The more we read, the more we see reminders that experiences or perceptions we thought were distinctive to us are in fact widespread, even banal.
This is encouraging, about the universality of experience. And discouraging, about our capacity for original views.
The Atlantic's literary editor Benjamin Schwarz, who has read as much on as broad a range of topics as anyone I've known, provides the latest reminder for me in this month's "Editor's Choice" column in the magazine*. That's not Ben at the right; it's Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury through the mid-1500s, whose lasting effect on the world was to compose the Anglican Book of Common Prayer of 1549. My wife and sons learned to dread the mention of Thomas Cranmer's name in our household, because I had so often made the point that hearing his works, read aloud, for thousands of hours in my childhood permanently shaped my idea of how an English sentence should sound.
I am not a believing, spiritual person, but from first consciousness until age 17 I spent so much time at Episcopal church services with the "old style" Cranmer liturgy that even now I can recite very long passages by rote. The same is of course true for people exposed to the standard holy texts in most religions: prayers in Hebrew, the old Latin mass, Sutras and Vedas, the Islamic call to prayer, and so on. The distinctive aspect of the Cranmer liturgy is that it is in English -- and a particular form of stately English whose wording may seem antique but whose rhythms retain a classic beauty. I wouldn't, and can't, write the same way. Yet passages like those after the jump have stuck in my mind as the pure idea of how sentences should be paced, should repeat for emphasis yet also vary, should end.