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Erik Wemple
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Posted at 11:34 AM ET, 03/19/2012

New York Times writes on sentences

The Sunday Review section of the New York Times generally splits its articles into two camps. “News Analysis” covers lightly opinionated pieces by people, often New York Times reporters, who aren’t supposed to have heavy opinions. “Opinion” covers the stuff that isn’t “News Analysis.”

Now here’s a proposal to install a third cateogry: “Precious.”

Because “Opinion” didn’t quite characterize Jhumpa Lahiri’s piece in yesterday’s Sunday Review. “News Analysis” never would have worked, either.

The execution of Lahiri’s piece, “My Life’s Sentences,” is as melodramatic as the title promises. Any time a writer sets out to write about sentences, atrocities will spill forth. And I can live with most of Lahiri’s atrocities, like a couple of back-to-back and over-the-top sentences that my middle-school teachers wouldn’t have called sentences:

To conjure a place, a person, a situation, in all its specificity and dimensions. To affect us and alter us, as profoundly as real people and things do.

I can also live with the sentences that work like intellectual shrubbery to camouflage self-horn-tooting:

Knowing — and learning to read in — a foreign tongue heightens and complicates my relationship to sentences. For some time now, I have been reading predominantly in Italian. I experience these novels and stories differently. I take no sentence for granted. I am more conscious of them.

I can also live with a sentence that says nothing, given that its author is an author:

My work accrues sentence by sentence.

I can also live, of course, with the good sentences:

Most days begin with sentences that are typed into a journal no one has ever seen. There is a freedom to this; freedom to write what I will not proceed to wrestle with.

I can even live with a sentence that couples a cliched adjective with the word “scrutiny,” which means “a searching examination or investigation [or a] minute inquiry” and needs no such help:

Such close scrutiny can lead to blindness.

What I cannot live with under any circumstances, on any Sunday, whether my soul is tormented or my Italian is sputtering or my ability to conjure a situation is strained, is this sentence:

On days when I am troubled, when I am grieved, when I am at a loss for words, the mechanics of formulating sentences, and of stockpiling them in a vault, is the only thing that centers me again.

The Times is promising that Lahiri’s essay is the first installment of “Draft,” a series on the “art and craft” of writing. What a start.

By  |  11:34 AM ET, 03/19/2012

Tags:  jhumpa lahiri, new york times, sunday review, news analysis, opinion, "my life's sentences"

 
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