Additional Book Information
Series: New York Review Books
Publication Date: September 22, 2020
Suppose a Sentence
by Brian Dillon
In Suppose a Sentence, Brian Dillon, whom John Banville has called “a literary flaneur in the tradition of Baudelaire and Walter Benjamin,” has written a sequel of sorts to Essayism, turning his attention to the oblique and complex pleasures of the sentence. A series of essays prompted by a single sentence—from Shakespeare to James Baldwin, John Ruskin to Joan Didion—this new book explores style, voice, and language, along with the subjectivity of reading. Both an exercise in practical criticism and a set of experiments or challenges, Suppose a Sentence is a polemical and personal reflection on the art of the sentence in literature.
In this delightful literary ramble, Dillon (Essayism), a creative writing professor at Queen Mary University of London, expounds upon remarkable sentences from a variety of voices in literature, past and present. . . . The well-chosen sentences themselves are worth the price of admission, but Dillon’s encyclopedic erudition and infectious joy in a skillful piece of writing are what stamp this as a treat for literary buffs.
These chronologically arranged picks from the 17th century to today are the "few that shine more brightly and for the moment compose a pattern." The author plumbs biography, autobiography, and history to add context and background, with particular attention to each author’s literary style. . . . A learned, spirited foray into what makes a sentence tick.
[A] record of appreciation, a rare treasure in an age that rewards bashing. . . . Dillon’s affinities prove eclectic and unexpected. He knows some authors, among them Roland Barthes, exhaustively. Others, like the jazz critic Whitney Balliett, he admits he has just discovered. He admires James Baldwin, Maeve Brennan and Annie Dillard. Best of all, he loves writers who craft sentences crooked with clauses, like Thomas Browne and Thomas De Quincey. . . . Dillon writes similarly digressive sentences. Suppose a Sentence has many rewards, but its greatest gift is its exuberant style.
—Becca Rothfield, The New York Times Book Review
Marvelous. . . . [Dillon] is no slouch himself at crafting a phrase. . . . The product of decades of close reading, Suppose a Sentence is eclectic yet tightly shaped. Mr. Dillon has a taste for the more eccentric prose stylists, and lights with delight upon the likes of John Ruskin, who ‘insisted he knew perfectly well if, or when, he had lost his mind.’ His essay on Thomas De Quincey is a small masterpiece. . . . Mr. Dillon’s book is a record of successive enrapturings.
—John Banville, The Wall Street Journal
Taking as his starting point a sentence that has intrigued him for years or, in some cases, come into his ken more recently, Brian Dillon in Suppose a Sentence ranges through the centuries exploring the associations of what he observes and discovers about his object of study and its writer, through biographical anecdote, linguistic speculation, and a look at related writings. This rich and various collection resembles a beguiling, inspiriting conversation with a personable and wry intelligence who keeps you happily up late by the fireside, incites you to note some follow-up reading, and opens your eyes further to the multifarious syntactical and emotional capacities of even a few words of English. Enjoyable and thought-provoking reading!
Brian Dillon is one of the true treasures of contemporary literature—a critic and essayist of unmatched style, sensitivity and purpose—and Suppose a Sentence is a book only he could have written. It's an inspired celebration of the sentence as a self-sufficient art form, and reading it has reinvigorated my sense of the possibilities of writing itself.
Dillon has brilliantly reinvented the commonplace book in this witty, erudite, and addictively readable guide to the sentences that have stayed with him over the years.
Brian Dillon has a way with and among ideas, rather an unusual one. His acute noticing supposes, as he says along with Gertrude Stein, a singular sentence in some text of these wildly differing authors, and then expands upon that notice, moving us around within and without the very particular wording to the everything else around. He dives in for some detail(s) of each called upon part of a whole, surprising us and himself by his swerves and metaswerves, offering them delightedly up to a joint self-awareness in the reading. Very close-up and personal, the style wrapping around itself, like the Ouroboros, this animal waiting to be found.
—Mary Ann Caws, author of Creative Gatherings: Meeting Places of Modernism
Sentences are paths. They track routes through time and place, relating in their wake previously unrelated subjects, feelings, questions and ideas. They open and rhythm the durational spaces they move through and as we read them they move us: we move, too. Reading Brian Dillon’s brilliant book, I was repeatedly struck — because each one of the book’s short sections is a wholly captivating demonstration of this fact — that a sentence, just a single sentence, can hold and release an event. The practice Dillon is engaged in here could be called “close reading”: as in his previous book Essayism, what is at stake is how what is narrowly called the English language works, how it can be set to work and how these collaborative workings matter, especially when what they are doing is difficult, strange, freeing or beautiful. But, as in Essayism, there is also more to it. “Close reading,” in Dillon’s hands, starts to look like a form of “close living”: a life practice that makes an everyday value out of paying serious, open-minded attention, especially to what is hard to understand.
Dillon is a mournful, witty and original writer.
—Parul Sehgal, The New York Times
One of our most innovative and elegant nonfictioneers.
—Robert Macfarlane, author of Underland