson:

I’ve always been bothered by the notion that literature is worth reading chiefly for what it teaches us about life. Of course we learn things about life from literature: it’s self-evident that a book may make its reader wiser or more philosophical in some measure consequent upon the nature of the book itself, the timing and circumstances of the reader’s encounter with it and the reader’s openness to transformation. But there is also something intolerably banal about the idea that the main reward of reading a novel by Leo Tolstoy or George Eliot should be my becoming a slightly better person.

Partly I am troubled that the motive of pleasure recedes so far from view. This kind of emphasis on self-improvement also steals the limelight from a more stringently cognitive aspect of reading. Not the simple fact of transportation, of being lost in a book, but rather a form of intellectual play that seems to me ulti­mately as ethical as its lesson-driven counterpart: ethical in the sense of its developing one’s capacities of comprehension to the fullest, taking the jumbled furniture of the human mind (the meager apparatus of Lear’s “poor, bare, forked animal”) and teaching it to make meaning out of words. To make the idea that literature tells us about life the primary reason for reading Laurence Sterne, Jane Austen, Virginia Woolf and their like degrades the very thing that draws me to literature in the first place: the glimmer of the sentences, not first and foremost the wisdom contained in them. By stripping literary language down to its constituent parts, I perversely gain a sense of transcendence, an emotional as well as intellectual liberation that comes by way of the most precise consider­ation of details of language.

All sentences are not created equal. Some are more interest­ing, more intricate, more attractive or repellent than others….

My guide, in terms of the selection of texts, has been per­sonal taste, not representative coverage of the full range of possibilities for literary language in English. One reader of an earlier draft of this book commented on its having been fairly standard, in the middle of the twentieth century, to tell a story about the great tradition of fictional prose style that began with Austen or Flaubert, proceeded through James and Proust to high modernism (James Joyce, D. h. Lawrence, Woolf) and thence to Samuel Beckett or the French new novel (Alain Robbe-Grillet, Nathalie Sarraute et al.). To some extent I take that story for granted, but it’s not a story I see the need to retell. Indeed, I am not really interested in mak­ing an argument about style, what it is and its genealogies in the Anglo-American novel. The rationale for the inclusion of each passage I write about is often just that it speaks to me strongly—that it has a high glimmer factor—or that it lets me single out some aspect of style on which I wish to comment. If there is an argument here, it operates in the fashion of a field notebook, by way of selection and description, as an entomol­ogist or ornithologist might not merely transmit something of a way of looking, sharpening the tools of perception, but perhaps also begin to elicit a deeper comprehension of how to know which objects most reward such scrutiny.

Reading Style … has less to say about which books must be read than about how to read. That said, the book does offer a sort of anthology of prose styles, the primary logic for inclusion being strong personal preference rather than representative selection. In that sense, it’s not a genealogy or taxonomy so much as it is a sampler of sentences I have loved. (Beckett is a notable omission, perhaps because I love his plays much more passionately than his prose fiction; play texts are outside the scope of this book, although I have long had a yen to write a little book on the history from earliest times to the present day of the stage direction, which seems to me to bear an interesting relationship to the forms of notation novelists would come to develop for representing human movement in third-person narration.)

The unit of taste in this case is the sentence, sometimes the paragraph, its structure and sensibility, its fugitive feel on the tongue. I strongly experience the allure of a cer­tain type of box of chocolates not so much because of the chocolates themselves as because of the exquisite nature of the choice offered in map or legend. In my mother’s fam­ily, that paper guide was known as a “suggester”: a chart of sorts representing each chocolate’s exterior and signal­ing (graphically, verbally) the delights contained therein. If I were choosing a box of Jacques Torres chocolates for some­one else, I would pick the dark-chocolate selection because of its clear gastronomical superiority, but if I were buying it just for myself, a decadent and unlikely prospect, I would choose milk chocolate; dark chocolate may be aesthetically preferable to milk, but I like it much less than its sweeter, less pungent counterpart. my taste in prose differs from my taste in chocolate, but it similarly lacks a sense of propor­tion (“Truth is disputable, taste is not”). I love anchovies, I hate dill, but it would be absurd to construe my prefer­ences as objective verdicts on the respective merits of those two foodstuffs. When I loathe a book, though, my passion­ate contempt is colored partly by my conviction that it’s morally as well as aesthetically pernicious. I feel furious or even outraged by, say, the sentimentality of Markus Zusak’s young-adult holocaust novel The Book Thief or the cultish paranoia of mark Danielewski’s intricately self-protective House of Leaves; this is one of the ways in which morality enters into even the most stringently formalist ways of read­ing, and I will return later to the complex antagonisms and interdependencies that unite reading for the sentence and reading for the heart.

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