Caring for Words Book Club: Love the Long Sentence


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The Spectrum blog book club is discussing Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies (Eerdmans 2009), by Marilyn McEntyre, professor of medical humanities at UC Davis and the UC Berkeley-UCSF Joint Medical Program. Our book club discussion runs from March through the end of May, with a week devoted to each of the chapters. A different writer is scheduled to introduce each chapter, and we invite you to join in the discussion. - Scott Moncrieff

Unless one is selling crock-pots, “slow” is not usually a term of endearment. Likewise, our in-a-hurry society often overlooks the virtue of a long, deliberate sentence in favor of conciseness. I am guilty of this. When my students get tangled up in the ins and outs of a complex sentence, my first reaction is always, “Simplify! Cut it down. Get to the core of what you are saying.” Marilyn McEntyre, in this chapter, challenges me to respond differently, perhaps by saying, “Slow down! This is clearly an important point for you. Why don’t you pause with it for a moment?” For, as she writes, “Long sentences ask us to dwell in a thought rather than come to the point” (129).

I believe that when McEntyre instructs us to embrace “the long sentence,” she means more than just a thought spanning several lines of text. Instead she uses the long sentence as a stand-in for textual complexity. Her examples — Henry James, William Faulkner, and Mary Oliver — bear this out. When a sentence is particularly long, particularly dense, or both, it forces us as readers to confront the text as text rather than simply to see through it, to ask ourselves why the author has made the choices she has and what that might mean for our interpretation.

McEntyre writes, “Slowing down, for a contemporary reader, is a countercultural act” (133). Without traveling too far down the road towards technophobia, I do find this call to slow down especially important in the digital age. There is certainly nothing the matter with our society’s total immersion in a sea of information, with constantly-updating news sites and social media feeds. In fact, we are likely reading more now than ever before. Yet this reading is qualitatively different from the sort McEntyre is talking about in this chapter. I read a novel very differently than I read a piece on CNN.com, and a literary novel differently than a young adult novel. And when I venture into a new form or genre, then I must really watch out! After several years reading mostly novels for my graduate study, I recently found myself settling in with a collection of short stories, just for fun. Within a few moments I found that I had to readjust my manner of reading to suit the subtlety and interiority of the short story form rather than the sweeping, wide-angle action of many novels. I had to slow down, to pay attention to the nuances of setting and dialogue that I might breeze by in a longer work.

This sort of thoughtful reading and reflection is why we “inflict” literary texts upon students. We could teach them to be functionally literate with nothing but corporate memos and refrigerator owner’s manuals, but where then would they learn that reading can be an imaginative process, a dialogue that involves text and self and, in the best case, others? A long sentence, an extended metaphor, a multi-faceted characterization — these promise to be transformative rather than merely informative.

For the Christian the challenge of complex texts promises especially important rewards. Whether it is the meandering prose of Paul, the lengthy invectives of Jonathan Edwards, or the Victorian baroque of Ellen White, difficult spiritual writing forces us to ponder our way through ideas that are not immediately comprehensible, much like our God. The truth of God’s character and the rich complexity of Christian theology cannot be condensed into Twitter-appropriate chunks of text. Instead, ideas like the Trinity and the atonement call for unhurried contemplation. The long sentence invites us into conversation with a work rather than simply insisting that we absorb its contents. This is a lesson that Christians, especially, could take to heart in our relations with each other. Loving the long sentence requires a sympathetic kind of reading, one in which we practice patience, assume good intentions, and expect an eventual payoff. Would that we could learn to read each other with similar charity.

For discussion:

  1. Can you think of a time when you were faced with a text that forced you—whether because of length or complexity or some other factor—to slow down and read differently? What sort of reward did you find in that reading?
  2. Do complex texts play a role in your spiritual life? Have they changed the way you think about questions of faith?

Emily McArthur deCarvalho is a doctoral candidate in English at the University of California, Riverside. She spends her days trying to balance the demands of writing a dissertation and being a new mom.

Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies: Schedule Planner

February 24 Why Worry About Words?Scott Moncrieff, Andrews UniversityMarch 3 Strategy 1: Love WordsBrooke Holland, Collegedale AcademyMarch 10 Strategy 2: Tell the TruthBeverly Matiko, Andrews UniversityMarch 17 Strategy 3: Don’t Tolerate LiesBeverly Matiko, Andrews UniversityMarch 24 Strategy 4: Read WellKellie Bond, Walla Walla UniversityMarch 31 Strategy 5: Stay in ConversationMary Christian, Indiana UniversityApril 7 Strategy 6: Share StoriesJeanette Bryson, Andrews UniversityApril 14 Strategy 7: Love the Long SentenceEmily McArthur deCarvalho, University of California, RiversideApril 21 Strategy 8: Practice PoetryCraig van Rooyen, San Luis Obispo, CaliforniaApril 28 Strategy 9: Attend to TranslationSarah Fusté, Berrien Springs, MichiganMay 5 Strategy 10: PlayJustina Clayburn, Andrews UniversityMay 12 Strategy 11: PrayTBDMay 19 Strategy 12: Cherish SilenceKristin Denslow, University of Florida


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/5932