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In the beginning: What are your favorite opening lines from books?

May 26, 2011

God: Greatest writer. Ever.

Way back when I was a tyke, reading reviews instead of writing them, I gobbled down an essay in which a critic claimed that we remember the endings of movies best, and the beginnings of books. I can’t recall how his argument went, but I still find it persuasive.

I do recollect that his examples were the opening line of A Tale of Two Cities (“It was the best of times, it was the best of times,” etc., etc.), and the closing dialogue of Casablanca (“Louis I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship”).

Of course even then I could see that as with all general rules abundant exceptions are close at hand (“It is a far, far better thing I do,” says poor dissolute Sidney Carton, as he goes to the guillotine at the end of A Tale of Two Cities).

But still, the principle stands: Opening lines of books, at their best, are not only worth remembering, but can also resonate through the entire story — and even beyond, to alter, however subtly, the way a particular reader views life, the world and everything.

I’m put in mind of opening lines by a feature, “Best First Sentences,” over at the Huffington Post, where the editors have once again polled their readers. And those readers have done a better job than they have in the past, coming up with a respectable list.

The list ranges from the obvious (“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” Dickens; “It is a truth universally acknowledged…,” Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice; “All happy families are alike…” Tolstoy, Anna Karenina) to the more modern to the truly surprising.

I’m quite shocked to see one of my favorites, from Samuel Beckett’s Murphy: “The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new,” as well as the single most brilliant line ever written by Hunter S. Thompson, the first sentence from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: “”We were just outside of Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs kicked in.”

The HuffPo list shows that great lines can from anywhere, not just the literary canon– popular fiction (“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again,” Daphne du Maurier, Rebecca); young adult novels (“When I stepped out into the bright sunlight from the darkness of the movie house, I had only two things on my mind: Paul Newman and a ride home,” S.E. Hinton, The Ousiders); or horror/sci-fi (“The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed,” Stephen King, The Gunslinger.)

I’m so charmed by the HuffPo list that I’m not going to bother with some of my standard pet peeves, such as how the opening to A Tale of Two Cities is an instant cliche and should have been struck, or how the opening to Anna Karenina is exactly wrong (it’s unhappy families that are all alike, damn it!), or how I would have chose the first line of The Hobbit over the first line to The Lord of the Rings.

But I’m eager to play, so I’ll just give a nod of appreciation and approval to HuffPo readers, and present a few of my own favorite opening lines.

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” God, Genesis. Boom. Okay, so the Big Guy speaks of himself in the Third Person, like an NBA superstar, but if you credit him with authorship of all the world’s great sacred literature (and why not?), then He’s the best Author ever. “In the beginning was the Word,” the opening of the Gospel of St. John, is pretty groovy, too.

“They order, said I, this matter better in France.” Laurence Sterne, A Sentimental Journey. The opening to Tristram Shandy, describing the narrator’s own conception, is even better, but it goes on for half a page.

“On a fine spring day in 1968, Daly Racklin, six months short of fifty, was told by a doctor at the Montefiore Hospital in Pittsburgh that he had less than a year to live.” Lester Goran, Bing Crosby’s Last Song. Readers deserve to find Goran, one of the most underappreciated novelists and short-story writers of the post-war generation.

“You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter.” Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. How can we leave off the greatest American novel?

“Mama died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don’t know.” Albert Camus. The Stranger. Sartre was existentialism’s theorist, but Camus was its storyteller.

“The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.” William Gibson.  Neuromancer. The line that launched a new subgenre, cyberpunk. Sci-fi (which is to say: the world) has never been the same since.

“Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge.” Margaret Atwood. The Blind Assassin.

“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents.” H.P. Lovecraft. The Call of Cthulu.

“It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me.” Anthony Burgess. Earthly Powers.

“Kidnapping children is never a good idea; all the same, sometimes it has to be done.” Eva Ibbotson, Island of the Aunts.

“I am a sick man… I am a spiteful man. I am an unpleasant man. I think my liver is diseased.” Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes from Underground.

“There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.” C.S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.

Okay, okay. I’ll stop here in one minute. These things are like potato chips! To make this list a baker’s dozen, though, here’s my favorite opening from any novel I’ve read this decade/century/millennia. It’s from a first novel by a French film scholar, believe it or not:

“All children become sad in the late afternoon, for they begin to comprehend the passage of time. The light starts to change. Soon they will have to head home, and to behave, and to pretend.” Stephane Audeguy,  The Theory of Clouds. That’s three sentences, true, but they’re short, and together so mounful and lovely and true, by themselves they compelled me to read a book I otherwise would have passed on.

We all have favorites: What are some of yours?

9 Comments leave one →
  1. PJ Parrish permalink
    May 26, 2011 3:24 pm

    It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents, except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the house-tops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness. — Edward George Bulwer-Lytton

    I dare you to come up with one more, ah…memorable.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      May 26, 2011 4:27 pm

      It is a …. classic, no doubt about it.

  2. Candice Simmons permalink
    May 26, 2011 3:38 pm

    When Gregor Samson woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself changed in his bed into a monstrous vermin. Franz Kafka, “The Metamorphosis”

  3. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    May 26, 2011 4:29 pm

    Yep, that’s a great one, but I like the first sentence from The Trail even better: “Someone must have slandered Josef K., for one morning, without having done anything truly wrong, he was arrested.”

    • Candice Simmons permalink
      May 26, 2011 7:46 pm

      You are right. Still, I remember reading “The Metamorphosis” in high school English class. That opening sentence just threw my for a flip and I’ve never forgotten it.

  4. Candice Simmons permalink
    May 26, 2011 7:48 pm

    Oh, and I also like the two opening paragraphs of “Farmer Giles of Ham.” Heck, I love the whole story.

  5. May 27, 2011 1:52 pm

    Fun read but I always wonder when I read these best first line lists what we’d come up with if the first lines stood fully independent of the books they introduce. For example, you include this:

    “You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter.” Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. How can we leave off the greatest American novel?

    If you haven’t read both books, that is not a particularly memorable line. Purged of context, the only interesting thing it does is establish a unique voice. Whereas another of your picks:

    “There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.” C.S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.

    can be appreciated even if you’ve never read any of Lewis’ work.

  6. Cody permalink
    June 16, 2011 3:06 am

    IT-Stephen King: “The terror, which would not end for another twenty-eight years–if it ever did end–began, so far as I know or can tell, with a boat made from a sheet of newspaper floating down a gutter swollen with rain.”

  7. Zoe permalink
    October 16, 2012 1:40 pm

    The hunter s. Thompson quote from fear and loathing is incorrect in this post… Just so you know.

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