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A paragraph model (catalog)

November 22, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments

The November 2009 issue of Harper’s commences with an interesting essay by Steven Stoll on the significance of the “Little Ice Age,” a puzzling period of cold that made things tough for many human communities for a few hundred years starting around 1300, perhaps. I refer to it here, though, not for its environmental implications but because there is a nice paragraph that might serve as a class model for organizing information as a  catalog or list. To provide context, I’ll include the sentence before and the sentence after the example paragraph:

Excavate the Middle Ages, and one unearths a geological event with enormous implications for how we think about and respond to climate.

Alpine people told of glaciers crushing villages. The growing season throughout northern Europe suddenly shortened by two months. Torrential rains and flooding at harvest devastated crops repeatedly throughout northern Europe during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Vikings arrived in Greenland late in the tenth century, at a time when they could plant wheat, but around 1350 the last residents ate their dogs before disappearing into the ice that had engulfed the southern tip of the island. As late as 1665, Norwegian wheat fields yielded just 70 percent of what they had produced in 1300. Cattle died on snow-covered pastures; wine and olive-oil production shifted south. A general sense of scarcity impelled agrarian people outward. Thousands of Europeans migrated to North America seeking relief, only to find the same impenetrable cold. Travelers and naturalists suspected for a century what geologists can now measure: the Northern Hemisphere fell into a frigid rut around 1350 that lasted until the nineteenth century.

This so-called Little Ice Age was not an ice age. (7)

A few things to notice about it: All but one of the examples is offered within the confines of its own single sentence, even if the example is complex. (That makes for nice sentence variety, by the way.) The topic sentence concludes the paragraph, doesn’t it? And that topic sentence is set up in terms that allow the essay to continue by turning to the question of proper naming, the question of definition, which is surely an element of argument.

And it’s quite vivid. Nobody who filled out this form in an exercise should have trouble writing something of real specificity and even, perhaps, vividness.

PS.  Here is a prose poem (?) by Czeslaw Milosz that also stands as a good model of listing that turns into something more by the end of the paragraph:

Tomber amoureux. To fall in love.  Does it occur suddenly or gradually?  If gradually, when is the moment “already”?  I would fall in love with a monkey made of rags.  With a plywood squirrel.  With a botanical atlas.  With an oriole.  With a ferret.  With a marten in a picture.  With the forest one sees to the right when riding in a cart to Jaszuny.  With a poem by a little-known poet.  With human beings whose names still move me.  And always the object of love was enveloped in erotic fantasy or was submitted, as in Stendhal, to a “crystallization,” so it is frightful to think of that object as it was, naked among the naked things, and of the fairy tales about it one invents.  Yes, I was often in love with something or someone.  Yet falling in love is not the same as being able to love.  That is something different. (“Falling in Love,” from Road-side Dog)

It’s interesting with this one to see that the catalog has a progression that we are meant to pick up on, reflecting the stages of the speaker’s life and leading to the distinction drawn in the final sentences.  Catalogs are shaped; Sears understood this long ago.

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