25 Favorite Sentences of the Year

Returning, near year’s end, to the books read since the previous January has become for me a ritual. In Decembers of  years past, I would round up these books, find my favorite passages—from a few lines to whole pages—type them up in a single mini-book, then mail copies to friends, family and a few former teachers around the country. Here, I’d say. I think these are great.

The sharing part felt nice—a bookworm’s idea of philanthropy—but the real pleasure came from the solitary, preparatory ritual itself, revisiting for the first time the little scribbles I’d made in the margins and at the pages’ tops and in the books’ backs. Some were reminders of then-urgent, now nonsensical notes for my own fiction (‘Bx.. goes to i.rink’) or possible topics for future (never written) essays the book in question made me consider ('the big canvas: BAG, IJ, TUN’). But more important were the scribbles directed not at me but at the books themselves—at those passages, sentences or phrases that, through their pith or originality or humor, earned a squiggle, an underline, an exclamation point, a schoolboy’s star. 

I’ve just completed this ritual for those books I’ve read in 2004, and below I’m offering to whoever’s made it here not whole passages but single sentences, my 25 favorite of the year. Fifteen come from year-2004 books, and the final ten from books I read that weren’t published this year. Seeing them all here together, I feel a bit as if I’ve reentered caves I’d once lived in—caves whose walls I scan with a flashlight. And I suppose like many readers, like those still-public cave-dwellers, I’d welcome some company. Here, I say. Look at these. I think they’re great.

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25. “The boy watched her and felt as if he’d swallowed a bit of metal—a washer or a coin—and someone was bringing it back up along his spine with a magnet.”
~ The Wasp Eater, William Lychack

24. “The sun’s light seemed confused about whether its job was to reveal or hide things.”
~ America’s Magic Mountain, Curtis White

23. “If it’s over, if this is peace.”
~ Night, Vedrana Rudan

22. “I worried about my brother standing in his briefs and eating spoiled poultry by moonlight.”
~ Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, David Sedaris

21. “'Rothko paints how the blind see.’”
~ Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell

20. “Rather as one is supposed to approach an elephant not from the front but from the side, the critic finds himself becoming, alongside Tolstoy’s massive straightforwardness, a mere poser of angles.”
~ The Irresponsible Self: On Laughter and the Novel, James Wood

19. “'The main thing I learned is that the more I can forget about being embarrassed when I make something, the more it is going to mean something to somebody.’”
~ Wilco: Learning How to Die, Greg Kot quoting Jeff Tweedy

18. “[Zbigniew] Herbert’s poems are like a suitcase upholstered in soft satin; but the suitcase holds instruments of torture.”
~ A Defense of Ardor, Adam Zagajewski

17. “One way to look at reading: as the lifelong construction of a map by which to trace and plumb what it has ever meant to be in the world, and by which to gain perspective on that other, ongoing map—the one that marks our own passage through the world as we both find and make it.”
~ Coin of the Realm, Carl Phillips

16. “'Item I gyve vnto my wife my second best bed with the furniture.’”
~ William Shakespeare’s will, quoted in Will in the World, Stephen Greenblatt

15. “That is precisely the sort of reply I would expect from a man who wears his socks to bed.”
~ A History of the Imagination, Norman Lock

14. “It was as if she had a murderous needle somewhere in her lungs, and by breathing carefully, she could avoid feeling it.”
~ Runaway, Alice Munro

13. “I knew my father well enough to know it could not have been direct – I am certain he never sat down or lay beside her and spoke as such about lunch on the bench and the twin sickly trees that in the fall drew swarms of migrating starlings, appearing en masse more like bees than birds as they swarmed in and weighed down the elms’ or buckeyes’ limbs and filled the mind with sound before rising again in a great mass to spread and contract like a great flexing hand against the downtown sky.”
~ Oblivion: Stories, David Foster Wallace

12. “And I remembered what a friend once told me about subdivisions built on marshes: they shouldn’t be.”
~ The Story Behind the Story, C.J. Hribal

11. “Bullies love to summarize.”
~ The Plot Against America, Philip Roth

10. “'Fuck fame, it’s money I need,’ he exclaimed, urging his brother to get the first chapters of Eugene Onegin through the censor as soon as possible.”
~ Pushkin: A Biography, T.J. Binyon quoting his subject

9. “The world was restored to its primal condition, his Dodge to a giant teardrop sliding away on a river of tar, his heart to a crystal of salt.”
~ Hell, Kathryn Davis

8. “With my right forefinger slanted slightly to bring the nail into play, I would inscribe the course of a river—so gently, so slowly, it might have been a tear’s trail—running its convoluted way the length of Lou’s back, semicircling a buttock, and concluding in her crack, at a fulfillment one might call a delta.”
~ The Tunnel, William H. Gass

7. “Her abdomen tightly girdled under the black skirt jumped up two or three times with mute, cozy, good-natured reminiscential irony—and Pnin blew his nose, shaking his head the while, in voluptuous, rapturous mirth.”
~ Pnin, Vladimir Nabokov

6. “And poor, dead, puzzled, grounded Ladlehaus heard their mean duet laughter and died again, and once again, and kept on dying, in their presence dying, dying beneath them, with each spike and trough of their laughter.”
~ The Living End, Stanley Elkin

5. “When he shrugs, it’s suddenly—as marble moving.”
~ Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife, William H. Gass

4. “'She kept referring to insects as 'God’s typos’ and then she kept us all dinner one evening so she could read from her poems, which seemed to consist primarily of the repeating line, 'The hairy kiwi of his balls.’”
~ Birds of America, Lorrie Moore

3. “Wherever he made a pun a pain was hidden.”
~ Three Trapped Tigers, G. Cabrera Infante

2. “Why have You made us the saddest animal?”
~ Omensetter’s Luck, William H. Gass

1. “Their footprints filled with ice, and a little later were taken out to sea.”
~ Gravity’s Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon