Can You Judge A Book By Its First Sentence?
Way back when this blog had about 5 readers, I discussed this topic. So since I’ve got a few more visitors than that these days, I thought we could revisit it.
If you’ve read at least one of my reviews, you’ve probably noticed that I include the opening line of the novel in each review. Why?
I don’t think you can judge a book by its cover, but you might be able to judge it by its opening sentence. Whenever I’m browsing books in a bookstore (remember those?), I always flip to the first page and read the first paragraph or so.
You can learn a lot from the opening line—things like the setting, the plot setup, a fact or two about a character, the author’s style. The opening line is almost like a piece of chicken on a toothpick from one of those Asian places in the mall food court. Even that small little bite can tell you whether or not you’ll like their food.
One of my favorite opening lines to this point is from The 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.
So many questions come from that first sentence: Why is a “boy” in a lagoon? Why is he climbing down a rock, and where is he going–or who is he running from?
Tension like that is always a great way to start a book, but great authors can also open novels in an even more subtle way. Here’s the opener from The Assistant by Bernard Malamud:
The early November street was dark though night had ended, but the wind, to the grocer’s surprise, already clawed.
I’m not really sure why I love that line so much, but I think it’s the visual. A dark, windy street in the crisp November air, and a grocer–maybe with an apron on–out in the middle of it. Sweeping? Closing his store? Relaxing on a bench? Even a seemingly mild opener like that produces a lot of questions for me.
So here’s a question or two for the weekend: Can you judge a book by its opening line? Do you have an all-time favorite opener?