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Best opening lines from classic books: May fisticuffs ensue!

September 21, 2010

Hoookay, so maybe I was a crook. But I wrote a great opening line.

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.

“I was sitting in a taxi, wondering if I had overdressed for the evening, when I looked out the window and saw Mom rooting through a Dumpster.” Jeannette Walls, The Glass Castle.
“The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new.” Samuel Beckett, Murphy.
In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit.
“They say when trouble comes close ranks, and so the white people did.” Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea.
“There were four of us.” Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men in a Boat.
“There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.” C.S. Lewis, Voyage of the Dawn Treader.
“Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board.” Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God.
“The moment one learns English, complications set it.” Felipe Alfau, Chromos.
“My mother died today, or perhaps it was yesterday.” Albert Camus, The Stranger.

Criminy! This is like potato chips at a party — I can hardly bring myself to stop.
Please note that we are talking just about opening lines here. I know Richard Nixon was a crook, that Anna Karenina is a very great novel, and that in endorsing Catcher in the Rye I am seemingly a big fat hypocrite, only not really, because it’s the rest of the book I have a problem with. The opening is kinda great.
So what are some of  your favorites?
17 Comments leave one →
  1. Sean permalink
    September 21, 2010 9:41 am

    The line from Hurston about the ships is beautiful. I always liked the opening of ‘The Good Soldier’: “This is the saddest story I have ever heard.”

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      September 21, 2010 9:51 am

      Yeah, that’s a great one, too. Not bad for a guy named Ford Madox Ford. I mean, couldn’t he get a Lincoln in there somewhere?

  2. Candice Simmons permalink
    September 21, 2010 10:57 am

    My 8th grade students’ favorite: “Mr. Underhill came out from under his hill, smiling and breathing hard.” Ursula K. le Guine, “Rule of Names”

    “In the beginning.”–The Bible

    “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.” Franz Kafka, “The Metamorphosis”

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      September 21, 2010 11:05 am

      Those are all excellent, demanding the reader to continue….

  3. John Karwacki permalink
    September 21, 2010 12:14 pm

    I think Candice nailed number one of all time with “In the beginning…”, I never would have thought of that. I disagree with you on Anna Karenina, Chauncey, but I guess we’ve had that conversation. Three of my favs:
    “He wished the phone would stop ringing.” Johnny Got his Gun – Dalton Trumbo
    “Of all the things that drive men to sea, the most common disaster, I’ve come to learn, is women.” Middle Passage – Charles Johnson
    “Life is a hideous thing, and from the background behind what we know of it peer daemoniacal hints of truth which make it sometimes a thousandfold more hideous.” Facts Concerning the LateArthur Jermyn and His Family – H.P. Lovecraft
    There are so many great opening lines. Another fine exercise for the mind, Chauncey.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      September 21, 2010 10:55 pm

      Fun is my middle name. Just ask any of my ex-girlfriends.

  4. September 21, 2010 5:59 pm

    I was happy you included Voyage of the Dawn Treader. I also liked the second and third sentences from the book: “His parents called him Eustace Clarence and masters called him Scrubb. I can’t tell you how his friends spoke to him, for he had none.”

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      September 21, 2010 10:58 pm

      Lewis doesn’t get his due as a stylist. Good as Narnia is, he really excels as an essayist. One of the best of the 20th century. I read him sometimes just for the music of his language and the clarity of his argumentation — even when he does not persuade me.

  5. September 21, 2010 6:10 pm

    Ken Kesey’s Sometimes a Great Notion:

    Along the western slopes of the Oregon Coastal Range. . . come look: the hysterical crashing of tributaries as they merge into the Wakonda Auga River. . .
    The first little washes flashing like thick rushing winds through sheep sorrel and clover, ghost fern and nettle, sheering, cutting. . . forming branches.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      September 21, 2010 10:59 pm

      That’s trying too hard for my taste, but I can see why you love it.

  6. September 21, 2010 9:33 pm

    ”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.” Actually, this opening is really good and deserves to be on the list simply because it encompasses every generation, all times, all epochs. It catches the past the present and the future. And because of that, readers will keep reading. And that’s what you want, Chauncey – readers reading, turning the page and allowing the story to tell itself.

    Better, however (in a thematic sense) is Bleak House (skipping the first sentence and going to) “Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as if the water had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderul to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long …” so on and so forth, the entire first paragraph, the first page capturing brilliantly the tone of Dickens most brilliant novel. Well, in my humble estimation.

    One more comment and then I’ll quit: “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.” I can only say I wish I had written it!

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      September 21, 2010 11:03 pm

      Duff

      It’s with fear and trembling that I disagree with you, but I find the opening to A Tale of Two Cities cliched and hackneyed, pompous and overblown. And as this is game is about opening lines, I must call you out of bounds for skipping to the second sentence of Bleak House–though I agree with you regarding the wonder of hte language. And Lolita, absolutely. Possibly the greatest novel of the 20th century, although the competition is stiff.

      Hmmm…maybe I’ll do that column sometime….

  7. September 22, 2010 10:01 am

    “Where’s father going with that axe?” said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.

    — Charlotte’s Web

    This is one of my favorite books because it taught me the writer that I had the freedom to kill off beloved characters. And indeed, probably should.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      September 22, 2010 11:08 am

      Great recommendation, PJ. Puts me in mind of my favorite Pink Floyd song: “Careful With That Axe, Eugene.”

  8. Dave permalink
    September 22, 2010 12:32 pm

    “Foating upward through a confusion of dreams and memory, curving like a trout through the rings of previous risings, I surface.”
    –Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner

    Even better, a bit further in, “What smells like altitude is latitude.”

  9. Candice Simmons permalink
    September 22, 2010 3:18 pm

    Can we do poetry next? Ya’ll are putting me in the mood for Howl.

  10. Candice Simmons permalink
    September 22, 2010 3:28 pm

    P.S. Chauncey Mabe. Maybe you find the opening lines of A Tale of Two Cities cliched and hackneyed because it is so famous because it is so good that is has become….well….cliched and hackneyed.

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