Things Vital to the Honor of Human Life
March 9, 2008 9:18 PM   Subscribe

The editor of the New York Times Book Review asks "do others have favorite signature passages in books they love — a sentence or two that seem to convey the essence of a complex, beautiful work?" after giving his own example from To The Finland Station. Hundreds respond, often with some wonderful passages (as well as some not so wonderful ones). Any examples from the hive mind?
posted by blahblahblah (159 comments total) 94 users marked this as a favorite
"Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice".
posted by radiosilents at 9:25 PM on March 9, 2008 [5 favorites]

also, possibly "if you choose to search the dusty pile of leaves, turn to page 84. to leave via the door on the west wall, turn to page 27."
posted by radiosilents at 9:27 PM on March 9, 2008 [16 favorites]

"…the library, the dead core of my education, the white, silent kernel of every empty Sunday I had spent trying to ravish the faint charms of economics, my sad and cynical major."

(from the first chapter of The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, by Michael Chabon.

This doesn't really convey the essence of the novel but it does convey the essence of MC's prose style.
posted by escabeche at 9:35 PM on March 9, 2008 [2 favorites]

And this sums up Richard Brautigan for me:

"The sun was like a huge fifty-cent piece that someone had poured kerosene on and then had lit with a match and said, "Here, hold this while I go get a newspaper, " and put the coin in my hand, but never came back."
posted by escabeche at 9:37 PM on March 9, 2008 [3 favorites]

For me, a passage from Fernandez-Armesto's Civilizations, a rather and involved poetic book about how environment shapes culture, came to mind. It recapitulates the book elegantly and in minature.
[Buenos Aires] was a frontier capital, when Argentina was an estuary and the pampa a palatinate. Everything in the environment was daunting, every view limitless - so vast as to be practically indistinguishable from the blur of blindness and numbness, along the sea-wide river, across the ocean-wide sea, into the apparently endless plain. A ride away lived the people the citizens called savages. Here, to be convincing, civilization had to be exaggerated.
posted by blahblahblah at 9:41 PM on March 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

It's all in the game.
posted by dhammond at 9:51 PM on March 9, 2008 [2 favorites]

The first sentence of any James Michener or Tom Robbins novel seems to convey the essence of the, er, complex beautiful work...
posted by bonefish at 9:53 PM on March 9, 2008

It was one of those great iron afternoons in London: the yellow sun being teased apart by a thousand chimneys breathing, fawning upward without shame. This smoke is more than the day's breath, more than dark strength — it is an imperial presence that lives and moves. People were crossing the streets and squares, going everywhere. Busses were grinding off, hundreds of them, down the long concrete viaducts smeared with years' pitiless use and no pleasure, into haze-gray, grease-black, red lead and pale aluminum, between scrap heaps that towered high as blocks of flats, down side-shoving curves into roads clogged with Army convoys, other tall busses and canvas lorries, bicycles and cars, everyone here with different destinations and beginnings, all flowing, hitching now and then, over it all the enormous gas ruin of the sun among the smokestacks, the barrage balloons, power lines and chimneys brown as aging indoor wood, brown growing deeper, approaching black through an instant — perhaps the true turn of the sunset — that is wine to you, wine and comfort.

—Thomas Pynchon, Gravity's Rainbow
posted by spiderwire at 9:54 PM on March 9, 2008 [3 favorites]

"The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel."
posted by barnacles at 9:54 PM on March 9, 2008 [9 favorites]

Yes, Neuromancer, but when was the last time you saw static on a TV screen? All I ever see is a flat blue screen anymore.
posted by paladin at 9:58 PM on March 9, 2008

On the fiction side, from Rushdie's Midnight's Children:
No colours except green and black the walls are green the sky is black (there is no roof) the stars are green the widow is green but her hair is black as black. The Widow sits on a high high chair the chair is green the seat is black the Widow’s hair has a centre parting it is green on the left and on the right black. High as the sky the chair is green the seat is black the Widow’s arm is long as death its skin is green the fingernails are long and sharp and black. Between the walls the children green the walls are green the Widow’s arm comes snaking down the snake is green the children scream the fingernails are black they scratch the Widow’s arm is hunting see the children run and scream the Widow’s hand curls round them green and black...
..the passage continues, and really should be read aloud. I noticed it quoted in full as response #468 of the NY Times piece, and another couple good Midnight's Children quotes are #137 and #472.

In considering it, this is not necessarily the most typical passage, or the most clever (''East is East but yeast is West," on an Indian character's like of European bread, comes to mind), but I feel like Rushdie's ability to harness language is in full display, as is, for those who have read it, a central issue of the book. And I always remembered it. So there.
posted by blahblahblah at 9:58 PM on March 9, 2008

Will I look like a complete lame-ass for suggesting Richard Adams' Watership Down?
He raised his head and said, "Do you want to talk to me?" "Yes, that's what I've come for," replied the other. "You know me, don't you?" "Yes, of course," said Hazel, hoping he would be able to remember his name in a moment. Then he saw that in the darkness of the burrow the stranger's ears were shining with a faint silver light. "Yes, my lord," he said. "Yes, I know you."
* swallows his tears *
posted by Jimbob at 10:01 PM on March 9, 2008 [6 favorites]

I think of the chimp, the one with the talking hands.

In the course of the experiment, that chimp had a baby. Imagine how her trainers must have thrilled when the mother, without prompting, began to sign to her newborn.

Baby, drink milk.

Baby, play ball.

And when the baby died, the mother stood over the body, her wrinkled hands moving with animal grace, forming again and again the words: Baby, come hug, baby, come hug, fluent now in the language of grief.

Amy Hempel, "In the Cemetary Where Al Jolson is Buried"
(Yeah, it's a short story, but the passage will pretty much stand in for her entire body of work.)

It's too long to type out, but the passage of The Cold Six Thousand in which Wayne visits Cur-ti and Leroy is the triumph of James Ellroy's brutal minimalism.
posted by Bookhouse at 10:05 PM on March 9, 2008 [6 favorites]

"One measures a circle, beginning anywhere." - Charles Fort, The Book of the Damned
posted by bonefish at 10:07 PM on March 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

...Big Ben strikes. There! Out it boomed. First a warning, musical; then the hour, irrevocable. The leaden circles dissolved in the air.
--Virginia Woolf

Now [Esteban] discovered that secret from which one never quite recovers, that even in the most perfect love one person loves less profoundly than the other. There may be two equally good, equally gifted, equally beautiful, but there may never be two that love one another equally well.
--Thornton Wilder
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 10:08 PM on March 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

“Work as if you lived in the early days of a better nation.” — Alasdair Gray, 1982 Janine.
posted by kid ichorous at 10:11 PM on March 9, 2008 [3 favorites]

She is his deepest innocence in spaces of bough and hay before wishes were given a separate name to warn that they might not come true. . . . You go from dream to dream inside me.

—Also from Gravity's Rainbow
posted by spiderwire at 10:12 PM on March 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

"It was so humid some nights you could not close your door. You had to shoulder your door closed. Bridges expanded and sidewalks cracked and there was garbage in the streets and you had to sort of talk to your door before it would close for you.

She loved the nights that were electrical, a static in the air and lightning in soft pulses, in great shapeless beats, you can almost read the rhythmic pattern, slow and protoplasmal, and maybe Cinzano awning fixed to a table on a higher terrace -- you can't identify that gunshot sound until you spot the striped awning, edges snapping in the breeze.

Klara was happy in a guarded way, keeping it folded close. She had a sense of being favored, fairly well-regarded for recent work, feeling good again after a spell of back pain and insomnia, clear-minded after a brief depression, saving money after a spending spree, getting out and seeing friends and standing at parapets, quietly happy, looking better than she had in years -- they all said so.


She stood at parapets and wondered who had worked the stones, shaped these details of the suavest nuance, chevrons and rosettes, urns on balustrades, the classical swags of fruit, the scroll brackets supporting a balcony, and she thought they must have been immigrants, Italian stone carvers probably, unremembered, artists anonymous of the early century, buried in the sky."

-Don Delillo, Underworld
posted by suedehead at 10:12 PM on March 9, 2008

"She would of been a good woman," The Misfit said, "if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life."
-- Flannery O'Connor, A Good Man is Hard to Find
posted by msalt at 10:14 PM on March 9, 2008 [2 favorites]

One of my favorite openings to any book and one that sets the tone of the book so well (as well as the tone of the author's life) is this simple sentence: The first thing I remember is being under something. Charles Bukowski, Ham on Rye.

And one of my favorite closing sentences is from Scott Spencer's Endless Love:
And now for this last time, Jade, I don't mind, or even ask if it is madness: I see your face, I see you, you; I see you in every seat.

posted by dobbs at 10:14 PM on March 9, 2008

Carl Sandburg's Lincoln, chapter 17 "America Wither--Lincoln Journeys to Washington."

"America wither?' was the question, with headache and heartache in several million homes, as Lincoln began his winding journey to Washington. There congress had not yet, after canvass of electoral results, declared and certified him President-elect. There coming events were yet to unlock a box of secrets. In the hair-trigger suspense, General Scott was saying to an aide, 'A dog fight now might cause the gutters to run with blood.' And he was putting guards at doorways and vantage points to make sure of order when the electoral vote for President would be anvassed February 13.

The high-priced lawyer, Rufus Choate, listening to foeign language operas in New York had told his daughter 'Interpret for me the libretto lest I dialate with the wrong emotion.' In the changing chaos of the American scene, people were dialating with a thousand different interpretations. Lincoln was to be, if he could manage it, the supreme interpeter of the violent and contradictory motives swaying the country, the labor pains of the nation.

Only tall stacks of documents recording the steel of fact and the fog of dream could tell the intracate tale of the shaping of a national fate; of many newspapers North and South lying to their readers and pandering to party and special interests; of Southern planters and merchants $200,000,000 in debt to the North, chiefly to the money controllers of New York City; . . . . [Sandberg goes on here in a single sentence of three pages length constructed of hundreds of clauses set off by semi-colons to describe the scores of facts which added up to the troubled American scene.] He then closes: "Thus might run a jagged skech of the Divided House over which Lincoln was to be Chief Magistrate."
posted by Ironmouth at 10:15 PM on March 9, 2008

"He was worth looking at. He wore a shaggy borsalino hat, a rough gray sports coat with white golf balls on it for buttons, a brown shirt, a yellow tie, pleated gray flannel slacks and alligator shoes with white explosions on the toes. From his outer breast pocket cascaded a show handkerchief of the same brilliant yellow as his tie. There were a couple of colored feathers tucked into the band of his hat, but he didn't really need them. Even on Central Avenue, not the quietest dressed street in the world, he looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food."

—Raymond Chandler, Farewell, My Lovely
posted by Rangeboy at 10:19 PM on March 9, 2008 [2 favorites]

Yes, Neuromancer, but when was the last time you saw static on a TV screen? All I ever see is a flat blue screen anymore.

take this as a good sign; digital signal has changed a cloudy day into blue sunny sky!
posted by ddaavviidd at 10:20 PM on March 9, 2008

"Immediate action is the soul of war." - Gene Wolfe
posted by thatwhichfalls at 10:26 PM on March 9, 2008

"The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel."
posted by barnacles at 12:54 AM on March 10 [1 favorite +] [!]

I've never made it past that line in the book. Even when I was a teen and read it I thought it so on the nose that I couldn't see myself getting through a whole book of it.

Conversely, there's a story I recall reading the first sentence of ("Half her face was porcelain.") which I found so right that I never bothered to continue as I thought it could only go downhill from there. I can't say for certain, but it might have been written by Alan Moore.
posted by dobbs at 10:26 PM on March 9, 2008

"This must be Thursday. I never did get the hang of Thursdays."
posted by rouftop at 10:27 PM on March 9, 2008 [5 favorites]

Sometimes I feel like the only person in the world who doesn't like One Hundred Years of Solitude or Underworld. (No offense, suedehead and radiosilents.) The Satanic Verses is as boring as mud, too, but I haven't read Midnight's Children yet.

People on that page sure do seem to like their Hunter S. Thompson and their Lolita, too. Wow. Not that I don't love the good Doctor, nor Nabokov, but aside from the Ayn Rand quote (good lord), those in particular came off as just painfully sophomoric.

Quite a bit of F. Scott Fitzgerald, who's really much more quotable than I'd generally imagined. I do approve of that.
posted by spiderwire at 10:29 PM on March 9, 2008

"Food? I don't want any food now. I want more of this feeling - fire and wings." - Jean Rhys

(I know at least one other mefite likes that line.)
posted by zoinks at 10:32 PM on March 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

"Or in other words: shy from the sky. No answer lies there. It cannot care, especially for what it no longer knows. Treat that place as a thing unto itself, independent of all else, and confront it on those terms. You alone must find the way. No one else can help you. Every way is different. And if you do lose yourself at least take solace in the absolute certainty that you will perish."

-- Mark Z. Danielewski, House of Leaves

Not exactly my worldview, but I thought this passage did a great job of summarizing the story -- both the labyrinth that it describes and the philosophy that it expresses.
posted by Rhaomi at 10:33 PM on March 9, 2008 [3 favorites]

to wound the autumnal city.
So howled out for the world to give him a name.
The in-dark answered with wind.

posted by empath at 10:35 PM on March 9, 2008

"The day had gone by just as days go by. I had killed it in accordance with my primitive and retiring way of life."

Hermann Hesse, Steppenwolf
posted by moonbird at 10:45 PM on March 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

Frodo stood still, hearing far off great seas upon beaches that had long ago been washed away, and sea-birds crying whose race had perished from the earth.
posted by zadcat at 10:46 PM on March 9, 2008

You're taking it personal, it's just business and he's taking it personal.

Sonny, it's all personal, and I learned it from him, the old man, the Godfather.
posted by cccorlew at 10:47 PM on March 9, 2008

"It can hardly be a coincidence that no language on Earth has ever produced the phrase, 'as pretty as an airport.' Airports are ugly. Some are very ugly. Some attain a degree of ugliness that can only be the result of a special effort."
posted by MidAtlantic at 10:59 PM on March 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

Yes, Neuromancer, but when was the last time you saw static on a TV screen? All I ever see is a flat blue screen anymore.

Fair enough, paladin, but I refuse to stop loving that metaphor! Conjures up a grey sea day perfectly.

Alright, I'll try again:
A green hunting cap squeezed the top of the fleshy balloon of a head. The green earflaps, full of large ears and uncut hair and the fine bristles that grew in the ears themselves, stuck out on either side like turn signals indicating two directions at once. Full, pursed lips protruded beneath the bushy black moustache and, at their corners, sank into little folds filled with disapproval and potato chip crumbs.
posted by barnacles at 11:00 PM on March 9, 2008 [3 favorites]

When Neuromancer was written in 1984, a quarter century ago, television static was pretty prosaic.

And damn you, barnacles! Both those opening passages also sprung to my own mind.
posted by PareidoliaticBoy at 11:17 PM on March 9, 2008

"Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! Four shots ripped into my groin and I was off on the greatest adventure of my life!" Sleep Till Noon, Max Shulman
posted by Oriole Adams at 11:18 PM on March 9, 2008

Fair enough, paladin, but I refuse to stop loving that metaphor! Conjures up a grey sea day perfectly.

Except, how many people in the future are going to read that and imagine a clear blue sky?
posted by delmoi at 11:19 PM on March 9, 2008

This you may say of man—when theories change and crash, when schools, philosophies, when narrow dark alleys of thought, national, religious, economic, grow and disintegrate, man reaches, stumbles forward, painfully, mistakenly sometimes. Having stepped forward, he may slip back, but only half a step, never the full step back. This you may say and know it and know it. This you may know when the bombs plummet out of the black planes on the market place, when prisoners are stuck like pigs, when the crushed bodies drain filthily in the dust. You may know it in this way. If the step were not being taken, if the stumbling-forward ache were not alive, the bombs would not fall, the throats would not be cut. Fear the time when the bombs stop falling while the bombers live—for every bomb is proof that the spirit has not died. And fear the time when the strikes stop while the great owners live—for every little beaten strike is proof that the step is being taken. And this you can know—fear the time when Manself will not suffer and die for a concept, for this one quality is the foundation of Manself, and this one quality is man, distinctive in the universe.

-Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath
posted by showbiz_liz at 11:20 PM on March 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

Those must have all been important to me once. What I am now grew from that. A former self is a fool, an insufferable ass, but he's still human, you'd no more turn him out than you'd turn out any kind of cripple, would you?

--Thomas Pynchon, Gravity's Rainbow
posted by Afroblanco at 11:27 PM on March 9, 2008 [6 favorites]

"Everyone knows what's in Room 101." -- Nineteen Eighty-Four

"We all got it comin', kid." -- Unforgiven

"It is awfully easy to be hard-boiled about everything in the daytime, but at night it is another thing." -- The Sun Also Rises

"Shut up and deal." -- The Apartment

Al Swearengen in Deadwood:
Pain or damage don't end the world. Or despair or fucking beatings. The world ends when you're dead. Until then, you got more punishment in store. Stand it like a man... and give some back.
Quite a bit of F. Scott Fitzgerald, who's really much more quotable than I'd generally imagined. I do approve of that.

Isn't it pretty to think so?
posted by kirkaracha at 11:28 PM on March 9, 2008 [2 favorites]

"Love," he says, "it makes one do great things."

At first, I thought he was making fun of me, and I answered, with a certain annoyance, that I couldn't see the relationship. But, upon reflection, this remark of his seems above all inexplicable. How would he know of this hoped-for love (quasi-absurd and, in any case, secret) that I have barely acknowledged to myself?

"Oh, but yes," he goes on in that voice of his that wavers constantly between low and sharp, "there is an obvious relationship: love is blind, that's well known. And, in any case, you mustn't laugh: being blind, that's sad."

ARG, Djinn.
posted by juv3nal at 11:30 PM on March 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

"It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not. Much later, when he was able to think about the things that happened to him, he would conclude that nothing was real except chance. But that was much later."

-Paul Auster, City of Glass
posted by shucksitsjeremy at 11:42 PM on March 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

"Five friends I had, and two of them snakes."

-- Frederick Buechner, Godric
posted by futility closet at 11:53 PM on March 9, 2008

"So it goes."
--Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse Five
posted by not_on_display at 11:53 PM on March 9, 2008 [2 favorites]

The fullness is in the Child’s moving away from me, in his stepping so lightly, so joyfully, naked, into his own distance at last as he fades in and out of the dazzle of light off the water and stoops to gather—what? Pebbles? Is that what his eye is attracted by now, the grayest, most delicately veined of them? Or has he already forgotten all purpose, moving simply for the joy of it, wading deeper into the light and letting them fall from his hands, the living and edible snails that are no longer necessary to my life and may be left now to return to their own, the useless pebbles that where they strike the ground suddenly flare up as butterflies, whose bright wings rainbow the stream.
David Malouf, An Imaginary Life
posted by Sitegeist at 11:56 PM on March 9, 2008

"Poor Grendel's had an accident... So may you all."
––John Gardner
posted by Busithoth at 11:57 PM on March 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

I always thought this one best summed up Gravity's Rainbow:
Elsewhere in the maisonette, other drinking companions disentangle from blankets (one spilling wind from his, dreaming of a parachute), piss into bathroom sinks, look at themselves with dismay in concave shaving mirrors, slap water with no clear plan in mind onto heads of thinning hair, struggle into Sam Brownes, dub shoes against rain later in the day with hand muscles already weary of it, sing snatches of popular songs whose tunes they don't always know, lie, believing themselves warmed, in what patches of the new sunlight come between the mullions, begin tentatively to talk shop as a way of easing into whatever it is they'll have to be doing in less than an hour, lather necks and faces, yawn, pick their noses, search cabinets or bookcases for the hair of the dog that not without provocation and much prior conditioning bit them last night.

I decided to post it, clicked through, and was surprised to see that three other people had already posted quotes from GR. Weird.
posted by agentofselection at 12:12 AM on March 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

That is the way with things: expectations reversed in matters of the heart; love, a victim of chance and fate; the thing we say we'll never do is the very thing, after all, we want to do most.

Richard Ford, The Sportswriter
posted by t2urner at 12:25 AM on March 10, 2008

I remember reading Lord of the Flies and coming to the line "Fancy thinking the Beast was something you could hunt and kill" and pausing for a moment as my whole understanding of the novel shifted, and thinking, wow, that sentence sort of encapsulates all that this book must be about. So it's not my best example, being neither from my favourite novel nor my favourite quotation from a novel, but it is a formative one in the sense that it was perhaps the first time in my life I realized a sentence could work that way, both participating in and standing outside a work, and representing all that it was about.

I find the single sentence choices more interesting because they follow that idea. I think those posting longer passages (and I'm speaking more to the respondents on the NYTBR website than to my fellow mefites) are confusing what the original article is talking about: "a sentence or two that seem to convey the essence of a longer work" does not, to me, equal "favourite three paragraphs of pretty writing." Perhaps the example in the original article courted that problem by being such a long sentence in the first place?

Oh, and cortex I ain't, but did the third person to post a reply on the NYTBR site post an excerpt from her own work??
posted by roombythelake at 12:45 AM on March 10, 2008 [2 favorites]

"Winter comes to water as well as land, though there are no leaves to fall. The waves that were a bright, hard blue yesterday under a fading sky today are green, opaque, and cold." Gene Wolfe, I forget which short story, but I have never forgotten the words.
posted by Chasuk at 12:48 AM on March 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that's no matter - tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms further... And one fine morning -

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
-The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald
To this day, these closing lines are what comes to mind whenever I think of the American Dream. A bit of a cliché to be sure, but that's inevitable when the closing lines of such a great book are so memorable.

Another great line from the book:
They were careless people, Tom and Daisy -- they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.
posted by [expletive deleted] at 1:33 AM on March 10, 2008 [6 favorites]

One billow comes up from the kid's cigarette and Terry the Tramp says, "Hey, man, how about a cigarette?"

He says it with a tone you have to hear to fully comprehend. It is the patented Hell's Angel tone of soft grinning menace, kind of like the tone the second-story man uses on the watchdog, "Come here, fel-la... (SO I CAN SQUASH YOUR HEAD WITH THIS BRICK)." He says it soft, but it stops the whole room like High Noon.

"Hey, man, how about a cigarette?"
--Tom Wolfe, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test
posted by bruceo at 1:34 AM on March 10, 2008

The last sentence of Graham Greene's Brighton Rock. It spoils the book, so I won't write it here, but damn it is worth the journey.
posted by Free word order! at 1:53 AM on March 10, 2008

"Cheshire Puss," Alice began... "would you tell me please, which way I ought to go from here?"

"That depends on where you want to to get to," said the cat.
- Lewis Carroll

"With every day, and from both sides of my intelligence, the moral and the intellectual, I thus drew steadily nearer to the truth, by whose partial discovery I have been doomed to such a dreadful shipwreck: that man is not truly one, but truly two." - Robert Louis Stevenson

"But you see, Meg, just because we don't understand doesn't mean that the explanation doesn't exist." - Madeleine L'Engle

A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. And all plans, safeguards, policing, and coercion are fruitless. We find that after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us.
- John Steinbeck

"He's the sort of man who needs not millions, but the resolution of his idea."
- Fyodor Dostoevsky

It was less like seeing than like being for the first time seen, knocked breathless by a powerful glance…. I had been my whole life a bell and never knew it until at that moment I was lifted and struck.
– Annie Dillard

"Hang up philosophy! Useless philosophy can make a Juliet." - William Shakespeare

Jean Valjean advanced, carefully avoiding the furniture. At the far end of the room he could hear the even, quiet breathing of the sleeping bishop.

He was almost completely dressed in bed, because of the cold Basse-Alpes nights. His head was tilted back on the pillow in the unstudied attitude of sleep. His face was lit up with a vague expression of a contentment, hope, and happiness. It was almost a radiance, a luminous transparency, for this heaven was within him: it was his conscience.

Jean Valjean stood in the shadow, erect, motionless, terrified. He had never seen anything like it. The moral world has no spectacle more powerful than this: a troubled, restless conscience on the verge of committing a crime, contemplating the sleep of a just man.
-Victor Hugo

I have at least a few hundred of these, harshly scribbled on scraps of paper, squirreled away in boxes and desk drawers and moleskines and the like. I have many hundreds more meticulously compiled in seemingly endless MS Word documents that I add to regularly. Most books I've read more than once have this passage underlined. And I have Google, proof that God loves me and wants me to be happy (as Benjamin Franklin said of beer).

I grew convinced, at a young age, that any book worth reading has what I like to think of as the "exact center" of that book. A passage, sometimes even just one short sentence, that, on its own, describes acutely what the host of other words surrounding it are trying to convey. I believe that every great author has a central idea in mind - a theme, really - that could be summed up in at most a short paragraph, and in some form or another, in every great literary work - fiction or non, they have sewn that thought into the fabric of the larger story.

That's how I read books, actually - searching for the exact center. It's not always easy to find, and sometimes I think I've found it, only later to discover on re-reading that I may have missed it entirely. And then some you see and you just know.

It makes reading anything more of an endeavor, and I like it.
posted by allkindsoftime at 1:59 AM on March 10, 2008 [16 favorites]

Life is a pure flame, and we live by an invisible sun within us. A small fire sufficeth for life, great flames seemed too little after death, while men vainly affected precious pyres, and to burn like Sardanapalus; but the wisdom of funeral laws found the folly of prodigal blazes and reduced undoing fires unto the rule of sober obsequies, wherein few could be so mean as not to provide wood, pitch, a mourner, and an urn.
Sir Thomas Browne, Hydriotaphia.
posted by misteraitch at 2:32 AM on March 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

''And then you walk fearlessly like the monk on the road who knows precisely how vulnerable he is, who takes no comfort among death-forgetting men, and who carries his vision of vastness and might around in his tunic like a live coal which neither burns nor warms him, but with which he will not part. The giant water bug ate the world. And like Billy Bray I go my way, and my left foot says 'Glory,' and my right foot says 'Amen': in and out of Shadow Creek, upstream and down, exultant, in a daze, dancing, to the twin silver trumpets of praise.''
Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
posted by paddbear at 2:52 AM on March 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

Renowned curator Jacques Sauniere staggered through the vaulted archway of the museum's Grand Gallery. He lunged for the nearest painting he could see, a Caravaggio. Grabbing the gilded frame, the seventy-six-year-old man heaved the masterpiece toward himself until it tore from the wall and Sauniere collapsed backward in a heap beneath the canvas.

No, but seriously, I've always admired the passage in T.E. Lawrence's Seven Pillars of Wisdom where he describes the way that population pressure forced the Arab tribes into the desert and out again, like the heart pumping blood around the body. (I don't know whether this has any basis in historical fact, but what the hell, it's a wonderfully strong, sinewy piece of writing.) It's a very subtle passage too, because when you first encounter it, near the beginning of the book, it appears that Lawrence is writing as an outside observer, but by the time you reach the end of the book you realise that he isn't just writing about the Arabs, he's writing about himself:

Nor then did the pressure cease: the inexorable trend northward continued. The tribes found themselves driven to the very edge of cultivation in Syria or Mesopotamia .. We see them wandering, every year moving a little further north or a little further east as chance has sent them down one or other of the wellroads of the wilderness, till finally this pressure drives them from the desert again into the sown, with the like unwillingness of their first shrinking experiment in nomad life. This was the circulation which kept vigour in the Semite body. There were few, if indeed there was a single northern Semite, whose ancestors had not at some dark age passed through the desert. The mark of nomadism, that most deep and biting social discipline, was on each of them in his degree.

I find it interesting that the original NYT article was about a passage from a work of non-fiction (Edmund Wilson's To the Finland Station) but the contributions from readers are overwhelmingly (95%+) taken from works of non-fiction. Perhaps the reason for this is that great non-fiction stylists like Wilson and Lawrence have very few modern successors. People's expectations of 'fine writing' are now conditioned almost entirely by novels -- not by essays, or journalism, or history, or biography, which are expected to be more straightforwardly utilitarian. It's an interesting (and, to me, slightly depressing) cultural change.

On preview: misteraitch, that's a great passage from Hydrotaphia, but I think there's an even better one:

The iniquity of oblivion blindly scattereth her poppy, and deals with the memory of men without distinction to merit of perpetuity. Who can but pity the founder of the pyramids? Herostratus lives that burnt the temple of Diana, he is almost lost that built it .. Who knows whether the best of men be known, or whether there be not more remarkable persons forgot, than any that stand remembered in the known account of time?
posted by verstegan at 2:54 AM on March 10, 2008

Sorry, I meant, of course, '.. overwhelmingly taken from works of FICTION'.
posted by verstegan at 2:58 AM on March 10, 2008

All streets of the City slope down between deepening canyons to a vast, kidney-shaped plaza full of darkness. Walls of street and plaza are perforated by dwelling cubicles and cafes, some a few feet deep, others extending out of sight in a network of rooms and corridors.

At all levels criss-cross of bridges, cat walks, cable cars. Catatonic youths dressed as women in gowns of burlap and rotten rags, faces heavily and crudely painted in bright colors over a strata of beatings, arabesques of broken, suppurating scars to the pearly bone, push against the passer-by in silent clinging insistence.

Traffickers in the Black Meat, flesh of the giant aquatic black centipede — sometimes attaining a length of six feet — found in a lane of black rocks and iridescent, brown lagoons, exhibit paralyzed crustaceans in camouflage pockets of the Plaza visible only to the Meat Eaters.

Followers of obsolete unthinkable trades, doodling in Etruscan, addicts of drugs not yet synthesized, black marketeers of World War III, excisors of telepathic sensitivity, osteopaths of the spirit, investigators of infractions denounced by bland paranoid chess players, servers of fragmentary warrants taken down in hebephrenic shorthand charging unspeakable mutilations of the spirit, officials of unconstituted police states, brokers of exquisite dreams and nostalgias tested on the sensitized cells of junk sickness and bartered for raw materials of the will, drinkers of the Heavy Fluid sealed in translucent amber of dreams.

William S. Burroughs' Naked Lunch
posted by JaredSeth at 3:00 AM on March 10, 2008

"What is your purpose, then?" Hardesty asked.

Because Jackson Mead thought he saw in Hardesty's face that Hardesty wanted, above all, to understand, he confided in him. "My purpose," he said, suddenly soft and benevolent, "is to tag this world with wider and wider rainbows, until the last is so perfect and eternal that it will catch the eye of the One who has abandoned us, and bring Him to right all the broken symmetries and make life once again a still and timeless dream. My purpose, Mr. Marratta, is to stop time, to bring back the dead. My purpose, in one word, is justice.

Mark Helprin, Winters Tale
posted by outlier at 3:00 AM on March 10, 2008 [2 favorites]

I'm gonna have to go with zoinks.
posted by fire&wings at 3:10 AM on March 10, 2008

verstegan—the thing with Hydriotaphia is that it’s full of wonderfully resonant passages. For me, it was a toss up between the one I quoted, and the penultimate paragraph: Pious spirits who passed their days in raptures of futurity… I am with you in feeling sorry about the apparent devaluation of non-fiction in English.
posted by misteraitch at 3:31 AM on March 10, 2008

"A stick sharpened at both ends."
--Lord of the Flies
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 4:11 AM on March 10, 2008

Peter Lake had no illusions about mortality. He knew that it made everyone perfectly equal, and that the treasures of the earth were movement, courage, laughter, and love. The wealthy could not buy these things. On the contrary, they were for the taking.

As it somehow always manages to be before the winter solstice, but never after, the early darkness was cheerful and promising, even for those who had nothing.
p. 524

Mark Helprin, Winter's Tale
posted by Huw at 4:15 AM on March 10, 2008 [2 favorites]

[expletive deleted] writes "They were careless people, Tom and Daisy -- they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made."

You mean Bill and Hillary, right?
posted by orthogonality at 4:26 AM on March 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

Now nearly all those I loved and did not understand when I was young are dead, but I still reach out to them.

Of course, now I am too old to be much of a fisherman, and now of course I usually fish the big waters alone, although some friends think I shouldn't. Like many fly fishermen in western Montana where the summer days are almost Arctic in length, I often do not start fishing until the cool of the evening. Then in the Arctic half-light of the canyon, all existence fades to a being with my soul and memories and the sounds of the Big Blackfoot River and a four-count rhythm and the hope the a fish wil rise.

Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world's great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.

I am haunted by waters.

Norman MacLean, A River Runs through It
posted by Turtles all the way down at 4:33 AM on March 10, 2008 [2 favorites]

Norman Maclean (and he makes a point about the spelling of the name in the novella).
posted by Turtles all the way down at 4:34 AM on March 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

“Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog, Dr Robert Laing reflected on the unusual events that had taken place within this huge apartment building during the previous three months."

The rather nicely understated opening sentence from JG Ballard's High Rise.
posted by rhymer at 4:37 AM on March 10, 2008

Most everybody's asleep in Grover's Corners. There are a few lights on: Shorty Hawkins, down at the depot, has just watched the Albany train go by. And at the livery stable somebody's setting up late and talking. -- Yes, it's clearing up. There are the stars -- doing their old, old crisscross in the sky. Scholars haven't settled the matter yet, but they seem to think there are no living beings up there. Just chalk -- or fire. Only this one is straining away, straining away all the time to make something of itself. The strain's so bad that every sixteen hours everybody lies down and gets a rest. Hm-- Eleven o'clock in Grover's Corners. -- You get a good rest, too. Good night.
(The concluding lines to the play "Our Town", by Thornton Wilder.)
posted by orthogonality at 4:45 AM on March 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

There is a moment in every dawn when light floats. There is the possibility of magic. Creation holds its breath.

The moment passed, as it regularly did on Squornshalous Zeta, without incident.

I think this really does represent some of the best things about Douglas Adams' prose - first, a situation that you instantly empathise with, in a "wow, someone else spotted/defined that" way. Beautifully described.
Then (after a ridiculous name used completely deadpan) the feeling is completely deflated and the perspective is turned on its head.

brilliant question, lots of gorgeous examples
posted by runincircles at 5:00 AM on March 10, 2008 [2 favorites]

Not quite the essence of the novel (which seems to be about (Anglo-)Catholicism or God or something equally disreputable), but a passage nonetheless essential:
Here my last love died. There was nothing remarkable in the manner of its death. One day, not long before this last day in camp, as I lay awake before reveille, in the Nissen hut, gazing into the complete blackness, amid the deep breathing and muttering of the four other occupants, turning over in my mind what I had to do that day -- had I put in the names of two corporals for the weapon-training course? Should I again have the largest number of men overstaying their leave in the batch due back that day? Could I trust Hooper to take the candidates class out map-reading? -- as I lay in that dark hour, I was aghast to realize that something within me, long sickening, had quietly died, and felt as a husband might feel, who, in the fourth year of his marriage, suddenly knew that he had no longer any desire, or tenderness, or esteem, for a once-beloved wife; no pleasure in her company, no wish to please, no curiosity about anything she might ever do or say or think; no hope of setting things right, no self-reproach for the disaster. I knew it all, the whole drab compass of marital disillusion; we had been through it together, the army and I, from the first importunate courtship until now, when nothing remained to us except the chill bonds of law and duty and custom. I had played every scene in the domestic tragedy, had found the early tiffs become more frequent, the tears less affecting, the reconciliations less sweet, till they engendered a mood of aloofness and cool criticism, and the growing conviction that it was not myself but the loved one who was at fault. I caught the false notes in her voice and learned to listen for them apprehensively; I recognized the blank, resentful stare of incomprehension in her eyes, and the selfish, hard set of the corners of her mouth. I learned her, as one must learn a woman one has kept house with, day in, day out, for three and a half years; I learned her slatternly ways, the routine and mechanism of her charm, her jealousy and self-seeking, and her nervous trick with the fingers when she was lying. She was stripped of all enchantment now and I knew her for an uncongenial stranger to whom I had bound myself indissolubly in a moment of folly.
(from Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisted: The Sacred and Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder.)

From the same work, Ryder's (and Waugh's) grimly funny vision of a future shaped by and for the common man:
In the weeks that we were together Hooper became a symbol to me of Young England, so that whenever I read some public utterance proclaiming what Youth demanded in the Future and what the world owed to Youth, I would test these general statements by substituting "Hooper" and seeing if they still seemed as plausible. Thus in the dark hour before reveille I sometimes pondered: "Hooper Rallies," "Hooper Hostels," "International Hooper Co-operation" and "the Religion of Hooper." He was the acid test of all these alloys.
posted by orthogonality at 5:05 AM on March 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

"When I recall my youth and jollity, it fairly warms the cockles of my heart!
This very day I feel a pleasure start, yes, I can feel it tickling at the root.
Lord, how it does me good! I've had my fruit,
I've had my world and time, I've had my fling."

The Wife of Bath's Prologue from The Canterbury Tales

"What matter if a man lives seven years or seventy? His years are not an eyeblink to eternity, and de'il the way he spends 'em -- whether steering ships or scribbling verse, or building towns or burning 'em -- he dies like a Ma fly when his day is done, and the stars go round their courses just the same. Where's the profit and loss o' his labors? He'd as well have stayed abed, or sat his bum on a bench and watch the blind wights curse and labor over naught."

John Barth- The Sot Weed Factor

/yes, I know...
posted by Patapsco Mike at 5:08 AM on March 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

This is Kaliyuga, buddy, the Iron Age. Anybody over sixteen without an ulcer's a godamn spy. Zooey - J.D. Salinger

I remember reading that when I was about 19, and I liked all the fancy prose and New York-ish lifestyle stuff. Then I got to that sentence and I stopped, put down the book and let my mind reel. That's it, that's what's wrong with the world!

I still love that line, although Salinger doesn't resonate with a 30 year old quite the way it does with a teenager.
posted by bluejayk at 5:09 AM on March 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

Two from The Master and Margarita:
"Follow me, reader! Who ever told you there is no such thing int he world as real, true, everlasting love? May the liar have his despicable tongue cut out!
It's time to send it all to the devil and go to Kislovodsk."
posted by pxe2000 at 5:16 AM on March 10, 2008

The rocket's metal cooled in the meadow winds. Its lid gave a bulging pop. From its clock interior stepped a man, a woman, and three children. The other passengers whispered away across the Martian meadow, leaving the man alone among his family.

The man felt his hair flutter and the tissues of his body draw tight as if he were standing at the centre of a vacuum. His wife, before him, trembled. The children, small seeds, might at any instant be sown to all the Martian climes. The children looked up at him. His face was cold. “What's wrong?” asked his wife. “Let's get back on the rocket.” “Go back to Earth?” “Yes! Listen!”

The wind blew, whining. At any moment the Martian air might draw his soul from him, as marrow comes from a white bone.

He looked at Martian hills that time had worn with a crushing pressure of years. He saw the old cities, lost and lying like children's delicate bones among the blowing lakes of grass.

“Chin up, Harry,” said his wife. “It's too late. We've come at least sixty-five million miles or more.”

The children with their yellow hair hollered at the deep dome of Martian sky. There was no answer but the racing hiss of wind through the stiff grass.

He picked up the luggage in his cold hands. “Here we go,” he said — a man standing on the edge of a sea, ready to wade in and be drowned.

They walked into town.

Ray Bradbury, Dark They Were and Golden Eyed
posted by Turtles all the way down at 5:20 AM on March 10, 2008

To a landsman, no whale, nor any sign of a herring, would have been visible at that moment; nothing but a troubled bit of greenish white water, and thin scattered puffs of vapor hovering over it, and suffusingly blowing off to leeward, like the confused scud from white rolling billows. The air around suddenly vibrated and tingled, as it were, like the air over intensely heated plates of iron. Beneath this atmospheric waving and curling, and partially beneath a thin layer of water, also, the whales were swimming.
posted by From Bklyn at 5:30 AM on March 10, 2008

Yeah, the books I put back on the shelf with post-its sticking out the tops so I can find my favorite parts again. Few and far between (thank goodness because those post-its look tacky).

The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien:
You can tell a true war story if it embarrasses you. If you don’t care for obscenity, you don’t care for the truth; if you don’t care for the truth, watch how you vote. Send guys to war, they come home talking dirty.
Junie B. Jones and the Mushy Gushy Valentime by Barbara Park:
"You are not the boss of my words, Grace," I said. "This is a freed country. And if I want to say valentime, I can. And I will not even go to jail."
If plays count, which I'm saying they do, Angels in America by Tony Kushner:
HARPER: So when we think we've escaped the unbearable ordinariness and, well, untruthfulness of our lives, it's really only the same old ordinariness and falseness rearranged into the appearance of novelty and truth. Nothing unknown is knowable. Don't you think it's depressing?
PRIOR: The limitations of the imagination?
PRIOR: It's something you learn after your second theme party: It's All Been Done Before.
HARPER: The world. Finite. Terribly, terribly. . . . Well . . . This is the most depressing hallucination I've ever had.
And finally, middle grade author Gary Schmidt has a new book called Trouble coming out next month. There's this scene in a chowder house in Portland, Maine, that rang so true to me that I immediately turned back and read it again before reading on. I don't have my copy, which is just as well because it would be too long to excerpt here.
posted by lampoil at 5:42 AM on March 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

If I were to pick a passage from Slaughterhouse-five it would be this one:

He turned on the television. He came slightly unstuck in time, saw the late movie backwards, then forwards again. It was a movie about American bombers in the Second World War and the gallant men who flew them. Seen backwards by Billy, the story went like this:

American planes, full of holes and wounded men and corpses took off backwards from an airfield in England. Over France, a few German fighter planes flew at them backwards, sucked bullets and shell fragments from some of the planes and crewmen. They did the same for wrecked American bombers on the ground, and those planes flew up backwards to join the formation.

The formation flew backwards over a German city that was in flames. The bombers opened their bomb bay doors, exerted a miraculous magnetism which shrunk the fires, gathered them into cylindrical steel containers, and lifted the containers into the bellies of the planes. The containers were stored neatly in racks. The Germans below had miraculous devices of their own, which were long steel tubes. They used them to suck more fragments from the crewmen and planes. But there were still a few wounded Americans, though, and some of the bombers were in bad repair. Over France, though, German fighters came up again, made everything and everybody as good as new.

When the bombers got back to their base, the steel cylinders were taken from the racks and shipped back to the United States of America, where factories were operating night and day, dismantling the cylinders, separating the dangerous contents into minerals. Touchingly, it was mainly women who did this work. The minerals were then shipped to specialists in remote areas. It was their business to put them into the ground, to hide them cleverly, so they would never hurt anybody again.

The American fliers turned in their uniforms, became high school kids. And Hitler turned into a baby, Billy Pilgrim supposed. That wasn't in the movie. Billy was extrapolating. Everybody turned into a baby, and all humanity, without exception, conspired biologically to produce two perfect people named Adam and Eve, he supposed.

posted by shakespeherian at 5:48 AM on March 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

What spectacle confronted them when they, first the host, then the guest, emerged, silently, doubly dark, from obscurity via a passageway from the rere of the house into the penumbra of the garden?

The heaventree of stars, hung with humid nightblue fruit.

-- James Joyce, Ulysses
posted by newmoistness at 5:55 AM on March 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

"So there we were. Me, I was doing my usual hundred and fifty sit-ups. My feet were jammed under the couch for leverage and I was holding a five-pound barbell behind my head like an iron halo. La Donna was in her black Danskins sitting by the wall doing dancercizes. I had a stomach that looked like six miniature cobblestones. LaDonna was so limber that standing without bending her knees, she could work her head down between her legs and kiss her own ass. How very nice for the both of us. She was a twenty-eight-year-old bank clerk and would-be singer; I was a thirty-year-old door-to-door salesman and we both walked around all day like Back to Bataan. When I was doing my sit-ups I liked to watch TV-Lucy or Fonzie, whatever reruns I could get a hold of. That was not allowed when LaDonna was around. She needed silence to stand there, pull one foot backward, up over her shoulder and tap the base of her skull with her heel. I could have worked out when she wasn't around, but six weeks before, on a Sunday morning adter she finished her dancercizes, she came over to where I was and just sat on it. There are aborigines in New Guinea who have been squatting by an airstrip since 19433 because a plane once landed and dropped off food. Sic weeks ain't that long. Meanwhile, if I needed extra money I could do exhibitions, have two-ton semis drive over my stomach at state fairs." - Richard Price Ladies Man
posted by jonmc at 5:56 AM on March 10, 2008

"And God was angry."

The holy bible.
posted by fourcheesemac at 5:58 AM on March 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

The circumstances of his death were as follows. A fairly mild attack of uraemia had led to his being ordered to rest. But, an art critic having written somewhere that in Vermeer's View of Delft (lent by the Gallery at The Hague for an exhibition of Dutch painting), a picture which he adored and imagined that he knew by heart, a little patch of yellow wall (which he could not remember) was so well painted that it was, if one looked at it by itself, like some priceless specimen of Chinese art, of a beauty that was sufficient in itself, Bergotte ate a few potatoes, left the house, and went to the exhibition. At the first few steps he had to climb, he was overcome by an attack of dizziness. He walked past several pictures and was struck by the aridity and pointlessness of such an artificial kind of art, which was greatly inferior to the sunshine of a windswept Venetian palazzo, or of an ordinary house by the sea. At last he came to the Vermeer which he remembered as more striking, more different from anything else he knew, but in which, thanks to the critic's article, he noticed for the first time some small figures in blue, that the sand was pink, and, finally, the precious substance of the tiny patch of yellow wall. His dizziness increased; he fixed his gaze, like a child upon a yellow butterfly that it wants to catch, on the precious patch of wall. "That's how I ought to have written," he said. "My last books are too dry, I ought to have gone over them with a few layers of colour, made my language precious in itself, like this little patch of yellow wall." Meanwhile he was not unconscious of the gravity of his condition. In a celestial pair of scales there appeared to him, weighing down one of the pans, his own life, while the other contained the little patch of wall so beautifully painted in yellow. He felt that he had rashly sacrificed the former for the latter. "All the same," he said to himself, "I shouldn't like to be the headline news of this exhibition for the evening papers."

He repeated to himself: "Little patch of yellow wall, with a sloping roof, little patch of yellow wall." Meanwhile he sank down on to a circular settee whereupon he suddenly ceased to think that his life was in jeopardy and, reverting to his natural optimism, told himself: "It's nothing, merely a touch of indigestion from those potatoes, which were undercooked." A fresh attack struck him down; he rolled from the settee to the floor, as visitors and attendants came hurrying to his assistance. He was dead. Dead for ever? Who can say? Certainly, experiments in spiritualism offer us no more proof than the dogmas of religion that the soul survives death. All that we can say is that everything is arranged in this life as though we entered it carrying a burden of obligations contracted in a former life; there is no reason inherent in the conditions of life on this earth that can make us consider ourselves obliged to do good, to be kind and thoughtful, even to be polite, nor for an atheist artist to consider himself obliged to begin over again a score of times a piece of work the admiration aroused by which will matter little to his worm-eaten body, like the patch of yellow wall painted with so much skill and refinement by the artist destined to be for ever unknown and barely identified under the name Vermeer. All these obligations, which have no sanction in our present life, seem to belong to a different world, a world based on kindness, scrupulousness, self-sacrifice, a world entirely different from this one and which we leave in order to be born on this earth, before perhaps returning there to live once again beneath the sway of those unknown laws which we obeyed because we bore their precepts in our hearts, not knowing whose hand had traced them there - those laws to which every profound work of the intellect brings us nearer and which are invisible only - if then! - to fools. So that the idea that Bergotte was not dead for ever is by no means improbable.

They buried him, but all through that night of mourning, in the lighted shop-windows, his books, arranged three by three, kept vigil like angels with outspread wings and seemed, for him who was no more, the symbol of his resurrection.
- Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time
posted by nasreddin at 6:05 AM on March 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

"It's the law in most states, at least in mine, that it must rain on all long holiday weekends, else how would multitudes become drenched and miserable."

John Steinbeck, The Winter of Our Discontent
posted by wsg at 6:05 AM on March 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

“Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies — ‘God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.’ ” —Kurt Vonnegut, God Bless You Mister Rosewater, or Pearls Before Swine
posted by Toekneesan at 6:22 AM on March 10, 2008 [3 favorites]

This reminds me of the ludicrous account which he gave Mr. Langton, of the despicable state of a young Gentleman of good family. 'Sir, when I heard of him last, he was running about town shooting cats.' And then in a sort of kindly reverie, he bethought himself of his own favourite cat, and said, 'But Hodge shan't be shot; no, no, Hodge shall not be shot.'
- James Boswell, Life of Johnson


- Vladimir Nabokov, Pale Fire
posted by nasreddin at 6:22 AM on March 10, 2008

My searchlight expired, but still I ran. I heard voices, and yowls, and echoes, but above all there gently rose that impious, insidious scurrying; gently rising, rising, as a stiff bloated corpse gently rises above an oily river that flows under the endless onyx bridges to a black, putrid sea.
H. P. Lovecraft, The Rats in the Walls, 1924
posted by BeerFilter at 6:30 AM on March 10, 2008 [2 favorites]

"Ain't you going to even send a nigger? " he cried. "At least you sent a nigger before!"
(From William Faulkner's "Barn Burning".)
posted by orthogonality at 6:31 AM on March 10, 2008

Wombed in sin darkness I was too, made not begotten. By them, the man with my voice and the woman with ashes on her breath. -James Joyce, Ulysses
posted by milarepa at 6:36 AM on March 10, 2008

He had always kept this old symbol of taking a knife and striking his father to the heart. Only now, as he grew older, and sat staring at his father in an impotent rage, it was not him, that old man reading, whom he wanted to kill, but it was the thing that descended on him –- without his knowing it perhaps: that fierce sudden black-winged harpy, with its talons and its beak all cold and hard, that struck and struck at you (he could feel the beak on his bare legs, where it had struck when he was a child) and then made off, and there he was again, an old man, very sad, reading his book. That he would kill, that he would strike to the heart. Whatever he did -- and he might do anything, he felt, looking at the Lighthouse and the distant shore) whether he was in a business, in a bank, a barrister, a man at the head of some enterprise, that he would fight, that he would track down and stamp out -- tyrrany, despotism, he called it -- making people do what they did not want to do, cutting off their right to speak.
From Virginia Woolf's To The Lighthouse.
posted by Greg Nog at 6:38 AM on March 10, 2008

I did not think about the future. In spite of what the doctor at the clinic had said I felt certain that the cure would fail. The pattern of destiny seemed clear: down and down, and down.

But then the mysteries began.

John Fowles, The Magus

There's a quote in there too, that I can't find right now, about teaching and how a really terrible teacher, a monster or freak, is better than a mediocre teacher, because a child can learn from all extremities of humankind. It's brilliant and it always springs to mind but, alas, I'm not finding it right now.
posted by mygothlaundry at 6:38 AM on March 10, 2008

Never, never, never, never, never.
-- Shakespeare, "King Lear"

The destruction of words is a beautiful thing.
-- Orwell, "1984"
posted by grumblebee at 6:50 AM on March 10, 2008

Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta. She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita. Did she have a precursor? She did, indeed she did. In point of fact, there might have been no Lolita at all had I not loved, one summer, an initial girl-child. In a princedom by the sea. Oh when? About as many years before Lolita was born as my age was that summer. You can always count on a murderer for fancy prose style. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, exhibit number one is what the seraphs, the misinformed, simple, noble-winged seraphs, envied. Look at this tangle of thorns.

-- Nabokov, Lolita
posted by shakespeherian at 6:52 AM on March 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

I tried to show my ability to harness language once, and it bit me viciously on my shoulder then crapped on my new shoes.
posted by mecran01 at 6:56 AM on March 10, 2008

"There is nothing in the world more helpless and irresponsible and depraved than a man in the depths of an ether binge." Hunter S. Thompson, "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas"
posted by AJaffe at 7:06 AM on March 10, 2008

From the point of view of admittedly privileged white male technocrats such as Randy Waterhouse and his ancestors, the Palouse was like one big live-in laboratory for nonlinear aerodynamics and chaos theory. Not much was alive there, and so one's observations were not forever being clouded by trees, flowers, fauna, and the ploddingly linear and rational endeavors of humans. The Cascades blocked any of those warm, moist, refreshing Pacific breezes, harvesting their moisture to carpet ski areas for dewy-skinned Seattleites, and diverted what remained north to Vancouver or south to Portland. Consequently the Palouse had to get its air shipped down in bulk from the Yukon and British Columbia. It flowed across the blasted volcanic scab land of central Washington in (Randy supposed) a more or less continuous laminar sheet that, when it hit the rolling Palouse country, ramified into a vast system of floods, rivers and rivulets diverging around the bald swelling hills and recombining in the sere declivities. But it never recombined exactly the way it was before. The hills had thrown entropy into the system. Like a handful of nickels in a batch of bread dough this could be kneaded from place to place but never removed. The entropy manifested itself as swirls and violent gusts and ephemeral vortices. All of these things were clearly visible, because all summer the air was full of dust or smoke, and all winter it was full of windblown snow.

--Neal Stephenson, Cryptonomicon
(chosen more or less at random from handfuls of passages that read like this)

The opening line to Neuromancer is incredibly evocative, but I've also long been a fan of this one:
Night City was like a deranged experiment in social Darwinism, designed by a bored researcher who kept one thumb permanently on the fast-forward button. Stop hustling and you sank without a trace, but move a little too swiftly and you'd break the fragile surface tension of the black market; either way, you were gone, with nothing left of you but some vague memory in the mind of a fixture like Ratz, though heart or lungs or kidneys might survive in the service of some stranger with New Yen for the clinic tanks. Biz here was a constant subliminal hum, and death the accepted punishment for laziness, carelessness, lack of grace, the failure to heed the demands of an intricate protocol.

--William Gibson, Neuromancer
posted by the luke parker fiasco at 7:43 AM on March 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

This, from Chapte 29 of Herman Melville's Moby-Dick:

Some days elapsed, and ice and icebergs all astern, the Pequod now went rolling through the bright Quito spring, which, at sea, almost perpetually reigns on the threshold of the eternal August of the Tropic. The warmly cool, clear, ringing, perfumed, overflowing, redundant days, were as crystal goblets of Persian sherbet, heaped up - flaked up, with rose-water snow. The starred and stately nights seemed haughty dames in jewelled velvets, nursing at home in lonely pride, the memory of their absent conquering Earls, the golden helmeted suns! For sleeping man, 'twas hard to choose between such winsome days and such seducing nights. But all the witcheries of that unwaning weather did not merely lend new spells and potencies to the outward world. Inward they turned upon the soul, especially when the still mild hours of eve came on; then, memory shot her crystals as the clear ice most forms of noiseless twilights. And all these subtle agencies, more and more they wrought on Ahab's texture.
posted by beagle at 7:54 AM on March 10, 2008

from Lolita:

"We all have such fateful objects--it may be a recurrent landscape in one case, a number in another--carefully chosen by the gods to attract events of special significance for us: here shall John always stumble; there shall Jane's heart always break."
posted by nonmerci at 7:57 AM on March 10, 2008

I got out of a year of college English by writing an AP exam essay on this passage in Wuthering Heights:
I knocked over Hareton, who was hanging a litter of puppies from a chair-back in the doorway...
Like father, like son, and all that.
posted by MrMoonPie at 7:59 AM on March 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

"Then come and let's have a bit of dinner."
"Why do you ask me?"
"Not out of charity," I answered coolly. "I don't really care a twopenny damn if you starve or not."
His eyes lit up again.
"Come on, then," he said getting up. "I'd like a decent meal."
The Moon and Sixpence
posted by nebulawindphone at 8:00 AM on March 10, 2008

She larft then she said, 'Riddley there aint nothing what aint a tel for you. The wind in the nite the dus on the road even the leases stone you kick a long in front of you. Even the shadder of that leases stoan roaling on or stanning stil its all telling.'

Russell Hoban, Riddley Walker
posted by generalist at 8:05 AM on March 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

I had been making the rounds of the Sacrifice Poles the day we heard my brother had escaped. I already knew something was going to happen; the Factory told me.

The Wasp Factory -- Iain Banks
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 8:13 AM on March 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

Mr. Holmes, they were the footprints of a gigantic hound!"
posted by Man-Thing at 8:18 AM on March 10, 2008

The Magus is great. I need to re-read it.

As I am in another country without my books handy, I must trust Wikiquote for this (spoken by The Judge - sorry if it's a bit longish):

If God meant to interfere in the degeneracy of mankind would he not have done so by now? Wolves cull themselves, man. What other creature could? And is the race of man not more predacious yet? The way of the world is to bloom and to flower and die but in the affairs of men there is no waning and the noon of his expression signals the onset of night. His spirit is exhausted at the peak of its achievement. His meridian is at once his darkening and the evening of his day. He loves games? Let him play for stakes. This you see here, these ruins wondered at by tribes of savages, do you not think that this will be again? Aye. And again. With other people, with other sons.

Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian.
posted by m0nm0n at 8:34 AM on March 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

The truck went on down the road and when the sound of it finally faded away, he walked close with the little gun out in front of him and pushed the safety off with his thumb. It made a tiny click and Russell closed his eyes and covered those eyes with his hands. Waiting. Joe started to tell him a few things first, then decided there was no need of that.
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 8:55 AM on March 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

m0nm0n, you reminded me of this one, so evocative it's breath-stopping:

Far out on the desert to the north dustspouts rose wobbling and augured the earth and some said they'd heard of pilgrims borne aloft like dervishes in those mindless coils to be dropped broken and bleeding upon the desert again and there perhaps to watch the thing that had destroyed them lurch onward like some drunken djinn and resolve itself once more into the elements from which it sprang. Out of that whirlwind no voice spoke and the pilgrim lying in his broken bones might cry out and in his anguish he may rage, but rage at what?

--Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian

posted by the luke parker fiasco at 9:01 AM on March 10, 2008

She felt very young; at the same time unspeakably aged. She sliced like a knife through everything; at the same time was outside, looking on... far out to sea and alone; she always had the feeling that it was very, very dangerous to live even one day.

Virginia Woolf - Mrs. Dalloway
posted by gaspode at 9:01 AM on March 10, 2008

Amazed this hasn't been mentioned yet (and I would've mentioned it anyway):

The ones for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.

- Jack Kerouac, On The Road
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 9:02 AM on March 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

Expletive Deleted: I was thinking of the closing passage to The Great Gatsby, too. Saves me the trouble of looking it up.

orthogonality: Brideshead Revisted has a subtitle? I never knew that.
posted by A-Train at 9:07 AM on March 10, 2008

Only one Rushdie line so far? Here's my favorite, which could sum up all of his writing:

The town looked like a picture postcard torn up by an angry child and then painstakingly reassembled by its mother. It had acquired the quality of brokenness, had become kin to the great family of the broken: broken plates, broken dolls, broken English, broken promises, broken hearts.

--The Ground Beneath Her Feet
posted by krakedhalo at 9:12 AM on March 10, 2008

I'm more than a little surprised that these bits, so meaningful to each of us that took a moment to add them, lose so much out of context.

It's a bit like trying to choose one feather from a beautiful bird which will allow everyone to see the bird. It fails.
posted by Patapsco Mike at 9:23 AM on March 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

Let us hope that we are preceded in this world by a love story.
--Of Time and Memory

And in the nonfiction realm, I think this passage sums up the style and genius of Bill Bryson:

It is easy to overlook this thought that life just is. As humans we are inclined to feel that life must have a point. We have plans and aspirations and desires. We want to take constant advantage of all the intoxicating existence we've been endowed with. But what's life to a lichen? Yet its impulse to exist, to be, is every bit as strong as ours - arguably even stronger. If I were told that I had to spend decades being a furry growth on a rock in the woods, I believe I would lose the will to go on. Lichens don't. Like virtually all living things, they will suffer any hardship, endure any insult, for a moment's additional existence. Life, in short, just wants to be. But - and here's an interesting point - for the most part it doesn't want to be much.
----A Short History of Nearly Everything
posted by you're a kitty! at 9:33 AM on March 10, 2008

"Real isn't how you are made," said the Skin Horse. "It's a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real."

"Does it hurt?" asked the Rabbit.

"Sometimes," said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. "When you are Real you don't mind being hurt."

"Does it happen all at once, like being wound up," he asked, "or bit by bit?"

"It doesn't happen all at once," said the Skin Horse. "You become. It takes a long time. That's why it doesn't happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in your joints and very shabby. But these things don't matter at all, because once you are Real you can't be ugly, except to people who don't understand."

-The Velveteen Rabbit
posted by toastedbeagle at 9:41 AM on March 10, 2008 [3 favorites]

"Meanwhile, let us have a sip of tea. The afternoon glow is brightening the bamboos, the fountains are bubbling with delight, the soughing of the pines is heard in our kettle. Let us dream of evanescence, and linger in the beautiful foolishness of things."

- from The Book of Tea by Kakuzo Okakura
posted by gudrun at 9:52 AM on March 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

Malcolm Lowry, Under The Volcano. My vote for the most beautiful long sentence ever written.

It is a light blue moonless summer evening, but late, perhaps ten o'clock, with Venus burning hard in daylight, so we are certainly somewhere far north, and standing on this balcony, when from beyond along the coast comes the gathering thunder of a long many-engined train, thunder because though we are separated by this wide strip of water from it, the train is rolling eastward and the changing of the wind veers for the moment from an easterly quarter, and we face east, like Swedenborg's angels, under a sky clear save where far to the northeast over distant mountains whose purple has faded, lies a mass of almost pure white clouds, suddenly, as by a light in an alabaster lamp, illumined from within by gold lightning, yet you can hear no thunder, only the roar of the great train with its engines and its wide shunting echoes as it advances from the hills into the mountains: and then all at once a fishing boat with tall gear comes running round the point like a white giraffe, very swift and stately, leaving directly behind it a long silver scalloped rim of wake, not visibly moving inshore, but now stealing ponderously beachward toward us, this scrolled silver rim of wash striking the shore first in the distance, then spreading all along the curve of beach, its growing thunder and commotion now joined to the diminshing thunder of the train, and now breaking reboant on our beach, while the floats, for there are timber diving floats, are swayed together, everything jostled and beautifully ruffled and stirred and tormented in this rolling sleeked silver, then little by little calm again, and you see the reflection of the remote white thunderclouds in the water, and now the lightning within the white clouds in deep water, as the fishing-boat itself with a golden scroll of travelling light in its silver wake beside it reflected from the cabin vanishes round the headland, silence, and then again, within the white white distant alabaster thunderclouds beyond the mountains, the thunderless gold lightning in the blue evening. . . unearthly.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 10:06 AM on March 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

"A person to whom everything can be said - am I an idiot to want such a thing? But ah, the energy we spend hiding from one another, afraid as we are of being's the uncertainty concerning themselves that makes our friends conspire to deny the differences. By scraps and bits I've in the past surrendered myself to strangers--men who disappeared down the gangplank, got off at the next station: put together, maybe they would've made the one person in the world--but there he is with a dozen different faces moving down a hundred separate streets."

-Truman Capote, The Grass Harp
posted by granted at 10:19 AM on March 10, 2008

It was I killed the old pawnbroker woman and her sister Lizaveta with an axe and robbed them
posted by vsync at 10:47 AM on March 10, 2008

I'm more than a little surprised that these bits, so meaningful to each of us that took a moment to add them, lose so much out of context. It's a bit like trying to choose one feather from a beautiful bird which will allow everyone to see the bird. It fails.

I disagree, but I also think this exercise works much better for nonfiction than for fiction, as in the original example. It is hard (but interesting) to try to encapsulate a work of fiction, especially something rich and complex, in a single passage. But nonfiction books often provide a better opportunity, especially when the writer has the ability to wax poetic about a topic while still sticking to their thesis.

Witness Pater's famous passage on the Mona Lisa:
She is older than the rocks among which she sits; like the vampire, she has been dead many times, and learned the secrets of the grave; and has been a diver in deep seas, and keeps their fallen day about her; and trafficked for strange webs with Eastern merchants: and, as Leda, was the mother of Helen of Troy, and, as Saint Anne, the mother of Mary; and all this has been to her but as the sound of lyres and flutes, and lives only in the delicacy with which it has moulded the changing lineaments, and tinged the eyelids and the hands. The fancy of a perpetual life, sweeping together ten thousand experiences, is an old one; and modern thought has conceived the idea of humanity as wrought upon by, and summing up in itself, all modes of thought and life.
Yeats turned it into poetry for a reason.
posted by blahblahblah at 10:48 AM on March 10, 2008

From "The Guns of Avalon" (Roger Zelazny)

"Thus did I bear Sir Lancelot du Loc to the keep of Ganelorn, whom I trusted like a brother. That is to say, not at all."

Quoted from memory, so might not be verbatim.
The story is about a bunch of princes and princesses who are all fighting and intriguing against each other in order to claim the throne or various other pettyness, but when the fit hits the shan, they have to grow up and stop acting like spoiled brats. Among other things.
posted by -harlequin- at 10:52 AM on March 10, 2008

I was always partial to Van Helsing's throwaway at the end of Dracula:

We want no proofs. We ask none to believe us! This boy will some day know what a brave and gallant woman his mother is. Already he knows her sweetness and loving care. Later on he will understand how some men so loved her, that they did dare much for her sake.
posted by steef at 11:00 AM on March 10, 2008

The New We Work and Play:
Look, Father.
Dick is big.
Sally is little.
Big, big Dick.
Little Baby Sally.
posted by pracowity at 11:03 AM on March 10, 2008

“I was also sad because I knew I’d had a Perfect Moment and I would now have to go home.” – Spalding Gray, Swimming to Cambodia.

So many authors recognized on this thread have also given me “perfect moments” in literature.
Nice to see Amy Hempel as well as the words from Brideshead Revisited quoted here!

But bookhouse, did you have to choose the very ending of her most tragic story?
posted by skyper at 11:05 AM on March 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

I copied this out of my profile page, and I know this isn't really literature in the strictest sense, and this line isn't so much beautiful as it is an ageless distillation of a fundamental truth:
For ourselves, we shall not trouble you with specious pretences- either of how we have a right to our empire because we overthrew the Mede, or are now attacking you because of wrong that you have done us- and make a long speech which would not be believed; and in return we hope that you, instead of thinking to influence us by saying that you did not join the Lacedaemonians, although their colonists, or that you have done us no wrong, will aim at what is feasible, holding in view the real sentiments of us both; since you know as well as we do that right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.
-Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War
posted by [expletive deleted] at 11:47 AM on March 10, 2008 [4 favorites]

When I read the closing passage of "Death Constant Beyond Love" by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, it was like a knife through my heart:

"Then she laid his head on her shoulder with her eyes fixed on the rose. The senator held her about the waist, sank his face into woods-animal armpit, and gave in to terror. Six months and eleven days later he would die in that same position, debased and repudiated because of the public scandal with Laura Farina and weeping with rage at dying without her."

posted by triggerfinger at 11:52 AM on March 10, 2008

For some context, this is from the Melian dialogue, and is spoken by the Athenians. The Melians, for their part, refuse to submit to the extortion of Athens, and give a passioned defense of the justness of their neutrality. The Athenians dismiss the pleas of Melos and proceed to kill every man, sell the women and children into slavery, and colonize the depopulated island.
posted by [expletive deleted] at 11:55 AM on March 10, 2008

Here's bit of poetry for a change

The self observing Mind
We meet when we observe
at all
Is not alarming or unkind
But utterly banal

W.H. Auden
from Friday's Child
posted by donfactor at 12:12 PM on March 10, 2008

A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

-James Joyce, The Dead
posted by farmdoggie at 12:29 PM on March 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

Alussa olivat suo, kuokka -- ja Jussi.

Väinö Linna - Täällä Pohjantähden alla

(my rough, adhoc translation)
In the beginning there was a swamp, a hoe -- and Jussi.
posted by slimepuppy at 12:37 PM on March 10, 2008

Oceania was at war with Eastasia: Oceania had always been at war with Eastasia.
--George Orwell, 1984


And I say to Sam now: "Sam—here's the book.: It's so short and jumbled and jangled, Sam, because there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre. Everybody is supposed to be dead, to never say anything or want anything ever again. Everything is supposed to be quiet after a massacre, and it always is, except for the birds.

And what do the birds say? All there is to say about a massacre, things like 'Poo-tee-weet?'"

I have told my sons not under any circumstances to take part in massacres, and that the news of massacres of enemies is not to fill them with satisfaction or glee.

I have also told them not to work in companies that make massacre machinery, and to express contempt for people who think we need machinery like that.
--Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five, Or The Children's Crusade: A Duty-dance with Death


Hassan stumbles homeward, picking his way in a series of child's short-cuts across the bomb sites and the rubble of Baghdad.

And, though his stomach hurts (for fasting is easy, this Ramadan; and food is hard to come by) his head is held high and his eyes are bright.

And behind his eyes are towers and jewels and djinn, carpets and rings and wild afreets, kings and princes and cities of brass.

And he prays as he walks (cursing his one weak leg the while), prays to Allah (who made all things) that somewhere, in the darkness of dreams, abides the other Baghdad (that can never die), and the other egg of the phoenix.
--Neil Gaiman, The Sandman #50, "Ramadan"
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 1:02 PM on March 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

...I would have traded
places with anyone raised on love
but how would anyone raised on love
bear this death?

-- Sharon Olds, Wonder

Does it count if its from a poem? Amy Hempel used this to introduce the novella Tumble Home, so its really is the opening line of a book. I love that line, either way.
posted by ameliajayne at 1:37 PM on March 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

… The cloth was drawn and the toasts began. Among others they drank Wives and sweethearts and although the usual facetious murmurs of and may they never meet were heard all round the table it was remarkable that hardly a man, on this last leg of their voyage, was unaffected. Vinous sentiment might have played some part in this but it certainly did not in every case. Jack, for example, had drunk nothing at all and yet he was so moved by a sudden diamond-sharp vision of his home—by this vision, coming on top of his horrible day, and by the thoughts that crowded into his head—that the only way he could think of to do his convivial duty by the gunroom and its guests was to drink to them each in turn. This he did not by order of seniority but counter-clockwise: ‘Mr. Mowett, a glass of wine with you sir, and to the the Muses. —Mr. Butcher, I drink to you sir, and to the shores of the Potomac.’ Allen, the grey-headed master of the Surprise , was a splendid seaman, but in formal gatherings he was usually so shy, ill-at-ease and constrained that it was no kindness to address him; but this afternoon he was bright pink with pleasure, and he replied to Jack’s proposal by bowing low, filling a bumper and draining it with the hearty words ‘And my dear love to you, sir.’ Beyond Allen sat Honey, a master’s mate whom Jack had appointed acting-lieutenant, and when Honey had finished explaining the English peerage to his right-hand neighbour, Jack called down the table and drank with him. Then, when the decanter came full circle he said to the neighbour in question, ‘Mr. Winthrop, sir, let us drink to the ladies of Boston.’ Adams, the purser came next, a cheerful man, now in full glow from having his pork, beef, bread, candles, tobacco, spirits and slops aboard and exactly booked; but when he poured his wine Jack cried ‘Come, sir, I see some of the Almighty’s daylight in that glass, which is close on treason. Let it be abolished.’ Much the same could have been said for Martin’s modest toast, but Jack had too much respect for the cloth to point it out; and having emptied his own glass he poured another, saying ‘Killick, take this to Mr Maitland,’—the other acting-lieutenant, who had the deck—‘and say I drink to him.’ Then came Howard, the Marine officer, whose face was as red as his coat and whose body was scarcely capable of taking another drop of wine, though his spirit was clearly willing. And lastly there was Jack’s left-hand, neighbour: ‘Dr. Maturin, a glass of wine with you.’

… Mr Allen had to rouse Stephen from his reverie … to make him understand the Captain’s proposal. ‘A glass of wine? He wishes to drink a glass of wine with me? By all means. Your very good health, sir, and may no new thing arise. God send us luck on our voyage.’ It was clear from his tone that he thought luck would be needed, and this might have cast a chill on the party had not the Marine officer chosen the same moment for gliding under the table, a smooth plunge into smiling, speechless coma.

Patrick O'Brian, The Reverse of the Medal
posted by stargell at 1:55 PM on March 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

The heaviest weight. - What if some day or night a demon were to steal into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: 'This life as you now live it and have lived it you will have to live once again and innumerable times again; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unspeakably small or great in your life must return to you, all in the same succession and sequence - even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned over again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!' Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: 'You are a god, and never have I heard anything more divine.' If this thought gained power over you, as you are it would transform and possibly crush you; the question in each and every thing, 'Do you want this again and innumerable times again?' would lie on your actions as the heaviest weight! Or how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life to long for nothing more fervently than for this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal?
- Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science (this works for his whole body of work)
posted by nasreddin at 2:08 PM on March 10, 2008 [4 favorites]

With apologies to those with better taste:

"Anyone whose goal is 'something higher' must expect someday to suffer vertigo. What is vertigo? Fear of falling? No, Vertigo is something other than fear of falling. It is the voice of the emptiness below us which tempts and lures us, it is the desire to fall, against which, terrified, we defend ourselves." -Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being
posted by Thin Lizzy at 2:15 PM on March 10, 2008

"The past is never dead. It's not even past"

- Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun
posted by gordie at 2:20 PM on March 10, 2008 [2 favorites]

"Take my camel, dear," said my Aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass.
posted by jfuller at 2:57 PM on March 10, 2008

A week passed in which we saw no one except the mayor of a mountain village some miles away who came to look us over. He came on a day when I was dozing alone in the shade of a huge rock. I knew about ten words of Greek and he knew about three words of English. We had a remarkable colloquy, considering the limitations of language. Seeing that he was half-cracked I felt at ease and, since the Durrells were not there to warn me against such antics, I began to do my own cracked song and dance for him, which was to imitate male and female movie stars, a Chinese mandarin, a bronco, a high diver and such like. He seemed to be vastly amused and for some reason was particularly interested in my Chinese performance. I began to talk Chinese to him, not knowing a word of the language, whereupon to my astonishment he answered me in Chinese, his own Chinese, which was just as good as mine. The next day he brought an interpreter with him for the express purpose of telling a whopping lie, to wit, that some years ago a Chinese junk had been stranded on this very beach and that some four hundred Chinamen had put up on the beach until their boat was repaired. He said he liked the Chinese very much, that they were a fine people, and that their language was very musical, very intelligent. I asked did he mean intelligible, but no he meant intelligent. The Greek language was intelligent too. And the German language. Then I told him I had been in China, which was another lie, and after describing that country I drifted to Africa and told him about the Pygmies with whom I had also lived for a while. He said they had some Pygmies in a neighboring village. It went on like this from one lie to another for several hours, during which we consumed some wine and olives. Then someone produced a flute and we began to dance, a veritable St. Vitus’ dance which went on interminably to finish in the sea where we bit one another like crabs and screamed and bellowed in all the tongues of the earth.

Henry Miller, The Colossus of Maroussi
posted by stargell at 3:08 PM on March 10, 2008

“In those places where it happens, the survivors, the people nearby who are injured, sometimes, months later, they develop bumps, for lack of a better term, and it turns out this is caused by small fragments, tiny fragments of the suicide bomber’s body. The bomber is blown to bits, literally bits and pieces, and fragments of flesh and bone come flying outward with such force and velocity that they get wedged, they get fixed in the body of anyone who’s in striking range. Do you believe it? A student is sitting in a café. She survives the attack. Then, months later, they find these little, like, pellets of flesh, human flesh that got driven into her skin. They call this organic shrapnel.”
--DeLillo, Falling Man
posted by HerArchitectLover at 3:42 PM on March 10, 2008

I like this passage from The Things They Carried:
As a first lieutenant and platoon leader, Jimmy Cross carried a compass, maps, code books, binoculars, and a .45-caliber pistol that weighed 2.9 pounds fully loaded. He carried a strobe light and the responsibility of the lives of his men.
posted by kirkaracha at 3:55 PM on March 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

Entry '24th April 1905' from Einstein's Dreams (by Alan Lightman) is one of my favorite few pages in print. I'm able to look at the world with both lenses, but neither fully.

"In this world, there are two times. There is mechanical time and there is body time. The first is as rigid and metallic as a massive pendulum of iron that swings back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. The second squirms and wriggles like a bluefish in a bay. The first is unyielding, predetermined. The second makes up its mind as it goes along.
Many are convinced that mechanical time does not exist. When they pass the giant clock on the Kramgasse they do not see it; nor do they hear its chimes while strolling between flowers in the Rosengarten. They do not keep clocks in their houses. Instead, they listen to their heartbeats.
Then there are those who think that their bodies don't exist. They live by mechanical time. They rise at seven o'clock in the morning. They eat their lunch at noon and their supper at six. They arrive at their appointments on time, precisely by the clock. They make love between eight and ten at night. They work forty hours a week, read the Sunday paper on Sunday, play chess on Tuesday nights. When their stomach growls, they look at their watch to see if it is time to eat. When they begin to lose themselves in a concert, they look at the clock above the stage to see when it will be time to go home. They know that the body is not a thing of wild magic, but a collection of chemicals, tissues, and nerve impulses."

posted by ilovemytoaster at 4:25 PM on March 10, 2008

I hope this preamble will soon come to an end and the statement begin that will dispose of me. Unfortunately I am afraid, as always, of going on. For to go on means going from here, means finding me, losing me, vanishing and beginning again, a stranger first, then little by little the same as always, in another place, where I shall say I have always been, of which I shall know nothing, being incapable of seeing, moving, thinking, speaking, but of which little by little, in spite of these handicaps, I shall begin to know something, just enough for it to turn out to be the same place as always, the same which seems made for me and does not want me, which I seem to want and do not want, take your choice, which spews me out or swallows me up, I'll never know, which is perhaps merely the inside of my distant skull where once I wandered, now am fixed, lost for tininess, or straining against the walls, with my head, my hands, my feet, my back, and ever murmuring my old stories, my old story, as if it were the first time. So there is nothing to be afraid of. And yet I am afraid, afraid of what my words will do to me, to my refuge, yet again. Is there really nothing new to try? I mentioned my hope, but it is not serious. If I could speak and yet say nothing, really nothing? Then I might escape being gnawed to death as by an old satiated rat, and my little tester-bed along with me, a cradle, or to be gnawed to death not so fast, in my old cradle, and the torn flesh have time to knit, as in the Caucasus, before being torn again. But it seems impossible to speak and yet say nothing, you think you have succeeded, but you always overlook something, a little yes, a little no, enough to exterminate a regiment of dragoons. And yet I do not despair, this time, while saying who I am, where I am, of not losing me, of not going from here, of ending here. What prevents the miracle is the spirit of method to which I have perhaps been a little too addicted. The fact that Prometheus was delivered twenty-nine thousand nine hundred and seventy years after having purged his offence leaves me naturally as cold as camphor. For between me and that miscreant who mocked the gods, invented fire, denatured clay and domesticated the horse, in a word obliged humanity, I trust there is nothing in common. But the thing is worth mentioning. In a word, shall I be able to speak of me and of this place without putting an end to us, shall I ever be able to go silent, is there any connection between these two questions? Nothing like issues. There are a few to be going on with, perhaps one only.

- Samuel Beckett (the Unnameable)
posted by UbuRoivas at 4:51 PM on March 10, 2008

krakedhalo, here's another Rushdie line. A bit cheesy, but I like it nonetheless:
These things are bad for you: sex, high-rise buildings, chocolate, lack of exercise, dictatorship, racism! No, au contraire. Celibacy damages the brain, high-rise buildings bring us closer to God, tests show that a bar of chocolate a day significantly improves children's academic performance, exercise kills, tyranny is just a part of our culture so I'll thank you to keep your cultural-imperialist ideas off my fucking fiefdom, and as for racism, let's not get all preachy about this, it's better out in the open than under some grubby carpet. That extremist is a moderate! That universal right is culturally specific! This circumcised woman is culturally happy! That Aboriginal whistlecockery is culturally barbaric! Pictures don't lie! This image has been faked! Free the press! Ban nosy journalists! The novel is dead! Honor is dead! God is dead! Aargh, they're all alive, and they're coming after us! That star is rising! No, she's falling! We dined at nine! We dined at eight! You were on time! No, you were late! East is West! Up is down! Yes is No! In is Out! Lies are Truth! Hate is Love! Two and two make five! And everything is for the best, in this best of all possible worlds.

Music will save us, and love.

-The Ground Beneath Her Feet, Salman Rushdie
posted by suedehead at 4:59 PM on March 10, 2008

In our camps, you were expected not only to be a slave laborer, but to sing and smile while you worked as well. They didn't just want to oppress us: they wanted us to thank them for it.

—Vladimir Bukovsky, "Work in the Camps," Gulag
posted by spiderwire at 6:02 PM on March 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

"I have wrestled with death. It is the most unexciting contest you can imagine. It takes place in an impalpable greyness, with nothing underfoot, with nothing around, without spectators, without clamour, without glory, without the great desire of victory, without the great fear of defeat, in a sickly atmosphere of tepid scepticism, without much belief in your own right, and still less in that of your adversary. If such is the form of ultimate wisdom, then life is a greater riddle than some of us think it to be. I was within a hair's-breadth of the last opportunity for pronouncement, and I found with humiliation that probably I would have nothing to say. This is the reason why I affirm that Kurtz was a remarkable man. He had something to say. He said it."

-J. Conrad, Heart of Darkness
posted by ersatz at 6:02 PM on March 10, 2008

Mama says mine is a night mind. - "Random Acts of Senseless Violence", Jack Womack

THEM! is a great movie. They show it sometimes on Nightmare Theater, Channel 7. If you see it in the TV Guide, you should really watch it because it has ideas in it that could come in handy someday if you are ever facing the authorities in the desert and you are covered with blood that is not actually yours. "Cruddy", Lynda Barry
posted by OolooKitty at 6:03 PM on March 10, 2008

From The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem
It was entirely possible that one song could destroy your life. Yes, musical doom could fall on a lone human form and crush it like a bug. The song, that song, was sent from somewhere else to find you, to pick the scab of your whole existence. The song was your personal shitty fate, manifest as a throb of pop floating out of radios everywhere.

At the very least the song was the soundtrack to your destruction, the theme. Your days reduced to a montage cut to its cowbell beat, inexorable doubled bass line and raunch vocal, a sort of chanted sneer, surrounded by groans of pleasure. The stutter and blurt of what--a tuba? French horn? Rhythm guitar and trumpet, pitched to mockery. The singer might as well have held a gun to your head. How it could have been allowed to happen, how it could have been allowed on the radio? That song ought to be illegal. It wasn't racist-you'll never sort that one out, don't even start-so much as anti-you.

Yes they were dancing, and singing, and movin' to the groovin', and just when it hit me, somebody turned around and shouted--

Every time your sneakers met the street, the end of that summer, somebody was hurling it at your head, that song.

Forget what happens when you start haunting the green-tiled halls of Intermediate School 293.

September 7, 1976, the week Dylan Ebdus began seventh grade in the main building on Court Street and Butler, Wild Cherry's "Play That Funky Music" was the top song on the rhythm and blues charts. Fourteen days later it topped Billboard's pop charts. Your misery's anthem, number-one song in the nation.

Sing it through gritted teeth: WHITE BOY!

Lay down the boogie and play that funky music 'til you die.
posted by AceRock at 6:26 PM on March 10, 2008

“And beauty is a form of genius -- is higher, indeed, than genius, as it needs no explanation. It is of the great facts of the world, like sunlight, or spring-time, or the reflection in dark waters of that silver shell we call the moon. It cannot be questioned. It has its divine right of sovereignty. It makes princes of those who have it.”
posted by empath at 7:43 PM on March 10, 2008

"Struggle starts at the beginning and before, and at rest the life in a man is like the cocked spring of a lizard's tongue, waiting upsprung for a fly to come. Even as you are still, the tanks fill up, detonations accumulate, schemes pile on, and dance halls are opened within the brain. Even priests, who attempt to be tame, are propelled by the very same force into rarified precincts no less ecstatic than those they foreswear."

Mark Helprin - Memoir from Antproof Case
posted by holdkris99 at 8:16 PM on March 10, 2008

Oh, and forgot Tolstoy:

A little old man with unkempt beard was doing something bent down over some iron, muttering meaningless French words, and she, as she always did in this nightmare (it was what made the horror of it), felt that this peasant was taking no notice of her, but was doing something horrible with the iron—over her. And she waked up in a cold sweat.

posted by generalist at 9:13 PM on March 10, 2008

The original NYT example was non-fiction. In that vein:
It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us. These laws, taken in the largest sense, being Growth with Reproduction; inheritance which is almost implied by reproduction; Variability from the indirect and direct action of the external conditions of life, and from use and disuse; a Ratio of Increase so high as to lead to a Struggle for Life, and as a consequence to Natural Selection, entailing Divergence of Character and the Extinction of less-improved forms. Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.
(Concluding paragraph of The Origin of Species, by Charles Darwin, first edition. (The edition that doesn't add "the Creator" to the final sentence.))
posted by orthogonality at 9:48 PM on March 10, 2008 [2 favorites]

Harder to do than I thought. So many books I adore. I realized in looking for the one pithy sentence or passage of a Somerset Maugham short story or a Lawrence Durrell darkly sensual vignette that I do love the whole book, not merely a mosaic piece. But in a way each sentence has that DNA aspect, some core signature that is particular to the author.

Chaucer's Prologue to The Canterbury Tales

Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote
The droghte of Marche hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;

H. Hudson's Green Mansions

A slight rustling sound in the foliage above me made me start and cast up my eyes. High up, where a pale gleam of tempered sunlight fell through the leaves
posted by nickyskye at 11:52 PM on March 10, 2008

ortho: The original NYT example was non-fiction.

Gulag is non-fiction.
posted by spiderwire at 12:13 AM on March 11, 2008

Walter Benjamin "Theses on the Philosophy of History" IX in Illuminations

My wing is ready for flight,
I would like to turn back.
If I stayed timeless time,
I would have little luck
--Gerhard Scholem, "Gruss vom Angelus"

A Klee painting name "Angelus Novus" shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angels of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise, it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer watch them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.
posted by doncoyote at 12:30 AM on March 11, 2008

The Thing cannot be described - there is no language for such abysms of shrieking and immemorial lunacy, such eldritch contradictions of all matter, force, and cosmic order. A mountain walked or stumbled. God!

from "The Call of Cthulhu," by H.P. Lovecraft
posted by Caduceus at 10:54 AM on March 11, 2008

I would submit the last scene of chapter 11 of Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle which is too long to post here, and really needs to be read in context. The prose is pedestrian; the scene is just two guys discussing a possible business deal about some art; but given all that comes before, it's mind-blowing. At least for me.
posted by wobh at 4:04 PM on March 11, 2008

Look again at that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader," every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there—on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.

It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known.
--Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 6:33 PM on March 11, 2008 [1 favorite]

Nice post, and a very fine selection so far. I have dozens of notebooks filled with quotes from thousands of books I’ve read over the last 30 years; for some reason one from Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye comes to mind first:

”Then, after the Rockettes, a guy came out in a tuxedo and roller skates on, and started skating under a bunch of little tables, and telling jokes while he did it. He was a very good skater and all, but I couldn’t enjoy it much because I kept picturing him practicing to be a guy that roller-skates on the stage. It seemed so stupid. I guess I just wasn’t in the right mood.”

Another of my all-time favorite ‘essence’ quotes comes from Prospero near the beginning of The Tempest: ”Me, poor man, my library was dukedom large enough.”
posted by LeLiLo at 1:42 AM on March 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

Towards the end of Don Quixote:

"Alas," answered Sancho, sobbing, "dear sir, do not die; but take my counsel, and live many years; for the greatest madness a man can commit in this life is to suffer himself to die, without anybody's killing him, or being brought to his end by any other hand than that of melancholy. Be not lazy, sir, but get out of bed, and let us be going to the field, dressed like shepherds, as we agreed to do: and who knows, but behind some bush or other we may find the lady Dulcinea disenchanted as fine as heart can wish?"

I wept.
posted by Brian James at 7:56 AM on March 13, 2008 [1 favorite]

"I'm so embarrassed."

-There's A Monster At The End Of This Book, by Lovable, Furry Old Grover
posted by A Long and Troublesome Lameness at 6:37 PM on April 2, 2008 [1 favorite]

[N]othing is more damaging to the adventurous spirit within a man than a secure future.
--Chris McCandless, letter to Ron Franz, quoted by Jon Krakauer in Into the Wild
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 4:37 PM on April 7, 2008

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