|When it comes to appreciation of writing, I’m a believer that less is more. I prefer poetry and short stories to novels, and essays and short books over long books, and I’m prone to copy down prÈcis and favourite passages and quotes from great books and then give the books themselves away. When I find great ideas or expressions of emotion or word pictures that contain only the number of words they absolutely need and no more, I cherish them. So I got to wondering: What is the greatest single paragraph ever written?
Initially I had thought to separate this search into fiction and non-fiction, but as I pored through my favourites I realized that some of the best paragraphs in fiction summarize ideas or capture feelings or images that could have easily come from a book of philosophy, or a travelogue. Some of the best writing I’ve ever read is dialogue, however, and traditionally each piece of a dialogue is afforded its own paragraph. So I decided instead to look for the best maximum-200-word passage in any book or article I’ve read, regardless of how many paragraphs those words took up. That’s fewer words than I’ve already written in this article, so it’s pretty lean. And I decided to exclude poetry, because I thought that would be unfair to prose.
This isn’t a contest, and I’m sure we could never agree on a winner, but I’d be interested in knowing what you think is the greatest passage of prose you’ve ever read. A couple of years ago I reproduced two of my favourite passages, one by Frederick Barthelme (father of the brilliant advice to writers The 39 Steps), and the other by James Robison. Here are five more:
From The Spell of the Sensuous, by David Abram:
An alder leaf, loosened by wind, is drifting out with the tide. As it drifts, it bumps into the slender leg of a great blue heron staring intently through the rippled surface, then drifts on. The heron raises one leg out of the water and replaces it, a single step. As I watch, I, too, am drawn into the spread of silence. Slowly a bank of cloud approaches, slipping its bulged and billowing texture over the earth, folding the heron and the alder trees and my gazing body into the depths of a vast breathing being, enfolding us all within a common flesh, a common story now bursting with rain.
From Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott:
My young son Sam saw his first dead person last month. Two friends of ours had a baby who died, and we went to spend the morning with them and the body of their son. He was five months old and weighed eight pounds, down from the ten he weighed at birth. He wore a white baptismal gown, and lay in a big basket on top of his crib, covered with flower petals from the waist down, white as a rose. There were flowers and shrines everywhere, statues of the Buddha and pictures of his Holiness the Dalai Lama (because his mother is a Buddhist) and of Jesus (because his father is a Christian). Brice looked like a small, concerned angel from someplace snowy. None of us, including Sam, could take our eyes off him. He looked like God.
“You what? my relatives asked when I mentioned this. “you took Sam to see what?”, as in, What will you take him to see next? Brain surgery?
Sam brought the baby two presents that morning, which he laid in the basket. One was a ball, in case you get to play catch on the other side. The other was a small time-travel car, from Back to the Future. Brice’s parents and I are still scratching our heads over that one.
From Straw Dogs by John Gray:
For much of their history and all of prehistory, humans did not see themselves as being any different from the other animals among which they lived. Hunter-gatherers saw their prey as equals, if not superiors, and animals were worshipped as divinities in many traditional cultures. The humanist sense of a gulf between ourselves and other animals is an aberration. Feeble as it is today, the feeling of sharing a common destiny with other living things is embedded in the human psyche. Those who struggle to conserve what is left of the natural environment are moved by the love of living things, biophilia, the frail bond of feeling that ties humankind to the Earth.
The mass of mankind is ruled not by its own intermittent moral sensations, still less by self-interest, but by the needs of the moment. It seems fated to wreck the balance of life on Earth — and thereby to be the agent of its own destruction. What could be more hopeless than placing the Earth in the charge of this exceptionally destructive species? It is not of becoming the planet’s wise stewards that Earth-lovers dream, but of a time when humans have ceased to matter.
From Cooker by Frederick Barthelme:
I’m left there in the tent with my wife. I say “I’m acting up, I guess”.
“But that’s acceptable, right? Now and then?”
“It’s fine,” she says.
“It’s by way of complaint, huh? So we’re back where we started from.”
“It’s not a vague complaint in my head,” I say. “It’s just that it covers everything. There are too many things to list. You start listing things that are wrong, and you either make them smaller and sort of less wrong, or you go on forever. You got forever?”
She gets up on her knees and twists around so she can lie down on her back alongside me. She takes my right hand in my left. “See there? We’re not completely gone. We’re OK. We’ve just got to take it one thing at a time. We’ve got to go binary on this.”
From Spots by Frederick Barthelme:
I waited another couple of minutes, then started on a walk toward the highway and the beach. The air was peculiar, the way it just hung, motionless, drifting off the water, and the only sound was the faint hiss of little breakers running over rock jetties. There weren’t any cars on Highway 90, and only one streetlamp burned about 150 yards down the road. I stood on the corner in front of the condos and looked up at our place, the dark bedroom where Cheryl was sleeping, then walked out into the middle of the empty highway and crossed to the beach side where the sand was gritty under my shoes, then came back, looking all around, soaking up everything. With the lights out things seemed to have lost their power. It was like nothing was holding anything, the resistance was gone, that little pressure that’s always against you, obliging you, keeping you in place.
What do great literary passages have in common? They provoke — your senses, your mind, your emotions. They transport you, engage you, teach you. They resonate with things that are rattling around in your head or your heart. They make you say “Damn I wish I had written that, that I could write like that”. They mean something to you, make you want to call up the author and say I get that. They move you, change you, the way you see or think or feel about the world.
They are crafted when the head and the heart and the senses of the writer are working as one, when the writer’s heart is open and her senses are open and her mind is aware of and painstakingly and articulately transcribing exactly what she feels and senses and thinks, what her characters are telling her. The mental state that enables this can be hard to achieve, and it’s draining work. It doesn’t come from waiting for inspiration or one’s muse, but from practice and from openness and from great mental self-discipline. And from paying attention.
The other day artist Andrew Campbell sent me a passage from a novel called The Strandloper by Alan Garner. I’ve ordered the book, but I already sense that it has some of the magical qualities listed above that produce great literature. The passage is a lot more than 200 words, but even without knowing what the novel is about the prose is irresistible:
He looked up through the empty crown. Above it a kestrel fluttered, its wings blurred, its tail curved. He pursed his lips and made clicking sounds. ìWhatís to do? said Esther.
ìCush, cush; cush a cush.î
ìWhat is it?î
ìA windhover. Cush-a-cush.î
ìItís nobbut a brid,î said Esther. The kestrel swerved out of sight. William stood up, and pulled Esther to her feet, and they left the oak. He took her by the hand, and they walked down to the mere, the dog close behind. The shower was passing: a drizzle so fine that the drops hung in the sun.
ìSee at the rainbow!î An alder grew from the bank, its trunk lying in the mere, and the rainbow plunged into the branches of its head, snared in a willow.
ìI told you.î The rainbow was out on the water.
He caught hold of her wrist, and wrote with her hand in the water. I. Do. Love. Thee. She pulled her hand clear. The water shimmered, and was stilled.
And the East sent a rainbow to the mere of the font. He danced in the rainbow, and about the trees, in the drums and the song and he danced at the font for the Man in the Oak and the Crown of Glory, but the eyes were blind. He left the drumming and the song and danced into Silence. The paint and bright sweat melted to air.
Through the Silence came the voice of Tundun, and he danced, beyond mulla-mullung. He danced the Evening Star. His step was with the voice of Tundun. He danced the Evening Star to bring the warriors home, and made the path of Murrangurkís five ways. He danced the Evening Star for the blind eyes in the crown; and the eyes of the glass opened, and Nullamboin looked at him.
The church was light and the scent of oak and the scent of bwal. From the South door lay the bush of Beangala to the sea. Tundun and the Silence were All and One. Strandloper entered into his bone country. The wave bore his right foot and the earth his left. He walked with Binbeal, son of Bunjil. There came an eagle.
Here is the start of the Dream,
So what’s your nomination for the greatest passage ever written?