Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta. -Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita
Those who know me know that the above passage is my favorite to read and recite and imitate. The opening three paragraphs of Lolita often appear on any list of beautiful prose excerpts. But what makes those contenders so beautiful? What makes the above quote better than others? Begin by reading it aloud. Good passages should never go unspoken.
Beautiful passages are not profound—they don't reveal an inner truth about humans or open our eyes; they simply are beautiful to read. "Yes," I said. "Isn't it nice to think so?" is one of those lines, the last of Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises. Within context, it's powerful, but without context, it's beautiful. The beauty which I refer to is the sound of words when placed together, like a musical phrase that begins, grows, and descends to a final cadence. Great writers—not good ones—are those whose writing speaks lyrically. Not every sentence must sound perfect, but a touch of poetry within prose cannot hurt. Writing isn't only slapping words into a story with interesting characters; it's an art and should be treated as such.