5. “Because thoughts usually come and go, the head a constant swirl of involuntary emotions and sensations, it takes only a drag of coalescence of this mental stardust around a recurrent theme to form a temporary lump, a sticking point, that society calls an obsession.”— “The Man Who Couldn’t Stop: OCD and the True Story of a Life Lost in Thought” by David Adam (Sarah Crichton/Farrar, Straus Giroux)
Don’t let this sentence discourage you from reading this book: “The Man Who Couldn’t Stop” is terrific. But this sentence is not. I can almost live with a “constant swirl of involuntary emotions and sensations,” even though losing both adjectives would make the phrase stronger. But when a “drag of coalescence” meets “mental stardust,” the only temporary lump is the one in my throat. Tip: When you feel compelled to modify your metaphor with an adjective emphasizing what the metaphor represents, you’ve got yourself a bad metaphor. (If you have to write it, please just let stardust be “stardust.”) A reminder that bad writing lurks in good books — where its presence is even more painful.
4. “Suspended in the hazy netherworld between sleep and wakefulness, I gradually became aware of an irritating sound somewhere near my head.”— “88 Days To Kandahar: A CIA Diary” by Robert L. Grenier
In other words, you were half asleep when the phone rang. Better to just say that instead of trying to manufacture drama.
3. “Politics is a dance to a song that never ends. Those who excel at what is truly a blood sport are those who eat, sleep, and breathe the beast.”— “Power Forward: My Presidential Education” by Reggie Love (Simon & Schuster)
I know, these are two sentences, but indulge me. If politics is a dance to an unending song, then these two sentences are the extended dance mix of bad writing. Is politics a dance or a sport? Is the beast dancing along or is it playing the sport? (Wait, if Love means politics is like “Bloodsport,” maybe the beast is Jean-Claude Van Damme!) This book, a tell-most by President Obama’s former bodyman, will have deserved appeal among political types for its tales about the president. But not for its prose.
2. “Setting aside the fact that the Army’s Concept Analysis Agency that first developed the WEI/WUV scoring system discounted its utility as a valid means for assessing the relative effectiveness of opposing forces in actual combat, Posen adjusted the theaterwide force ratio by assigning a multiplier of 1.5 — an increase of 50 percent — to NATO ADEs because NATO allocated ‘1.2 to 2 times the personnel as the Pact to generate a given unit of firepower.’ ”— “The Last Warrior: Andrew Marshall and the Shaping of Modern American Defense Strategy” by Andrew Krepinevich and Barry Watts (Basic Books)
Two remarkable things about this sentence: First, it almost flows as part of this book. Second, knowing the meaning of the acronyms renders the sentence only marginally more intelligible. (In case you’re wondering, WEI/WUV means “Weighted Effectiveness Indices/Weighted Unit Values,” while ADE is an “Armored Division Equivalent.”) This sentence shows the authors have long forgotten about their readers.
And the worst sentence I read this month:
1. “Although since the era of Thomas Kuhn the natural sciences have inspired attempts to historicize their basic epistemological assumptions, research protocols, and social practices, we continue to await, Lorraine Daston has recently lamented, comparable self-reflection from and on behalf of humanists: accounts of ‘what they do’ and ‘how they know what they know.’ ”— “Loving Literature: A Cultural History” by Deidre Shauna Lynch (University of Chicago Press)
Even assuming you know the work of Daston and Kuhn (and Kuhn’s “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” is indeed a classic), this sentence is still a lot to take. What hurts most is that this is a book I really wanted to read and probably still should. The publisher’s description is tantalizing: “How did it come to be that professional literary scholars are expected not just to study, but to love literature, and to inculcate that love in generations of students? What Lynch discovers is that books, and the attachments we form to them, have long played a role in the formation of private life.” I know it seems unfair to ding a work meant for academic audiences — and I look forward to reading reviews that prove me wrong about this book — but a book about loving books should be slightly more inviting about itself. And the clincher: This is the opening sentence of the book’s introduction. That’s practically a dare.
Please send me (firstname.lastname@example.org) your nominations for the worst sentences you read in February. I may include them in next month’s roundup.
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