The Sentence

PhantomtollboothThe Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster is one of those books I instantly fell in love with, even though I first read it as an aspiring writer for children and therefore only an ex-child. The passage where Milo’s given the shortest of sentences. Remember that one?

“…would you like a long or a short sentence?”

“A short one, if you please,” said Milo.

“Good,” said the judge, rapping his gavel three times. How about ‘I am’? That’s the shortest sentence I know.”

That passage still makes me chuckle every time I think of it. It’s brilliant. Leaves the sentencer in charge, leaves Milo still fumbling his way around this strange new world his boredom landed him in, leaves the child reader guessing.

What is it about good sentences that makes them inscribe such complex traceries of pleasure in the mind? In Beat Not the Poor Desk, Marie Ponsot and Rosemary Deen write:

The sentence is to a language what live myth is to a culture, too pervasively essential at the foundational level to be up for inspection on all sides.

I never could parse one, but I can’t pass up a good one when I see it. I know plot matters. I care about characters. But give me fine sentences any day–and I don’t mean fussy ones. Just words assembled in interesting, powerful ways. A book that isn’t built of good sentences, short or long, just makes me feel as if I’m beating my poor brain.