Friday, January 14, 2011

What are your favorite Book Beginnings?

I was looking through another of the quirky books I've collected over the years, IN THE BEGINNING - Great First Lines From Your Favorite Books, Collected by Hans Bauer (1991), and came across some opening gambits that I'd forgotten or never knew. Not every author has the knack for beginning well, but those that do are off to a running start. Now all they have to do is make sure the rest of the book lives up to the beginning.

Not all of my favorite opening lines are included in this little book, obviously, or the book would be too heavy to carry, but "IN THE BEGINING presents the all-important first sentence to more than 500 novels." There are enough intriguing ones to make for fun reading and reference. And I did find some of my own favorites mixed in with many I'd never heard of before and a few I didn't agree with. There are plenty of sites online which list First Lines of books, so further exploration is easy enough.

To begin with, here are a few choices from Bauer's book:

All children, except one, grow up. PETER PAN, J. M. Barrie, 1911

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, Jane Austen, 1813

He was born with a gift of laughter and sense that the world was mad. SCARAMOUCHE, Rafael Sabatini, 1921

All nights should be so dark, all winters so warm, all headlights so dazzling. GORKY PARK, Martin Cruz Smith, 1981

All happy families are alike but an unhappy family is unhappy after its own fashion. ANNA KARENINA, Leo Tolstoy, 1878

Later that summer, when Mrs. Penmark looked back and remembered, when she was caught up in despair so deep that she knew there was no way out, no solution whatever for the circumstances that encompassed her, it seemed to her that June seventh, the day of the Fern Grammar School picnic, was the day of her last happiness, for never since then had she known contentment or felt peace. THE BAD SEED, William March, 1954

It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn't know what I was doing in New York. THE BELL JAR, Sylvia Plath, 1963

My wife Norma had run off with Guy Dupree and I was waiting around for the credit card billings to come in so I could see where they had gone. THE DOG OF THE SOUTH, Charles Portis, 1979

"So you boys want to help me on another case?" Fenton Hardy, internationally known detective, smiled at his teen-age sons. THE HOUSE ON THE CLIFF/The Hardy Boys, Franklin W. Dixon, 1927

I had the story, bit by bit, from various people, and, as generally happens in such cases, each time it was a different story. ETHAN FROME, Edith Wharton, 1911

Have you ever known a famous man before he became famous? YOUNGBLOOD HAWKE, Herman Wouk, 1962

I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills. OUT OF AFRICA, Isak Dinesen, 1937

In his new boots, Joe Buck was six-foot-one and life was different. MIDNIGHT COWBOY, James Leo Herlihy, 1965

When I was a young boy, if I was sick or in trouble, or had been beaten at school, I used to remember that on the day I was born my father had wanted to kill me. THE LAST OF THE WINE, Mary Renault, 1956

It was five o'clock on a winter's morning in Syria. MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS, Agatha Christie, 1934

The stranger came early in February, one wintry day, through a biting wind and a driving snow, the last snowfall of the year, over the down, walking as it seemed from Bramblehurst railway station, and carrying a little black portmanteau in his thickly gloved hand. THE INVISIBLE MAN, H.G. Wells, 1897

I shook the rain from my hat and walked into the room. I, THE JURY, Mickey Spillane, 1947

Under certain circumstances there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea. THE PORTRAIT OF A LADY, Henry James, 1881

It is a curious thing that at my age - fifty-five last birthday - I should find myself taking up a pen to try and write a history. SHE, H. Rider Haggard, 1885

In the town there were two mutes, and they were always together. THE HEART IS A LONELY HUNTER, Carson McCullers, 1940

I first met Dean not long after my wife and I split up. ON THE ROAD, Jack Kerouac, 1957

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again. REBECCA, Daphne DuMaurier,

In eighteenth-century France there lived a man who was one of the most gifted and abominable personages in an era that knew no lack of gifted and abominable personages. PERFUME, THE STORY OF A MURDERER, Patrick Suskind, 1985

Once upon a time there was a Martian named Valentine Michael Smith. STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND, Robert A. Heinlein, 1961

He rode into our valley in the summer of '89. SHANE, Jack Schaefer, 1949

It was about eleven o'clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. THE BIG SLEEP, Raymond Chandler, 1939

I was never of the opinion, that the honest man who married and brought up a large family, did more service than he who continued single, and only talked of population. THE VICAR OF WAKEFIELD, Olive Goldsmith, 1766

A good sampling, I think. There were a couple of first lines listed that made me laugh out loud and not in a good way. So it seems that some of these first lines are not holding up as well as they ought, at least in my view. Here are a couple:

Indian summer is like a woman. PEYTON PLACE, Grace Metalious, 1956 I'm sorry but I just can't take this seriously, although perhaps for a pot boiler about sex and aberration in a small town, it's apt. Still, it made me laugh. I read PEYTON PLACE back then and thought it was a pretty good book, for what it was. I still think so.

"Who is John Galt?" ATLAS SHRUGGED, Ayn Rand, 1957 Okay, my immediate reaction is to answer: "Who cares?" I certainly didn't, then or now. Never could get through this book. But the opening line seems to me to be stinking with the kind of hubris that smells to high heaven. Just my own personal opinion, you understand.

Here are two of my personal favorites- more than just the first couple of lines really, but still within keeping, I think - from mystery author Parnell Hall's very first Stanley Hastings, P.I. book: DETECTIVE.

"I want to kill someone."
"Who doesn't?"
"No. I mean it. I really want to kill someone."
"Everyone wants to kill someone. It's no big deal. I, myself, have a long list, usually headed by my wife."
"You don't understand. I'm going to do it."
For the first time, I gave him my full attention.

This beginning is from the novel STRAIGHT by Dick Francis:

I inherited my brother's life. Inherited his desk, his business, his gadgets, his enemies, his horses and his mistress. I inherited my brother's life, and it nearly killed me.

Dick Francis, especially, had a talent for terrific beginnings.

I have others, of course, but Parnell Hall and Dick Francis are two that always stand out for me.

What First Lines are you most fond of?


  1. Fabulous! Mine are kids' books, but they stay with you! See if you recognise...

    "Christmas won't be Christmas without any presents!"

    And one of my favourite introductions of any character, ever:
    "There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it."

    Great blog post! ;)

  2. Rachel: Thanks! The first one is LITTLE WOMEN, I think. The second I don't recognize, but it's great anyway. I'd want to read that book! ;)

  3. Little women, yes, oh I love that book :p
    The second is "Voyage of the Dawn Treader" (Narnia) ;) xxx

  4. Rachel: Well, I think I'm going to have to take a serious look at the Narnia books. For whatever reason, I've never read them.

  5. "In those days cheap apartments were almost impossible to find in Manhattan, so I had to move to Brooklyn".
    The first lines of "Sophie's Choice" by William Styron.

    It never lost its truth and probably never will!

  6. Pat: True then, more than true now. Unless you're rich or in a rent control situation, you're pretty much priced out of the city. That's just the way of things.

    That line from SOPHIE'S CHOICE is included in Bauer's book. :)

  7. These are so interesting.

    I don't remember first lines, so I guess I'm auditing this course.

    On "Peyton Place," I remember when I was 15 and wanted to read this; "all of the girls" in my class were reading it was my reason.

    My father, who was a big reader and encouraged my reading, told me not to read it, which he only told me twice in my life, this being one of them. Of course, being 15, I had to read it, to find out for myself why he said that. I did agree with him, though, after I was finished. I didn't think it had any redeeming values.

    I think at that age I was reading Steinbeck, Dreiser, Sinclair, Maugham and probably Conan Doyle, and Rex Stout--and Dorothy Sayers, to round out the mysteries. Good books, even good mysteries were encouraged; pulp fiction was not. TV watching was limited to "good" programs.

    So it's interesting to read about that book later. What did you like about it?

  8. Kathy: I've always been an eclectic reader and I guess I always will be. I used to read what was assigned in school, of course, then follow up with other authors on my own. That's how I discovered lots of good writers, on my own, since I didn't really go to college, except for art school.

    What did I like about PEYTON PLACE? Well, for what it was, I didn't think it was as bad as all that. It held your attention, that's for sure. It was a real page turner. Lurid, sexy, and very colorful. Like nothing much I'd ever read before. I mean, it curled your hair. Ha! You forget, it was practically the first of its kind. Lots of the so-called womens' fiction around today, stems from Grace Metalious's work. In its own way, it was ground-breaking.
    This was the 1950's! She ushered in writers like Jacqueline Susan and Jackie Collins and a whole bunch of others during the late fifties, sixties and seventies. Those sorts of books were always on the best seller list. PEYTON PLACE was really the best of them. I'm happy to say I never grew too fond of these type books. I've never read Jackie Collins and right off the top of my head can't remember any others, though there were plenty turned into tv movies and such. (I did read VALLEY OF THE DOLLS, but that's about it.)

  9. Oh, how interesting.

    Yes, I had to read what was assigned in school, but as I said above, we were encouraged to read good, socially redeeming books at home and I did, reading my way through high school, always staying up late to do so.

    "Peyton Place" was the only book I'd read like that, even though my poor parents were dismayed.

    I guess I became somewhat of a "book snob," but I've read my share of "chick lit," much of which is unfairly maligned and other popular fiction, including mysteries, although I think I've become a bit of a "book snob" on the mysteries, too. But I do like a good page-turner, up-all-night, can't put it down type book.

  10. Kathy: I'll always thank my high school English teacher, Miss Eisenberg, for introducing me to Thomas Wolfe, Edith Wharton and Sinclair Lewis, among others. Unfortunately, we had to read TALE OF TWO CITIES and ever since then I've had a problem with Dickens. Oh well...I am a 'book snob' when it comes 'chick lit'. Today, with rare exceptions, I just can't get into it.

  11. Oh, Thomas Wolfe was one of my father's favorite authors. But I've never read his books, although a friend is encouraging me to do so.

    I agree on the Dickens' trauma. I had to read "A Tale of Two Cities," in high school and didn't like it, and have not read Dickens' since, although his fans say many of his other books are much more than that one.

    When I get into reading dead English authors--may be a long time coming--I'll try to revisit Dickens. But I've met people who encourage Trollope, for one.

    Other friends keep telling me to read old French authors and Russians. I hope one day I'll read a book by Tolstoi, but mysteries keep calling to me. And now I have tons of library dvds, so Tolstoi may be long off.

  12. so many wonderful beginnings! they make me want to start a new book right now!

    the start of my favorite book:
    albatross, Soti Triantafillou, Greece

    ''the day Molly's father went to declare the birth of his daughter, to the town hall, at the south of tamesis river, the clerck asked him in a conspiratorial way: have you heard about the elephant man?''

  13. Kathy: I joined the Victorian Reading Challenge this year and I'm going to be reading Trollope for the first time! Also Kipling! I picked up a good used copy online of KIM and Wilkie Collins' WOMAN IN WHITE. That's my goal. The only French writer I ever read was Guy deMaupassant in high school. Good stuff. But, for whatever reason, I don't remember ever reading any other. No Russians, either. But I'm in no hurry. There's plenty of other stuff to read.

    With Wolfe, I recommend: LOOK HOMEWARD, ANGEL. He totally changed my view of what writing can and should be. I haven't read him in years, though.

  14. Martha: That is a great beginning. I love book openings that begin one way and swerve off into something else. Not many writers have the knack of doing this well. Yours sounds very intriguing. :)


Your comment will appear after I take a look.