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Poet Dana Gioia nails it.

Every not-so-often, a person can distill a complex idea into one sentence.

It’s a rare event. But when it happens the idea snaps into your mind forever.

Today’s Econ Talk podcast episode was one such occasion.

Dana Gioia snapped my synapses when he shared this definition of the novel:

Now, the great thing of literature–and this is literature as distinct from film and other theater, which are forms of storytelling–but the beauty of the novel and poetry is that they essentially are our cultural machinery for articulating the inner lives of people. In effect, the novel is based on–the very definition of the novel, although people never talk about this–is based on irony. Which is to say, somebody’s outer life is doing this and their inner life is doing that.

It’s hard to think of a novel that doesn’t follow this idea. I’m sure there’s some experimental four hundred pager out there, but the novels I truly know all exhibit this tension between the characters inner and outer life.

In Tolkien’s The Hobbit – Bilbo duels between his craving for comfortable Shire life and his Took instincts for adventure.

In Jeff Smith’s Bone – Fone Bone longs to return to Boneville, but harbors a secret love for Thorn who could never follow him there (Graphic novels count too right?).

Or in Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake – Gogol’s divided between the need to honor his parents and his traditional Indian heritage, and the allure of American success.

Irony threads through all of them. And novels will no longer read the same to me.

Russ Roberts and Dana Gioia’s conversation was inspiring throughout.

Listen in full below:

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First Sentences

The prisoner in the photograph is me.

Hole in my life, Jack Gantos

On a sticky August evening two weeks before her due date, Ashima Ganguli stands in the kitchen of a Central Square apartment, combining Rice Krispies and Planters peanuts and chopped red onion in a bowl.

The Namesake, Jhumpa Lahiri

In the land of Ingary, where such things as seven league boots and cloaks of invisibility really exist, it is quite a misfortune to be born the eldest of three.

Howl’s Moving Castle, Diana Wynne Jones

I noticed writing out first sentences is like sliding them under a microscope.

By removing them from their natural habitat – the paragraph they’re resting on, you can see what they’re up too.

See what their hiding.

These three sentences all establish a world. A tone. They all introduce a character and a problem.

Efficient!

Seductive!

Come read more, they beg!

Jack is in prison.

Ashima is pregnant and alone in an apartment that doesn’t feel like home.

And while cloaks of invisibility exist in Ingary, apparently being the oldest of three is a problem.

This makes me think of the first sentences I’ve written.

Did they create the same effect?