Book Review: How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One, by Stanley FishBy Amy Kubista, Writing Consultant
Had I known that the contents of this book were intended for an audience of creative writers rather than academic writers, I would have sought out a book that is more appropriate for Walden students. The title of the book duped me into thinking that it would address sentences at all levels of writing, and I was hoping to point students toward a text that would excite them and help them breathe life into their academic writing, a style of writing that is often stereotyped as boring and tiresome. I was seduced by Fish’s long list of accomplishments, awards, and positions held (specifically his current position as a weekly columnist for the New York Times). I found myself hopeful after reading his definition of a sentence as a creation of relationships between the actor, action, and object of action, and that once you, the reader, understand this concept, you can “write anything: a paragraph, an argument, an essay , a treatise, a novel” (Fish, 2011, p. 8). However, it soon became obvious that academic writers would benefit little from Fish’s discussion.
From the moment I cracked open the book, I was expecting to be dazzled not only by examples of artistic and famous sentences, but by Fish’s sentences as well. However, the first sentence of the book failed to pique my interest much and was a disappointment, despite the fact that Fish spends an entire chapter focusing on first sentences. After reading the chapter on last sentences, I prepared myself for a grand finale for a book about sentences. In other words, the last sentence of this book, no doubt, will be phenomenal. Again, I was disappointed as the last sentence was actually a question that, instead of giving finality and purpose to the content of the book, left the reader hanging. It was a thoughtful and artfully composed question, but one that was vague and disappointing nonetheless.
The book had many examples of sentences that were well crafted, and Fish takes the time to dissect and analyze these sentences to determine why they are great. However, I was unimpressed with his selection of sentences; most of them derived from classical works, giving the impression that the art of writing a good sentence is an antiquated one that needs to be revived. Personally, I would have enjoyed examples of more contemporary sentences to make the content of the book more relevant to contemporary writers.
My time spent with Fish and his sentences was not a complete loss, though. I did take away a great deal from his emphasis on scrutiny and attention to detail. The book inspired me to pay more attention to sentence structure, content, and meaning. I particularly enjoyed Fish’s definition of a sentence as “a structure of logical relationships” (Fish, 2011, p. 133) and the journey he takes the reader on from the basic structure of a sentence, to the different sentence styles (I especially enjoyed the chapter on satirical sentences), to sentence content. I could not help but feel, though, that I was taking a college course that was devoted to writing a sentence. Each chapter felt like a distinct unit of study, complete with exercises, examples, and explanations. I could almost feel Fish lecturing to his students and assigning homework (write an additive sentence in the vein of Virginia Woolf). He even provides a summary prior to the last section of the book, and I couldn’t help but thinking of it as a review before the final exam.
Overall, while this book was fascinating in its investigation of the art of composing sentences, it is not one I would recommend to students invested in academic writing. I should have known better than to judge a book by its title.