I don’t think we can remind ourselves often enough that writing means reading, more reading more slowly and more closely. Modern culture moves very fast, and the recommendation to read slowly and attentively would seem to be swimming against the stream. But speed can come at the expense of thoroughness, and that can be a very high price to pay when we’re trying not only to appreciate good writing, but write well ourselves.
Slowing down and reading more attentively are the goals behind keeping a commonplace book. In an earlier post (Keeping a Commonplace Book), I have explained the practice, a simple notebook or file where we record and appropriately cite a passage from what we’ve read. The commonplace book compiles our reading, not writing, and it constitutes ultimately a collection of sentences that have caught our eye for some reason. The slow and thoughtful recording of someone else’s work (with, again, all appropriate citation and quotation marks) brings good form before our critical eye. The practice aims principally to answer the question how?—how did the writer construct a particular sentence or passage so that it had the effect it had? How are the words the writer chose laid out across the sentence?
To demonstrate the practice, here are two passages that arrested my attention recently from C. S. Lewis’s short novel The Great Divorce, published in 1946 by Macmillan. Whether we can best call the story fantasy or science fiction, it is certainly an allegory of humankind’s condition and fate, hopeful or hopeless according to our own wishes. Early in the story the narrator takes an unusual bus ride (I won’t say more than that), and Lewis writes these three sentences:
Hours later there came a change. It began to grow light in the bus. The greyness outside the windows turned from mud-colour to mother of pearl, then to faintest blue, then to a bright blueness that stung the eyes.
It is the longer, last sentence here that has something to show us about artful sentence construction. In writing or typing it out, we might first be struck by the unusual spelling of the two words greyness and colour; and since the agreement we hold with ourselves in keeping a commonplace book requires us to answer all questions of form that might arise (the better to develop the skill of close reading), a dictionary or usage manual will remind us that both words are the British spelling of the American English gray and color. Lewis was British and that answers that. Next to the phrase mother of pearl. Does a definition come readily to mind? If not, the dictionary again is the source: Merriam-Webster defines it as an “iridescent substance,” and that might keep us in the dictionary for a moment longer to remind ourselves that iridescent means, as Merriam’s beautifully defines it, “a lustrous rainbowlike play of color.” Lustrous? What now does that mean, really and exactly? So yet again Merriam: “reflecting light evenly and efficiently without glitter or sparkle.” Now we really know.
From individual words and phrases, we can turn next to the larger layout of this third sentence, and more particularly to the portion of it that begins with the compound noun mud-colour. Our attention now is on the progression of colors, their unbroken transformation. How is it we sense a change in physical conditions from this point in the sentence to its period, and a very quick change as well? Those questions have their answer in form, in the grammatical and rhetorical way Lewis put that portion of the sentence together. Each change in color is the object of a preposition (from, to, to, to), but the last two instances include the adverb then (then to, then to). That simple addition creates a gentle repetition, which we read as free movement, which in turn we feel as speed as we move uninterruptedly from the opaque density of mud to a lucidity of a blue so piercing it stung the eye. And so sharp was this sting, says Lewis a few lines later, that “it was a cruel light.” The play of light, its movement and transformation, began, ironically, in the hard but iridescent mother of pearl.
To my reading, that is a beautifully drawn sentence, perhaps too beautiful for the narrative circumstances Lewis has placed it in. But its form has produced a meaning that has launched higher questions: can things change suddenly from dark to light? can we grow so unaccustomed to light that when it turns itself out from darkness it can be uncomfortable? Can light—or is it truth—strike us even as cruel and discomfiting? One well-written sentence can teach us more than grammar, and that’s ultimately why we’re reading so closely.