Monday, August 01, 2005

Opening Lines of Books

I find that with certain books the opening line grabs me by the shirt collar. It demands my attention. It draws me on to read more. And moreover, often that opening line sticks with me.

It's odd how this works: not every classic book opens with a memorable line, and not every book that opens memorably is a great book. Sometimes we're talking just a few words, sometimes it runs on to paragraph length. And the writing of a lapidary opening seems to be much more an art than a science. Of course the prime example of a classic book which opens with an unforgettable line is Moby Dick: "Call me Ishmael."

Here are some opening lines which over the years have stuck with me. See if you can guess what books they come from— answers in the comments. Oh, and feel free to add examples of your own.
  1. Friday afternoon in the universe...

  2. Mother died today. Or, maybe, yesterday; I can't be sure. The telegram from the Home says: YOUR MOTHER PASSED AWAY. FUNERAL TOMORROW. DEEP SYMPATHY. Which leaves the matter doubtful; it could have been yesterday.

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

  4. The stone door slammed. It was Cleaver's trademark: there had never been a door too heavy, complex, or cleverly tracked to prevent him from closing it with a sound like a clap of doom.

  5. "Lot ninety-seven," the auctioneer announced. "A boy."

  6. In watermelon sugar the deeds were done and done again as my life is done in watermelon sugar. I'll tell you about it because I am here and you are distant.

  7. The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.

  8. He was one hundred and seventy days dying and not yet dead. He fought for survival with the passion of a beast in a trap. He was delirious and rotting, but occasionally his primitive mind emerged from the burning nightmare of survival into something resembling sanity. Then he lifted his mute face to Eternity and muttered: "What's a matter, me? Help, you goddamn gods! Help, is all."

  9. 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.

  10. I am a very old man; how old I do not know. Possibly I am a hundred, possibly more; but I cannot tell because I have never aged as other men, nor do I remember any childhood. So far as I can recollect I have always been a man, a man of about thirty. I appear today as I did forty years and more ago...



Blogger Paul Burgess said...

1. Jack Kerouac, Old Angel Midnight
2. Albert Camus, The Stranger
3. George Orwell, 1984
4. James Blish, A Case of Conscience
5. Robert Heinlein, Citizen of the Galaxy
6. Richard Brautigan, In Watermelon Sugar
7. William Gibson, Neuromancer
8. Alfred Bester, The Stars My Destination
9. Charles Dickens, David Copperfield
10. Edgar Rice Burroughs, A Princess of Mars

Monday, August 01, 2005 6:24:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

IB Bill here. My favorite opening ever is this elegant sentence:

"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."

BTW, I only got The Stranger from your list. Never heard of Blish or Bester, I'm afraid.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005 8:39:00 AM  
Blogger Paul Burgess said...


James Blish and Alfred Bester were two science-fiction writers who were big a generation or two back. Blish's writings in particular were a passion of mine from high school years on up: A Case of Conscience, the Cities in Flight tetralogy, "Surface Tension," "Beep," "Common Time," And All the Stars a Stage, Jack of Eagles (original title: Let the Finder Beware), and many more.

It's a pity that today Blish's writings are out of print— except perhaps for the paperback adaptations of the original Star Trek series, which Blish only wrote for the money. (In fact IIRC, Blish's wife and mother-in-law were the actual authors of all the volumes from about Star Trek 6 onward.)

One image that always stays with me from A Case of Conscience (which won the Hugo Award back in its day) is the "message tree" on the planet Lithia: a gigantic sequoia-like tree, with its roots buried deep in a crystalline cliff, sending and receiving piezoelectrically generated radio signals around the planet, and even deep out into space...

Odd fact: I've read a lot of science fiction in my time, but almost all of it science fiction which was published between 1945 and 1975— or at least, written by authors who were already well established by the end of that time period. Gibson's Neuromancer is one of the very few exceptions— I have no idea where the field of science fiction is at nowadays.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005 10:01:00 AM  
Blogger Francis W. Porretto said...

I cherish many first sentences I've encountered over the years, but my favorite is one from a completely unknown short story writer, Ron Currie. When my old Palace Of Reason site was publishing fiction, he sent me a stunner titled "Faith, Hope, Love," about a widower all but ruined by his loss, straining to raise a young daughter as best he could despite the emptiness in his soul. It began as follows:

"I have given my daughter God."

Monday, August 08, 2005 7:53:00 PM  

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