Sunday, January 8, 2017

One Good Punch

Be on the Lookout; The Next Great Sentence is Just Around the Corner

I read somewhere* that this – by the sportswriter John Lardner – is the “the greatest novel ever written in one sentence,” about the professional boxer and Middleweight World Champion, Stanley Ketchel, aka “The Michigan Assassin:”

“Stanley Ketchel was twenty-four years old when he was fatally shot in the back by the common-law husband of the lady who was cooking his breakfast.”

...and it’s probably true. Or, at least, I’ve not yet encountered a single sentence that beats it for pure intrigue, balance, and depth. Can you fit the entire plot, character development, and scenery of any novel into a single sentence? Probably not, but I'm reminded often that you can find – and should look for! – a single sentence or sentiment tucked away in every book that truly resonates at some cosmic level, a sentence that wraps the entire idea of the book into its own ideal, the one corner of a photograph that tells the whole story. Back when I only read books made of paper I would dog-ear the bottom of the page (we nicknamed this “the bottom dog”) to make for easy reference later. I miss this about paper and it’s a lost opportunity with e-books, the ability to pass along the book itself and have that modest hallmark persist.

A few years ago, I wound my way through Bob Dylan’s Chronicles – who knew then that its author would go on to win the Nobel? – and stumbled upon the great scene wherein Dylan and Dave Van Ronk’s wife, Terri, wander through the Village in NYC, past the plate glass window of a hardware store. She notes of an electric can opener displayed in the window:

“What a ridiculous thing, an electric can opener,” Terri once said as we walked past the shop window of a hardware store on 8th Street. “Who’d be stupid enough to buy that?”

I burned through the rest of book – the lengthy sections about his time New Orleans still my favorite part – but I kept returning to those few sentences about the can opener which I now keep in a text file on my computer desktop to this day. Why? They’re the perfect reminder, to me, of the complexities of perception of consumer products AND a warning about obsolescence alongside the importance of utility in product design. Who would be stupid enough? The 1970s and 80s, I guess, when electric can openers were the thing to have in your kitchen. Useful and uselessness, all wrapped up with a bow and sold straight through to the consumer.

More recently, I worked on typesetting a book for a friend that was filled with a good amount of life lessons, sorrow, and hope. I read it in detail – proofread, in fact – and am certain to walk away with more knowledge than I had before starting it. And, along the way the author had inserted this line, a quote by Thoreau:

“The bluebird carries the sky on his back.”

I felt like I read the whole book just to encounter that one line, so perfect and meaningful. And so true of the mighty well-placed sentence, a small bird upholding the atmosphere for the clouds.

– Jon Roketenetz

Jon is the CEO of GimmeAnother and founder of 3VERB.

Citation: The John Lardner Reader (The University of Nebraska Press) attributes this quote to the sportswriter Red Smith in True.