Happy 92nd Birthday, William H. Gass!

william-gass-s-library

On the occasion of William H. Gass’s birthday, I’ve cherry-picked sentences from all of his books: a publishing career spanning five decades. This was no easy task, since his fictions and essays and interviews are troves of meticulously rendered, seemingly sculpted, sentences, each one a delight to the eye, music to the ear. I’ve chosen ninety-two in honor of his birthday, but I could easily have chosen a hundred more. Thanks, Magister Gass!

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Sentences and Fragments: Sentences I Like

“Dining Room” from Selah Saterstrom’s The Pink Institution (Coffee House, 2004):

“Willie called his daughters into the dining room. He picked up a dining room table chair and threw it into a closed window. The window shattered. He said, ‘That’s a lesson about virginity. Do you understand?’ to which they replied, ‘Yes sir.'”

Okay, wow, I’ve probably quoted this passage here on Big Other like six or seven times. What I love here is the economy of language. Yes, this is a poem, but it’s also a full story. We learn so much about Willie, about his daughters, about their psychologies. And I love the deadpan delivery, the sonic pleasures (called, daughters, dining, picked, dining, closed, window, window, shattered, said, do, understand, etc.).

from Lydia Millet’s My Happy Life (Soft Skull, 2007):

“Then he sprayed a can into the bag and tied it around his neck over his head. Flopping, he danced. With his face pinkly invisible. We could see his mouth stretched like an O between the letters of the pink writing on the bag, A&P. When he fell down and we were all of us crying, I, being the oldest, called Children’s Protective Services and said, ‘Mr Rubens put a bag on his head.'”

When I first read this book, and when I came to this passage, I think I had one of those formative moments. I liked reading again. I mean, I like to read, but I don’t always love what I read. I think so many students are forced to read books they don’t like, and then they’re taught “how” to read those books (probably as if there is a right or wrong way), and then they grow up hating reading. I was lucky. I had a few great English teachers, and I grew up reading, enjoying reading, long before that. But then there are those moments in my adult reading life where I feel like I’ve discovered something new about reading. That’s what this book did for me. And it has to do with the phrasings. What does it mean, out of context, that “Mr Rubens put a bag on his head”? Maybe it’s funny. Certainly “Flopping, he danced” is kind of funny. But not in this context. I love the simplicity of language, the precision of clarity, and yet the multi-layered reading experiences one can have.

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