Skip to content

Famous Opening Lines

 

I think some of the best book openings insert the reader into an immediate point of tension. There’s drama right off the bat. I can appreciate books that provide a lot of back story, but I have to make myself be patient.

Moby Dick isn't on the list, but it has one of the most famous opening lines in the history of literature.

So I’m adding one section–“the opening line”–to my reviews of the 101 books. I think it’s pretty self explanatory. I’ll simply write out the book’s opening line. If my review sucks, maybe the opening line will spur you on to read more.

Since I’ll be doing this going forward, starting with my review of Gone With the Wind, I thought I’d write out the opening sentences of the four books I’ve already reviewed.

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.”

To Kill A Mockingbird: “When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow.”

Slaughterhouse Five: “All this happened, more or less.”

Lord of the Flies: “The boy with fair hair lowered himself down the last few feet of rock and began to pick his way towards the lagoon.”

Even though its my least favorite of the first four books I’ve read, Lord of the Flies has my favorite opening line of these first several reads. Who is the boy with fair hair? Why is he climbing down a rock? Why is a kid in a lagoon?

These are the questions I get from just reading that first sentence. I think The Catcher in the Rye has a great first sentence, too–one that provides a lot of questions and tension right away.

What’s your favorite opening line of any book?

Advertisements
21 Comments Post a comment
  1. Charles Prokop #

    I really can’t pick a best opening line, but reading the first line, and then the first paragraph, is my common test for whether or not to read a book. I’ve discovered some writers I never would have found any other way by doing that.
    But as a competitor for best, I’ll submit the first line of “Straight Man”, by Richard Russo. “Truth be told, I’m not an easy man.” It was the first Russo book I read, I bought it based only on the first line and paragraph, and it lead me to read all of his others.

    Liked by 1 person

    October 14, 2010
  2. Good thought. I thought one of Russo’s books might be on the list, but I guess not.

    Liked by 1 person

    October 15, 2010
  3. My favorite opening line, ironically in view of The Catcher in the Rye’s first line, is the initial line in David Copperfield by Charles Dickens.
    “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.”
    The idea of being the hero of my own life was an eye-opener at the time.
    Jodi

    Liked by 1 person

    April 5, 2011
  4. Elantris by Brandon Sanderson has one of the greatest first lines I’ve ever read: “Prince Raoden of Arelon awoke early that morning, completely unaware that he had been damned for all eternity.” That’s a sentence that will get you to read the rest of the book.
    The prologue to the book is also brilliant. It’s only 1 page long but it is also intriguing enough to get you to read the book. It discusses the beauty and power of the city of Elantris as well as its inhabitants. The prologue ends saying how those who were chosen to be citizens of Elantris would “live in bliss, rule in wisdom, and be worshipped for eternity.”
    “Eternity ended ten years ago.”

    I heard of Sanderson the same way that a lot of other people have, when he was chosen to finish the Wheel of Time. I bought Elantris to check out his writing and have since read everything he’s written.

    Liked by 1 person

    May 11, 2011
  5. I like your selection, particularly Vonnegut’s.

    For me, “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” and “Marley was dead, a least to begin with.” have always stuck with me as being particularly well crafted.

    Like

    June 23, 2011
  6. Neda #

    “Then there was the bad weather.” (Moveable Feast, Hemingway). It makes you wanna turn the page back and see what have you missed.

    Liked by 1 person

    November 17, 2011
    • This too is my favorite. And it is an exception to Elmore Leonard’s rule to not begin with the weather. This one is a great beginning of a great book.

      Liked by 1 person

      September 25, 2013
  7. arshia #

    My favourite first line of a book is from Charles Dickens ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ –
    It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

    When you think about the French Revolution which is the backdrop of the story, you can’t help thinking how much this line captures the whole essence of that period in history.

    Liked by 2 people

    January 18, 2013
    • This is mine too, but you only quote the tiniest snippet of a sentence that piles and piles up for a paragraph.

      Liked by 1 person

      February 3, 2015
  8. “Life is difficult.” First line of “The Road Less Traveled.”

    Liked by 2 people

    December 3, 2013
  9. jakester48 #

    I can think of a few, but how about :

    “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” from Orwell’s 1984.

    And, although it pre-dates the 101 Books time-frame, the classic:

    “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 of course, its arch irony whetting your appetite for the feast to follow in Pride and Prejudice

    Like

    November 5, 2015
  10. Stephen #

    The sun had not yet risen. The sea was indistinguishable from the sky, except that the sea was slightly creased as if a cloth had wrinkles in it. Gradually as the sky whitened a dark line lay on the horizon dividing the sea from the sky and the grey cloth became barred with thick strokes moving, one after another, beneath the surface, following each other, pursuing each other, perpetually.

    As they neared the shore each bar rose, heaped itself, broke and swept a thin veil of white water across the sand. The wave paused, and then drew out again, sighing like a sleeper whose breath comes and goes unconsciously. Gradually the dark bar on the horizon became clear as if the sediment in an old wine-bottle had sunk and left the glass green. Behind it, too, the sky cleared as if the white sediment there had sunk, or as if the arm of a woman couched beneath the horizon had raised a lamp and flat bars of white, green and yellow spread across the sky like the blades of a fan. Then she raised her lamp higher and the air seemed to become fibrous and to tear away from the green surface flickering and flaming in red and yellow fibres like the smoky fire that roars from a bonfire. Gradually the fibres of the burning bonfire were fused into one haze, one incandescence which lifted the weight of the woollen grey sky on top of it and turned it to a million atoms of soft blue. The surface of the sea slowly became transparent and lay rippling and sparkling until the dark stripes were almost rubbed out. Slowly the arm that held the lamp raised it higher and then higher until a broad flame became visible; an arc of fire burnt on the rim of the horizon, and all round it the sea blazed gold.

    The light struck upon the trees in the garden, making one leaf transparent and then another. One bird chirped high up; there was a pause; another chirped lower down. The sun sharpened the walls of the house, and rested like the tip of a fan upon a white blind and made a blue finger-print of shadow under the leaf by the bedroom window. The blind stirred slightly, but all within was dim and unsubstantial. The birds sang their blank melody outside.

    The Waves, Virginia Woolf

    Like

    February 1, 2016
  11. Stephen #

    I was making my own list. I’ll put it here and you may delete it if it’s too much. No titles, so when you read them, you’ll know it. Or you already do since they are not unique, since a good book generally follows, which certainly influences a first sentence more than otherwise. Certainly I can name you 100 books without a great first line, and many first lines missing from this list. First lines in a short story I think are more critical. A poem must have every line great or it’s The expense of spirit in a waste of shame. I’m old and read a lot. I don’t pay much attention to first lines generally, except in poems, but they are great fun aren’t they?

    “Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.” (This is greater than one might think without knowing the allusions. I used a reference book, by the way.)

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

    “There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.”

    “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. That book was made by a Mr Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly.”

    “Into the face of the young man who sat on the terrace of the Hotel Magnifique at Cannes there had crept a look of furtive shame, the shifty, hangdog look which announces that an Englishman is about to talk French.”

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

    “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

    “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, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.”

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

    “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.”

    “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.”

    “Call me Ishmael.”

    “My name is Ruth.”

    “Miss Brooke had that kind of beauty which seems to be thrown into relief by poor dress.”

    “Mother died today. Or maybe, yesterday; I can’t be sure.”

    “This is the saddest story I have ever heard.”

    “See the child.”

    “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”

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

    ‘Where now? Who now? When now?’

    “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.”

    “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.”

    “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.”

    “Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting.”

    ” Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.”

    “For a long time, I went to bed early.”

    “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 Savior at the head of the grave and enough dirt on top to keep the dogs from digging it up.”

    “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.”

    “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.”

    “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.”

    “In the town, there were two mutes and they were always together.”

    “It was now lunch time and they were all sitting under the double green fly of the dining tent pretending that nothing had happened.”

    “I remember the whole beginning as a succession of flights and drops, a little seesaw of the right throbs and the wrong.”

    “When he was nearly thirteen my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow.”

    “I have escaped to this island with the child, Melissa’s child. As the night is snatched from darkness by Arcturus, I think of my friends and of my beloved Alexandria, with its iodine-coloured meidan of Mazarita, where the open petal of Melissa’s mouth fell upon mine like unslaked summer. Ah Melissa!”

    “One may as well begin with Helen’s letters to her sister.”

    “The boy with fair hair lowered himself down the last few feet of rock and began to pick his way towards the lagoon.”

    I’ll name the book if you like. Of course the obvious I’ll name anyhow; sorry if I erred on the order or missed one.

    Ullyses
    Pride and Predjudice
    Jane Eyre (not a favorite)
    Huck Finn
    The Luck of the Bodkins
    The Bell Jar
    Anna Karenina
    Tale of 2 cities (worst Dickens’ novel)
    1984 (not a favorite)
    Catcher
    Die Verwandlung
    Moby Dick
    Housekeeping
    Middlemarch
    L’Etranger
    The Good Soldier (the great unread)
    Blood Meridian
    The Go-Between (seldom read)
    David Copperfield
    The Unnamed (read by the ambitious — again Part 3 of trilogy)
    Middlesex
    Miss Lonelyhearts (the great American short)
    The Crying of Lot 49 (his best)
    The Sound and the Fury (never wrote a book or story I didn’t like)
    Mrs. Dalloway (Same, love her)
    À la recherche du temps perdu (must read it all)
    The Violent Bear It Away (overlooked greatness)
    Wings of the Dove (Favorite American Novel)
    Geek Love (one book author – lost in the crowd)
    I, Claudius
    The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (Movie is better)
    The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber (his best short)
    The Turn of the Screw (greatest ghost story)
    To Kill a Mockingbird
    Justine, Part 1 of Alexandria Quartet (As “A la recherche,’ it’s one book and all must be read)
    Howard’s End (all his books are favorites)
    Lord of the Flies (Beelzebub) not a favorite
    One of the greatest authors, J. Conrad, is not on this list. He can write however. As can so many more. Every Dickens has a great first line on every page except the one here, which has it’s share I suppose.

    Like

    February 2, 2016
  12. Stephen #

    “One April afternoon, right after lunch, my husband announced that he wanted to leave me.”

    Elena Ferrante

    Like

    February 3, 2016

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Can You Judge A Book By Its First Sentence? | 101 Books
  2. “I am an invisible man.” | 101 Books
  3. Stephen King Talks Opening Sentences | 101 Books
  4. What’s Your Favorite Opening Line? | 101 Books
  5. Best Dating Website Opening Lines | Your Best Online Dating Site

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: