Thursday, January 24, 2008

New Day #28

Read the first lines of all the novels I own. It's not as impressive as it sounds. I own far fewer books than you'd expect, being, as I am, a promiscuous library user, the result of years of living in a small space on a budget. As a rule, I only buy books I've already read so that I can read them again and mark them up.

I have a fetish for opening lines. I figure every writer knows how important it is, so, if you can't write a good one, how good can the book possibly be? Life is short and I have no patience for this "the first fifty pages is tough, but then you get into it" nonsense. If I don't like the first line, back on the shelf it goes. If I do, then I'll read the first paragraph, then the rest of the first page. If I still like it, I take it home.

Looking over my books, I was surprised to discover some of my favorites hadn't held up. I've always been a fan of "Scarlett O'Hara was not beautiful," except I just discovered it's followed by some chuffa that mitigates the strength of those opening words. Likewise for this beauty from "Charlotte's Web:" "Where's Papa going with that ax?" followed by some blah-blah-blah about breakfast.

Of course, there are the obvious candidates. Here are my Top Eight, in no particular order:

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.

All children, except one, grow up.

Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.

As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.

The past is a foreign country: they do things different there.

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.

(For the answers, see the comment section)

Each one has a built-in suspense that urges you to read on. (A hobbit? What's a hobbit?) They're so simple, yet strong.

But there's nothing new in them--lots of people love these lines. So here's one I'd like to add, a gem I rediscovered in my buddy Laura Whitcomb's gorgeously written novel, Certain Slant of Light:

Someone was looking at me, a disturbing sensation if you’re dead.

I wish I'd written that.


Anonymous said...

Agreed on the importance of a good first line, and page. Here's a few from my (also small) collection:

“Waiter,” I said, in an exuberant mood, “I have a perfect life, but I don’t have a knife.”

Think of someone you know who is joyfully jobless.

First of all, it was October, a rare month for boys.

french panic said...

eeeeeeek! This is The Most Frustrating Game, Ever. I recognized 3 of the 8. Now I am salivating to know what the other 5 were.

How can you give so many fantastic openers and then not identify them? Same with the first comment, right up there above me.

So cruel. Tease.

Fran said...

Of all people, Dick Francis came up with an opening line I adore - "He stood on the outside of disaster, looking in." Caught me right up.

Anonymous said...


So I looked at the first line of my memoir:

"On Mother’s Day, my life began its latest transformation." I like it. Thanks.

Keep up the adventure, Mark!

Marc Acito said...

Answers, in order:

Pride and Prejudice (Austen)
Anna Karenina (Tolstoy)
One Hundred Years of Solitude (Marquez)
Peter Pan (Barrie)
Mrs. Dalloway (Woolf)
Metamorphosis (Kafka)
The Go-Between (Hartley)
The Hobbit (Tolkien)

Brian Rangell said...

Just finished Peter Pan (having performed an adapted version integrating Barrie's brilliant stage directions as narrations into the performance) and loved it. From Barrie's script I draw one of the most beautiful comments I've ever read, and one that touches me as an actor and reader:

All the characters, whether grown-ups or babes, must wear a child's outlook on life as their only important adornment. If they cannot help being funny they are begged to go away. A good motto for all would be 'The little less, and how much it is.'

An absolutely fascinating statement, so simple yet extraordinary in its eloquence.