I’m not too far in this book because I’m such a slow reader–for a couple of reasons. I don’t have as much time to read as I’d like, and when I do read, I tend to savor and enjoy and study what I’m reading. Which, in a way, is the point of Francine Prose’s book. Right now, I’m finishing up Chapter Three: Sentences.
Francine says beauty in sentences is hard to define, then she goes through several hoping to do just that. She does a great job, too, but the sentences she chooses for examples are longer than it is from my house to the grocery store. Unless you’re writing the kind of literature used to torture high school and college students, you can’t really get away with this any more. Writing long, winding sentences with their collection of commas and semicolons and thoughts progressing atop each other is an art form, and most of us don’t really know how to do it anymore–primarily because few of us can diagram a sentence these days. The beautiful sentences Prose presents are just that–art. What I see among many writers today–those who dare a sentence over five words long–is run-on sentences. Not the same thing.
Still, my favorite sentence ever written is quite simple. Jesus wept.
Read in context of the Gospel of John, Chapter 11, these two words are the most poignant ever written, but they also speak volumes of Jesus’s character and personality, and they raise volumes of questions.
Slipping back to Chapter 10, we read that the Jews in the temple in Jerusalem had threatened to stone Jesus for some things he’d said, so he left the city and crossed over the mountain toward Jericho and farther, beyond the Jordan River. While he was there, someone told him his dear friend Lazarus was sick in Bethany, just south of Jerusalem. Jesus loved Lazarus and his sisters, Mary and Martha, yet he remained beyond the river for two more days before returning.
When he was ready to return, he told his disciples that Lazarus had already died. When he got to Bethany, he found the sisters surrounded by friends and family, fellow mourners in their loss. Lazarus had been dead for four days. Both Martha and Mary had expressed their belief that if he’d been there, Lazarus wouldn’t have died. Jesus told them, “I am the resurrection and the life.”
So, let’s recap: He stayed two extra days on the Jordan, knowing Lazarus was going to die. It took him two to three more days to walk back to Bethany, so that by the time he got to the sisters, his dear friend had been in the grave for four days. He knew, being God incarnate, that death resulted in eternal life, knew that he had power over death, knew that he could and would resurrect Lazarus.
So why did he weep?
I’m not here to answer that question, but to point out that a simple two-word sentence can evoke thought, discussion, debate. It has a beauty–but it can be so easily skipped over when one reads too quickly.
Sentences don’t have to wrap around the page to be beautiful and effective, they just have to pack plenty of power in their compactness.