Reading Style: A Life in Sentences

Jenny Davidson. Columbia University Press, 2014. 195 pages. $25.00.

By Doug Phillips

Jenny Davidson’s two-part title and its entendres—Reading Style: A Life in Sentences—will likely entice writers not just twice, but twice twice

As verb phrase, Reading Style refers to Davidson’s project to read for style: to read patches of prose, whether purple or plain, toward assessing what works less or well. In a word, her own, she reads for what makes a sentence glimmer. “The rationale for the inclusion of each passage I write about,” Davidson explains, “is often just that it speaks to me strongly—that it has a high glimmer factor—or that it lets me single out some aspect of style on which I wish to comment.” 

As noun phrase, Reading Style suggests a particular style of reading: specifically, Davidson’s desire to read and appreciate sentences less for their wisdom than for the pleasure of their aural charm or syntactical punch. In doing so, she examines a wide-smattering of specimens for their architectural complexity, acoustical song, aphoristic zing, ironic twist, or gorgeous wandering. Samples range from old standards (Austen, Flaubert, G. Eliot) to cult favorites (Kafka, Perec, Pynchon); from pop hits (Lionel Shriver, Neil Gaiman, Stephen King) to hot numbers (Gary Lutz, Lydia Davis, Karl Ove Knausgaard); from ironic twister (Thomas Bernhard) to gorgeous wanderer (W.G. Sebald). “To make the idea that literature tells us about life the primary reason for reading,” writes Davidson, “…degrades the very thing that draws me to literature in the first place: the glimmer of the sentences, not first and foremost the wisdom contained in them.”  

The right-of-the-colon title—A Life in Sentences—is twofold, too. Davidson proposes to show the how and why of this or that sentence’s secret élan, in contrast to those that feel winded or crabbed or conspicuously literary. Of those writers especially capable of breathing life into their sentences, Jane Austen is, for Davidson, tops: “Austen’s prose is remarkable in being at the same time supremely stylized, crafted, controlled and also exceptionally productive of identification and empathy.” Flaubert and Henry James also get strong nods of approval, along with the contemporary writer Jonathan Lethem, whose novel The Fortress of Solitude Davidson celebrates for combining Nabokovian dazzle with the “deep pleasures I associate with nineteenth century realist fiction.” Unfortunately, Davidson’s own prose often draws a striking contrast to the many samples she singles out for praise. For example, after identifying Helen DeWitt’s flair for the mot juste and the “clear and effective practice of rational thought,” Davidson offers the following précis in plodding academese: “This version of the argument about style rests, really, on sensibility, a word I like because of the way it opens up more to ethos than style does while retaining the sense of what’s at stake being a matter more of texture or tact or feel than first and foremost of ideas or arguments.” 

Regarding those authors less Austen-like in their execution, Davidson makes an example of Alice McDermott, whom she faults for employing language associated with “the literary short story,” and thus for attending too much to “sensation at the expense of thought or even emotion.” To be sure, Davidson confesses to having “never read a word of McDermott’s fiction” apart from a few excerpts, but, she says, it “aroused my deepest suspicion and dislike.” That said, she seems suddenly to have forgotten her own criteria for stylistic allure, the so-called glimmer factor, which only a few pages earlier she pronounced as the raison for her book. Sensation—a sentence’s “fugitive feel on the tongue,” Davidson calls it—is the precondition of glimmer, and glimmer, by her own accounting, trumps thought. Perhaps this is the problem whenever arousal becomes the sole basis of aesthetic judgment: it muddles things up. Essentially, it means that “style” is pretty much anything Davidson wants or feels it to be. When then she declares “style is everything,” she’s even more right than she knows. 

There are others besides McDermott whom Davidson takes to the woodshed for arousing suspicion and dislike, among them, most remarkably, George Eliot. Her crime? Peculiarities of diction that betray a nineteenth rather than twenty-first century aesthetic, as well as prose that is “frequently and grotesquely ponderous in its locutions”:

“Middlemarch is both unparalleled in its greatness and full of sentences that make me cringe, not because of the insights they express but because of the words in which those thoughts are couched. At such times, Eliot’s style has about it something graceless or embarrassing.”

If such assessments feel both extemporaneous and bitingly personal—rather like a favorite prof riffing behind her lectern—then there’s good reason: Davidson’s book, as she explains it, originated from a series of lectures she gave at Columbia University in the fall of 2009. The trick, of course, with any such conversion is to revise in such a way that what’s heard as tonally chummy in lecture isn’t read as tonally shrill in print. 

The Life in A Life in Sentences refers also to Davidson’s own, to her early immersion in and lifelong romance with the written word, upon which, we are to infer, the authority of her taste (or distaste, as the case so often is) rests. At times sounding downright Harold Bloomian in her preternatural book-consumption, Davidson informs us, quite casually, that as a young teenager she worked her way through such tomes and difficulties as Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, Thomas Browne’s Religio Medici, Ezra Pound’s “anthologies and works of criticism,” and, “at age fifteen,” Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. The summer she turned sixteen, she read Middlemarch, and a “few years earlier,” she writes, “I had devoured Bleak House almost in a single sitting…and would drink down War and Peace over a few addictive days two summers later.” She also confesses: “I had hungered illicitly in high school for Barthes and Jacques Derrida, whose names I had read in the Sunday supplements but whose writings I would not have known how to get hold of.” Why illicitly Davidson never explains, nor the odd discrepancy between her hunger to read Derrida and strange lack of wherewithal to seek out a bookstore or place an order. It’s not so much the author’s starry self-regard that rankles, but my own failure to measure up as brightly. In high school, it’s true, I mostly hungered for lunch. 

Ultimately, Davidson’s study really is a book-length airing of one critic’s personal expression of taste (“I’m not crazy about…”; “I’m not enthusiastic about…”; “I dislike…”; “…the ones I especially hate…”; I’ve always liked…”; “it seems to me”), to which the illustrated box of chocolates on the dust jacket—and subsequent introductory meditation on same—attest. For a writer setting out to appreciate the allure of imaginative style, and to communicate those riches to other writers wishing to refine their technique, it’s a well-tread conceit. A metaphorical box-of-chocolates is, after all, as clichéd as cookies and the way they crumble. Here, though, is Davidson’s comparison of her preferred taste for certain kinds of sentences to boxed chocolates: “If I were choosing a box of Jacques Torres chocolates for someone else, I would pick the dark-chocolate selection because of its clear gastronomical superiority, but if I were buying it just for myself, a decadent and unlikely prospect, I would choose milk chocolate; dark chocolate may be aesthetically preferable to milk, but I like it much less than its sweeter, less pungent counterpoint.” 

In the words of Philip Larkin, it’s useful to get that learnt.

Doug Phillips teaches English and American Literature at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota.