The human heart longs for beauty—to create it, experience it, glorify it. I’ve always been enthralled by the beauty of the written word. Music speaks to some of beauty, for others, it is art, or nature, or dance. For me, it is books.
I’ve found that the passages that affect me the most are:
1. simple but fresh observations of life and humanity
2. flawless lines showing an author’s command of language
3. words that convey the power of love (because I love love!)
1. Simple but fresh observations of life and humanity
Sometimes writers capture a human experience—petty or profound—in a beautiful and insightful way. It is startling to see on the page, in a lucid form, some random garbled bit of an idea or experience I’ve fleetingly thought or had, myself. It’s like a writer reached into my head, picked out a bit of the nonsensical jibberish flapping around, and finessed it into a lovely passage. Like:
Intermittently, she caught the gist of his sentences and supplied the rest from her subconscious, as one picks up the striking of a clock in the middle with only the rhythm of the first uncounted strokes lingering in the mind.
-Tender is the Night (F. Scott Fitzgerald
When I read this passage, (in France, in 2004) I thought to myself, “yes! I know what he means!” Who would have thought to describe that event, this moment? I wouldn’t, but that passage has stuck with me for seven years.
Or this line, by the lyrical Ann Patchett, from her novel, Bel Canto:
...A most remarkable thing happened: he found her again, like something he never knew was missing, like a song he had memorized in his youth and had then forgotten.
And this thought I've had, in Margaret Atwood's words, from Cat's Eye:
Another belief of mine: that everyone else my age is an adult, whereas I am merely in disguise.
2. Flawless lines showing an author's command of language
Rarely does a reader encounter a combination of words and syllables and sounds that makes a perfect phrase. Just writing about this makes me cringe at the failure of my own words. There are some sentences that I have memorized just to savor the beauty of them.
She sat at the window and watched the evening invade the avenue.
-James Joyce, Dubliners: “Eveline”
I love the repetition of sounds. The s, the w, and especially the v in evening, invade, avenue. There is no great TRUTH about life or love or humanity in these words, no powerful experience or emotion. Maybe it means something in the context of the story, but I don’t remember. Just the beauty of words.
And this passage, from John Steinbeck in Travels with Charley. You just feel the essence of the man in this passage, and I love the choice of the words violently and violence. I love words used in unusual but exquisite ways:
A kind of second childhood falls on so many men. They trade their violence for the promise of a small increase in life span… I have always lived violently, drunk hugely, eaten too much or not at all, slept around the clock or missed two nights of sleeping, worked too hard and too long in glory, or slobbed for a time in utter laziness. I’ve lifted, pulled, chopped, climbed, made love with joy, and taken my hangovers as consequence, not as a punishment. I did not want to surrender fierceness for a small gain in yardage… in my own life I am not willing to trade quantity for quality.
3. Words that convey the power of love
OK, I could get carried away here, because probably 85% of the passages I add to my quotation binder from books I read fall into this category. But I'll limit myself. Here's one from a book I just finished, The History of Love by Nicole Krauss. It's a lovely book. Here's my favorite line:
Once upon a time there was a boy who loved a girl, and her laughter was a question he wanted to spend his whole life answering.
And to go back to the classic, Wuthering Heights:
Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same.
I've loved that line since I was 17, when I dreamed about meeting a boy whose soul was made of the same stuff that mine was.
And this passage, beautiful for the intimacy in such a chaste moment. Except I understand that the kissing of a palm was a very racy thing back in the day. Nobody does this anymore, and that's too bad.
He took her hand before she could extend it, tore off the black mitten, raised the hand slowly to his lips and kissed her palm. Then he turned quickly and walked away. The snow creaked under his feet. The sound and the figure melted into the darkness, while she was still standing motionless, her hand outstretched, until a little white flake fluttered onto her palm, onto the unseen treasure she was afraid to spill.
-We the Living (Ayn Rand)