Favorite first line?

by Eszter Hargittai on September 8, 2004

I know there are some big literature enthusiasts around here[1] so I thought I’d post a pointer to this site I just came across called Opening Hooks, “a collection of literary beginnings”. The creator of the site explains:

Chip Kidd once said, “A good book cover makes you want to pick it up. End of story.” More often then not, however, a gripping first sentence or paragraph prevents you from putting it back down. The opening hook. It’s a simple concept, reading is linear, time is finite. What keeps a reader reading is the opening hook.

I don’t have any particular memories of special opening hooks, but browsing through the site’s data base I came across this one: “When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself changed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.” – Yup. I think this one qualifies as a good opening hook. Unfortunately, when I first read Kafka’s The Metamorphosis I attempted to do so in its original. Als Gregor Samsa eines Morgens aus unruhigen Träumen erwachte, fand er sich in seinem Bett zu einem ungeheueren Ungeziefer verwandelt. Perhaps understandably, words such as “Ungeziefer” – or insect – are not part of one’s basic foreign language vocabulary lesson so I’m afraid I had a hard time fully appreciating some of the nuances – huh, some of the basics! – during my first attempt at the novel. Let’s just say I probably spent more time flipping through the dictionary than the book. But reading the sentence in English on that site brought it all back and I do think it qualifies as a good opening hook. I suspect others around here who are much bigger literature buffs than I am will think of candidates for their favorite opening lines without having to go to their book shelves (or browse an online data base).

Hat tip: Matt Read.

fn1. This post is dedicated to a fellow CT blogger. You know who you are.;-)



rosalind 09.08.04 at 4:04 am

These are unoriginal choices, but the first that leapt to mind: One Hundred Years of Solitude and Lolita.


ahab 09.08.04 at 4:18 am

“I am an angry man; I am a spiteful man.” Dostoyevski, “Notes from Underground”


Henry 09.08.04 at 4:31 am

Two favourites

bq. When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon.
James Crumley, _The Last Good Kiss_.

bq. The aristocratic thugs of the High City whistle as they go about their factional games among the derelict observatories and abandoned fortifications at Lowth. Distant or close at hand, these exchanges – short commanding blasts and protracted responses which often end on what you imagine is an interrogative note – form the basis of a complex language, to the echo of which you wake suddenly in the leaden hour before dawn. Go to the window: the street is empty. You may hear running footsteps, or a sigh. In a minute or two the whistles have moved away in the direction of the Tinmarket or the Margarethestrasse. Next day some minor prince is discovered in the gutter with his throat cut, and all you are left with is the impression of secret wars, lethal patience, an intelligent manoeuvring in the dark.
M. John Harrison, _Viriconium Knights_.


jdw 09.08.04 at 5:05 am

I thought this was one of those universally accepted truths. Nevertheless,

“I am Myra Breckinridge, whom no man may possess.”

Isn’t the opening line of Lolita “Lo. Lo-lee. Lo-lee-tah.” or somesuch? Doesn’t seem very gripping to me.

I feel guilty about the thread-drift so early, but “I was born a poor black child” has to be the best opening line from a movie, I’d think.


Matt Hamand 09.08.04 at 5:24 am

“In five years the penis will be obsolete” Steel Beach by John Varley

Not exactly high literature but memorable.


Matt Reece 09.08.04 at 5:33 am

No, no.

“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.”

It is gripping.

But the line that always gets me is, “You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.”

Also on a Nabokovian note, “An oblong puddle inset in the coarse asphalt; like a fancy footprint filled to the brim with quicksilver; like a spatulate hole through which you can see the nether sky.” (Bend Sinister) OK, it’s not so catchy, but it’s quite an image, and one that recurs in interesting ways throughout the novel.

And then there’s Nabokov’s play on another striking opening line, “‘All happy families are more or less dissimilar; all unhappy ones are more or less alike,’ says a great Russian writer in the beginning of a famous novel (Anna Arkadievitch Karenina, transfigured into English by R. G. Stonelower, Mount Tabor Ltd., 1880).” (Ada)

Finally, there’s the Borges story “Las ruinas circulares,” opening with “Nadie lo vio desembarcar en la unánime noche….” (It’s a long sentence, but “unanimous night.” It’s just cool!)

Sorry. Inner literature nerd struggling to get out after days of nothing but physics.


Ted K 09.08.04 at 5:55 am

Hegel remarks somewhere that all history, as it were, repeats itself. He neglects to mention that it does so twice, the first time as tragedy and the second time as farce.
Paraphrase from memory – not bad here is the real one:
Hegel remarks somewhere[*] that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. Caussidiere for Danton, Louis Blanc for Robespierre, the Montagne of 1848 to 1851 for the Montagne of 1793 to 1795, the nephew for the uncle. And the same caricature occurs in the circumstances of the second edition of the Eighteenth Brumaire.

Karl baby is a powerful stylist; his influence mangled my prose for a long time.


marksteen 09.08.04 at 6:45 am

two of my favorites, Thomas Pynchon short, and Thomas Pynchon long.

Thomas Pynchon short:
“A screaming came across the sky”
-Gravity’s Rainbow.

Thomas Pynchon long:
“Snow-Balls have flown their Arcs, starr’d the Sides of Outbuildings, as of Cousins, carried Hats away into the brisk Wind off Delaware,–the Sleds are brought in and their Runners carefully dried and greased, shoes deposited in the back Hall, a stocking’d-foot Descent made upon the great Kitchen, in a purposeful Dither since Morning, punctuated by the ringing Lids of various Boilers and Stewing-Pots, fragrant with Pie-Spices, peel’d Fruits, Suet, heated Sugar,–the Children, having all upon the Fly, among rhythmic slaps of Batter and Spoon, coax’d and stolen what they might, porceed, as upon each afternoon all this snowy Advent, to a comfortable Room at the rear of the House, years since given over to their carefree Assaults.


marksteen 09.08.04 at 6:47 am

I forgot to add,
-_Mason & Dixon_
[and, that should be ‘proceed’]


Hunt 09.08.04 at 6:48 am

I have a few that I have always enjoyed.

“In M.–, an important town in northern Italy, the widowed Marquise of O–, a lady of unblemished reputation and the mother of several well-brought-up children, inserted the following announcement in the newspapes: that she had, without knowledge of the cause, come to find herself in a certain situation; that she would like the father of the child she was expecting to disclose his idenity to her; and that she was resolved, out of consideration for her family, to marry him.”
-“The Marquise of O–” by Heinrich von Kleist

“The long, long road over the moors and up into the forest–who trod it into being first of all? Man, a human being, the first that came here. There was no path before he came. Afterward, some beast or other, following the faint tracks over marsh and moorland, wearing them deeper; after these again some Lapp gained scent of the path, and took that way from field to field, looking to his reindeer. Thus was made the road through the great Almenning–the common tracts without an owner; no man’s land.”
Growth of Soil by Knut Hamsun (I know it’s a whole paragraph, and not just a line, but it’s worth it)

A little less snooty:
“Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun. Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-eight million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue-green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly priimitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.”
Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

I also like the opening to Love in the Time of Cholera, but can’t find it.


Chris 09.08.04 at 6:53 am

“In the fall the war was always there, but we did not go to it any more.” from Hemingway’s “In Another Country”


Barry Freed 09.08.04 at 7:28 am

marksteen you’ve gone done and truncated your Pynchon:

“A screaming comes across the sky. It has happened before, but there is nothing to compare it to now.”  

That’s the complete first sentence and needful is it’s completeness. Here’s the rest of the graph, Pynchon in high Jeremiad mode, it’s even more prophetic than when I first read it almost 20 years ago:

“It is too late. The Evacuation still proceeds, but it’s all theatre. There are no lights inside the cars. No light anywhere. Above him lift girders old as an iron queen, and glass somewhere far above that would let the light of day through. But it’s night. He’s afraid of the way the glass will fall — soon — it will be a spectacle: the fall of a crystal palace. But coming down in total blackout, without one glint of light, only great invisible crashing.”

As an undergraduate I had the good fortune to study Christian theology with the radical death of God theologian Thomas J.J. Altizer. He’s written much on the epic in the Apocalyptic Christian tradition, from Dante through Milton, Blake, Melville and Joyce. I spent a great deal of intellectual effort in an attempt to get him to slog through Gravity’s Rainbow but I think Finnegan’s Wake just tuckered him out.


Cheney is Blicero


Dell Adams 09.08.04 at 7:52 am

“Now she sits alone and remembers.”

The Old Gringo (Carlos Fuentes)

Not to give it away or anything, but the last sentence is the same…

(Barry – if GW Bush is Slothrop, that would explain the gap in his military record. Or am I off base here?)


Barry Freed 09.08.04 at 8:05 am

Oops, my bad. That is in fact a period and not a comma. But somehow I feel compelled to add what follows. It just doesn’t read the same without it.


bad Jim 09.08.04 at 8:22 am

Why is Lolita on my bookshelf? I never read it.

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 stps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.

Clever, masterful, but I’ll return it to the shelf.

Now if I could find Roger Zelazny’s Doorways in the Sand, I’d quote you an opening that would forbid you to put the book down. I suspect I lent the book to somebody, though.


bad Jim 09.08.04 at 8:26 am

Geeze, I wish Opera didn’t cache pages as long as it does. Sorry for the redundant mistyping.

Zelazny’s book got both the Hugo and the Nebula, it seems. Hightly recommended.


nick 09.08.04 at 8:55 am

Flann O’Brien, At Swim-Two-Birds:

Having placed in my mouth sufficient bread for three minutes’ chewing, I withdrew my powers of sensual perception and retired into the privacy of my mind, my eyes and face assuming a vacant and preoccupied expression. I reflected on the subject of my spare-time literary activities. One beginning and one ending for a book was a thing I did not agree with. A good book may have three openings entirely dissimilar and inter-related only in the prescience of the author, or for that matter one hundred times as many endings.


ajay 09.08.04 at 10:11 am

Favourite first lines? Nothing can compete against:

“No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. With infinite complacency men went to and fro over this globe about their little affairs, serene in their assurance of their empire over matter. It is possible that the infusoria under the microscope do the same. No one gave a thought to the older worlds of space as sources of human danger, or thought of them only to dismiss the idea of life upon them as impossible or improbable. It is curious to recall some of the mental habits of those departed days. At most terrestrial men fancied there might be other men upon Mars, perhaps inferior to themselves and ready to welcome a missionary enterprise. Yet across the gulf of space, minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us.”


yabonn 09.08.04 at 10:19 am

“C’était à Mégara, faubourg de Carthage, dans les jardins d’Hamilcar.”

G. Flaubert, Salammbô. Kind of a literary equivalent for “bell and whistles and gongs, dammit!!”

“Longtemps je me suis couché de bonne heure”.

M. Proust, Du Coté de chez Swann. Lets you know from the first line it’s about time spent.

“Now is the winter of or discontent”

Shakespeare, Richard III. Don’t laugh : it’s one of the pleasures of not being anglophone. You can re discover shakespeare out of school, original version, and on your own :)

Zelazny probably has a few good ones too.

The first line rule is hard : most of the time for me, it’s the first paragraph that does the trick.


schwa 09.08.04 at 10:40 am

nick, I hate to say it, but that first line would not so much make me put the book down as make me throw it across the room. That’s not catchy: that’s an author in love with the sound of his own voice.

Anyway, a grab-bag of favourites:

“I often dream about the Dolphin Hotel.
    In these dreams, I’m there, implicated in some kind of ongoing circumstance. All indications are that I belong to this dream continuity.
    The Dolphin Hotel is distorted, much too narrow. It seems more like a long, covered bridge. A bridge stretching endlessly through time. And there I am, in the middle of it. Someone else is there too, crying.
    The hotel envelops me. I can feel its pulse, its heat. In dreams, I am part of the hotel.” —Haruki Murakami (as translated by Alfred Birnbaum), Dance Dance Dance.

“I lost my own father at 12 yr. of age and know what it is to be raised on lies and silences my dear daughter you are presently too young to understand a word I write but this history is for you and will contain no single lie may I burn in Hell if I speak false.” —Peter Carey, True History of the Kelly Gang.

“It was a filthy profession, but the money was addicting, and one addiction led to another, and they were all going to hell.” —Po Bronson, Bombardiers, which is a truly terrible novel that I inexplicably read again and again.

And of course the famous epigrams from Pride and Prejudice and Anna Karenina.

I had a couple of others, but I’m blanking out on what they were.


chris 09.08.04 at 10:44 am

“I shall not say why and how I became, at the age of fifteen, the mistress of the Earl of Craven.” – Harriette Wilson, Memoirs.

Every suggestion to date on this thread has been from a book by a man. Just saying.


RobotSlave 09.08.04 at 11:41 am

Personally, I prefer an opening that is great in retrospect, a beginning found mete when one reaches the end.

I dislike gimmicky first paragraphs. Apologies to the Douglas Adams fans, but yes, that’s you I’m grousing about.

With that said:

“Towards the end of a sultry afternoon in late July a young man came out of his little room in Stolyarny Lane and turned slowly and somewhat irresolutely in the direction of Kamenny Bridge.”


“On a hill by the Mississippi where Chippewas camped two generations ago, a girl stood in relief against the cornflower blue of Nothern sky.”

  –slightly less obvious

“As a junior of exceptional promise, he had been sent to Egypt for a year in order to improve his Arabic and found himself attached to the High Commission as a sort of scribe to await his first diplomatic posting; be he was already conducting himself as a young secretary of legation, fully aware of the responsibilities of future office. Only somehow today it was rather more difficult than usual to be reserved, so exciting had the fish drive become.”

  –Lawrence Durrell, “Mountolive”


asg 09.08.04 at 12:26 pm

“When I was nine years old I hid under a table and heard my sister kill a king.” From “Quest for a Maid” by Mary Frances Hendry, a great story for kids and especially girls.


asg 09.08.04 at 12:28 pm

My bad, it’s actually “watched” not “heard”. Additionally, Jay Nordlinger at NRO did a reader survey on best first lines of books. Look at the last bullet point here: http://www.nationalreview.com/impromptus/impromptus112702.asp


LowLife 09.08.04 at 1:08 pm

Dickins had a good way with opening lines:

“Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether the station will be held by anybody else, these pages will show. ” David Copperfield

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,…” A Tale of Two Cities

and, their’s more.

Hemminway’s opening page to A Farewell to Arms is very evocative:

“In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterward the road bare and white except for the leaves.”


mina 09.08.04 at 1:37 pm

That’s an obvious one all right. All of Kafka’s stories have great openings. I love the first paragraph of The Castle too. Both in German and in the English translation:

“Es war spät abends, als K. ankam. Das Dorf lag in tiefem Schnee. Vom Schloßberg war nichts zu sehen, Nebel und Finsternis umgaben ihn, auch nicht der schwächste Lichtschein deutete das große Schloß an. Lange stand K. auf der Holzbrücke, die von der Landstraße zum Dorf führte, und blickte in die scheinbare Leere empor.”

“It was late in the evening when K. arrived. The village was deep in snow. The Castle hill has hidden, veiled in mist and darkness, nor was there even a glimmer of light to show that a castle was there. On the wooden bridge leading from the main road to the village, K. stood for a long time gazing into the illusory emptiness above him.”

Another favourite is an even more obvious choice: “Sing Goddess, of the anger of Achilleus, son of Peleus, the accursed anger which brought uncounted anguish on the Achaeians”, and the rest of the whole first paragraph. I didn’t study ancient Greek so obviously I haven’t read the original.

Just goes to show how precious the work of good translators is.


Chris Bertram 09.08.04 at 1:47 pm

I was completely hooked by the opening of Italo Calvino’s _If on a winter’s night a traveller_ and then forced myself to endure the rest of it:

bq. You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade. Best to close the door; the TV is always on in the next room. Tell the others right away, ‘No, I don’t want to watch TV!’ Raise your voice – they won’t hear you otherwise – ‘I’m reading! I don’t want to be disturbed!’ Maybe they haven’t heard you, with all that racket; speak louder, yell; ‘I’m beginning to read Italo Calvino’s new novel!’ Or if you prefer, don’t say anything; just hope they’ll leave you alone


rea 09.08.04 at 2:31 pm

Can’t beat the classics:

“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 housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.”

–E. Bulwer-Lytton, “Paul Clifford”


polychrome 09.08.04 at 3:01 pm

He was born with the gift of laughter, and a feeling that the world was mad, and that was the sum of his patrimony.



Njorl 09.08.04 at 3:20 pm

“Three men at McAlester State Penitentiary had larger penises then Lamar Pye, but all were black and therefore, by Lamar’s own figuring, hardly human at all.”

-Dirty White Boys, Stephen Hunter

“Marley was dead, to begin with.”
-A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens

The latter is probably my favorite. At some point, I started believing it meant more than that Marley was dead at the beginning of the story. It meant that Marley had always been dead, even when alive. Scrooge on the otherhand, had been alive in his youth.


John Isbell 09.08.04 at 3:21 pm

Aujourd’hui maman est morte. Ou peut-etre hier, je ne sais pas.
Huckleberry Finn has a good opening too.


Chris Martin 09.08.04 at 3:30 pm

I’ve always heard the first line of Metamorphosis translated as “gigantic insect.” A little googling and I discovered that vermin is the more popular choice, although dung beetle, cockroach and bug are other choices. The short film “Franz Kafka’s It’s a Wonderful Life” has an interesting take on the formation of that sentence by the way.

I second the nomination of One Hundred Years of Solitude:
“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”

I also love the opening paragraph of Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie.

Finally, the first sentence of Richard III is actually. It doesn’t make sense to cut it off after “discontent” just as it doesn’t make sense to quote “to thine own self be true” without acknowledging that the speaker of that line is a pompous ass.

Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York;
And all the clouds that lowered upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.

Besides, the “is” in that sentence is an auxiliary verb; the main verb is “made.” If you cut out “made” then “is” becomes the main verb, which is not what Shakespeare intended.


Chris Martin 09.08.04 at 3:32 pm

Sorry about the formating of that post. The quotation from Richard III is supposed to appear after “actually.”


carolyn 09.08.04 at 4:07 pm

I seem to remember a line from Lawrence Durrell perhaps from “Clea” – day turned into day in the calendar of desire.” I havent’ read that for 40 years and that line has always stuck with me.


Matt Weiner 09.08.04 at 5:07 pm

I third the nomination of One Hundred Years of Solitude. And can I say that I’m glad that no-one has mentioned “Call me Ishmael”? I absolutely love the rest of that paragraph (and book–“whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off,” brilliant)–but I’ve never understood what was so bloody great about “Call me Ishmael.” It’s just not in the same voice as the rest of the paragraph.


Tom Joad 09.08.04 at 5:15 pm

To the red country and part of the grey country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth.


Keith 09.08.04 at 5:25 pm

“Mother died today. Or perhaps it was yesterday, I don’t know.”

The Stranger, Albert Camus

Maybe a little obvious but I dare you to not want to read on.


fdl 09.08.04 at 5:29 pm

Is it chance that this post, AND MANY OF THE COMMENTS, follow exactly a NPR story this morning? who is ripping off whom?


Jim Henley 09.08.04 at 5:46 pm

“The first time I laid eyes on Terry Lennox he was passed out drunk in the back seat of a Rolls Royce Silver Wraith on the terrace of The Dancers.” – Raymond Chandler, The Long Goodbye

“In my younger and more vulnerable days, my father gave me some advice which I have been turning over in my morning ever since.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald,” The Great Gatsby

“Robert Cohn was once middleweight champion at Princeton. Don’t think I think much of that as a boxing title but it meant a lot to Cohn.” – Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises

“The coupe with the fish hooks welded to the fender shouldered over the curb like the nose of a nightmare.” – Fritz Leiber, “Coming Attractions”

“Himmler’s got the King locked up in the Tower of London.” – Len Deighton, SSGB

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a young man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” – Jane Austen, Pride & Prejudice


yabonn 09.08.04 at 6:33 pm

It doesn’t make sense to cut it off after “discontent”

Damn. Back to school after all!

Found another, that i maybe should have put first : one of these books that got you smiling all along. I quote the first page : titles are important in this case :


Fiction Spinoziste n°1

Le cadavre est au bord de la route, une de ses mains est prise dans le bitume gluant. […] Je retourne le mort du bout de ma botte de lézard mauve. C’est bien ce que j’attends : un Néo-Punk

Jean Bernard Pouy, “Spinoza encule Hegel” 1979. Title says it all, innit?

Think mad max before mad max, with warring “Young Hegelian” and “Fraction Armée Spinoziste” clans, and their marxists, jdanovians, maoists etc little buddies. Add nortons and guzzis on top of it. Jubilating.

Approximately : “the corpse is along the road, of of his hands is glued to the slimy asphalt. […] I move the corpse with the end of my mauve lizard boot. What i had expected : a Neo-Punk.”


Ray Davis 09.08.04 at 7:00 pm

I don’t have any.

Well, actually, I did eventually come up with one:

“The journey of Mercier and Camier is one I can tell, if I will, for I was with them all the time.”

And I suppose Wendy Walker’s “The Secret Service” successfully hooked me with:

“I am a mousseline goblet, upside-down, set aside to dry, the banquet done.”


Dan Simon 09.08.04 at 7:11 pm

I’m amazed that nobody has mentioned my favorite:

“It was a bright cold day in april, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”

Also, I can’t resist mentioning my favorite opening line from film:

“The dream is always the same.”

(Maybe it’s a generational thing…)


martin 09.08.04 at 7:27 pm

Harold peered a second time through the black ropy hair. Yes, even by the dim light of the whale oil, the crude hand lettered Cyrillic was legible: “Once is enough for any man.” A decidedly odd motto to be tattooed on an Eskimo’s buttocks, he harrumphed to himself…


Doug Turnbull 09.08.04 at 9:37 pm

Well, I can’t say it’s the best hook, since the book’s been sitting unread on my shelf for several years now, but Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward starts:

“On top of everything else, the cancer ward was number 13.”


Arthur D. Hlavaty 09.08.04 at 9:40 pm

“Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog, Dr. Robert Laing reflected on the unusual events that had taken place within this huge apartment building during the previous three months.”–J.G. Ballard, High-Rise


EKR 09.08.04 at 10:02 pm

“Martel was angry. He did not even adjust his blood away from anger.”
–Cordwainer Smith, “Scanners Live in Vain”

“Horselover Fat’s nervous breakdown began the day he got the phonecall from Gloria asking if he had any Nembutals. He asked her why she wanted them and she said that she intended to kill herself. She was calling everyone she knew. By now she had fifty of them, but she needed thirty or forty more to be on the safe side.”

–Philip K. Dick, “Valis”


Doug 09.08.04 at 10:19 pm

Was it the bourbon or the dye fumes that made the pink walls quiver like vaginal lips? — Suicide Blonde by Darcey Steinke.

(Sadly, the book doesn’t live up to the promise, but just try stopping after that first sentence.)

The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel. – Ask Henry about this one.

On a certain day in June, 19–, a young man was making his way on foot northward from the great City to a town or place called Edgewood, that he had been told of but had never visited. His name was Smoky Barnable, and he was going to Edgewood to get married; the fact that he walked and didn’t ride was one of the conditions placed on his coming there at all. – Better ask Henry about this one, too; it does live up to its promise.

It’s only fair that Lenin’s Tomb has two terrific starts; the book is an embarrassment of riches:

Preface – “Long before anyone had a reason to predict the decline and fall of the Soviet Union, Nadezhda filled her notebooks with the accents of hope.”


Chapter 1 – “On a dreary summer’s day, Colonel Aleksandr Tretetsky of the Soviet Military Prosecutor’s Office arrived at his latest work site: a series of mass graves in a birch forest twenty miles outside the city of Kalinin. He and his assistants began the morning digging, searching the earth for artifacts of the totalitarian regime–bullet-shattered skulls, worm-eaten boots, scraps of Polish military uniforms.”

In a different vein:

“If you are interested in stories with happy endings, you would be better off reading some other book. In this book, not only is there no happy ending, there is no happy beginning and very few happy things happen in the middle. This is because not many happy things happened in the lives of the three Baudelaire youngsters. Violet, Klaus and Sunny Baudelaire were intelligent children, and they were charming, and resourceful, and had pleasant facial features, but they were extremely unlucky, and most everything that happened to them was rife with misfortune, misery, and despait. I’m sorry to tell you this, but that is how the story goes.” – The Bad Beginning, Lemony Snicket


Doug 09.08.04 at 10:26 pm

Phooey on me for having forgotten “Scanners” when there’s at least two copies on the shelf in front of me. Cordwainer Smith’s great on both titles and beginnings.

And what about knock-out last lines? I’ll put in a kopeck for the final two sentences of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.


jdw 09.08.04 at 10:57 pm

“Can I say that I’m glad that no-one has mentioned “Call me Ishmael”?”

I was going to say that I thought “Call me Ishmael” was more famous than good, but the huge list of whaling quotes pre-beginning is a weirdly brilliant opening.


benjamin 09.09.04 at 2:03 am

“Either forswear fucking others or the affair is over.” –Philip Roth, Sabbath’s Theater


spacetoast 09.09.04 at 2:12 am

I’ve just read Giles Goat-Boy, so I’m thinking of the first line in the fake publisher’s disclaimer, which is something like “The reader must begin this book with an act of faith, and end it with an act of charity.” Both “hookish,” and, in a way, pretty deflationary of what novels in general will propose to do…and, particularly, coming before page 1 of a 700 some page shaggy-dog story. So that’s pretty cool and hookish, and, I think, pretty damn ballsy.

Also in the ’60s weirdness, I don’t remember the specific lines, but I think that some of Terry Southern’s novels have a pretty elegant and pretty hookish first scene / first couple of paragraphs or so, particularly the opening bit in Flash and Filigree, which describes in this incredibly tidy and deadpan language a scene between two people who are behaving completely psychotically. The way the things are held against each other makes for a very high degree of hookishness, I found.


Kieran Healy 09.09.04 at 4:12 am

Anthony Burgess, _Earthly Powers_:

bq. 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.


Robert Johnson 09.09.04 at 1:04 pm

This blind man, an old friend of my wife’s, he was on his way to spend the night.

Raymond Carver, “Cathedral”


fatwhiteduke 09.09.04 at 4:04 pm

Paul Auster does particularly compelling first paragraphs. Try reading the first paragraphs of The New York Trilogy or Moon Palace and then putting them down.


fatwhiteduke 09.09.04 at 4:05 pm

Paul Auster does particularly compelling first paragraphs. Try reading the first paragraphs of The New York Trilogy or Moon Palace and then putting them down.


Stu 09.09.04 at 7:42 pm

Kind of middlebrow, but I’ve always loved, “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.” from Stephen King’s “The Gunslinger.” Simple, and yet really evocative. And not a non sequitur. Too many opening sentences seem to grab your attention and then lack payoff.

And then “Slaughterhouse 5,” which starts with “All this happened, more or less,” and then continues with something like “Billy Pilgrim has become unstuck in time.”

Catcher in the Rye: “If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going in to it, if you want to know the truth.”

Good stuff.


George 09.09.04 at 9:06 pm

First sentence of Love in the Time of Cholera (one of my favorite first lines, in one of my favorite books): “It was inevitable.”

First word of Finnegans Wake is also memorable, if only because none of the rest of the book is: “riverrun”


New Kid on the Hallway 09.10.04 at 11:58 am

It may be overly romantic and Gothic, but the one first line I can remember from the moment of reading it is:

“Last night I dreamt I dwelt at Manderley again.”
— Daphne DuMaurier, Rebecca.

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