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Life Sentences: Literary Judgments and Accounts

4.14  ·  Rating Details ·  139 Ratings  ·  29 Reviews
A dazzling new collection of essays—on reading, writing, form, and thought—from one of America’s master writers.
It begins with the personal, both past and present. It emphasizes Gass’s lifelong attachment to books and moves on to the more analytical, as he ponders the work of some of his favorite writers (among them Kafka, Nietzsche, Henry James, Gertrude Stein, Proust
Hardcover, 368 pages
Published January 17th 2012 by Knopf (first published January 1st 2012)
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Nick Craske
Jan 04, 2013 Nick Craske rated it it was amazing
Gass welcomes you into his home, into his study with its surrounding library, and leads you through stacks and piles and columns of books to a large generous desk and offers you a seat in a well worn and inviting armchair and then, after his insightful, compassionate and artful chat and banter on many writers, their styles and their lives -which William began as he greeted you- and after holding you rapt in your ecstasy of listening he chooses numerous and varied works of fiction from the toweri ...more
MJ Nicholls
Aug 31, 2013 MJ Nicholls rated it it was amazing
Shelves: non-fiction, merkins
The most recent compilation of post-millennium Gass essays is as pleasurable and eclectic as the two previous collections, A Temple of Texts and Tests of Time, despite the absence of alliteration in the title. Opening with six rare personal essays (Gass is not overly fond of childhood reminiscing) such as ‘Slices of Life in a Library,’ where he discusses his customised home-cum-library, with pictures viewable here, ‘Spit in the Mitt,’ a very rare short piece about his father and his baseball con ...more
Mar 16, 2012 Christopher rated it it was amazing
William H. Gass’s Life Sentences: Literary Judgments and Accounts is a remarkable work of criticism on several levels. Gass, who is the author of both fiction and literary criticism, is the master of his subject matter, and in the course of the book’s 350 pages, he engages the reader both through his delight in the poetry and prose of his favorite writers and his scorn for the propagandizing and sophistry of those who have earned his enmity. But where Gass’s work really sparkles is in his abilit ...more
Nathan "N.R." Gaddis
Never pass up the opportunity to read a Gass essay. He’s a master of the form.

The opening section, “The Personals Column”, begins with the solaceful “The Literary Miracle” ::
The finer works of art are miracles in the sense that they are so unlikely to have emerged from the ignoble and bloody hands of man that we stand in awe of them, and that they have been written or built or composed at the behest of superstitions so blatantly foolish as to embarrass reason, and cause common sense to snicker,
James Murphy
Oct 17, 2012 James Murphy rated it it was amazing
This is Gass's latest collection of essays, grouped into 4 sections. The first part is several personal essays, and it's followed by what I think is Gass's foremost quality, literary criticism. Three of his lectures on classicism is included, and the book concludes with 3 essays on the technical aspects of writing and grammar.

For me the criticism is the backbone of the collection. Here's a precious portrait of Gertrude Stein not to be missed. I learned even new, useful intricacies about reading
Ian "Marvin" Graye
Judgemental as Anything

All rise! The judge is in the court: "I write to indict mankind." Gass almost said "indite", because that would have been really punny. He didn't, but he tells us anyway about the pun foregone but not forgotten. And so a little titter (whatever that is) runs through the courtroom and back out the entrance.

The Emperor Gassius is a self-proclaimed master of the declaratory sentence. Here he plumbs the depths of the imperious and obnoxious mode. As the subtitle promises, it i
Jim Coughenour
For the past few months I've dipped in and out of Gass's latest collection of essays until I've read them all. There were only a few doldrums (the essay on Malcolm Lowry) and disappointments (the essay on Kafka). And yes I could live happily without ever reading another word by or about Henry James.

But Gass is impressive whatever his subject. His essay on Nietzsche is the best meditation on that vexing, fearless and pitiable philosopher that I've ever read. "Kinds of Killing" – beginning as a re
Douglas Dalrymple
Mar 22, 2012 Douglas Dalrymple rated it liked it
Reading Jacques Barzun’s From Dawn to Decadence when it was first published, I found it difficult, but not impossible, to believe that the author was 92 years old (he’s 104 now). I say ‘not impossible’ because there’s something in Barzun’s professorial delivery – however intellectually nimble – that suggests a comfort with his topic only earned after, well, decades and decades of deep acquaintance.

William Gass, at 87 years, is by now almost the fogey Barzun was twelve years ago, but I find it e
This is the good stuff right here, folks. It may take me a while before I can explain why. But almost all of these essays are awe-inspiring.
Mar 10, 2014 J.W.D. rated it did not like it
Cringeworthy cornball bile; the fat lady sings.
Apr 14, 2017 Kathy rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This book is like no other, and not a quick read.

There are four sections: The Personals Column, Old Favorites and Fresh Enemies, The Biggs Lectures in the Classics, and Theoretics.

The Personals Column includes six chapters of personal reflections, and was the most entertaining of the four book sections. Two of my highlights from The Literary Miracle chapter in this section:

"The fact that a gay guy painted the Sistine ceiling is not nearly as dumbfounding as the papacy's protection of pederasts
Oct 12, 2016 Robert rated it really liked it
William Gass's essay collection, Life Sentences, is, for the literary minded, worth reading. Gass excels not only in writing sentences, which he plays with in his title and I in mine (above) but in the scope of his literary and philosophical knowledge.

There are acute observations here about Kafka, Ford Maddox Ford, Wallace Stevens, Plato, Aristotle, Knut Hamsun (highly critical), Katherine Anne Porter, Henry James (one of Gass's heroes), Malcolm Lowry and others. There is a wonderful exposition
Dec 20, 2012 Geoff marked it as to-read
Picked this up today as an early Twelfth Night present for myself. The lovely hardcover wasn't not unpricey-esque, but its pages have the rough-cut edges and heavy grain of newly pressed mind-fodder put to flattened and dried pulp, and overall it is not bulky, maybe say mid-bulk, and rests in my hand nicely.
May 04, 2013 Bruce rated it really liked it
As with any work by Gass, this one is full of cleverisms and a good bit of enlightenment. His writing on Nietzsche is almost worth the price of the book.
Feb 02, 2012 Deb rated it liked it
Had to return this to the library. I am reading to leisurely, which is exactly how to read this. Bother.
Iľja Rákoš
Nov 22, 2014 Iľja Rákoš rated it really liked it
Somewhere in the middle of Life Sentences -his collection of essays covering topics biographical, autobiographical, syntactical, critical, and classical- William Gass includes an odd quote from another author, John Gardner:
"I have nothing to say, except that I think words are beautiful. I'm a stylist; for me, everything is rhythm and rhyme. There are a handful of other stylists, like Gass, Elkin, Barthelme, Barth, and Ralph Ellison, who have nothing to say either. We just write."

I say "odd qu
May 13, 2017 Julie rated it it was amazing
I don't throw five stars around lightly. Gass, as ever, makes his sentences soar no matter the subject of his musing. One of America's sharpest minds and greatest writers.
Aug 13, 2016 Mike rated it it was amazing
Chock full of insights, and chuckles as well. As the back leaf says, a "learned potpourri of fulminations and enthusiasms." Bears rereading.

10-19** .. Slices of life in a library
11.. traveling was cheaper by the book than by the ticket, and when you went by book you were always home in time for dinner.
15.. library, who's dust is the rust of time
... what his ultimate fate was, you shan't know, because I own the book and you don't
... on writers: no occupation can guarantee virtue the way har
Nov 08, 2012 Paul rated it it was amazing
In reading this book, I made something of a mistake; I chose to read it much in the way one reads a novel - front to back and in a few sittings as I could manage, time-wise. Reading from the front to back, in itself was not really problematic, but my overall enjoyment of this book would have been enhanced had I set the book down for a brief time after reading an essay and before reading the next one.

Gass’ erudition is evident but , by reading these essays too closely together, some of his brill
Jul 29, 2012 Julianne rated it liked it
This is learned. Refreshing for someone so long out of college. I also think, fairly astute, at least judging by its criticism of works that I've read. (Obviously, the jury's out on it's criticism of works I haven't read, which is most of its criticism.)

I think though, that William Gass plays favorites. Who doesn't? I know. But a critic really shouldn't. My approach to criticism (if you haven't glanced at my bookshelf) is to cast one's net wide, cast one's net deep, turn one's nose up at nothin
Wow. The essay "Kinds of Killing" (original found here: is an amazing commentary on the Holocaust. I'd love to take a class on this essay alone and discuss each paragraph. Thoughtful and thought-provoking, it's one of those things everyone should read.

"How was anti-Seimitism, so patently false in all its ages of activity, able to lodge itself in so many minds and thereafter weaken--no, remove--their moral character? How, in general, do people become slav
Aug 16, 2016 Trina rated it it was ok
Erudite. Like sitting through a series of lectures in college. Felt like I should be taking notes. Although he points out some interesting things about literary authors like Henry James (yay) and Knut Hamsun (boo), in the end I'd've probably dropped the class the way I did this book. Not because it was too hard, but because it was too boring. I like essays that are more cohesive like Isaiah Berlin's The Hedgehog and the Fox.
Jul 28, 2012 Alonzo rated it it was amazing
Shelves: reviewed
I didn't read all the essays, but the ones I read were good, as expected from Gass.
Apr 25, 2012 Brad rated it it was amazing
No matter how old he gets, his essays remain as sharp as ever. "Kinds of Killing" & "Lust" are particularly noteworthy.
Jun 17, 2012 James rated it it was amazing
The man has an eye and an ear for good prose that is almost matchless - not just his own but others, too.
Perhaps I'm going out of order. This is the first of Gass' works I have read. I enjoyed it quite a bit, particularly his literary criticism.
Anthony Connolly
Jan 25, 2012 Anthony Connolly rated it it was amazing
Great mind, exquisite prose. Not for the faint of heart.
Feb 25, 2013 Odoublegood rated it liked it
Physically, this is a very handsome book. The essays were a pleasure to read.
Laurel Casey
Laurel Casey rated it really liked it
Jun 27, 2015
Geoffrey Wells
Geoffrey Wells rated it liked it
Dec 21, 2015
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William Howard Gass (born July 30, 1924) is an American novelist, short story writer, essayist, critic, and former philosophy professor.

Gass was born in Fargo, North Dakota. Soon after his birth, his family moved to Warren, Ohio, where he attended local schools. He has described his childhood as an unhappy one, with an abusive, racist father and a passive, alcoholic mother; critics would later cit
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