Some years ago, the ecologist and philosopher David Abram wrote a fascinating book entitled The Spell of the Sensuous, a discussion of how we humans perceive ourselves in relation to the natural world and what role language and perception play in that relationship. In the afterword to the book’s twentieth-anniversary edition, discussing the original promotion of the book years earlier, Abram writes these two grand sentences:
In 1996 bookstores were still living creatures, each with its own quirky character, a few of them elegant and posh, the gleaming spines of their books neatly aligned on polished mahogany shelves. Others were far less suave, their sagging shelves laden not just with upright books but stacks of horizontal hardcovers and paperbacks piled atop, all arranged in some arcane order that only the owner could decipher, looking up from whatever novel currently gripped him, leaping around the counter, climbing atop a chair, and delivering the desired title into your hands before you even finished the question.
These 97 words are really a tour de force of sentence design, and it will behoove us to look at their construction more closely because good models can both teach and inspire. Let’s notice first that the passage comprises only two sentences, the first of 32 words and the second of 65. Those lengths notwithstanding, both are grammatically simple sentences, each having only one independent clause: bookstores were and others were. To classify each as a simple sentence is to determine their type (the two other sentence types are compound and complex), and this gives us the frame within which to observe how the writer builds out, or elaborates, related ideas.
In the first sentence, the independent clause is followed by three subordinate elements. This arrangement marks its design (as opposed to its type) as cumulative, where the writer piles or heaps—or accumulates—other ideas, here in the form of phrases (beginning each, a few, and the gleaming), onto the independent clause as the sentence proceeds down the line. The point to note, however, is that these additional ideas are suggestions, not assertions, because without a subject and a predicate, subordinate elements can only turn the reader’s attention in the direction of a thought, not actually state the thought explicitly. We have to understand the distinction between a thought and a suggestion—here a clause and three phrases—in order to appreciate the proportions of the sentence. How a writer balances thoughts and ideas determines in great measure the persuasive effect on the reader.
In the second sentence, that effect is headshaking. The sentence is stabilized with the opening independent clause, others were far less suave, and thereupon follow no fewer than six subordinate elements that together expand and illustrate the insuavity of some other independent bookstores; these six elements begin their sagging, all arranged, looking up, leaping, climbing, and delivering. Read that sentence again, preferably aloud, and you will detect some trust being applied at looking up. This participial phrase modifies the owner in the previous phrase, and from here to the end of the take-off roll, we are gaining speed with the three successive participles: leaping, climbing, and delivering.
This acceleration is created in great measure because the six subordinate elements do not simply say something about the circumstances of the opening independent clause (a common design for them), but instead build on one another: all arranged refers to the books in the previous element, and looking up refers to the owner in the element previous to it. These changing antecedents defeat our expectation of parallel reference, creating a little crosswind, and making for a more exhilarating ride aloft.
These two sentences are beautifully drawn, and only authors very much in control of their ideas can take us into such an unexpected linguistic world. Ironically, or perhaps not, that is just what Abram’s subject is about in Spell of the Sensuous, and matching form and content in this way is the mark of very real artful accomplishment.
Upcoming Seminar at a New Time
Techniques of Revision: Converting a Phrase to a Clause
Tuesday, January 5
6:30 to 7:30 p.m. CT
This first Writing Smartly seminar of the new year will begin a series on techniques of revision. One such technique is to convert phrases to clauses. Our sentences are strong and crisp when we write an active scene for our readers to enter into, when we prefer verbs to nouns, and avoid strings of prepositional phrases. This one-hour seminar will explain how to identify common phrases and demonstrate how to redesign them as clauses to brighten our writing. Participants will receive a handout that summarizes the presentation, along with exercises and answers. You may enroll now through this registration link. Tuition is $25. Please note the new time: 6:30 p.m. CT.