It is a sad truth that 98.7453 percent of books contain approximately 200 pages–give or take a hundred–of arguably worthwhile reading crammed into 400 pages.*
Some boast a considerably steeper ratio: say, three pages, in some cases three syllables, for every 400 pages. Most, however, meet Samuel Johnson’s précis of Milton’s Paradise Lost: “None ever wished it longer than it is.”
By the time you turn the final leaves, your lungs are exploding, your muscles are in lactic acid shock, your vision is blurry with sweat. The bang as the book ends doesn’t emanate from the rightness of the last lines but the sound of you slamming the cover and collapsing in relief.
A book that concludes with grace, economy, and that mystical, indefinable something that makes you feel like God’s in his heaven and all’s right with the world is a gem, a thing of beauty and a joy forever, and as rare as an ibex sipping a Red Bull on the subway.
Kee Malesky, the venerable librarian of NPR’s Weekend Edition offers up her own list of best literary last lines as, fittingly, the last inessential list in her book, All Facts Considered: The Essential Library of Inessential Knowledge. The conclusion to Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes is one of her choices:
Isn’t this a great country altogether?
Another is the somewhat less cheery concluding line of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby:
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
The Gatsby line featured high up in the lists compiled by both the American Book Review and BBC Radio 4’s Today show, as did reliable lit crowd favorites “yes I said yes I will Yes” (James Joyce, Ulysses); “It was the devious-cruising Rachel, that in her retracing search after her missing children, only found another orphan,” (Herman Melville, Moby Dick); and that brazen little hussy Scarlett O’hara: “Tomorrow, I’ll think of some way to get him back. After all, tomorrow is another day.”
The American Book Review cheated just a tad in extending their list to 100 best last lines–which comes to about 50 last lines too long. (The final line of Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way? Come now; I’m fairly certain that line hasn’t been viewed by the eye of man upwards of ten times this last decade.)
I was pleased, however, that two of my favorites made an appearance, both courtesy of George Orwell. From Animal Farm:
The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.
And from 1984–short, sweet, and terrifying:
He loved Big Brother.
Another on my personal favorite list is the conclusion of Toni Morrison’s Tar Baby, which has always freaked me out:
Lickety-split. Lickety-split. Lickety-lickety-lickety-split.
Even as devout a humor novel lover as, I am must admit that few–any?–comedic novels seem to end in memorable, quote-y, chisel-it-on-your-tombstone, best-last-line fashion. The Last Line Hall of Fame is exclusively reserved for the weighty or political or tortured or inspirational or confused “I can’t go on, I’ll go on” type writers (Samuel Beckett, The Unnamable).
Which is fine. We can’t all be members of the rollicking literary yang when the balance of the universe must needs a broody yin to send us off with pithy last lines like Russell Banks’ from Continental Drift:
Go, my book, and help destroy the world as it is.
Now, there’s a philosophy to live by.
*Based on a survey conducted by me and answered by me, in true, unbiased scientific fashion.