100 Not Really Best First Lines From Novels

Oh, me and internet lists, here we go again. Anyway, something called “American Book Review” has decided these are 100 of the best first lines of novels. Let’s just say I don’t… entirely agree with all of them. Also, a warning: I haven’t read a lot of these novels. So I will be coming at most of these as someone who is picking up these books for the first time and deciding on whether or not I’ll read on. Let’s go:

1. Call me Ishmael. —Herman Melville, Moby-Dick (1851)

2. It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. —Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (1813)

Okay, those two are good. I like the second one better, because it’s basically a succinct statement of the theme of the novel — rich guys getting married — and also a subtly ironic implication that the entire situation is somewhat silly. The first one is just our narrator introducing himself, though the way he does it is distinctive (he wants you to know who he is and that he is a participant in his story, not just an observer and a reporter. I’ve only read bits and pieces of Moby Dick and I got that. (Note: I’ve read all of Pride and Prejudice a couple of times.)

3. A screaming comes across the sky. —Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow (1973)

Erm, no. It looks very dramatic and all, but  it seems awkward to me. “A screaming” doesn’t work. “Screaming” isn’t a noun. I don’t think I’d be interested in reading more just based on this first line.

4. 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. —Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967; trans. Gregory Rabassa)

Pretty good. We’ve established that this character is about to die and we’re heading into his-life-flashed-before-his-eyes land. Or that is what I would think just based on this line. It would get me reading more because I have a soft spot for “memory lane” type novels.

5. Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. —Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita (1955)

6. Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. —Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina (1877; trans. Constance Garnett)

Number 5 is meh. Probably because I am pre-prejudiced against the novel (I can’t really bring myself to care about pedophiles — though I will admit having read somewhere — I forget where — that the problem of Humbert Humbert isn’t so much pedophilia as it is narcissism I became a little more interested; also I am working my way through Pnin and may get into other works by Nabokov, though I think my next one will be Pale Fire).

Number 6 isn’t bad as an opening line — you know this will be a story about an unhappy family — but I find the premise flawed: happy families are not all alike — it’s unhappy families that tend to fall into well-worn patterns of dysfunctional behavior.

7. riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs. —James Joyce, Finnegans Wake (1939)

Joyce. Gah. No. Also, arguably that’s not the “first line” of the novel since Finnegans Wake is a “circular” novel that has no beginning or end. Still it is the first line a reader will see. I saw it, and closed the book back up and put it back on the shelves. IIRC, the pages stuck a bit and the spine creaked, so I was probably the first person since the book had been originally put in the bookcase to actually open said book. Has anyone actually read Finnegans Wake?

8. It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. —George Orwell, 1984 (1949)

Love that opening line. It has such a great rhythm, and the slight weirdness with the clock striking thirteen warns of strangeness ahead. It would not have been as memorable if he’d written “the time was 1300 hours” or something more common.

9. 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. —Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities (1859)

Meh. I actually think this is overdone and florid.

10. I am an invisible man. —Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (1952)

I must read this someday. I love stories about marginal people coping with the society that tries to ignore them and push them off on the sidelines.

11. The Miss Lonelyhearts of the New York Post-Dispatch (Are you in trouble?—Do-you-need-advice?—Write-to-Miss-Lonelyhearts-and-she-will-help-you) sat at his desk and stared at a piece of white cardboard. —Nathanael West, Miss Lonelyhearts (1933)

Not sure about all those em-dashes but as it’s the way I (unfortunately–look what I did there!) write, I feel rather a fellow feeling for Mr. West. Maybe I’ll pick this up; something tells me it’s about a sad, marginalized shlub, and as I said above I like stories about characters most people ignore.

12. 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, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885)

Self-referential author is self-referential. I think I’ve read this book, though so long ago I can’t remember the occasion. I actually am not a big fan of Mark Twain though I like his attitude; if he lived nowadays he’d be a cranky, snarky blogger. But I’ve come to grow less than fond of that “true to life” way of writing the way people speak. It’s not so much Twain’s fault as it became a big fad in writing about the American South and West, so that you can hardly read a novel in those settings without having your field of vision cluttered with apostrophes indicating dropped g’s.

13. Someone must have slandered Josef K., for one morning, without having done anything truly wrong, he was arrested. —Franz Kafka, The Trial (1925; trans. Breon Mitchell)

Kafka was the bomb of writing good opening lines. For example, here’s the opening sentence to Metamorphosis: “Als Gregor Samsa eines Morgens aus unruhigen Träumen erwachte, fand er sich in seinem Bett zu einem ungeheuren Ungeziefer verwandelt.” Cool, right?

14. You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler. —Italo Calvino, If on a winter’s night a traveler (1979; trans. William Weaver)

Self-referential author is self-referential. I’ve heard that this book is somewhat meta-y, which sort of writing I am lukewarm about.

15. The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new. —Samuel Beckett, Murphy (1938)

I thought he was a playwright. Actually, I’ve tried not to think about Beckett after being traumatized by having to study Waiting For Godot in high school. I kid, I kid. This sentence isn’t bad, actually, and I’m sure there is a reason that “nothing new” is preceded by “the.” Don’t know if I’d keep reading, because, you know, Beckett.

16. 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 into it, if you want to know the truth. —J. D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye (1951)

Ha ha, I like this line. Maybe some day I’ll read this book, though I’ve avoided it because every hipster on earth cites this as “the” book, and quite frankly I don’t believe they understood it.

17. Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo. —James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916)

Oh god no shutup James Joyce.

18. This is the saddest story I have ever heard. —Ford Madox Ford, The Good Soldier (1915)

Um–okay. Don’t know if I want to read on, though. I tend to be depressive and reading sad stuff doesn’t help. On the other hand, there’s a slight hint that maybe what comes next isn’t so much sad as “look at these idiots” so maybe one day…

19. I wish either my father or my mother, or indeed both of them, as they were in duty both equally bound to it, had minded what they were about when they begot me; had they duly considered how much depended upon what they were then doing;—that not only the production of a rational Being was concerned in it, but that possibly the happy formation and temperature of his body, perhaps his genius and the very cast of his mind;—and, for aught they knew to the contrary, even the fortunes of his whole house might take their turn from the humours and dispositions which were then uppermost:—Had they duly weighed and considered all this, and proceeded accordingly,—I am verily persuaded I should have made a quite different figure in the world, from that, in which the reader is likely to see me. —Laurence Sterne, Tristram Shandy (1759–1767)

I admire this only for the fact that the author probably had to write this with a quill pen dipped in an inkwell. I’ve written with dip pens and it isn’t easy.

20. 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. —Charles Dickens, David Copperfield (1850)

21. Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed. —James Joyce, Ulysses (1922)

These are both very good opening lines. The Dickens one here, unlike the previous example from Tale of Two Cities, is short and to the point and not a word is wasted, and clear, simple prose hints at the general attractiveness of the narrator’s character. (Full disclosure: David Copperfield is one of my favorite novels.) As for the second one, finally a Joyce opening line that I don’t want to set on fire! Actually it’s pretty darn good. I give you a gold star, James.

22. 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, Paul Clifford (1830)

At first I thought “you have got to be kidding me,” but actually, this really isn’t that bad. The night does actually have degrees of light and dark — a clear night where you can see stars and moon will definitely be less dark than one where storm clouds are covering up the sky. The sentence overall is a bit florid and dramatic, but it does promise of drama in the coming pages. (Apparently this story is one of those “man with a double life” kind of things, full of mystery and intrigue and so on. I have a liking for such stuff so maybe I’ll see if it’s available for free. Let’s look. It is! And my Kindle happens to be plugged in…)

23. One summer afternoon Mrs. Oedipa Maas came home from a Tupperware party whose hostess had put perhaps too much kirsch in the fondue to find that she, Oedipa, had been named executor, or she supposed executrix, of the estate of one Pierce Inverarity, a California real estate mogul who had once lost two million dollars in his spare time but still had assets numerous and tangled enough to make the job of sorting it all out more than honorary. —Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49 (1966)

I dunno, too much shit going on here. What does it matter that Miss Oedipa Maas (oy) is drunk and was at a Tupperware party? Is that supposed to be some slam against shallow suburban ladies? Meh, this opening line just makes me feel hostile. According to the Wikipedia entry on the novel the author ended up not thinking much of it.

24. It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not. —Paul Auster, City of Glass (1985)

Interesting, would read more, just to find out what was the “it” that was started. On the other hand:

25. Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting. —William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury (1929)

Hitting… what? The end of the sentence? Also, “curling flower space” irritates me. Does it refer to real flowers growing on the fence, or is the fence itself one of those fancy things with wrought iron flowers or something?

26. 124 was spiteful. —Toni Morrison, Beloved (1987)

Hmm. I assign colors to numbers but I haven’t anthropomorphized them to this extent. I will say I find “2” and “6” to be somewhat less friendly than “3” and “7.”

27. Somewhere in la Mancha, in a place whose name I do not care to remember, a gentleman lived not long ago, one of those who has a lance and ancient shield on a shelf and keeps a skinny nag and a greyhound for racing. —Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote (1605; trans. Edith Grossman)

Oh look, an opening sentence written before the 19th century that isn’t as long as Genesis. Still, I haven’t yet been able to get through Don Quixote. He’s just such an idiot.

28. Mother died today. —Albert Camus, The Stranger (1942; trans. Stuart Gilbert)

And it’s awful when a boy loses his best friend. Seriously, I read The Stranger a long time ago, so long ago that I only remember that one scene of him laughing on a beach with some girl, and then there’s the The Cure song, “Killing An Arab” that got a bunch of illiterate people all upset.

29. Every summer Lin Kong returned to Goose Village to divorce his wife, Shuyu. —Ha Jin, Waiting (1999)

Hmm, I am intrigued. Why every year? I may look this up and read it.

30. The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel. —William Gibson, Neuromancer (1984)

Okay, I mostly find cyberpunk to be derivative and overpraised, but I like this opening sentence a whole lot. It’s perfect. It really does describe a certain type of seaside weather I have experienced.

31. I am a sick man . . . I am a spiteful man. —Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Notes from Underground (1864; trans. Michael R. Katz)

32. Where now? Who now? When now? —Samuel Beckett, The Unnamable (1953; trans. Patrick Bowles)

Oh god, I had to read Notes from Underground in high school and was put off Dostoyevsky for years because of it. As to the second one, more Beckett, this time apparently channeling H.P. Lovecraft.

33. Once an angry man dragged his father along the ground through his own orchard. “Stop!” cried the groaning old man at last, “Stop! I did not drag my father beyond this tree.” —Gertrude Stein, The Making of Americans (1925)

I’m… kind of confused here. Who is dragging who? Then again I think that’s just the way Stein wrote.

34. In a sense, I am Jacob Horner. —John Barth, The End of the Road (1958)

Oh that’s good. I like it.

35. It was like so, but wasn’t. —Richard Powers, Galatea 2.2 (1995)

This, on the other hand, does not work for me. It’s too archly vague.

36. —Money . . . in a voice that rustled. —William Gaddis, J R (1975)

What–that’s not even a sentence, it’s a fragment. Actually, it’s not a fragment; it’s more of a crumb.

37. Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself. —Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway (sic – I think they meant “Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf – Ed.) (1925)

I’m afraid this just sort of establishes that Mrs. Dalloway is a boring person. I mean I don’t care about the flowers.

38. All this happened, more or less. —Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five (1969)

Meh. I find Vonnegut to be over-lauded.

39. They shoot the white girl first. —Toni Morrison, Paradise (1998)

I admit I laughed out loud and immediately wanted to find the book and read it. However, the summaries I find online make it sound kind of dreary. I dunno. Put in the “maybe” list.

40. For a long time, I went to bed early. —Marcel Proust, Swann’s Way (1913; trans. Lydia Davis)

Maybe it sounds more interesting in French.

41. The moment one learns English, complications set in. —Felipe Alfau, Chromos (1990)

This promises something interesting. Add to “look up” list.

42. Dr. Weiss, at forty, knew that her life had been ruined by literature. —Anita Brookner, The Debut (1981)

A ha ha! I don’t know if the novel lives up to this first great line, but I might look it up.

43. I was the shadow of the waxwing slain / By the false azure in the windowpane; —Vladimir Nabokov, Pale Fire (1962)

Gosh, I don’t know–did I say above that I wanted Pale Fire to be my next Nabokov? I did, didn’t I.

44. Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board. —Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937)

They do? Okay.

45. I had the story, bit by bit, from various people, and, as generally happens in such cases, each time it was a different story. —Edith Wharton, Ethan Frome (1911)

This makes me want to find out what the narrator thinks.

46. Ages ago, Alex, Allen and Alva arrived at Antibes, and Alva allowing all, allowing anyone, against Alex’s admonition, against Allen’s angry assertion: another African amusement . . . anyhow, as all argued, an awesome African army assembled and arduously advanced against an African anthill, assiduously annihilating ant after ant, and afterward, Alex astonishingly accuses Albert as also accepting Africa’s antipodal ant annexation.  —Walter Abish, Alphabetical Africa (1974)

Oh god, fuck off. I hate gimmicks in literature.

47. There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it. —C. S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (1952)

Excellent — though I’ll point out that it makes more sense to an English person or an English-speaking person who has been steeped in British culture. A foreigner might read that and think “So what? All English names sound weird and stupid to me.”

48. He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish. —Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea (1952)

A decent opening line. Hemingway isn’t my favorite writer, but he could write succinctly and well.

49. It was the day my grandmother exploded. —Iain M. Banks, The Crow Road (1992)

Aw man. Why do you do that, why do you make me want to read you, Iain M. Banks. Even if that is a sentence fragment instead of a sentence.

50. I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974. —Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex (2002

Man, I hate when that happens. (Actually, this is an effective and intriguing opening line.)

51. Elmer Gantry was drunk. —Sinclair Lewis, Elmer Gantry (1927)

Well there you go.

52. We started dying before the snow, and like the snow, we continued to fall. —Louise Erdrich, Tracks (1988)

A bit too precious and self-consciously poetical for me.

53. It was a pleasure to burn. —Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451 (1953)

If you hadn’t ever encountered this book in your life, you’d be confused, because burning is actually quite painful unless you’re some sort of masochist. You might think then that this is a book about a person who likes to burn themselves, or to get sunburnt, or something. I don’t know, Bradbury’s writing style has always left me cold.

54. A story has no beginning or end; arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead. —Graham Greene, The End of the Affair (1951)

Greene sounds a bit up himself here. Just start the goddamn story.

55. 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. —Flann O’Brien, At Swim-Two-Birds (1939)

How do you know what your own eyes and face looked like? Were you looking in a mirror? Narrator perspective fail.

56. I was born in the Year 1632, in the City of York, of a good Family, tho’ not of that Country, my Father being a Foreigner of Bremen, who settled first at Hull; He got a good Estate by Merchandise, and leaving off his Trade, lived afterward at York, from whence he had married my Mother, whose Relations were named Robinson, a very good Family in that Country, and from whom I was called Robinson Kreutznaer; but by the usual Corruption of Words in England, we are now called, nay we call our selves, and write our Name Crusoe, and so my Companions always call’d me. —Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe (1719)

I wonder if openings like this were what Salinger was mocking in his opening line to Catcher in the Rye.

57. In the beginning, sometimes I left messages in the street. —David Markson, Wittgenstein’s Mistress (1988)

Okay. So?

58. Miss Brooke had that kind of beauty which seems to be thrown into relief by poor dress.
—George Eliot, Middlemarch (1872)

How to establish a character’s personality in one sentence. Writers: read and learn.

59. It was love at first sight. —Joseph Heller, Catch-22 (1961)

So that’s where that shit came from.

60. What if this young woman, who writes such bad poems, in competition with her husband, whose poems are equally bad, should stretch her remarkably long and well-made legs out before you, so that her skirt slips up to the tops of her stockings? —Gilbert Sorrentino, Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things (1971)

So what indeed.

61. I have never begun a novel with more misgiving. —W. Somerset Maugham, The Razor’s Edge (1944)

Is this the beginning of the author’s foreword or the actual novel?

62. Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person. —Anne Tyler, Back When We Were Grownups (2001)

Man, I hate when that happens. Actually, good line.

63. The human race, to which so many of my readers belong, has been playing at children’s games from the beginning, and will probably do it till the end, which is a nuisance for the few people who grow up. —G. K. Chesterton, The Napoleon of Notting Hill (1904)

Either the author is a snotty, elitist douchebag, or his narrator is. I would have thought this sort of “you all suck” snark was cool when I was a bit younger than I am now.

64. In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. —F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (1925)

Nice–you want to read more to find out what that advice was and what happened to the narrator because of it.

65. You better not never tell nobody but God. —Alice Walker, The Color Purple (1982)

Okay.

66. “To be born again,” sang Gibreel Farishta tumbling from the heavens, “first you have to die.” —Salman Rushdie, The Satanic Verses (1988)

If that’s an example of “opening with dialogue” I can see why the practice is usually discouraged.

67. It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York. —Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar (1963)

Not a Plath fan but I admit I like this opening line.

68. Most really pretty girls have pretty ugly feet, and so does Mindy Metalman, Lenore notices, all of a sudden. —David Foster Wallace, The Broom of the System (1987)

People keep telling me this guy was a writer for the ages. Meh.

69. If I am out of my mind, it’s all right with me, thought Moses Herzog. —Saul Bellow, Herzog (1964)

Me too! I might actually look into this, at least to find out what is making Moses think he’s nuts.

70. Francis Marion Tarwater’s uncle had been dead for only half a day when the boy got too drunk to finish digging his grave and a Negro named Buford Munson, who had come to get a jug filled, had to finish it and drag the body from the breakfast table where it was still sitting and bury it in a decent and Christian way, with the sign of its Saviour at the head of the grave and enough dirt on top to keep the dogs from digging it up. —Flannery O’Connor, The Violent Bear it Away (1960)

Flannery O’Connor’s openings are always good and make you want to read more. I approve.

71. Granted: I am an inmate of a mental hospital; my keeper is watching me, he never lets me out of his sight; there’s a peephole in the door, and my keeper’s eye is the shade of brown that can never see through a blue-eyed type like me. —GŸnter Grass, The Tin Drum (1959; trans. Ralph Manheim)

Yawn, another mental hospital patient. Sorry, it’s not so much that the trope of “main character is in a rubber room” is overused as that it is too often something that seems to automatically get the book on Best Must Reads Lists. There’s a slight whiff of “insanity is so much more interesting” that I don’t care for. People with mental problems don’t exist for the entertainment of sane people — or should I just call them “undiagnosed” people?

72. When Dick Gibson was a little boy he was not Dick Gibson. —Stanley Elkin, The Dick Gibson Show (1971)

That’s not really all that interesting — a lot of people change their names. The clue is already in the title of the book: this is a story about someone who’s identity is at least somewhat manufactured in some way and is presented to the world as a “show.” All the opening line does is say the title in a slightly different way.

73. Hiram Clegg, together with his wife Emma and four friends of the faith from Randolph Junction, were summoned by the Spirit and Mrs. Clara Collins, widow of the beloved Nazarene preacher Ely Collins, to West Condon on the weekend of the eighteenth and nineteenth of April, there to await the End of the World. —Robert Coover, The Origin of the Brunists (1966)

I personally am not very interested in the doings of wacky religious fanatics. Also, this is just a list of names, and after decades of shock! horror! those wacky fundamentalists! the idea that people like to gather together to wait for the End has lost its appeal. Especially at the beginning of a novel–unless this story follows these folks into the afterlife you know that there will be a disappointing moment where things just go on as usual and they realize the world didn’t, in fact, end, and then there will be the rest of the story to slog through. Meh.

74. She waited, Kate Croy, for her father to come in, but he kept her unconscionably, and there were moments at which she showed herself, in the glass over the mantel, a face positively pale with the irritation that had brought her to the point of going away without sight of him. —Henry James, The Wings of the Dove (1902)

I quite enjoyed The Europeans but they say James’ later words become more convoluted and opaque (and other things that indicate a writer trying too hard) and this must be what they meant.

75. 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. —Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms (1929)

76. “Take my camel, dear,” said my Aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass. —Rose Macaulay, The Towers of Trebizond (1956)

Two openings that contrast with the Henry James one above. They are both simple and straightforward and don’t try to hard to show that here is a Writer! Writing! Of the two I prefer the Rose Macaulay one, as it promises some humor and refreshing eccentricity. Hemingway always bored me, and if he’d written the second story the Aunt Dot character would have been an emasculating frigid woman who shot her nephew “by mistake” thinking he was an elephant or tiger or something.

77. He was an inch, perhaps two, under six feet, powerfully built, and he advanced straight at you with a slight stoop of the shoulders, head forward, and a fixed from-under stare which made you think of a charging bull.  —Joseph Conrad, Lord Jim (1900)

I’m not sure why we have to worry about just how many inches under six feet this guy is. I mean who cares. Just say “he’s a bit under six feet” or “not quite six feet” and also six feet what? I know, I know, back Then everyone knew he was referring to height but now it just looks like he forgot to write “tall” or “in height.”

78. The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.  —L. P. Hartley, The Go-Between (1953)

So that’s where this famous saying is from. Now I know.

79. On my naming day when I come 12 I gone front spear and kilt a wyld boar he parbly ben the las wyld pig on the Bundel Downs any how there hadnt ben none for a long time befor him nor I aint looking to see none agen. —Russell Hoban, Riddley Walker (1980)

I read a review of this a long time ago. It’s a post-apocalyptic story set in what was England. I’m not sure about books completely written in this sort of made-up patois, but it isn’t really hard to follow here. Still, I get the feeling that reading a whole book of this would give me a headache. Anyway, my appetite for post-apocalyptic novels populated by primitive characters who can barely put two words together is very small. As in, nonexistent.

80. Justice?—You get justice in the next world, in this world you have the law. —William Gaddis, A Frolic of His Own (1994)

81. Vaughan died yesterday in his last car-crash. —J. G. Ballard, Crash (1973)

82. I write this sitting in the kitchen sink. —Dodie Smith, I Capture the Castle (1948)

I do have a fondness for short opening lines. The first one establishes a tone of cynicism and promises drama of some sort. It has a noir feel. I’m not really into noir though. The second one at first just seems to be about some dead guy, but then you do a double take at “his last car crash”–what now? I’m not really super into Ballard’s type of freaky decadent characters (like people who think crashing their cars are sexy), but it is a very good and effective opening line that would get me reading more if the book was to hand. The third line sums up the eccentricity of the narrator and implies her unusual life right from the start. You know that you’re not going to read about a conventional girl living an ordinary life who gets it shaken up.

83. “When your mama was the geek, my dreamlets,” Papa would say, “she made the nipping off of noggins such a crystal mystery that the hens themselves yearned toward her, waltzing around her, hypnotized with longing.” —Katherine Dunn, Geek Love (1983)

Ugh. Much too precious and dripping with cuteness. “The nipping off of noggins” indeed. I am not intrigued.

84. In the last years of the Seventeenth Century there was to be found among the fops and fools of the London coffee-houses one rangy, gangling flitch called Ebenezer Cooke, more ambitious than talented, and yet more talented than prudent, who, like his friends-in-folly, all of whom were supposed to be educating at Oxford or Cambridge, had found the sound of Mother English more fun to game with than her sense to labor over, and so rather than applying himself to the pains of scholarship, had learned the knack of versifying, and ground out quires of couplets after the fashion of the day, afroth with Joves and Jupiters, aclang with jarring rhymes, and string-taut with similes stretched to the snapping-point. —John Barth, The Sot-Weed Factor (1960)

It bored me just to copy-and-paste that. Sorry, John Barth.

85. 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 (1978)

Not bad at all. I’m not really into books full of hopeless guys drinking their lives away, but that’s a good opening line, though “ramshackle joint” is a bit hackneyed.

86. It was just noon that Sunday morning when the sheriff reached the jail with Lucas Beauchamp though the whole town (the whole county too for that matter) had known since the night before that Lucas had killed a white man. —William Faulkner, Intruder in the Dust (1948)

I don’t know, I just don’t get the whole thing about William Faulkner. But if reading novels about the hot, humid, steamy, racist American South being hot, humid, steamy, and racist are your thing, he’s the go-to guy for that and this novel looks to fill the bill as much as any of his other novels.

87. I, Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus This-that-and-the-other (for I shall not trouble you yet with all my titles) who was once, and not so long ago either, known to my friends and relatives and associates as “Claudius the Idiot,” or “That Claudius,” or “Claudius the Stammerer,” or “Clau-Clau-Claudius” or at best as “Poor Uncle Claudius,” am now about to write this strange history of my life; starting from my earliest childhood and continuing year by year until I reach the fateful point of change where, some eight years ago, at the age of fifty-one, I suddenly found myself caught in what I may call the “golden predicament” from which I have never since become disentangled. —Robert Graves, I, Claudius (1934)

Aw. Hearts Claudius, who I will always see as looking like Derek Jacobi. I mean to read this one of these days.

88. Of all the things that drive men to sea, the most common disaster, I’ve come to learn, is women. —Charles Johnson, Middle Passage (1990)

Ooh, late twentieth century misogyny, do not want. Seriously, this was published in 1990? Didn’t “the evil woman drove me to sea” story die a well-deserved death sometime in the Sixties? I guess not.

89. I am an American, Chicago born—Chicago, that somber city—and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent. —Saul Bellow, The Adventures of Augie March (1953)

American writers have this way of writing about their favorite cities in a pretentious and overbearingly solemn way that just bores me to tears. And I don’t know, this sentence just seems sort of disjointed.

90. The towers of Zenith aspired above the morning mist; austere towers of steel and cement and limestone, sturdy as cliffs and delicate as silver rods. —Sinclair Lewis, Babbitt (1922)

That sounds pretty but it’s Babbitt so you know it’s actually describing something that sucks. I might actually get around to reading this though it sounds ponderous, but it’s all about the problem of empty middle-class lives based on conformity which has kind of become one of my preoccupations of late so I think I should give it a try.

91. I will tell you in a few words who I am: lover of the hummingbird that darts to the flower beyond the rotted sill where my feet are propped; lover of bright needlepoint and the bright stitching fingers of humorless old ladies bent to their sweet and infamous designs; lover of parasols made from the same puffy stuff as a young girl’s underdrawers; still lover of that small naval boat which somehow survived the distressing years of my life between her decks or in her pilothouse; and also lover of poor dear black Sonny, my mess boy, fellow victim and confidant, and of my wife and child. But most of all, lover of my harmless and sanguine self. —John Hawkes, Second Skin (1964)

Oh fuck you. “A young girl’s underdrawers” and “my poor dear black Sonny.” No seriously fuck off. Will not read.

92. He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad. —Raphael Sabatini, Scaramouche (1921)

I always did like that line.

93. Psychics can see the color of time it’s blue. —Ronald Sukenick, Blown Away (1986)

There’s some punctuation missing here. It just makes the sentence look incoherent, and promises more “special” writing of that sort inside. Bad grammar makes my head ache so no thanks.

94. In the town, there were two mutes and they were always together. —Carson McCullers, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1940)

When a novel opens with what people in the mid-20th century thought of as “grotesques” you know a certain sort of story will unfold, and it will have too many sweaty people in it, and someone will probably die a weird death. Unless the author of said story is named “Flannery O’Connor” I will be disinclined to read it, and even her writing I can only take in small doses.

95. Once upon a time two or three weeks ago, a rather stubborn and determined middle-aged man decided to record for posterity, exactly as it happened, word by word and step by step, the story of another man for indeed what is great in man is that he is a bridge and not a goal, a somewhat paranoiac fellow unmarried, unattached, and quite irresponsible, who had decided to lock himself in a room a furnished room with a private bath, cooking facilities, a bed, a table, and at least one chair, in New York City, for a year 365 days to be precise, to write the story of another person—a shy young man about of 19 years old—who, after the war the Second World War, had come to America the land of opportunities from France under the sponsorship of his uncle—a journalist, fluent in five languages—who himself had come to America from Europe Poland it seems, though this was not clearly established sometime during the war after a series of rather gruesome adventures, and who, at the end of the war, wrote to the father his cousin by marriage of the young man whom he considered as a nephew, curious to know if he the father and his family had survived the German occupation, and indeed was deeply saddened to learn, in a letter from the young man—a long and touching letter written in English, not by the young man, however, who did not know a damn word of English, but by a good friend of his who had studied English in school—that his parents both his father and mother and his two sisters one older and the other younger than he had been deported they were Jewish to a German concentration camp Auschwitz probably and never returned, no doubt having been exterminated deliberately X * X * X * X, and that, therefore, the young man who was now an orphan, a displaced person, who, during the war, had managed to escape deportation by working very hard on a farm in Southern France, would be happy and grateful to be given the opportunity to come to America that great country he had heard so much about and yet knew so little about to start a new life, possibly go to school, learn a trade, and become a good, loyal citizen. —Raymond Federman, Double or Nothing (1971)

What the fuck is this teal dear shit I just copy-pasta’d it and didn’t even bother to read. I mean fuck writers who do this.

96. Time is not a line but a dimension, like the dimensions of space. —Margaret Atwood, Cat’s Eye (1988)

I read somewhere that Margaret Atwood does not write science fiction, she writes literary novels. Okay.

97. He—for there could be no doubt of his sex, though the fashion of the time did something to disguise it—was in the act of slicing at the head of a Moor which swung from the rafters. —Virginia Woolf, Orlando (1928)

I saw a movie version of this once starring Tilda Swanson that was pretty good though a bit stylized. I don’t know what to think of this opening sentence. I think she telegraphs her theme rather awkwardly here.

98. High, high above the North Pole, on the first day of 1969, two professors of English Literature approached each other at a combined velocity of 1200 miles per hour. —David Lodge, Changing Places (1975)

Why is “high” written twice? That’s annoying.

99. They say when trouble comes close ranks, and so the white people did. —Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea (1966)

Trouble is coming! White people are assholes. This opening line is good.

100. The cold passed reluctantly from the earth, and the retiring fogs revealed an army stretched out on the hills, resting. —Stephen Crane, The Red Badge of Courage (1895)

My father kept trying to get me to read The Red Badge of Courage but after my experience with Treasure Island (some day the bad dreams will stop) I think I’ll keep on not reading it. Basically, if your novel is about the American Civil War don’t even bother to ask me for an opinion, because I’m more inclined to read a novel about baseball or the love lives of bullocks. That being said, I liked this opening line a lot. It’s very descriptive and poetic without being twee.

 

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21 thoughts on “100 Not Really Best First Lines From Novels

  1. I love this, thanks so much for putting it together. I haven’t read it all, but I’d really like to. But, erm, not sure that’s what Rhys was saying, and if so, it’s not great to make a generalization like that (#99).

    • People who don’t want people to make generalizations (or otherwise “misinterpret” — that is, find unintended meaning in) about what they write should write more carefully. Remember, the Author is dead! (I don’t just mean Rhys — I mean the concept of “the Author, who is the final authority on what Something They Wrote Meant.” Because, they aren’t. It’s a real concept.)

  2. Re: the Chesterton quote at #63. He isn’t being snotty; later on in the paragraph you find that he definitely takes the side of the children (that is, normal people) against the grown-ups (that is, the self-appointed prophets and arbiters of what was not yet called Political Correctness). But no, you can’t tell that from just the first sentence (he *does* take a while to come to the point) and he was a better essayist than novelist anyway.

    You actually got all the way through the first sentence of “Finnegan’s Wake?” I marvel. I bailed out after the second comma.

    • “later on…” Yeah, but this is first impressions from first sentences. I’ve read a bit of Chesterton, so he’s not an unknown factor, and he can be a bit much sometimes.

  3. I’m pretty sure the opening for Slaughterhouse 5 is wrong and the first line of the book is
    “Billy Pilgrim has become unstuck in time”

    Maybe they are quoting the foreword there, too. Or maybe I’m wrong, but that’s how the real novel-y part starts.

    “I, Claudius” and “C the God” are good books.

    I like the Civil War (at least the history) and still didn’t like the Red Badge story.

  4. I enjoyed reading your take on these.

    Joyce I can handle in short story form (“The Dead” is my favorite). Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man I read in high school, and I don’t remember much about it, only that I finished it, which wasn’t the case for Ulysses. Ulysses has beautiful moments, and maybe I’ll pick it up again. I don’t know anything about Finnegan’s Wake, and after reading that opening line I’m not in any hurry to find out.

    George Eliot’s Middlemarch is one of my favorite books of all time; so glad it’s on the list. She’s brilliant. I also enjoy Austen’s work; though her work centers on courtship, it annoys me when people think they’re all about dreamy British guys in tight breeches (at least that’s the way they’ve been depicted by Hollywood).

    I read Lolita. I don’t think I can read it again, because Humbert Humbert made my skin crawl and the whole book is from his POV so you can’t escape from his mind, but I’m glad I read it once. It’s one of the best portraits I’ve seen of one human being appropriating another for his own use; pedophiles do this of course, but not only pedophiles. He’s an enormous egotist and the rationalizations he tries to use to explain his actions and make them seem normal are scarily familiar to anyone who’s dealt with raging egotists or sociopaths. The girl’s real name isn’t even Lolita, but that’s what she is to him so that’s what she’ll be known as. Nabokov’s a good enough writer to show us glimpses of the broken girl behind the picture of the “temptress” painted by Humbert Humbert. (Weirdly enough the Kubrick film adaptation seems to have actually made her into a temptress – I haven’t seen the film, so I may be wrong, but in the trailer she looks like a seductive older teen… if that’s the case, then I don’t know what he made of the novel.)

    • “The Dead” was pretty good. Some writers do best when confined to the short story medium. Middlemarch is on my shelf of Real™ Books for me to read when I’m ready. I suppose I should read Lolita at some point… but then, I’ve known plenty of raging, manipulative egotists in my life and don’t really want to meet more of them in print. (Than I already have — the Raging Egotist is pretty much of a stock character these days. I find that I can stand them if there are alternating viewpoints from other personality types, but an entire novel? There are so many other books I haven’t read…)

  5. This is a profoundly silly list. Sadly I like the interest to give it the treatment you have. Well done.

  6. The C S Lewis line about “Eustace Clarence Scrubb” in #47 is more meaningful if you know that Lewis hated his own name, hence the C. S. instead of Clive Staples. Already at the age of 4 (I think?) he stormed into the living room and announced solemnly to his parents, while pointing to himself, “Him is Jackie!” So for the rest of his life, he was Jack to his friends and family.

    • That’s very sweet but if you’re from Indonesia or Zambia and you’re reading this novel you may not pick up on the name thing, even if you speak and read perfect English (and you probably do). That’s what I meant.

      By the way, I’m American, of Northern European (probably) descent, and I get the joke. I wasn’t asking for an explanation. Why are you explaining this? (Why do people do that? Explain things that don’t need explaining? Men are the worst offenders–sorry guys, but you are. Don’t explain things unless you are asked to. You’ll find that the number of rolled eyes, exasperated sighs, and glares you get from the female sex will diminish greatly in number.)

      • “I protest,” he explained. I wasn’t explaining so much as digressing thoughtlessly into trivia. And did Lewis in the 1940s expect that his Narnia tales were ever going to be read even by Americans, much less Indonesians? Maybe. And (I ask myself) are such considerations relevant at all to appreciating your judgments on the texts in question? But your response does helpfully explain all those female glares and exasperations over the decades. OK, I’ll go sit in a corner and shut up now and count toothpicks. [P.S. – I have liked your blogging for years, starting with a sympathetic resonance on the subject of allergic sinus headaches, and have often recounted your comments to my wife, identifying you in a conveniently abbreviated way (after an initial more extensive explanation of who you were and what sorts of things you were wont to say) first as Florida-woman, and more recently as Florida-Virginia-woman … rolled eyes? exasperation?] Really, shutting up now.

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  8. “Why do people do that? Explain things that don’t need explaining? Men are the worst offenders–sorry guys, but you are.”

    Men are hard-wired to explain things, he explained.

  9. No. 19 was promising. I liked the first two thirds of the book but then he had to ruin everything by getting born
    I first thought no. 46 was from the Dark and Stormy Night series. It easily could have made it.

    Eric Ambler’s, Raymond Chandler’s and PG Wodehouse’s novels have some great first sentences that hook you into the story. The Flashman novels have some great first paragraphs.

    • I read several of the Flashman books when I was a kid because my father had checked them out of the library (and no, my parents had no trouble with me reading stuff full of raunchy scenes). I recall enjoying them mostly but not being inclined to reread them. I haven’t read Ambler or Chandler, and I don’t think I’ve read much Wodehouse. I can only take so much arch British humor before I get bored and want to read something serious. I’m picky.

      • I never thought Flashman was all that raunchy.
        Wodehouse’s stuff varies in quality. His best (Bertie and Jeeves, Mulliner, the golf stories) s very, very good. Some of his other stuff has too much of a slapstick quality to it. His strongest point imo is the way he uses language, and his comic timing.
        Ambler’s quality also varies. The ones I liked the best are: The Levanter, Passage of Arms, Coffin for Demetrios, The Care of Time/

      • “I never thought Flashman was all that raunchy.”

        Well they were to me when I was a junior high school kid in the mid-70s. Now I’d probably grade them PG-13.

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