Not every post has to come straight from me (thank God), so I figure about once a week, or as the mood strikes, I will post a weekly favorite passage from a book I am reading. Currently I am reading Les Miserables by Victor Hugo. Since I am only on page 453, with 779 pages left to go I can only imagine anyone reading this blog regularly might get sick of seeing Les Mis. If I were to apologize for this it would only be half-hearted–if you haven’t read Les Mis you should.
This passage is from page 95, where Hugo is discribing the events that occured during Jean Valjean’s lengthy prison stint. I like it because of the flow and the use of punctiation.
Jean Valjean’s turn to escape came towards the end of that fourth year. His fellow-prisoners helped him as was customary. He got away, and for two days drifted in freedom through the countryside: if to be tracked is freedom, to be constantly on the alert, to tremble at every sound, to be frightened of everything, a smoking chimney, a passing man, a barking dog, a galloping horse, a striking clock; to be frightened of the daylight because one can see, and of the darkness because on cannot; to be frightened of the road, the pathway, and the thicket; to be afraid to sleep.
Read this outloud and hear the majesty that is good punctuation. Speaking this passage the cadence is natural: the first two lines are slower, with periods and colons as stop signs. Then the tempo picks up in the third line – the number of words between natural breaks (commas) grow fewer, which leaves one almost breathless. You read faster, more anxiously, which mimics the emotions that Valjean must have been feeling as he was hunted. Then at the end of the fourth line everything changes, drawing emphasis to the words, ” to be frightened of the daylight because one can see, and of the darkness because on cannot.” This displays a dichotomy, a conflict, and the punctuation helps you to slow down and absorb it.
I think I should write a poem titled: An Ode to Punctuation. Fodder for a future post.