Some Great First Lines

Books that hook you right from the get-go



Note the title of this post: “Some Great First Lines.” Not all. These are mostly from English novels of the past 100 years, except a couple, and in no particular order; they all reflect my tastes, naturally.

Each line seems to me boast that basic blast you want when you’re in your armchair as you set out to read—it makes you want to stay seated and keep reading. Please understand: I’ve skipped some of the more obvious ones (Lolita, Invisible Man, The Good Soldier, Slaughterhouse-Five and Ulysses, for example) in favor of my own odd predilections. Then again, I’ve left off things that are most esoteric (such as Perfume, Neuromancer, Geek Love and Zuleika Dobson) simply for space, but hey, this is my disco, so, you’ve got to listen to my music…

1984

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

From the start, Orwell’s novel tells you things are strikingly wrong. And, considering what Winston Smith hears later about the bleak future of humanity, “…a boot stamping on a human face forever,” things will only get worse.

Gravity’s Rainbow

“A screaming comes across the sky.”

Thomas Pynchon’s zeppelin of a novel is rewarding, even if no one seems to be able to finish it. (Just kidding.) His main character, Slothrop, embarks upon a journey that is but one strand in this crazy weave of prose, but his is a red thread that will guide you. It took me an entire summer to read GR, but the scenes in it are unforgettable and serve as postmodern reference points—just like that first line.

London Fields

“This is a true story but I can’t believe it’s really happening.”

Martin Amis’s late-’80s novel is riveting—a bit dated, considering some of its self-conscious preoccupations, but no one constructs sentences the way he does nowadays. Amis is best as a comic writer, but this novel is darkly tragic, hilarious and deeply troubling, all at the same time.

“Black Venus”

“Sad; so sad, those smoky-rose, smoky-mauve evenings of late autumn, sad enough to pierce the heart.”

Angela Carter’s short story (and its eponymous collection) is her finest work, to my mind, and showcases her monumental talents as a prose stylist. At her best, this is writing feverishly alive with the love of sound and tone, a poetry-in-prose with jet-propelled, thunderbird energy powering ridiculously nifty plots.

The Hobbit

“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”

Bing! A light bulb seemed to have switched on in J.R.R. Tolkien’s head when this sentence arrived, fully formed, supposedly, in his mind. You probably know the rest.

Portnoy’s Complaint

“She was so deeply embedded in my consciousness that for the first year of school I seem to have believed that each of my teachers was my mother in disguise.”

More well-known, shall we say, for its protagonist’s physical close encounter with cold cuts, Philip Roth’s 1967 work is of its time and yet eternal. But, perhaps, not for everyone. Though, as my professors used to point out, everyone once had a mother, so…

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

“Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun.”

There we go, and here we (literally) are: perfection achieved!

The Bell Jar

“It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.”

I know few people who’ve read Sylvia Plath’s novel who haven’t had their lives changed by it. She is a giant among poets, and her first-person work retains its unsettling, flawed brilliance to this day, announcing, in its time signature (1953), the confessional, unmistakable tone of a narrative that’s almost as intimate as any journal.

The 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 into it, if you want to know the truth.”

J.D. Salinger’s coming-of-age novel had to make this list, and had to be placed next to Plath’s work, if only (superficially) due to when the two were written. About a decade ago, I remember reading a column by George Will about how Holden Caulfield heralded an innovation only in terms of inaugurating the great American literary tradition of teenage/adolescent whining. Well, guess what? Every teenager whines about something, so this book innovated at just the right time, and is never going out of style.

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

“There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.”

Within C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia series, this opening jab introduces you to one of English literature’s snottiest little brats. He’s the scrub (pardon my pun) who didn’t believe Narnia existed, of course, until he gets there. Wait—take back what I wrote about whining and adolescents in his case, even though he turns things around in Narnia later on.

Hamlet

“Who’s there?”

Quick—care to make an English lit major feel inadequate? Just ask, “What’s the first line of Hamlet?” Chances are, s/he won’t know. Seventeen years ago, a dozen of my grad-school classmates didn’t, either. It’s probably the greatest opener in ALL of English lit, as it’s a question (one that’s never solved by the play); it’s economical (two words tell you things are awfully uncertain); and it arrests your attention. They say drama has to be viewed to be enjoyed, but Hamlet’s first scene and its first line, hook you—you need to find out. Naturally, it doesn’t hurt that the most famous play in English is required reading in high school, as well (wink, wink). Or, “buzz, buzz,” as Hamlet says later.

Recommended Reading

What with all these great opening lines, I’d like to recommend not only the works listed above, but great books in general. May is a wonderful month—peonies arrive along with Mother’s Day, the final frost comes and finally goes—to crack into long books, whether we’re talking Homer, Proust, Joyce or something more recent, such as serial reads or long tomes that you’ve neglected for years and want to re-read. So, just as May (truly) heralds a return to summer, make your own return to works you love and re-read them.

I know what I’m going to pick up. Do you?

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