Adventures with Sentences

The heavy snow and ice that has settled over my corner of the world has provided me with ample time for reading and reflection. Trapped in my driveway with no way to escape, I started writing a story that had been percolating in my imagination for over a year, and then I discovered that writing is significantly more difficult than I had imagined.

My sister, a publisher, handed me a book from her home library and insisted that I read it before writing another sentence. Giving her the benefit of the doubt, I gave it a try, and it has transformed my experience of reading and writing for the better.

Without further ado, I present my reflections on Brooks Landon’s Building Great Sentences and the many ways that his ideas taught me to appreciate Charlotte Mason’s methods more than ever before.

For the first time in my life, I am aware of the mechanics of language and where its power comes from. When Charlotte Mason argued that children must only read master works, not language that has been modified to an imaginary “child’s level”, she may or may not have known the actual craft of writing those powerful sentences, but she used her literary sense to recognize them and try to imitate them in her own works. She is very specific that children’s education should expose them to many literary works by the masters. The criteria that she set included most importantly the inspiration of the beauty of the words on the page. She argued that a reader must be captivated by the beauty of the words themselves, not just the content of the reading, although the content must also include “living” ideas in context. No dry readings would do. No summaries or lists would be good enough for her approach.

After reading Brooks Landon’s book Building Great Sentences and as I begin to read Spellbinding Sentences by Barbara Baig, what I find most striking is the genius of Charlotte Mason’s ideas. She wrote back at the turn of the 20th century, and yet she implicitly understood the importance of what Baig refers to as “content” and “craft.” Her educational method is so complete. The students imitate the masters’ writing in their copy work and dictation exercises. They read classic works that have stood the test of time, and they narrate them in their own words. Their “wordhoard” (another idea of Baig’s) draws from these classic works, such that as they narrate, they choose more complex vocabulary than a child who has exclusively read modern leveled readers.

It is because of this that my third grade daughter, who has a learning disability, can read Robin Hood, which must certainly be rated at a higher grade level, and understand it after only a few weeks of familiarizing herself with Howard Pyle’s style of narration. It is the same reason that she prefers to read classic stories over sensationalized ones.

As a university student in the area of Spanish literature, I read essays about how to define “good writing.” I read the classics, and I analyzed them. As a translator and interpreter, I have spent more time examining language than the average person. Yet until I read Building Great Sentences, I’m not sure I truly understood how to write a good sentence. It is simultaneously encouraging and discouraging, but I am looking forward to becoming more skilled as a writer, and maybe someday, if I am very lucky, I will write an exceptional story to share with others.

For anyone who is interested in good literature and writing, I strongly recommend Landon’s book. It has opened my eyes to the beauty of language in a new way that I plan to enjoy for years to come!

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2 responses to “Adventures with Sentences

  1. Thanks for the recommendation! I will be adding this book to my amazon cart. It’s amazing how very wise CM was, isn’t it? I am constantly finding her ideas confirmed in other places.

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