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Friday, May 30, 2014

Book Memories 09 | Sue Leib Bernstein

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It’s All About the Words

There’s something about a well-crafted turn of a phrase that has always given me pause. Even as a child, when I would read a book and came across an unexpected, beautifully-turned phrase, I would stop and read just that phrase, over and over, until I could practically taste it. Then, I would continue on with the story.

For me to love a book, it must have more than just well-fleshed-out characters, an engaging story and snappy repartee. The books that stay with me are the ones whose word choices surprise and delight me, whose phrases are both unexpected and exquisite. One of the first books I can remember staying with me is "The Age of Innocence," by Edith Wharton.

"The Age of Innocence" is the story of upper-class mores of New York society beginning in the 1870s and how, with the turn of the 20th century and passing of generations, change affects every aspect of the traditions they held so dear. This is a world where style and form are the highest values. Sounds dry as dust, doesn’t it? But, Edith Wharton’s words and descriptions bring this world to vivid, delicious life.  Instead of merely advising the readers that the matriarch of that New York society, Mrs. Manson Mingott, is fat, Ms. Wharton wrote: “The immense accretion of flesh which had descended on her in middle life like a flood of lava on a doomed city had changed her from a plump active little woman with a neatly-turned foot and ankle into something as vast and august as a natural phenomenon.” I clearly remember reading this for the first time in high school and rolling the words “the immense accretion of flesh” around on my tongue. 

Instead of a mundane throw-away line about the matriarch no longer being physically active, Ms. Wharton wrote: “The burden of Mrs. Manson Mingott’s flesh had long since made it impossible for her to go up and down stairs….” The burden of her flesh – I love this phrase. It is succinct, concise and descriptive without being maudlin. It is perfect.

The protagonist of the story, Newland Archer, is a young man of modern values who is constrained by the traditions of the society in which he, his family and friends lived. As described by Wharton, they lived above the “unruffled surface of New York society.” Newland was engaged to be married to May Welland, which would accomplish not only his own betrothal but the merger of two honored New York families. While watching his fiancĂ©e from across the audience of the old opera house, Newland “contemplated her absorbed young face with a thrill of possessorship in which pride in his own masculine initiation was mingled with a tender reverence for her abysmal purity.” With all deference to modern culture, isn’t this a much nicer way of saying that he was proud of himself for being the one to snag this beautiful, young virgin? In literature, whether old or new, it’s all about the words.


Sue is a typical Gemini – she craves novelty and variety and gets bored easily. These traits have served Sue well, leading her to try her hand at many fields. Over the last 25% years, Sue is and has been an attorney, corporate risk manager, personal caterer and editor. Currently, Sue is exercising her passion for voice acting by narrating the fabulous fiction of author Imogen Rose. You can also catch Sue on TV in a national commercial for Dunkin’ Donuts. Sue lives in New Jersey with her husband, son and three very large cats.

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