Best opening lines from classic books: May fisticuffs ensue!
The fine folks over at Entertainment Weekly have put together a nifty conversation piece called “20 Classic Opening Lines in Books,” and they’ve actually got some of them right, though they miss badly on others. See if you agree, and if not: En garde!
No one, I think, could argue with No. 1, from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice: “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”
But others are just dumb. Take Dicken’s opening to A Tale of Two Cities: ”It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”
That’s just a mock-elegant variation on what my friend Tom Swick, travel writer par excellence, excoriates as the “land of contrasts” lead in travel writing: “Majorca (or wherever) is a land of contrasts, from the lovely hillsides to the glittering seashore; from the rustic farmlands to the bustling nightlife of the capital city…” It says nothing.
In fact, it’s as pompous and overwrought as Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s famous opening to his 1830 novel, Paul Clifford, generally held up as the primo example of bad writing: “It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents–except at intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets…” And so on for quite some space.
Much, much better, if we are to have a Dickens, is the opening of David Copperfield: “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.”
Likewise, in the True Classics vein, the opening of Anna Karenina is not, as EW avers, one of the best, but among the very worst: ”All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
That’s pithy, I’ll warrant, but again, it makes no sense, and works just as well if you run it the other way around: “All unhappy families are alike; each happy family…” And this locution has the advantage of being, I believe, closer to the truth.
The remainder of EW‘s picks (Huckleberry Finn, Catcher in the Rye, One Hundred Years of Solitude, among others) I have little problem with. But I do wonder if books like John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, Geoffrey Eugenides’s Middlesex, Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, or William Gibson’s Neuromancer quite qualify as classics as yet.
Likely they will, given the passage of time, especially with opening lines like this one, from Gibson’s groundbreaking sci-fi novel: ”The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.”
Here are a few I think should be considered as all-time great opening lines, and, since EW didn’t restrict itself to indisputable classics, I’m not going to, either:
“All children become sad in the late afternoon, for they begin to comprehend the passage of time.” Stephane Audeguy, The Theory of Clouds.
“I was born in the house my father built.” Richard Nixon, RN: The Memoirs of Richard Nixon.
“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” George Orwell, 1984.
“Someone must have slandered Josef K., for one morning, without having done anything truly wrong, he was arrested.” Franz Kafka, The Trial.