“F. Scott Fitzgerald writes the best sentences out of any author, ever,” said my incredibly passionate, delightfully nerdy high school English teacher. At the time, I didn’t even think to disagree. Fitzgerald’s sentences were so intricate, so smart, so filled with detail and beauty, that I couldn’t imagine liking anything more. It was a time when The Great Gatsby epitomized literary perfection (at least, it did for me) and there was nothing more appealing than being one of The Beautiful and The Damned. While his books included very little sex, at least by modern standards, they were sexy in a way that appealed to my angst-ridden 16-year-old self. Fitzgerald’s ladies were wilting and lovely, brilliant but dulled by too much champagne. Glittery and full of spark, yet oppressed and exhausted by everything. I think that’s what I wanted to be: beautifully, gracefully, electrically exhausted.
Now, I like to think I know better. I no longer read his short stories and novels searching for a shadow of myself. But I will always admire his sentences. Who else can craft that kind of sentence, that speaks infinities with a single dependent clause, that opens new worlds of thoughts with a well-placed bit of punctuation?
Here to answer my question is a roundup by The American Scholar. I came to this list from an NPR story I only half heard, and I didn’t quite know what to expect when I dug up the article and clicked the link. Things are not often exactly what I expect (they’re usually a little more, and equally often, a whole lot less) but this is. From the first chosen sentence, a passage from (where else?) The Great Gatsby, to the last, an atrociously cruel Nabokov quote, it’s a wonderful reminder of why I love to read. I love to read because Toni Morrison can write things like this: “It was a fine cry—loud and long—but it had no bottom and it had no top, just circles and circles of sorrow.” I love to read because Joan Didion can at once awaken my cynicism and send a shiver down my spine as easy as this: “It was the United States of America in the cold late spring of 1967, and the market was steady and the G.N.P. high and a great many articulate people seemed to have a sense of high social purpose and it might have been a spring of brave hopes and national promise, but it was not, and more and more people had the uneasy apprehension that it was not.”
I love to read because it reminds me of my own capacity to wonder.
Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.
– F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby