S Is for Sensibility

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I LOVE the word Sensibility—its lovely ambiguity probably initially occurring to me decades ago, the first time I read Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility.

It can mean simply “having good sense” or sound judgment; OR it can carry the deliciously fine suggestion of definition 2: “The ability to appreciate and respond to complex emotional or aesthetic influences; sensitivity.” That puts it in close proximity to “style” and intelligent discernment—a refined sensitivity based on experience.

Though, as is obvious with all these tentacles attached to it, the word remains difficult to pin down—yet it is surely a desirable trait to work toward, gradually and relentlessly.

Someone has even suggested that having this quality enables one to connect well with the works of Jane Austen—and that all worthy characters in Austen’s novels have some manifestations of both definitions: “sense” AND “sensibility.”

And as Emily Dickinson informs us—it IS possible to “get somewhere” on this journey:

There is no frigate like a book


To take us lands away,


Nor any coursers like a page


Of prancing poetry.


This traverse may the poorest take


Without oppress of toll;


How frugal is the chariot


That bears a human soul!

S is for Sensibility—and just as naturally, I can say that reading with practiced discernment, developing an ear for fineness of distinction in phrasing and wit, is at least one path to its realization.

I was told early in my career as a writer that the best method for developing one’s own style was to read the greats, fill our minds with the felicitousness of finely tuned thinking and expression. Like gazing at a statue (or role model) one aspires to resemble, or practicing a musical or artistic technique one wants to emulate, it is a slow but well-supported method for achieving a style of one’s own.

As E. B. White reminds us (in his classic Elements of Style): “Language is always being nurtured. It is born like a child.”

And this lovely summation from the incomparable John Updike both celebrates and shares his own process:

“To condense from one’s memories and fantasies and small discoveries dark marks on paper which become handsomely reproducible many times over still seems to me, after nearly 30 years concerned with the making of books, a magical act, and a delightful technical process. To distribute oneself thus, as a kind of confetti shower falling upon the heads and shoulders of mankind out of bookstores and the pages of magazines is surely a great privilege and a defiance of the usual earthbound laws whereby human beings make themselves known to one another.”

Sensibility, indeed.

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