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Arbitrary.  Fun.

Charlie Harris, professor emeritus of English at Illinois State University, contemporary literature reader/critic extraordinaire (secretary of the Center for Book Culture.org and former director of the Unit for Contemporary Literature), and all-around fine fellow, informs me that a bunch of literary-minded folk are putting together a list of Great First Lines in Novels, as an arbitrary-but-fun counterpart to the American Film Institute’s 100 great movie lines.

So far they have over 150 nominations, and many of them are what you’d expect:

Call me Ishmael. 

riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.

As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect. 

Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.

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

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

Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.

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.

But there are a few surprises and flights of whimsy, as well: “It was a pleasure to burn,” from Fahrenheit 451; “The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new,” from Beckett’s Murphy (a personal fave—the line, and the novel); and even, from Edward George Bulwer-Lytton’s Paul Clifford, the immortal

It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents—except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness. 

So, then, today’s Arbitrary but Fun game is this:  suggest more Great First Sentences for the list.  I offered them “A screaming comes across the sky” and “Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting,” but they already had ‘em.  When Charlie emailed me the full list-in-progress, however, I realized that they had overlooked one of the greatest lines of the late twentieth century:

There are songs that come free from the blue-eyed grass, from the dust of a thousand country roads.

Was there ever a more devastating opening than this gem from Robert James Waller’s The Bridges of Madison County?  “But it sucks,” you say.  “It’s just hideously godawful.  It doesn’t make any damn sense, either—it’s like ‘there are musical compositions for which you do not have to pay royalties, and they come from this really bizarre kind of plant that has eyes.’” But that’s the point, of course.  It is a great first line in that it not only encapsulates everything that Waller is about to inflict on his readers, but serves as its own best parody as well.  (Try to outdo it.  Try again.  See, I told you.)

In Swann’s Way, Proust writes that Swann had “a sort of taste, of tact, so automatic in its operation that . . . if he read in a newspaper the names of the people who had been at a dinner-party, [he] could tell at once its exact degree of smartness, just as a man of letters, simply by reading a sentence, can estimate exactly the literary merit of its author.” Wow! You think.  That must have been back in the days when literary critics were really good, back before all this Theory gunk got into the evaluative machinery!  But sometimes it works, you know . . . when you’re reading a truly Great First Line.

Posted by on 07/15 at 11:45 AM
  1. Well, this will be just for us here, as it’s ineligible for the official competition:  “In the second century of the Christian æra, the empire of Rome comprehended the fairest part of the earth, and the most civilized portion of mankind.”

    Posted by  on  07/15  at  01:21 PM
  2. “It’s just hideously godawful.  It doesn’t make any damn sense, either—it’s like ‘there are musical compositions for which you do not have to pay royalties, and they come from this really bizarre kind of plant that has eyes.’”

    Or perhaps - just perhaps - Waller displays in this line an actual familiarity with the details of the setting of his admittedly atrocious novel. Blue-eyed grass is the common name, you see, of Sisyrhinchium a widespread genus of North American wildflowers in the iris family. And that “songs that come” thing is, to those who’ve read literature of place, an obvious, trite paean to the feeling one gets from inhabiting a particular landscape while conscious of the aspects of that landscape.

    The line’s faults lie in its clunkiness, its passive construction, and the screamingly painful cliché in the last three words. But it makes palpable and complete sense.

    Posted by Chris Clarke  on  07/15  at  01:24 PM
  3. "I get the willies when I see closed doors.” The only good thing about Joseph Heller’s second novel, Something Happened.

    Posted by Aaron Barlow  on  07/15  at  01:24 PM
  4. Of course we must have:
    “Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.”

    Posted by  on  07/15  at  01:33 PM
  5. I could ger cute and nominate En un lugar de La Mancha, de cuyo nombre no puedo, ni quiero acordarme....

    Posted by  on  07/15  at  01:34 PM
  6. Yep, Justin, they’ve got that one too.  And Chris, I stand corrected!  Obviously I need to get outside one of these days.

    Posted by  on  07/15  at  01:38 PM
  7. "Where’s Pa going with that ax?”

    Posted by  on  07/15  at  01:42 PM
  8. I don’t know if any of these are great or the best, but they are first lines (most from novels) that have stuck with me – often without my concent:

    “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.”
    —Wings of the Dove”

    “One thing was certain, that the WHITE kitten had had nothing to do with it:—it was the black kitten’s fault entirely.”
    —Through the Looking Glass

    “The strange thing was, he said, how they screamed every night at midnight.”
    —“On the Quai at Smyrna” (the first of In Our Time)

    “When they unscrewed the time capsule, preparatory to helping temponaut Enoch Mirren to disembark, they found him doing a disgusting thing with a disgusting thing”
    —Harlan Ellison, “How’s the Night Life on Cissalda?”

    And back in the 80s, I used to like the first sentence of William Kennedy’s “Quinn’s Book.” But I won’t type it out here.  Now how do you italicize and such?

    Puzzled, Peter

    Posted by  on  07/15  at  01:44 PM
  9. To begin with, I wish to diclaim the possession of those high gifts of imagination and expression which would have enabled my pen to create for the reader the personality of the man who called himself, after the Russian custom, Cyril son of Isidor—Kirylo Sidorovitch—Razumov.

    Posted by eb  on  07/15  at  01:45 PM
  10. Sorry if broke the one-per-customer and don’t-name-the-source rules.

    Posted by  on  07/15  at  01:45 PM
  11. I’d like to say that I think that “Call me Ishmael” is cheating, since Moby-Dick begins as follows:


    (Supplied by a Late Consumptive Usher to a Grammar School)

    The pale Usher--threadbare in coat, heart, body, and brain; I see him now.  He was ever dusting his old lexicons and grammars, with a queer handkerchief, mockingly embellished with all the gay flags of all the known nations of the world.  He loved to dust his old grammars; it somehow mildly reminded him of his mortality.

    Posted by JoXn Costello  on  07/15  at  01:46 PM
  12. Is anybody in here? {listens to echoes reverberate} The theory conference is over—it’s safe to come out now.

    Long ago, I made a first-day comp class writing prompt out of a bunch of great first lines. Always provokes some thought.

    Some short/plain ones:

    The grandmother didn’t want to go to Florida.

    124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom.

    I am an invisible man.

    I was born in Tuckahoe, near Hillsborough, and about twelve miles from Easton, in Talbot county, Maryland. I have no accurate knowledge of my age, never having seen any authentic record containing it.

    I have a fondness for the longer, more involved beginnings, that run hard to get out in front at the starting gun:

    The North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance agent promised to fly from Mercy to the other side of Lake Superior at three o’clock.

    A merry little surge of electricity piped by automatic alarm from the mood organ beside his bed awakened Rick Deckard.

    From a little after two oclock until almost sundown of the long still hot weary dead September afternoon they sat in what Miss Coldfield still called the office because her father had called it that—a dim hot airless room with the blinds all closed and fastened for forty-three summers because when she was a girl someone had believed that light and moving air carried heat and that dark was always cooler, and which (as the sun shone fuller and fuller on that side of the house) became latticed with yellow slashes full of dust motes which Quentin thought of as being flecks of the dead old dried paint itself blown inward from the scaling blinds as wind might have blown them.

    I wish either my father or my mother, or indeed both of them, as they were in duty both equally bound to it, had minded what they were about when they begot me; had they duly consider’d how much depended upon what they were then doing;--that not only the production of a rational Being was concern’d in it, but that possibly the happy formation and temperature of his body, perhaps his genius and the very cast of his mind;--and, for aught they knew to the contrary, even the fortunes of his whole house might take their turn from the humours and dispositions which were then uppermost:----Had they duly weighed and considered all this, and proceeded accordingly,----I am very persuaded I should have made a quite different figure in the world, from that, in which the reader is likely to see me.

    Posted by  on  07/15  at  01:46 PM
  13. "He sat, in defiance of municipal orders, astride the gun Zam Zammah on her brick platform opposite the old Ajaib-Gher - the Wonder House, as the natives call the Lahore Museum.”

    I read it more than half a century ago, and I’ve been fascinated with India ever since.

    Posted by Richard Blumberg  on  07/15  at  01:47 PM
  14. All you gotta do, Michael, is find a way to take me up on that Bay Area dinner. I’ll include a hike.

    Posted by Chris Clarke  on  07/15  at  01:48 PM
  15. Can Kafka get more than one entry?  I prefer these two more than “a gigantic insect.”

    - “Someone must have been telling lies about Joseph K., for without having done anything wrong he was arrested one fine morning.” (The Trial)

    - ““It’s a peculiar apparatus,” said the Officer to the Traveler, gazing with a certain admiration at the device, with which he was, of course, thoroughly familiar.” (In the Penal Colony)

    Though it misses something without the rest of the paragraph:

    - “Running out of gas, Rabbit Angstrom thinks as he stands behind the summer-dusty windows of the Springer Motors display room on Route 111, traffic somehow thin and scared compared to what it used to be.” (Rabbit is Rich)

    And is there a Borges kicker better than this? I ask you all:

    - “I owe the discovery of Uqbar to the conjunction of a mirror and an encyclopedia.”

    Posted by konczal  on  07/15  at  01:48 PM
  16. My nomination for a great first line:

    “In five years, the penis will be obsolete,” said the salesman.

    Posted by JoXn Costello  on  07/15  at  01:50 PM
  17. "I was born in a house my father built.”
    --First line of Richard Nixon’s memoirs.

    Posted by Steven Shaviro  on  07/15  at  01:52 PM
  18. These must be on the list already.  But since they’re not yet mentioned, it gives me pleasure to include:

    Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and razor lay crossed.


    Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo

    Posted by  on  07/15  at  02:04 PM
  19. "Maman died today.”

    Posted by Steven Rubio  on  07/15  at  02:04 PM
  20. In no particular order:  there’s no “don’t name the source” rule, and yes, you can nominate more than one novel/ line.  Yes, they’ve got the opening of The Trial too, and you make italics by typing a <, then an i, then a > (and you go back to roman by typing < /i > (without spaces).  They also have “124 was spiteful” and “I am an invisible man,” and a healthy debate over when, precisely, Moby-Dick (and Pale Fire and Lolita) can truly be said to begin.  But they somehow overlooked those great opening lines of The Bluest Eye (which I suggested) and Song of Solomon (thanks, rm!  thanks also for the galumphous openings of Absalom, Absalom and the third-greatest novel in English, Tristram Shandy).

    You shouldn’t have to ask what numbers one and two are.  Some things simply aren’t arbitrary.

    Posted by  on  07/15  at  02:17 PM
  21. Thank God for Philistine Fridays!

    “This is the story of Achilles’ rage.”

    Posted by Roxanne  on  07/15  at  02:18 PM
  22. to wound the autumnal city.

    Posted by  on  07/15  at  02:21 PM
  23. It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.

    Posted by  on  07/15  at  02:24 PM
  24. "At sunrise on a first of April, there appeared, suddenly as Manco Capac at the lake Titicaca, a man in cream-colors, at the water-side in the city of St. Louis.”

    Posted by  on  07/15  at  02:26 PM
  25. "At the striking of noon on a certain fifth of March, there occurred within a causal radius of Brandon railway station and yet beyond the deepest pools of emptiness between the uttermost stellar systems one of those infinitesmal ripples in the creative silence of the First Cause, which always occur when an exceptional stir of heightened consciousness agitates any living organism in this astronomical universe.”

    John Cowper Powys, “A Glastonbury Romance”

    Posted by  on  07/15  at  02:30 PM
  26. From the only Ayn Rand novel with any real literary merit, there’s “Petrograd smelt of carbolic acid.”

    Posted by  on  07/15  at  02:30 PM
  27. Oh, since it’s ok to give source titles, the passage I gave above is from Conrad’s (awesome) Under Western Eyes.

    Posted by eb  on  07/15  at  02:35 PM
  28. I actually came across this concept on a young lady’s t-shirt in 1981 or so.  From the popular ("In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.") to the more obscure ("A destiny that sends the English to the Dutch is strange enough"), it included several of the current suggestions.

    I will add a bit of genre fiction, at the risk of lowering the serious tone of the conversation: The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.

    Posted by  on  07/15  at  02:35 PM
  29. "At this point I interrupted my sister as usual to say, ‘You have a way with words, Scheherazade.’”

    Posted by  on  07/15  at  02:39 PM
  30. "Either foreswear fucking others or the affair is over.”

    Philip Roth, <em>Sabbath’s Theater<em>

    Posted by Goldberg  on  07/15  at  02:41 PM
  31. sorry about the screwed up html tags.  my bad.

    Posted by Goldberg  on  07/15  at  02:41 PM
  32. "It was inevitable: the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love.” Gabriel Garcia Marquez--Love in the Time of Cholera

    “I am an American, Chicago born--Chicago, that somber city--and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent.” Saul Bellow--The Adventures of Augie March

    Wish I knew enough “theory” to explain in eloquent detail why I love these two quotes so very much...instead, I’ll just say it’s because they make me wish I could write!  Alas.

    Posted by  on  07/15  at  02:44 PM
  33. In no particular order:

    “Daddy said it was a bedsheet, a fitted bedsheet, and he said she was wearing it up on her shoulders like a cape with two of the corners knotted around her neck.”

    “Having harbored two sons in the waters of her womb, my mother considers herself something of an authority on human fetuses.”

    “It can hardly be a coincidence that no language on earth has ever produced the expression ‘As pretty as an airport.’”

    “A green hunting cap squeezed the top of the fleshy balloon of a head.”

    “As I sat in the bath tub, soaping a meditative foot and singing, if I remember correctly, ‘Pale Hands I Loved Beside The Shalimar,’ it would be deceiving my public to say that I was feeling boomps-a-daisy.”

    Posted by corndog  on  07/15  at  02:44 PM
  34. Nice one, Ellen1910.  I’m miles from my bookshelves, or I’d have picked out one of his myself.

    Posted by  on  07/15  at  02:45 PM
  35. It was like so, but wasn’t.

    Posted by  on  07/15  at  03:08 PM
  36. Horizontally wakeful amid universal widths, practising laughter and mirth, satire, the end of all, of Rome and yes of Babylon, clenched teeth, remembrance, much warmth volcanic, the streets of Paris, the plains of Jerico, much gliding as of reptile in abstraction, a gallery of watercolors, the sea and the fish with eyes, symphony, a table in the corner of the Eiffel Tower, jazz at the opera house, alarm clock and the tap-dancing of doom, conversation with a tree, the river Nile, Cadillac coupe to Kansas, the roar of Dostoyevsky, and the dark sun.

    Now let’s have some bloody applause for the great culture of the San Joaquin Valley, damnit.

    Posted by Roxanne  on  07/15  at  03:11 PM

    Hey eb: One thing about Conrad is that I found his *beginnings* so great--world class--that I always get a surprise when I look at the *first sentence* of any of his novels or novellas. They are not so great.  The Nelly sentence in *HOD* should win no prize--it’s a standard opening for any sea yarn--but the first half-page is one of the great beginnings.

    It’s a different ballgame in his stories--e.g. “The Secret Sharer"--the STORIES will have a great first sentence.

    But all these novels have great first pages yet their first sentence bats usually no more than .290, which is what I’d give the first sentence of *Lord Jim*.

    “He was an inch, perhaps two, under six feet, powerfully built, and he advanced straight at you with a slight stoop of the shoulders, head forward, and a fixed from-under stare which made you think of a charging bull.”

    Then there’s *Nostromo*--amazing prose--and yet here’s the first sentence. .260 hitter:

    “IN THE time of Spanish rule, and for many years afterwards, the town of Sulaco--the luxuriant beauty of the orange gardens bears witness to its antiquity--had never been commercially anything more important than a coasting port with a fairly large local trade in ox-hides and indigo.”

    mneh. but it gets A LOT better from there, right away.

    Batting seventh, and hitting .240, is the beginning of *The Secret Agent*:

    Mr Verloc, going out in the morning, left his shop nominally in charge of his brother-in-law.

    Not a zinger.

    The beginning of *The Shadow Line* looks basically like a decent hook for the beginning of any story, but WHAT is that baudelaire quote doing alongside it? The baudelaire quote with a different first sentence, or vice versa, but not both together---The effect is grotesque--like a pitcher hitting.

    D’autre fois, calme plat, grand miroir De mon desespoir.


    “ONLY the young have such moments.”

    Posted by  on  07/15  at  03:19 PM
  38. "Sitting beside the road, watching the wagon mount the hill toward her, Lena thinks, ‘I have come from Alabama a-walking. A fur piece.’”

    This is Mississippi; it’s August; it’s hot; it’s humid.

    Why is she wearing a fur piece?

    Posted by  on  07/15  at  03:19 PM
  39. I suppose they have ‘There was no possibility of taking a walk that day’?

    Posted by Ophelia Benson  on  07/15  at  03:26 PM
  40. jackd:  I will add a bit of genre fiction, at the risk of lowering the serious tone of the conversation: The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.

    Lower away!  The first sentence of Neuromancer is the best sentence of Neuromancer.  And they’ve already got the opening line of 2001:  A Space Odyssey, “The drought had lasted now for ten million years, and the reign of the terrible lizards had long since ended.” So there.

    And hi Shawn!  Yes, they have the opening line of Galatea 2.2, too.  I should have said something about this at the outset—they’re a pretty contemporary bunch over there, so there’s lots of postwar material, including Bellow’s Adventures of Augie March (thanks, Michael Kircher) and 1984 (thanks, OtherDoug) and Sabbath’s Theater (thanks, Goldberg).  Cormac McCarthy already has three nominations.

    Posted by Michael  on  07/15  at  03:30 PM
  41. "Here’s the person I want.”

    Vladimir Nabokov, TRANSPARENT THINGS

    Posted by  on  07/15  at  03:34 PM
  42. A couple from children’s/YA lit:

    Meeting Harris would never have happened were it not for liberal quantities of Schlitz and Four Roses.
    --Harris and Me, Gary Paulson

    Lyra and her daemon moved through the darkening hall, taking care to keep to one side, out of sight of the kitchen.
    --The Golden Compass, Philip Pullman

    and from Ann Marie MacDonald’s The Way the Crow Flies (not children’s lit by any stretch of the imagination)

    The birds saw the murder.

    Posted by  on  07/15  at  03:35 PM
  43. "The only advice I can offer, should you wake up vertiginously in a strange flat, with a thoroughly installed hangover, without any of your clothing, without any recollection of how you got there, with the police sledgehammering down the door to the accompaniment of excited dogs, while you are surrounded by bales of lavishly-produced magazines featuring children in adult acts, the only advice I can offer is to try to be good-humoured and polite.”

    Posted by Kenneth Rufo  on  07/15  at  03:35 PM
  44. Hey, how about last lines?

    “And then in my dream I looked down at myself, and saw in what rags I stood; and I am a child again, begging on the threshhold of eternity.”

    Posted by  on  07/15  at  03:40 PM
  45. Three from John Crowley:

    “There were angels in the glass, two four six many of them, each one shuffling into his place in line like an alderman at the Lord Mayor’s show.”

    “Once, the world was not as it has since become.”

    and (this is from a short story, so it doesn’t count):

    “He found, quite suddenly and just as he took a stool midway down the bar, that he had been vouchsafed a theme.”

    Posted by Jon  on  07/15  at  03:41 PM
  46. "They shoot the white girl first. With the others they can take their time”—Toni Morrison, Paradise

    “Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting.”—Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury

    Posted by rdturpin  on  07/15  at  03:45 PM
  47. Ophelia:  I suppose they have ‘There was no possibility of taking a walk that day’?

    Um, no, amazingly enough!  See, this is why we need to help them out. 

    That book’s all about empire, by the way.  Just saying.

    And they didn’t have “Here’s the person I want,” either, Sian.  Thanks!

    Posted by Michael  on  07/15  at  03:45 PM
  48. And while we’re on the Brontes, they didn’t have “I have just returned from a visit to my landlord—the solitary neighbor that I shall be troubled with.” But now they will.

    Posted by Michael  on  07/15  at  03:49 PM
  49. A-And another think....

    on the subject of conrad and mediocre first lines--

    With chapters that begin “Mescal, said the Consul.” or “A corpse will be transported by express.” here is the beginning of Chapter 1 of *Under the Volcano*. Has this guy been reading Conrad or what?

    “Two mountain chains traverse the republic roughly from north to south, forming between them a number of valleys and plateaus.”

    Posted by  on  07/15  at  03:51 PM
  50. "Marley was dead: to begin with.”

    It’s the colon that gets me.  It doesn’t look like it’s doing anything a colon is supposed to do.  It’s a good line without it, but I like it.  Mark Twain once regretted putting an esophagus in a story; I wonder if Dickens ever regretted this colon.

    “Lamar Pye had the biggest penis in the entire Arkansas state prison system.” (or something like that)

    This line prepares you.  It lets you know in no uncertain terms that unpleasantness will follow.  It is a clear and fair warning that some people should probably not continue reading.

    Posted by  on  07/15  at  03:59 PM
  51. Can we move into drama with

    “Who’s there?”

    Posted by  on  07/15  at  04:00 PM
  52. Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.

    Posted by  on  07/15  at  04:00 PM
  53. He was born with the gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad.
    Raphael Sabatini

    No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream.
    Shirley Jackson
    The Haunting of Hill House

    (The entire first paragraph is great, but we’re doing first lines)

    Christmas crept into Pine Cove like a creeping Christmas thing; dragging garland, ribbon, and sleighbells, oozing eggnog, reeking of pine, and threatening festive doom like a cold sore under the mistletoe.
    The Stupidest Angel
    -Christopher Moore

    (Yeah, okay, that’s a little self-serving, but I think it’s a funny first line.)

    Posted by Chris Moore  on  07/15  at  04:00 PM
  54. Ok, I know you’ve already nominated it, but it’s my favorite so I will type it out:

    “I wish either my father or my mother, or indeed both of them, as they were in duty both equally bound to it, had minded what they were about when they begot me; had they duly consider’d how much depended upon what they were then doing;—that not only the production of a rational Being was concern’d in it, but that possibly the happy formation and temperature of his body, perhaps his genius and the very cast of his mind ;—and, for aught they knew to the contrary, even the fortunes of his
    whole house might take their turn from the humours and dispositions which were then uppermost : ---- Had they duly weighed and considered all this, and proceeded accordingly, ---- I am verily persuaded I should have made a quite different figure in the world, from that, in which the reader is likely to see me.”

    Also please tell me they have “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.”

    “"You too will marry a boy I choose,” said Mrs Rupa Mehra firmly to her younger daughter.” -Vikram Seth, _A Suitable Boy_

    And, not a novel, but a great first line anyway:  “It’s cost me every sexual relationship I’ve ever had.” -David Foster Wallace, “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men.”

    Posted by bitchphd  on  07/15  at  04:05 PM
  55. "Upon waking, the dinosaur was still there.”

    - the first (and only!) line of Augusto Monterroso’s short story “El Dinosaurio”

    Posted by  on  07/15  at  04:06 PM
  56. Now, touching this business of old Jeeves - my man, you know - how do we stand?

    Posted by  on  07/15  at  04:18 PM
  57. Also please tell me they have “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.”

    They do indeed.

    Posted by Michael  on  07/15  at  04:37 PM
  58. Michael said, in reference to _Tristram Shandy_ as the 3rd-greatest English-language novel: You shouldn’t have to ask what numbers one and two are.  Some things simply aren’t arbitrary. But of course, my friend. Ha, ha, ha. Why, I hardly even need to mention it, I know the answer so well. Um, see any good movies lately?
    #1, actually, is easy: _Wuthering Heights_, without any doubt. I always announce this fact to my classes with utmost confidence.
    #2, uh . . . uh . . . _Absalom, Absalom!_? _Tom Sawyer_? _Emma_? _Humphrey Clinker_? _The Notebook_? _VALIS_? _Lord Jim_? (_Heart of Darkness is technically a novella, right?)

    I like the beginning of Melville’s _The Confidence Man_ (David Ross McIvine’s quote with the man in cream-colors), even if it ain’t quite “Call me Ishmael.”

    Toni Morrison is good with first lines, isn’t she? Maybe because she works so hard on sentences in general.

    I pulled a bunch of favorites off the bookshelves, only to find many of them have so-so first lines. I need to find my Ralph Ellison short stories, and my Edwidge Danticat novels. Those writers are good with sentences.

    Here’s a great, caustic first line from Langston Hughes’ short story “Slave on the Block”:
    “They were people who went in for Negroes—Michael and Anne—the Carraways.”

    Posted by  on  07/15  at  04:38 PM
  59. "They threw me off the hay truck around noon.” (James M. Cain, “The Postman Always Rings Twice.")

    “The archangel had always loved heights.” (Henry Adams, “Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres.”

    Posted by  on  07/15  at  05:04 PM
  60. "A smear of fresh blood has a metallic smell.”
    -- John D. MacDonald, A Deadly Shade of Gold

    Posted by  on  07/15  at  05:06 PM
  61. I’m sure they have this one:

    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--in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

    Posted by Jim  on  07/15  at  05:08 PM
  62. I haven’t seen these suggested yet, so I will throw them out there… enjoy…

    A great one from William Gaddis:
    Justice?—You get justice in the next world, in this world you have the law.

    Or, how about a little Salman Rushdie…
    “To be born again,” sang Gibreel Farishta tumbling from the heavens, “first you have to die.”
    Of course this does cut off Gibreel’s quotation midway through, but it still works well for me as quite a memorable first line..

    And David Marskon works pretty well here also, although I suspect it’s already been suggested somewhere, by someone…
    “In the beginning, sometimes I left messages in the street.”

    Posted by  on  07/15  at  05:09 PM
  63. Speaking of fiction serving as its own best parody.

    If you are thirty-five or older, chances are good that your childhood in America was pretty much like mine, no matter where you grew up.  Bill O’Reilly - The No-Spin Zone: Confrontations with the Powerful and Famous in America

    First things first: I’m a New Yorker.  Sean Hannity - Let Freedom Ring: Winning the War of Liberty over Liberalism

    The monuments have fallen now and the faces are changed.  David Horowitz - The POLITICS OF BAD FAITH: The Radical Assault on America’s Future

    I decided to write this book to tell a bit about myself and my radio show and where I stand on the important political and social issues affecting our society today.  Rush Limbaugh, The Way Things Ought To Be

    Posted by corndog  on  07/15  at  05:20 PM
  64. Okay, two lines, but:

    Elmer Gantry was drunk. He was eloquently drunk, lovingly and pugnaciously drunk.

    Posted by Chris Moore  on  07/15  at  05:24 PM
  65. "We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.”

    Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

    Rest in Peace, good Doctor.

    Posted by  on  07/15  at  05:32 PM
  66. ” ‘All happy families are more or less dissimilar; all uhappy ones are more or less alike,’ says a great Russian writer in the beginning of a famous novel (Anna Arkadievitch Karenina, transfigured into English by R. G. Stonelower, Mount Tabor Ltd., 1880).”

    Posted by  on  07/15  at  05:34 PM
  67. "You are hearing the screams of a small fat man.” -Jack O’Connell, Word Made Flesh

    And you know he’s trying to evoke Pynchon (by starting a novel with a scream) and Hammett (by keeping a character a “fat man” long before we know his name).

    Posted by  on  07/15  at  05:36 PM
  68. Couple of faves I haven’t seen mentioned:

    “I first heard Personville called Poisonville by a red-haired mucker named Hickey Dewey in the Big Ship in Butte.”
    --RED HARVEST (does anyone not LOVE this sentence?)

    “Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board.”
    --THEIR EYES WERE WATCHING GOD (top 100 title, too)

    Posted by Geoff  on  07/15  at  05:38 PM
  69. Kenneth, you beat me to The Thought Gang, so I’ll have to settle for this:

    “They made a silly mistake, though,” the Professor of History said, and his smile, as Dixon watched, gradually sank beneath the surface of his features at the memory.

    I’ve always loved how Amis used the prepositional phrases to sink the sentence as the mistake sunk the smile.

    Posted by Scott Eric Kaufman  on  07/15  at  05:38 PM
  70. "They sent a slamhound on Turner’s trail in New Delhi, slotted it to his pheromones and the color of his hair.”

    Another Gibson, from Count Zero. Just ‘cause I like the word “slamhound.”

    Posted by  on  07/15  at  05:43 PM
  71. Pynchon, *The Crying of Lot 49*

    “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.”

    It’s like Dickens, if Dickens lived in California in the 1960’s.  And you gotta love the swipe at the Tupperware party hostess.

    Posted by  on  07/15  at  05:46 PM
  72. Hmm, afraid it doesn’t carry too well in English, but anyways:
    >The wrath sing, goddess, of Peleus’ son, Achilles
    (Μῆνιν ἄειδε, θεά, Πηληϊάδεω Ἀχιλῆος)
    -The Iliad

    Another classic, if I may cheat and include three lines:
    >MIDWAY upon the journey of our life
    I found myself within a forest dark,
    For the straightforward pathway had been lost.
    (Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
    mi ritrovai per una selva oscura
    ché la diritta via era smarrita.)
    -The Divine Comedy

    And finally, to ruin any pretensions of taste:
    >I had this story from one who had no business to tell it to me, or to any other.
    -Tarzan of the Apes

    Posted by Bistroist  on  07/15  at  05:49 PM
  73. How about the first few lines of Paul Auster’s _City of Glass_? I don’t have my copy with me at the moment, but if I recall correctly it starts with something like “It was a wrong number that started it.”

    Are translations allowed? I also have a fondness for the first few lines of Kobo Abe’s _The Box Man_:

    This is the record of a box man.
    I am beginning this account in a box. A cardboard box that reaches just to my hips when I put it over my head.
    That is to say, at this juncture the box man is me. A box man, in his box, is recording the chronicle of a box man.

    Posted by  on  07/15  at  06:00 PM
  74. The Graham Greene Trinity:

    “Mr. Tench went out to look for his ether cylinder: out into the blazing Mexican sun and the bleaching dust.” (The Power and the Glory)

    “Wilson sat on the balcony of the Bedford Hotel with his bald pink knees thrust against the ironwork.”
    (The Heart of the Matter)

    “A story has no beginning or end; arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead.”
    (The End of the Affair)

    Posted by  on  07/15  at  06:03 PM
  75. "This is the saddest story I have ever heard.”

    Posted by  on  07/15  at  06:19 PM
  76. Yes! “The Good Soldier.” I was disappointed by the novel, but then again it would be hard to live up to a first line like that.

    Posted by  on  07/15  at  06:20 PM
  77. I hate you, JR, for getting that one.  I am so jealous it actually causes me pain.

    Posted by  on  07/15  at  06:21 PM
  78. "She would leave him, she thought, when the begonias had bloomed.”

    Posted by  on  07/15  at  06:27 PM
  79. This is fun, and my, my, anti-prolixity returns...when I was in graduate school, a friend had fun putting the first sentence and the last sentence of philosophy greats together, and claiming it captured the book.  As I recall, Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason works reasonably well, and maybe even Hegel’s Phenomenology…

    Posted by A. G.  on  07/15  at  06:27 PM
  80. "There once lived in a sequestered part of the county of Devonshire, one Mr. Godfrey Nickleby, a worthy gentleman, who taking it into his head rather late in life that he must get married, and not being young enough or rich enough to aspire to the hand of a lady of fortune, had wedded an old flame out of mere attachment, who in her turn had taken him for the same reason; thus two people who cannot afford to play cards for money, sometimes sit down to a quiet game for love.”

    Posted by  on  07/15  at  06:44 PM
  81. Four, in order of length.  I’m surprised I’m first with #3 (on this list, at least), given Michael’s coy reference to the second-greatest novel in English.  It could be argued that #2 is not really a novel.  #4 is definitely not really a novel, but I’m hoping it can be grandfathered in.

    1. High, high above the North Pole, on the first day of 1969, two professors of English Literature approached each other at a combined velocity of 1200 miles per hour. (Changing Places)

    2. Kublai Khan does not necessarily believe everything Marco Polo says when he describes the cities visited on his expeditions, but the emperor of the Tartars does continue listening to the young Venetian with greater attention and curiosity than he shows any other messenger or explorer of his. (Invisible Cities)

    3. Who that cares much to know the history of man, and how the mysterious mixture behaves under the varying experiments of Time, has not dwelt, at least briefly, on the life of Saint Theresa, has not smiled with some gentleness at the thought of the little girl walking forth one morning hand-in-hand with her still smaller brother, to go and seek martyrdom in the country of the Moors? (Middlemarch)

    4. About that time that the terror of the world and fever quartan of the French, Henry the Eight (the only true subject of chronicles) advanced his standard against the two hundred and fifty towers of Turney and Turwin, and had the emperor and all the nobility of Flanders, Holland, and Brabant as mercenary attendants on his full-sailed fortune, I, Jack Wilton, a gentleman at least, was a certain kind of appendix or page belonging or appertaining in or unto the confines of the English court, where what my credit was a number of my creditors that I cozened can testify. (The Unfortunate Traveller)

    (My apologies if this all shows up twice--I tried to send it once before, but after 15 minutes it hasn’t appeared.)

    Posted by  on  07/15  at  06:52 PM
  82. Somebody already got Mrs. Dalloway & everything else that first came to mind, but here are two that occurred to me while reading these comments:

    1. “One January day, thirty years ago, the little town of Hanover, anchored on a windy Nebraska tableland, was trying not to be blown away.”

    2. “In the last years of the Seventeenth Century there was to be found among the fops and fools of the London coffee-houses one rangy, gangling flitch called Ebenezer Cooke, more ambitious than talented, and yet more talented than prudent, who, like his friends-in-folly, all of whom were supposed to be educating at Oxford or Cambridge, had found the sound of Mother English more fun to game with than her scholarship, had learend the knack of versifying, and ground out quires of couplets after the fashion of the day, afroth with Joves and Jupiters, aclang with jarring rhymes, and string-taut with similes stretched to the snapping-point.

    Posted by KathyR  on  07/15  at  07:02 PM
  83. This was incredibly hard to do while at work, away from my own books. (Amazon’s “look inside” feature sure is handy.) Here are a few favorites of my favorites:

    1. First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross carried letters from a girl named Martha, a junior at Mount Sebastian College in New Jersey.

    2. Quiet as it’s kept, there were no marigolds in the fall of 1941.

    3. Spring comes hard down here.

    4. I can’t believe I’m on this road again, twisting along past the lake where the white birches are dying, the disease is spreading up from the south, and I notice they now have seaplanes for hire.

    5. I get the willies when I see closed doors.

    6. At the beginning of the summer I had lunch with my father, the gangster, who was in town for the weekend to transact some of his vague business.

    7. She was so deeply imbedded 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.

    8. There was once, in the country of Alifbay, a sad city, the saddest of cities, a city so ruinously sad that it had forgotten its name.

    9. In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.

    1. Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried
    2. Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye
    3. Andrew Vachss, Blue Belle
    4. Margaret Atwood, Surfacing
    5. Joseph Heller, Something Happened
    6. Michael Chabon, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh
    7. Philip Roth, Portnoy’s Complaint
    8. Salman Rushdie, Haroun and the Sea of Stories
    9. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit

    I still remember my oldest brother reading that last one to me—it must have been more than 30 years ago.

    Posted by Brian Zimmerman  on  07/15  at  07:08 PM
  84. Oh dear god, how could I forget this one:

    “While the present century was in its teens, and on one sunshiny morning in June, there drove up to the great iron gate of Miss Pinkerton’s academy for young ladies, on Chiswick Mall, a large family coach, with two fat horses in blazing harness, driven by a fat coachman in a three-cornered hat and wig, at the rate of four miles an hour. “ Thackeray, of course, _Vanity Fair_ I just adore the way the sentence plods along at four miles an hour…

    Posted by bitchphd  on  07/15  at  07:15 PM
  85. One that Professor Harris will surely know:

    “In a sense, I am Jacob Horner.”

    --from a novel which contains this gem (which I think I remember correctly):

    “A turning down of dinner damped, in ways subtle past knowing, manic keys on the thin flute of me, least pressed of all, which had shrilled me rarely.”

    Posted by  on  07/15  at  07:19 PM
  86. "Floating upward through a confusion of dreams and memory, curving like a trout through the rings of previous risings, I surface.”

    Posted by Chris Clarke  on  07/15  at  07:23 PM
  87. "To the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth.”

    When reading The Grapes of Wrath was mandatory I managed to avoid it. Like Dick Cheney, I had other priorities. Many years later this one sentence made a counter offer too eloquent to refuse.

    Posted by  on  07/15  at  08:06 PM
  88. Once there was a boy named Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.

    Posted by julia  on  07/15  at  08:30 PM
  89. yeah.  here to represent for the pomos, cuz ford madox ford’s “dullest story” was already taken:

    “For whom is the funhouse fun?” -Barth (not a novel, but whatever, it’s better than most novels i’ve read)

    “I am a sick man ... I am a wicked man.” -Dostoevsky (a surprise I got to this first.  whoops.  he’s not pomo, is he?)

    “--Money...? in a voice that rustled.” -Gaddis (JR’s keen)

    “It was the year when they finally immanentized the Eschaton.” -Shea / Anton Wilson (man did i ever do a lot of drugs in undergrad days)

    “Parents stink.” -Acker (good god is she wonderful)

    and from my current rereading project:

    “Vaughan dies yesterday in his last car-crash.” -Ballard (which, incidentally, makes for an interesting scene when yr English 15 students are working busily away at draft review and yr up at the front cooly reading about semen- and blood-stained instrument panels)

    Posted by  on  07/15  at  08:47 PM
  90. oops.  died.  “Vaughan dies yesterday” would be a totally different novel, wouldn’t it?

    Posted by  on  07/15  at  08:50 PM
  91. After reading 87 of these entries, I’ve really got to hand it to David Ross.  It takes a good eye – and a bit of guts – to identify bad opening lines, especially when they are attached to great openings and greater novels.  Well done.

    And his note kept springing to mind as I read many of the foregoing.  Many of the opening sentences are great – much of their greatness seems borrowed from the books that they introduce – and the affection we have for those books.  I won’t name names, but imagine reading these sentences for the first time.  Do they plunge you into a world? Catch you off-guard?  Set the aesthetic pace?  Teach you how its book should be read?

    But here’s a more generous demurral.  Maybe it’s just easier to write a great opening.  After all, every writer knows the weight it carries.  It represents the start of something – the gate onto an entire world.  Endings, however, are hard.  As James and Kermode and James Wood have all pointed out, endings are always a bit of a let-down – too pat, too quick, too far from the feeling of life.  It’s a lot easier to start a pattern than to end one.

    A final thought – one that contradicts my first point.  Maybe these opening sentences look especially good when we amputate them and isolate them.  They all read like little Imagist poems, reducing entire worlds to a few scant, suggestive words.

    I wonder…would most any opening sentence look good, floating there, hinting and promising.  Here are sentences, plucked semi-randomly from a very disorganized bookshelf.  Image they are all novels – or all criticism:

    “It is about three years since I made a sketch in print of a problem which has been on my mind for some time.”
    -- C. P. Snow

    “I am a sick man…I am a wicked man.”
    -- Dostoevsky

    “There have been times when the question, ‘What is an image?’ was a matter of some urgency.”
    -- W.J.T. Mitchell

    “This was the year he rode the subway to the ends of the city, two hundred miles of track.”
    -- DeLillo

    “What is the simplest – the absolute minimum – that can be said about seeing?”
    -- James Elkins

    “The doctor with whom I discussed the question told me to begin my work with a historical analysis of my smoking habit.”
    -- Svevo

    “What ended when, in 1989 in Moscow, history ended?”
    -- Walter Benn Michaels

    Posted by  on  07/15  at  09:08 PM
  92. Rereading the original post reminded me of this one, which undoubtedly they already have:
    For a long time I would go to bed early.
    (Longtemps, je me suis couché de bonne heure.)
    -Proust, Swanns Way

    corndog quoted Douglas Adams earlier, so I thought I’d just mention this:
    Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun.

    -That’s the opening line of the novel, as well as of the second episode of the radio series on which it is based. The first episode starts thusly:
    This is the story of the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, perhaps the most remarkable, certainly the most successful book ever to come out of the great publishing corporations of Ursa Minor - more popular than the Celestial Home Care Omnibus, better selling than 53 More Things To Do In Zero Gravity, and more controversial than Oolon Coluphid’s trilogy of philosophical blockbusters: Where God Went Wrong, Some More of God’s Greatest Mistakes and Who is This God Person Anyway?

    Posted by Bistroist  on  07/15  at  09:13 PM
  93. when I was nine years old, I hid under a table and heard my sister kill a king.

    Posted by  on  07/15  at  09:20 PM
  94. Sing, O Muses, of the wrath of Achilles.

    Well okay, that is actually from an epic poem, as the novel as a form came considerably later.

    And not be too much of the literary crank as I love the short and the poetic, occasionally in the form of Poe, but isn’t Metamorphosis, the story of Gregor Samsa, more of a short story, at most a novella, rather than a novel?

    Posted by The Heretik  on  07/15  at  09:21 PM
  95. "John Dortmunder was a man on whom the sun shone only when he needed darkness.”

    Posted by  on  07/15  at  09:33 PM
  96. I scanned rapidly through these, so pardon me if someone else already had,

    “Longtemps, je me suis couché a bonne heure.”

    Posted by Jonathan Mayhew  on  07/15  at  09:36 PM
  97. It’s not a novel, but James Salter’s Burning the Days is hard to beat:

    “The true chronicler of my life, a tall, soft-looking man with watery eyes, came up to me at the gathering and said, as if he had been waiting a long time to tell me, that he knew everything.  I had never seen him before.”

    Posted by  on  07/15  at  09:36 PM
  98. "Vaughan died yesterday in his last car crash.”

    J.G. Ballard, “Crash”

    Posted by sfmike  on  07/15  at  10:06 PM
  99. "The mind of a gorilla is the mind of a gorilla.  But the mind of a gorilla that has drunk woman’s milk is the mind of a gorilla that has drunk woman’s milk.”

    --Which opens Chapter 5, so it’ll be disqualified, unfortunately.

    Posted by  on  07/15  at  10:08 PM
  100. "The cold passed reluctantly from the earth, and the retiring fogs revealed an army stretched out on the hills, resting"--The Red Badge of Courage

    “My family is American, and has been for generations,in all its branches, direct and collateral.” --Grant’s Memoirs

    Posted by  on  07/15  at  10:17 PM
  101. Yep, they’ve got the Recherche, but in English.  And hey y’all, now that we’re at 100 comments, could you provide author and title if you’re citing anything reasonably obscure?  Thanks.

    Posted by Michael  on  07/15  at  10:18 PM
  102. Oops. Sorry, Michael. Mine at #86 was from Stegner’s Crossing to Safety.

    Posted by Chris Clarke  on  07/15  at  10:24 PM
  103. Mine at 95 was Donald Westlake, Bad News.  Here’s another Westlake, from Backflash: “When the car stopped rolling, Parker kicked out the rest of the windshield and crawled through onto the wrinkled hood, Glock first.”

    Posted by  on  07/15  at  10:28 PM
  104. When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton.

    Posted by  on  07/15  at  10:29 PM
  105. I’m jealous of Lance for thinking of _Lot 49_ first. Surely the contest must have all of Pynchon entered—the yo-yo, the screaming, the executrix, the godzilla footprint, the snowball stars.

    Who are the English-language masters of first lines? Jane Austen, Toni Morrison, Thomas Pychon, and who else?

    Oh, and, ha ha ha, of course I knew #2 was _Middlemarch_ all along, everyone knows that, I just didn’t want to sound to cocky, naturally. Ahem.

    Posted by  on  07/15  at  10:31 PM
  106. It’s funny how many of these lines actually make me want to stop reading at that point.  Not because I think they’re bad, but because so many of them seem so self-contained that you don’t need to go any further.  And, of course, because some of them are so well-known that they stand in for the whole novel and you DON’T have to go any further.  It’s kind of depressing.

    Anyway, my favorite opening line of any work, anytime:

    Day had broken cold and gray, exceedingly cold and gray, when the man turned aside from the main Yukon trail and climbed the high earth-bank, where a dim and little traveled trail led eastward through the fat spruce timberland.

    (Arguably, that would be the best first sentence that is almost never quoted after the 10th word.)

    And then my favorite novel:

    The first time I ever laid eyes on Terry Lennox he was drunk in a Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith outside the terrace of the Dancers.

    (Jack London, “To Build a Fire”, 1908 version)
    (Raymond Chandler, THE LONG GOOD BYE)

    Posted by MoXmas  on  07/15  at  10:40 PM
  107. "The killer was carrying two weapons.”

    William Shatner, Teklab

    Posted by  on  07/15  at  11:07 PM
  108. Burgess gives up an arresting opening in Earthly Powers:

    “It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me.”

    Posted by  on  07/15  at  11:33 PM
  109. 1.  From “RN: The Memiors of Richard Nixon”:  “I was born in the house my father built.”

    2.  From Sinclair Lewis: 

    a.  “Ann Vickers”:  “Slow yellow river flowing, willows that gesture in tepid August airs, and four children playing at greatness, as, doubtless, great men themselves must play.  Four children, sharp-voiced and innocent and eager, and blessedly unaware that compromise and weariness will come at forty-five.”

    b.  “Elmer Gantry”:  “Elmer Gantry was drunk.  He was eloquently drunk, lovingly and pugnaciously drunk.”

    3.  Barbara Kingsolver: “The Poisonwood Bible”:  “Imagine a ruin so strange it must never have happened.”

    4.  Ray Bradbury: “Fahrenheit 451”:  “It was a pleasure to burn.”

    5. Frederik Pohl & C.M. Kornbluth: “The Space Merchants”:  “As I dressed that morning I ran over in my mind the long list of statistics, evasions, and exaggerations that they would expect in my report.”

    Posted by Mitchell J. Freedman  on  07/15  at  11:44 PM
  110. How could I have forgotten?

    My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all, I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in our family is dead.

    -- Shirley Jackson, We Have Always Lived in the Castle

    Posted by Brian  on  07/16  at  12:47 AM
  111. Already got Barth, my #2 quote at comment #82. Can’t do a better Barth than Sot-Weed. No need to resort to non-novels.

    Posted by KathyR  on  07/16  at  12:49 AM
  112. Yikes.  My whole library is in boxes, so I’ll have to work from memory. 

    First of all, a good *last* line (as I see someone has suggested that category):  “Isn’t it pretty to think so.” And vociferous seconds for “It was a pleasure to burn,” which is also the best sentence in that entire novel, and “One thing was certain, that the white kitten had nothing to do with it...”

    I’ll cheat slightly with an opening salvo (three sentences): “Call me Jonah.  My parents did, or almost did.  They called me John.”

    And I have a feeling that there is a whole (prefatory) chapter that precedes it, but: “Listen.  Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.”

    There are two novelists in particular you can always count on to make a big impression early on.  It may not be in the first sentence, but they’re willing to sell pretty hard in that first chapter (I’ll have to break down and Google at this point).  So: “If I am out of my mind, it’s all right with me, thought Moses Herzog.” And (more subtle [and thank you Michael Palin]): “A Saturday afternoon in November was approaching the time of twilight, and the vast tract of unenclosed wild known as Egdon Heath embrowned itself moment by moment.”

    Finally, I know it’s not a novel, but: “To begin at the beginning.” And the next couple dozen sentences aren’t too shabby neither.

    Posted by  on  07/16  at  01:23 AM
  113. I can feel the heat closing in, feel them out there making their moves, setting up their devil doll stool pigeons, crooning over my spoon and dropper I throw away at Washington Square Station, vault a turnstile and two flights down the iron stairs, catch up uptown A train… Young, good looking, crew cut, Ivy League, advertising exec type fruit holds the door back for me.
    -W. Burroughs, Naked Lunch

    WOOF! Woof woof! Woof! Woof!
    -Henry Miller, Plexus

    I was the shadow of the waxwing slain,
    By the false azure in the windowpane;
    -Vladimir Nabokov, Pale Fire

    Posted by  on  07/16  at  02:38 AM
  114. can’t believe no one’s said “All this happened, more or less.”

    Posted by  on  07/16  at  02:44 AM
  115. This is children’s literature, and it’s more than one sentence, but:

    “Here is Edward Bear, coming downstairs now, bump, bump, bump, on the back of his head, behind Christopher Robin.  It is, as far as he knows, the only way of coming downstairs, but sometimes he feels that there really is another way, if only he could stop bumping for a moment and think of it.”

    Posted by  on  07/16  at  03:09 AM
  116. "The Deliverator belongs to an elite order, a hallowed subcategory.  He’s got esprit up to here.  Right now, he is preparing to carry out his third mission of the night.  His uniform is black as activated charcoal, filtering the very light out of the air.  A bullet will bounce off of its arachnofiber weave like a wren hitting a patio door, but excess perspiration wafts through it like a breeze through a freshly napalmed forest.  Where his body has bony extremities, the suit has sintered armorgel: feels like gritty jello, protects like a stack of telephone books.”

    Neal Stephenson, Snow Crash.

    From farther in:

    “Until a man is twenty-five, he still thinks, every so often, that under the right circumstances he could be the baddest motherf*cker in the world. If I moved to a martial-arts monastery in China and studied real hard for ten years. If my family was wiped out by Colombian drug dealers and I swore myself to revenge. If I got a fatal disease, had one year to live, and devoted it to wiping out street crime. If I just dropped out and devoted my life to being bad.”

    I love that book with a passion which should be reserved for the teddy bear of one’s childhood.

    Posted by Kimmitt  on  07/16  at  04:10 AM
  117. "When the phone rang, Parker was in the garage, killing a man.”

    Richard Stark, FIREBREAK

    Posted by  on  07/16  at  07:28 AM
  118. "Wake up, sir. We’re here.”

    Neil Gaiman, Preludes and Nocturnes, Issue 1, “The Sleep of the Just”

    Posted by Hanna  on  07/16  at  08:18 AM
  119. "In five years, the penis will be obsolete,” said the salesman.

    John Varley, Steel Beach

    Posted by Hanna  on  07/16  at  08:22 AM
  120. "And I say you will!” bellowed the burly sheepfarmer, Dorthan Kanasson. He lunged across the table, but his daughter Paksenarrion sidestepped his powerful arm and darted down the passage to the sleeping rooms. “Pakse!” he yelled, slipping his broad leather belt from its loops. “Pakse, you come here now!” His wife Rahel and three smaller children cowered against the wall. Silence from the sleeping rooms. “Pakse, you come or it will be the worse for you. Will you go to your wedding with welts on your back?”

    Elizabeth Moon, The Deeds of Paksennarion, Book One, Sheepfarmer’s Daughter.

    Posted by Hanna  on  07/16  at  08:27 AM
  121. Oops. Sorry. Deed of Paksennarion. And I wanted to type the whole book out for y’all because it’s *so* good. Not that I own any of the books, but thank goodness for search engines so I can find at least the first sentence or paragraph (and sometimes the whole book).

    I could go on and on and on, but I’m tired and should go to sleep.



    Posted by Hanna  on  07/16  at  08:30 AM
  122. I can’t believe no one’s posted it yet:

    “You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, «If on a winter’s night a traveler».”

    I’m going to follow the “rules,” though, so I’m not going to tell you who the author is, or what novel it comes from…

    Posted by Robert Rushing  on  07/16  at  09:14 AM
  123. How about ending lines? From Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It, so good itself, but even better in the context:

    “Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.
    “I am haunted by waters.”

    Posted by  on  07/16  at  10:30 AM
  124. "When a day that you happen to know is Wednesday starts off by sounding like Sunday, there is something seriously wrong somewhere.”

    - Day of the Triffids, John Wyndham

    Posted by sfmike  on  07/16  at  11:25 AM
  125. Dammit, Robert Rushing, I was about to toss Calvino into the mix.

    How about:

    “My life has for several years been a theatre of calamity.”

    “‘When your mama was a 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.”

    “There was once, in the country of Alifbay, a sad city, the saddest of cities, a city so ruinously sad that it had forgotten its name.”


    Posted by Murph  on  07/16  at  12:39 PM
  126. "A girl and a child, I was taken from my father’s house to distant lands; as for why I was taken away .... I was little, I didn’t understand. Now I can only believe that I was already meant to be, then, what I later came to be. I lived in that place long enough to make me unable to live elsewhere. I was very happy in that land— but, alas, in an instant everything was changed that I had long sought, and sought forever.  It was a great misfortune which made me sad—and perhaps what made me happy also.  But after I had seen so many things replaced by others, and happiness turned into a intense pain, such emotions came over me that the good that I had had pained me more than the evils that still were with me.”

    Posted by John Emerson  on  07/16  at  01:24 PM
  127. I’m sorry, was mine obscure? The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

    Posted by julia  on  07/16  at  02:50 PM
  128. "Third Child had nothing to sell but parts of her body.” (Geoff Ryman, The Unconquered Country)

    “It was the day my grandmother exploded.” (Iain Banks, The Crow Road)

    “Clive was on the far side of the green pond, torturing a king-crested newt.” (Graham Joyce, The Tooth Fairy)

    “It is a tale which they narrate in Poictesme, saying: In the old days lived a pawnbroker named Jurgen; but what his wife called him was very often much worse than that.” (James Branch Cabell, Jurgen)

    “Now in these dread latter days of the old violent beloved U.S.A. and of the Christ-forgetting Christ-haunted death-dealing Western world I came to myself in a grove of young pines and the question came to me: has it happened at last?” (Walker Percy, Love In The Ruins)

    “I was born in 1927, the only child of middle-class parents, both English, and themselves born in the grotesquely elongated shadow, which they never rose sufficiently above history to leave, of that monstrous dwarf Queen Victoria.” (John Fowles, The Magus)

    “The point about white burgundies is that I hate them myself.” (Kingsley Amis, The Green Man

    Posted by Tim Walters  on  07/16  at  04:10 PM
  129. These are not saddest stories I have ever heard :

    “Having placed in my mouth sufficient bread for three minutes’ chewing, I withdrew my powers of sensual perception and retired into the privacy of my mind, my eyes and face assuming a vacant and preoccupied expression.”
    -- Flann O’Brien, At Swim Two Birds

    “Now he blesses the certainty of airports”
    --Colson Whitehead, John Henry Days

    “Once upon a time in Russia there really was a carefree, youthful generation that smiled in joy at the summer, the sea and the sun, and chose Pepsi.”
    -- Victor Pelevin, Hom Zapiens / Generaton P

    Posted by  on  07/16  at  04:17 PM
  130. I don’t know if these have already been proposed, but:

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

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

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

    Posted by  on  07/16  at  04:26 PM
  131. I just can’t help myself;

    1. “After all she was not so sure what had happened, or when it had started.” Joseph McElroy, “Women and Men”

    2."It is a silent flash there in the city’s grid, and as I happen to look down at that precise point I am thinking of real estate prices.” Joseph McElroy, “Lookout Cartridge”

    3."I grew up very much alone, and as far back as I recall I was frightened of anything sexual.” Georges Bataille, “Story of the Eye”

    And a particular, if even more obscure favorite,

    4."There is an interesting condition of the stomach where ulcers build like coral, fibrous tissue replacing musculature, cicatrix dividing that shady receptacle into two zones, with communication by means of a narrow istmus: a condition spoken of, with some awe, by connoisseurs of pathology as ‘hour glass stomach’.” Iain Sinclair, “White Chapell, Scarlet Tracings”

    Thanks for your time everyone.

    Posted by  on  07/16  at  05:54 PM
  132. They do have Calvino.  And “Calvino.” But most of these, I assure you, they did not have.  OK, maybe the Shatner.

    Posted by Michael  on  07/16  at  05:59 PM
  133. ” Selden paused in suprise. In the afternoon rush of the Grand Central Station his eyes had been refreshed by the sight of Miss Lily Bart.”

    Posted by coffeedrinkingwoman  on  07/16  at  06:02 PM
  134. Take a deep breath…

    “Early in 1880, in spite of a well-founded suspicion as to the advisability of perpetuating that race which has the sanction of the Lord and the disapproval of the people, Hedvig Volkbein—a Viennese woman of great strength and military beauty, lying upon a canopied bed of a rich spectacular crimson, the valance stamped with the bifurcated wings of the House of Hapsburg, the feather coverlet an envelope of satin on which, in massive and tarnished gold threads, stood the Volkbein arms—gave birth, at the age of forty-five to an only child, a son, seven days after her physician predicted that she would be taken.”
    Djuna Barnes, Nightwood

    Posted by  on  07/16  at  07:51 PM
  135. Well, the Shatner is really Ron Goulart. And smoley hokes, I hope it was just a sly nod and a wink.

    The three I mentioned before were Caleb Williams by William Godwin, Geek Love by Katherine Dunn, and Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie.

    Back home now and keenly looking through my shelves, disappointed to find that there are many books I love that don’t have such a snappy opening line that it’s worth mentioning here. But then, that’s the reason to do such a thing, isn’t it? Such lines are all the more special for it.

    Therefore (and cheating to mention titles and authors):

    “Harry Joy was to die three times, but it was his first death which was to have the greatest effect on him, and it was this first death which we shall now witness.” - Bliss by Peter Carey

    “It was so early in the morning that the birds wasn’t even up yet, to my way of thinking, and here I was down to the gate of the Old Egypt Cemetery tryin’ to decide whether to tell a white woman a lie or not.” - A Dozen Tough Jobs by Howard Waldrop

    “I am a collector of abandoned shopping carts.” - The Kappa Child by Hiromi Goto

    “I lived long enough to see the cure for death; to see the rise of the Bitchun Society; to learn ten languages; to compose three symphonies; to realize my boyhood dream of taking up residence in Disney World; to see the death of the workplace and of work.” - Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom by Cory Doctorow

    “Straddling the top of the world, one foot in China and the other in Nepal, I cleared the ice from my oxygen mask, hunched a shoulder against the wind, and stared absently down at the vastness of Tibet.” - (cheating here, since this is nonfiction) Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer

    Hmm. If I had more time, I’d do a survey of what was listed here to see how many 1st person POVs square off against 3rd persons.


    Posted by Murph  on  07/16  at  07:59 PM
  136. "The baloney weighed the raven down, and the shopkeeper almost caught him as he whisked out the delicatessen door.”

    --Peter S. Beagle, A Fine and Private Place

    Posted by sturgeonslawyer  on  07/16  at  08:27 PM
  137. Come to the window.

    Wright Morris, “Ceremony in Lone Tree.”

    Posted by  on  07/16  at  08:27 PM
  138. Apologies if repeating, and the entire first paragraph is worth including:

    “A True Sport, the Mayor of New Orlenas, spiffy in his patent-leather brown and white shoes, his plaid suit, the Rudolph Valentino parted-down-the-middle hair style, sits in his office.  Sprawled upon his knees is Zuzu, local doo-wack-a-doo and voo-do-dee-odo fizgig.  A slatternly floozy, her green, sequined dress quivers.”

    -- Mumbo Jumbo, Ishmael Reed

    Posted by  on  07/16  at  09:18 PM
  139. Joseph Heller, Catch-22: “It was love at first sight.
    The first time Yossarian saw the chaplain he fell madly in love with him.”
    First two lines, but worth reading.

    Posted by  on  07/16  at  09:20 PM
  140. I’ve always been rather fond of

    “On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays it was Court Hand and Summulae Logicales, while the rest of the week it was the Organon, Repetition, and Astrology.” (T.H. White, The Once and Future King)


    “The telephone bell was ringing wildly, but without result, since there was no-one in the room but the corpse.” (Charles Williams, War in Heaven)

    Posted by  on  07/16  at  10:06 PM
  141. "When Rooster was nine or so, we used to all sit on the stoop with boodies like charcoal and scratch house music on the cement.”
    --Ricardo Cortez Cruz, *Straight Outta Compton*

    “Never having known a mother, her mother having died when Janey was a year old, Janey depended on her father for everything and regarded her father as boyfriend, brother, sister, money, amusement, and father.”
    --Kathy Acker, *Blood and Guts in High School*

    “There went my mother, she just went running out the door.”
    --Reinaldo Arenas, *Singing from the Well*

    “‘Are you sure, sweetheart, that you want to be well?’”
    --Toni Cade Bambara, *The Salt Eaters*

    “‘Take here dis lady in Detriot bludgeon her husban’, chop up da body, den cook it.  Talkin’ ‘bout payback! Whoa!’”
    --Barry Gifford, *Baby Cat-Face*

    “I will tell you in a few words who I am: lover of the hummingbird that darts to the flower beyond the rotted sill where my feet are propped; lover of bright needlepoint and the bright stitching fingers of humorless old ladies bent to their sweet and infamous designs; lover of parasols made from the same puffy stuff as a young girl’s underdrawers; still lover of that small naval boat which somehow survived the distressing years of my life between her decks or in her pilothouse; and also lover of poor dear black Sonny, my mess boy, fellow victim and confidant, and of my wife and child.”
    --John Hawkes, *Second Skin*

    “A man who no longer called himself Callum came to Aberdeen intent on ending his own life.”
    --Stewart Home, *69 Things To Do With a Dead Princess*

    “The winter of 1846, when half of everything alive succumbed to the cold, has been stored for over eighty years in the mysterious mind common to the species, and though the owl didn’t experience that winter, she remembers it—the poisonous smell of the air, the frost that pinned feathers to skin, the famine.”
    --Joanna Scott, *The Manikin*

    “There is an interesting condition of the stomach where ulcers build like coral, fibrous tissue replacing musculature, cicatrix dividing that shady recepticle into two zones, with communication by means of a narrow isthmus: a condition spoken of, with some awe, by connoisseurs of pathology as ‘hour glass stomach.’”
    --Iain Sinclair, *White Chappell Scarlet Tracings*

    Posted by  on  07/17  at  12:19 AM
  142. "It is a trite but true observation that examples work more forcibly on the mind than precpts, and if this be just in what is odious and and blameable, it is more strongly so in what is amiable and praiseworthy.”
    —Henry Fielding Joseph Andrews
    (who gets best word used in a first sentence for “eleemosynary” in Tom Jones )

    I continually change my views on the novel itself, but when I read the following as a sheltered preteen, I certainly got an inkling that the next few years might be more complicated than I had previously imagined:

    “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.”

    Posted by  on  07/17  at  12:51 AM
  143. And to speak of which:
    (and they must have it on the list)

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

    Posted by  on  07/17  at  12:54 AM
  144. 1."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.”

    2."Kansas City is a vast inland city, and its marvelous river, the Missouri, heats the senses; the maple, alder, elm, and cherry trees with which the town abounds are songs of desire, and only the almonds of ancient Palestine can awaken the hungry pores more deeply.”

    3. “‘And so they’ve killed our Ferdinand’, said the charwoman to Mr Svejk, who had left military service years before, after having been finally certified by an army medical board as an imbecile, and now lived by selling dogs--ugly, mongrel monstrosities whose pedigrees he forged.”

    4. “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.”

    Dog of the South, Because I was Flesh, Good Soldier Svejk, and Catcher in the Rye…

    Posted by  on  07/17  at  01:35 AM
  145. Caution: Whining Ahead

    Michael, I’ve not been having much fun on your “fun” Fridays lately. I couldn’t do the last music one (good guitar solos in bad songs) because it would have meant hunting down and actually listening to bad music on the off-chance there was a decent instrumental bit tucked away therein. And I can’t do this one because 99% of my books are non-fiction. So just for the sake of participating (because I’ll be away next week), I’ll submit some non-fiction first lines:

    “God chose me to write this book.”
    Al Franken - Lies and the Lying Lyers Who Tell Them

    “One of the most successful themes of conservative propaganda is the notion that the right, not the left, represents everyday working Americans”. 
    Joe Conason - Big Lies (autographed copy!)

    And finally, this is the opening line of chapter four, but it’s too sweet to leave out:
    “The timing couldn’t have been worse: Bill Cosby had to cancel a couple of legs of his national tour to lecture poor black folk about their moral failures because the news broke of allegations that Cosby had drugged and sexually assaulted a woman who considered him ‘a great friend and mentor’”.
    Michael Eric Dyson - “Is Bill Cosby Right?(Or has the Black Middle Class Lost Its Mind?)” *Autographed copy that also came with a hug and a kiss! (Yes, I was thrilled!)

    Side note to Michael - Michael Eric Dyson is a Professor at Penn, and I’d like to nominate him to be a guest blogger on your wonderful site sometime. He’s brilliant and it’d be a refreshing perspective. Thank you.

    Have a great week everybody!

    Posted by  on  07/17  at  03:00 AM
  146. Since I’ve been beaten on Dhalgren, Naked Lunch and Fear and Loathing I’ll have to limit myself for the moment to

    The room stank of demons.

    -- James Blish, Black Easter

    and point to (gosh, the database is down right now, you don’t suppose there’s a connection)


    Posted by Jim Flannery  on  07/17  at  03:54 AM
  147. Damn, Mo beat me to it. Burgess’s “It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me.” has always done it for me.

    As that has been used, I’ll go with the first line of an unpublished novel by a friend of mine: “It was already Tuesady and she couldn’t find her glasses.”

    Posted by Wertz  on  07/17  at  04:51 AM
  148. ’Frederick J Frenger. Jr. a blithe psychopath from California, asked the flight attendant in first class for another glass of champagne and some writing materials.’

    Miami Blues
    Charles Willeford

    Posted by Chris Moore  on  07/17  at  07:35 AM
  149. "What’s it going to be then, eh?”
    --Burgess, A Clockwork Orange

    “Hazel Motes sat at a forward angle on the green plush train seat, looking one minute at the window as if he might want to jump out of it, and the next dowqn the aisle at the other end of the car.”
    --O’Connor, Wise Blood

    Posted by Steven Hart  on  07/17  at  12:31 PM
  150. "In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.” from the greatest historical novel ever written

    Posted by  on  07/17  at  12:37 PM
  151. Always liked the opening of Günter Grass’ The Tin Drum (albeit in translation):

    “Granted: I am an inmate of a mental hospital; my keeper is watching me, he never lets me out of his sight; there’s a peephole in the door, and my keeper’s eye is the shade of brown that can never see through a blue-eyed type like me.”

    Posted by  on  07/17  at  12:46 PM
  152. And just for fun, even though it’s not a novel:

    “The day my son Laurie started kindergarten he renounced corduroy overalls with bibs and began wearing blue jeans with a belt; I watched him go off the first morning with the older girl next door, seeing clearly that an era of my life was ended, my sweet-voiced nursery-school tot replaced by a long-trousered, swaggering character who forgot to stop at the corner and wave good-bye to me.”
    --Charles by Shirley Jackson

    Posted by  on  07/17  at  12:52 PM
  153. Did my list of opening lines from (A) through (Q) not get through the form either time, or get censored for some reason to which I’m oblivious?

    Posted by Jonathan Vos Post  on  07/17  at  02:14 PM
  154. Not sure this counts as a great work of literature, but I regard this line as motto:

    “If you’re going to read this, don’t bother.”

    Posted by Axis of Evel Knievel  on  07/17  at  03:12 PM
  155. Don’t think we’ve had any Dos Passos yet, so how about the opening of Manhattan Transfer?

    “The nurse, holding the basket at arm’s length as if it were a bedpan, opened the door to a big dry hot room with greenish distempered walls where in the air tinctured with smells of alcohol and iodoform hung writhing a faint sourish squalling from other baskets along the wall.”

    Posted by Scrivener  on  07/17  at  04:15 PM
  156. OK, a few more:
    “Under the shadow of Boston State House, turning its back on the house of John Hancock, the little passage called Hancock Avenue runs, or ran, from Beacon Street, skirting the State House grounds, to Mount Vernon Street, on the summit of Beacon Hill; and there, in the third house below Mount Vernon Place, February 16, 1838, a child was born, and christened later by his uncle, the minister of the First Church after the tenets of Boston Unitarianism, as Henry Brooks Adams.” --The Education of Henry Adams

    This one must be on there already, but haven’t seen it mentioned: “A long time ago, when all the grnadfathers and grandmothers of today were little boys and little girls or very small babies, or perhaps not even born, Pa and Ma and Mary and Laura and Baby Carrie left their little house in the Big Woods of Wisconsin.”

    “At the first gesture of morning, flies began stirring.  Inman’s eyes and the long wound at his neck drew them, and the sound of their wings and the touch of their feet were soon more potent that a yardful of roosters in rousing a man to wake.” -Cold Mountain

    “‘And don’t forget,’ my father would say, as if he expected me at any moment to up and leave to seek my fortune in the wide world, ‘whatever you learn about people, however bad they turn out, each one of them has a heart, and each one of them was once a tiny baby sucking his mother’s milk...’ Fairy-tale words: fairy-tale advice.  But we lived in a fairy-tale place.” -Waterland

    “When my nose finally stops bleeding and I’ve disposed of the bloody paper towels, Teddy Barnes insists on driving me home in his ancient Honda Civic, a car that refuses to die and that Teddy, cheap as he is, refuses to trade in.” --Straight Man

    “Leonardo da Vinci is dying.  From beneath the heap of sheets, blankets, rugs, comforts, skins, quilts, old coats and, to judge from the foul scent, perhaps even the bag used for the butcher’s offal--these barbarians having no notion of the fit use of anything--from beneath this mass of sundry bedclothes that has made the simple act of breathing a feat, Leonardo has managed to slide his one good hand tangentially to the downward thrust, much the way that in better circumstances two well-shaped gears might transfer work or motion, so that now his fingers dangle from the edge of the bed in the grime stirred up by his servant’s--Mathurine’s--ox-hide sabots each time she shuffles past on her way out the door.” --Leonardo’s Horse by R.M. Berry

    Posted by Scrivener  on  07/17  at  04:41 PM
  157. Okay, then, I’ll try again.

    (A) “It was nearing midnight and the Prime Minister was sitting alone in his office, reading a long memo that was slipping through his brain without leaving the slightest trace of meaning behind.”

    (B) “‘To SAIL beyond the world--’”

    (C) “I had been making the rounds of the Sacrifice
    Poles the day we heard my brother had escaped.”

    (D) “Like a raging mountain, the Terichik rose
    screaming from a frozen, nightdark sea.”

    (E) “The flat afternoon spread over the black and gray mountains like a stage backdrop, the color of a dog’s pale crazy eye.”

    (F) “In a broad Moscow street not two hundred yards from the Leningrad station, on the upper floor of an ornate and hideous hotel built by Stalin in the style known to Muscovites as Empire During the Plague, the British Council’s first ever audio fair for the teaching of the English language and the spread of British culture was grinding to its excruciating end.”

    (G) “Two minutes before he disappeared forever from the face of the Earth he knew, Joseph Schwartz strolled along the pleasant steets of suburban Chicago quoting Browning to himself.”

    (H) “HARI SELDON-- ... born in the 11,988th year of the Glactic Era: died 12,069.”

    (I) “Prospero and Roger Bacon, the two main characters in a story that seems crammed with wizards, were wizards.”

    (J) “‘I wouldn’t go into biology if I were starting again now. In twenty years’ time it is the biologists who will be working behind barbed wire.’”

    (K) “On Earth it would be a fearful thing to see a man chasing down the street after the skin from a human face, a thin layer of tissue blown about like a piece of paper by the wind.”

    (L) “This was a Golden Age, a time of high adventure, rich living, and hard dying… but nobody thought so.”

    (M) “The predicted cataclysm, the Wasting, has come and--it seems--gone: pollution, exhaustion and inevitable wars among swollen, impovershed populations have devastated the world, leaving it to the wild weeds.”

    (N) “J. D. Sauvage, the alien contact specialist,
    drifted in zero g and waited for a message from an
    unknown civilization.”

    (O) “As I left the Kenya Beanstalk capsule he was
    right on my heels.”

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

    (Q) “Jagged green lightning danced on the horizon and the wind came ripping like a blade out of the east, skinning the flat land bare and sending up clouds of gray-brown dust.  Gilgamesh grinned broadly.”

    (A) J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood

    (B) Poul Anderson, The Boat of a Million Years.

    (C) Iain Banks, The Wasp Factory.

    (D) Larry Niven & Steven Barnes, The Barsoom Project.

    (E) Greg Bear, Darwin’s Radio.

    (F) John Le Carre, The Russia House.

    (G) Isaac Asimov, Pebble in the Sky.

    (H) Isaac Asimov, Foundation.

    (I) John Bellairs, The Face in the Frost.

    (J) George Turner, Beloved Son.

    (K) Philip Jose Farmer, Father to the Stars.

    (L) Alfred Bester, The Stars My Destination.

    (M) Suzy McKee Charnas, Walk to the End of the World.

    (N) Vonda N. McIntyre, Transition.

    (O) Robert A. Heinlein, Friday.

    (P) Douglas Adams, So Long and Thanks for All the

    (Q) Robert Silverberg, To the Land of the Living.

    Posted by Jonathan Vos Post  on  07/17  at  04:59 PM
  158. Wonderful thread to read. My mouse hand is twitching to click over to Powell’s and to start ordering.

    Chris Clarke, thank-you for the Stegner; he’s a personal favorite, and not nearly well enough appreciated seems to me. “Crossing To Safety” is one of his several masterpieces.

    The opening line of McLaren’s “A River Runs Through It” is pretty nifty as well: “ In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly-fishing.”

    Mitchell has already offered up “The Poisenwood Bible,” but since Barbara Kingsolver is especially good with first lines,let me add to the list this one from “Pigs In Heaven:” “Women on their own run in Alice’s family.”

    The next line is pretty good too: “This strikes her with the unkindness of a heart attack and she sits up in bed to get a closer look at her thoughts which have collected above her in the dark”

    And from “The Bean Trees” “ I have been afraid of putting air in a tire ever since I saw a tractor tire blow up and and throw Newt Harbine’s father over the top of the Standard Oil sign.”

    As for awful first lines that tell/warn you exactly what to expect, although I do think that Michael’s take on “Madison County” is the standard bearer, I would humbly submit as worthy of entry on the list the opening of Erich Segal’s “Love Story;”

    “What can you say about a twenty-five year old girl that died? That she was beautiful. And brilliant. That she loved Bach and Mozart. And The Beatles. And me.”

    True it’s several sentences, but he only had me gigling at “that died,” while outright cackling came only at “...Back and Mozart. And The Beatles.”

    Posted by Leah A  on  07/17  at  05:15 PM
  159. I admit to not reading all of the comments in their entirety, so these may have already been mentioned:

    “The Elite Cafe was entered by a staircase from the foyer of a cinema.” Alistair Gray, Lanark

    “It was a Monday in Washington, January 21; Jefferson Davis rose from his seat in the Senate.” Shelby Foote, The Civil War

    Posted by Paul Primrose  on  07/17  at  05:27 PM
  160. "I hesitated some time, not knowing whether to open these memoirs at the beginning or at the end, i.e., whether to start with my birth or with my death; granted, the usual practice is to begin with one’s birth, but two considerations led me to adopt a different method: the first is that, properly speaking, I am a deceased writer not in the sense of one who has written and is now deceased, but in the sense of one who has died and is now writing, a writer for whom the grave was really a new cradle; the second is that the book would thus gain in merriment and novelty. Moses, who also related his own death, placed it not at the beginning but at the end: a radical difference between this book and the Pentateuch.”

    Posted by Idelber  on  07/17  at  05:38 PM
  161. Not from a novel, though possibly something like a novel, but we’ll never know, since it’s very long lost (as in, both very lost and lost very long).  But it’s a great first line, a legendary first line even, one of the very first of the legendary first lines.  If it were the first line of a novel, I think, it would be a great one:  “Hecataeus of Miletus speaks thus:  I write what seems to me to be true, for the Greeks have many tales which, as it appears to me, are absurd.”

    Posted by  on  07/17  at  05:54 PM
  162. Criminy. Every time I post comments on your site, Michael - every single time - I have a typo or some such.

    Yes. I know. It’s Alisdair, not Alistair.

    Posted by Paul Primrose  on  07/17  at  06:10 PM
  163. Actually three sentences, but:

    “Call me Smitty. That’s what everybody else called me--the ballplayers, the bankers, the bareback riders, the baritones, the bartenders, the bastards, the best-selling writers (excepting Hem, who dubbed me Frederico), the bicyclists, the big game hunters (Hem the exception again), the billiards champs, the bishops, the blacklisted (myself included), the black marketeers, the blonds, the bloodsuckers, the bluebloods, the bookies, the Bolsheviks (some of my best friends, Mr. Chairman--what of it!), the bombardiers, the bootblacks, the bootlicks, the bosses, the boxers, the Brahmins, the brass hats, the British (Sir Smitty as of ‘36), the broads, the broadcasters, the broncobusters, the brunettes, the black bucks down in Barbados (Meestah Smitty), the Buddhist monks in Burma, one Bulkington, the bullfighters, the bullthrowers, the burlesque comics and the burlesque stars, the bushmen, the bums, and the butlers. And that’s only the letter B, fans, only one of the Big Twenty-Six!”

    (Roth’s _The Great American Novel_)

    “As my cab pulled off FDR Rcive, somewhere in the early Hundreds, a low-slung Tomahawk full of black guys came sharking out of lane and sloped in fast right across our bows.”

    (Martin Amis’s _Money_)

    And a second endorsement of Tibor Fischer’s _The Thought Gang_ quoted above.


    Posted by Dave  on  07/17  at  06:17 PM
  164. (Make that “FDR Drive”.)

    Posted by Dave Scocca  on  07/17  at  06:19 PM
  165. I’ve always liked the launch of Howard’s End: “One may as well begin with Helen’s letters to her sister.”

    Posted by Sally  on  07/17  at  07:19 PM
  166. Um, actually, it’s “Alasdair.”

    Posted by Tim Walters  on  07/17  at  07:23 PM
  167. Yes, Michael, The Bluest Eye has a great one. (Actually it has three opening passages; you went for “Quiet as it’s kept”?) So does Bambara’s The Salt Eaters: “‘Are you sure, sweetheart, that you want to be well?’”

    Posted by Sally  on  07/17  at  07:42 PM
  168. Well of course it is.

    I give up.

    Posted by Paul  on  07/17  at  07:42 PM
  169. This is one of the best threads I’ve read in a long time, but so far there have been surprisingly few examples from novels outside the Anglophone tradition.  Here are some of my favorite opening sentences from German novels:

    “The story of Hans Castorp that we intend to tell here - not for his sake (for the reader will come to know him as a perfectly ordinary, if engaging young man), but for the sake of the story itself, which seems to us to be very much worth telling (although in Hans Castorp’s favor it should be noted that it is *his* story, and that not every story happens to everybody) - is a story that took place long ago, and is, so to speak, covered with the patina of history and must necesarily be told with verbs whose tense is that of the deepest past.”
    -Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain

    “He stood before the gates of Tegel prison and was free.”
    -Alfred Doeblin, Berlin Alexanderplatz

    And one of my personal favorites, despite the novel’s troublesome ideology:

    “You all know the wild grief that besets us when we remember times of happiness.”
    -Ernst Juenger, On the Marble Cliffs

    Posted by  on  07/17  at  09:07 PM
  170. My current favorite first line is, “Oaxaca is pronounced Wahaca.” From Calvino’s Under the Jaguar Sun.

    Posted by Jeremy Osner  on  07/17  at  09:41 PM
  171. "The changeling’s decision to steal a dragon and escape was born, though she did not know it then, the night the children met to plot the death of their supervisor.”

    Posted by  on  07/17  at  10:40 PM
  172. "The music room in the Governor’s House at Port Mahon, a tall, handsome, pillared ocatgon, was filled with the triumphant first movement of Locatelli’s C major quartet.”

    Patrick O’Brian, Master and Commander

    This is the opening line in the first novel of O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin volumes, so it should be considered the first line to one of the greatest set of novels in the English language.  I do hope it made the list.

    (First-time commentator, long-time reader.)

    Posted by  on  07/17  at  10:45 PM
  173. As *dictated* to me ....

    “Mason City.  To get there you follow Highway 58, going northeast out of the city, and it is a good highway and new.” Robert Penn Warren “All the King’s Men”

    And on my own ---

    “It began one day in summer about thirty years ago, and it happened to four children.” Edward Eager, “Half Magic.”

    “Half Magic” is the first of seven wonderful books for “middle readers” that I first found in my school library when I was about ten and, along with the Narnia books, and the “Little House” books (age 8), were my first great literary influences.

    Posted by Leta  on  07/17  at  11:17 PM
  174. I am seated in an office, surrounded by heads and bodies.--Infinite Jest; David Foster Wallace.

    Just because they found Martin Bormann’s skull doesn’t mean he’s dead, my best beloved; for everyone knows that competent observers from every neutral country have reported sighting an old man in Argentina whose head is wrapped in bandages, and only the hunted eyes show, winking and blinking beneath the thousands of cranial splints; - and Anastasia Romanoff, I know her: when Yurovsky and his Cheka men were murdering her family she fainted and they took her for dead; they piled her into a truck with the others, and while they were getting the hatchets and caustic acids ready she came to herself, ran into the deep dark taiga, and flung herself into the arms of the Whites just in time, where she was treated as befitted her nobility; and that’s how the leopard got his spots.--You Bright and Risen Angels; William Vollmann

    Too good not to quote the whole opening:

    A barometric low hung over the Atlantic.  It moved eastward toward a high-pressure area over Russia without as yet showing any inclination to bypass this high in a northerly direction.  The isotherms and the isotheres were functioning as they should.  The air temperature was appropriate relative to tthe annual mean temperature and to the aperiodic monthly fluctuations of the temperature.  The rising and setting of the sun, the moon, the phases of the moon, of Venus, of the rings of Saturn, and many other significant phenomena were all in accordance with the forecasts in the astronomical yearbooks.  THe water vapor in the air was at its maximal state of tension, while the humidity was minimal.  In a word that characterizes the facts fairly accurately, even if it is a bit old fashioned: It was a fine day in August 1913.--The Man Without Qualities; Robert Musil

    It’s not really a novel but still...:

    When I wrote the following pages, or rather the bulk of them, I lived alone, in the woods, a mile from any neighbor, in a house which I built myself, on the shore of Walden Pond, in Concord, Massachusetts, and earned my living by the labor of my hands only.

    (Or is this the opening line?):

    I do not propose to write an ode to dejection, but to brag lustily as chanticleer in the morning, standing on his roost, if only to wake my neighbors up.


    Dearest Father,
    You asked me recently why I maintain that I am afraid of you.--Letter to His Father; Kafka

    This was an especially fun arbitrary question.  Thanks!

    Posted by  on  07/17  at  11:25 PM
  175. The most beautiful women in the world are African. Rose Martin Cruz Smith Died on me finally.He had to. The Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All Allan Gurganus

    Posted by  on  07/17  at  11:28 PM
  176. I love the thread.  I do want to find out what Michael considers the two obvious greatest novels in English.  One is Ulysses????
    My contributions are obvious but still missing.
    My father’s family name being Pirrip, and my Christian name Philip, my infant tongue could make of both names nothing longer or more explicit than Pip. So, I called myself Pip, and came to be called Pip.
    Great Expectations
    And 2 by Jack Kerouac
    Hopping a freight out of Los Angeles at high noon one day in late September 1955 I got on a gondola and lay down with my duffel bag under my head and my knees crossed and contemplated the clouds as we rolled north to Santa Barbara.
    Dharma Bums
    I first met Dean not long after my wife and I split up.
    On the Road
    Are we going to have a thread on last lines?

    Posted by  on  07/17  at  11:32 PM
  177. “It was nearing midnight and the Prime Minister was sitting alone in his office, reading a long memo that was slipping through his brain without leaving the slightest trace of meaning behind.”

    Jonathan, you are now in violation of sixteen distinct international copyright laws.  Everyone knows, or else should know, that no blog citation of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is permissible until 16 August 2005.

    Posted by Michael  on  07/18  at  12:23 AM
  178. Michael, perhaps I should have known having, after all, spoken with J. K. Rowling and her publicist at a signing of a previous book in San Marino, California.  I should have known through my wife, also from Edinburgh, Scotland.  I am sensitive to intellectual property issues through my years of work as a consultant to top Patent Law firms, or through my training as an elected officer of the national Writers Union, or my work in Science Fiction Writers of America, Mystrery Writers of America, and the like.  If I have caused you any difficulty, I apologize.  I am a professional author, editor, and publisher.  As a big fan of J. K. Rowling, I certainly intended no harm, but I honestly did not know of this embargo.  In fact, I coulds swear that I heard that first sentence read out loud on KPCC-FM radio, perhaps as a National Public Radio event. Please don’t sic the Dementors on me.  What, what’s that at the window?  AAAAAAiiiiiiieeeee....

    Posted by Jonathan Vos Post  on  07/18  at  01:55 AM
  179. Here are a few I found looking through my books. I like many was surprised that books I remembered with great openings (Conrad, as earlier discussions and Mayor of Casterbridge) actually had first sentences not as immediately engaging. These few sentences, along with many already listed, made me want to read the entire books within one sitting upon discovery:

    1. “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 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 saviour at the head of the grave and enough dirt on top to keep the dogs from digging it up.” (O’Connor’s The Violent Bear It Away; incidentally most of her first lines in short stories are about this good.)

    2. “The cold that tore at his innards had returned, and with it the pain that incessantly rent his head like an ax.” (Stefan Zeromski, The Faithful River)

    3. “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.” (Eugenides’ Middlesex)

    4. “Citizen: Sir, I want to congratulate you for coming out on April 3 for the sanctity of human life, including the life of the yet unborn.” (Roth’s Our Gang)

    5. “What makes Iago evil? some people ask. I never ask.” (Joan Didion, Play it as it Lays)

    6. “Of all the things that drive men to sea, the most common disaster, I’ve come to learn, is women.” (Charles Johnson, Middle Passage)

    For now, those were ones I liked that I don’t think I read here on the message board yet. If I could second ones though, I believe one that should not be overlooked is the great one posted earlier from Adventures of the Good Soldier Shvejk. Also Wiseblood

    In concluding, thank you Mr. Berube and all posters for this great thread. It was worth the time suck.

    Posted by aaron law  on  07/18  at  11:00 AM
  180. ” ‘That child,’ said my aunt Mercy, looking at me with indigo-colored eyes, ‘is possessed.’ “

    --Elizabeth Stoddard, The Morgesons

    Posted by hermance  on  07/18  at  11:59 AM
  181. I have never begun a novel with more misgiving.

    That’s the first line of Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge.

    Posted by Aaron Barlow  on  07/18  at  12:15 PM
  182. Glad to see Rushdie getting the attention deserved for Haroun.  And Bistroist’s (72) info on the actual Greek first line of the Iliad, first word of first sentence is what the whole book is about: wrath.  Barry ISU (85) is right with the line of Jacob Horner.  The book is John Barth’s The End of the Road.

    Here are two faves of mine from writers nobody has yet mentioned:

    When Dick Gibson was a little boy he was not Dick Gibson
    -Stanley Elkin, The Dick Gibson Show

    “I’d like a bloody castle,” the fat diner had said”
    -Julio Cortazar, 62: A Model Kit

    Both of these have a strangeness that much of the rest of the book is devoted to increasing and undermining. 

    And speaking of that, and since Kathy Acker came up recently and Joyce a while ago in this chain, here’s another great opening, which is itself a whole story:

    admires also America and apartment back bare be better between blue buildings can casual city elegant elongated exists extremely eyes far feet forth green identifiable immediately in instance is it large larger map mind note of on over parquet permit relationship replicating roving shape shining square stretched tall terrain that the this those two uncluttered underside unimpeded unspoiled wander windows
    -Walter Abish, In So Many Words

    Posted by  on  07/18  at  01:04 PM
  183. John Henry Days was mentioned in #129 but I like this one even better:

    “It’s a new elevator, freshly pressed to the rails, and it’s not built to fall this fast.”

    --Colson Whitehead, The Intuitionist

    Posted by Tim  on  07/18  at  01:35 PM
  184. WHERE are Elmer, Herman, Bert, Tom and Charley,
    The weak of will, the strong of arm, the clown, the boozer, the fighter?
    All, all, are sleeping on the hill.

    Posted by  on  07/18  at  02:07 PM
  185. Everyone knows, or else should know, that no blog citation of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is permissible until 16 August 2005.

    Well, at least Jonathan didn’t spoil the part where Snape dies.

    Posted by Chris Clarke  on  07/18  at  02:08 PM
  186. Sorry about the two lines. Let’s try it again.

    WHERE are Elmer, Herman, Bert, Tom and Charley,
    The weak of will, the strong of arm, the clown, the boozer, the fighter?

    Posted by  on  07/18  at  02:13 PM
  187. So many comments I couldn’t get through them all, but scanning them I did not see either of these so here goes:

    “You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning.” - Jay McInerny, Bright Lights, Big City

    And, if poetry is allowed instead of only prose:

    “Admittedly I err by undertaking
    This in its present form. The baldest prose
    Reportage was called for, that would reach
    The widest public in the shortest time.”

    --James Merrill, The Changing Light at Sandover

    Posted by  on  07/18  at  02:57 PM
  188. "I am old now and have not much to fear from the wrath of the gods.”

    -C.S. lewis, Till We Have Faces

    Posted by Kylie  on  07/18  at  03:31 PM
  189. "The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.” William Gibson, Neuromancer.

    Posted by  on  07/18  at  04:05 PM
  190. "Horselover Fat’s nervous breakdown began the day he got the phonecall from Gloria asking if had any nembutals.  He asked her why she wanted them and she said that she intended to kill herself.  She was calling everyone she knew.  By now she had fifty of them, but she needed thirty or forty more to be on the safe side.”

    Valis, Philip K. Dick

    Posted by  on  07/18  at  05:05 PM
  191. He-for there could be no doubt of his sex, though the fashion of the time did something to disguise it-was in the act of slicing at the head of a Moor which swung from the rafters.
    --Virginia Woolf, Orlando

    All children, except one, grow up.
    --J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan

    “I have been here before,” I said; I had been the before; first with Sebastian more than than twenty years ago on a cloudless day in June, when the ditches were white with fool’s-parsley and meadowsweet and the air heavy with all the scents of summer; it was a day of peculiar splendour, such as our clime affords one or twice a year, when leaf and flower and bird and sun-lit stone and shadow seem all to proclaim the glory God; and though I had been there so often, in so many moods, it was to that first visit that my heart returned on this, my latest.
    --Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited

    When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon.
    --James Crumley, The Last Good Kiss

    They say when trouble comes close ranks, and so the white people did.
    --Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea

    There was a white horse, on a quiet winter morning when snow covered the streets gently and was not deep, and the sky was swept with vibrant stars, except in the east, where dawn was beginning in a light blue flood.
    --Mark Helprin, Winter’s Tale

    Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.
    --Daphe du Maurier, Rebecca

    On a certain day in June, 19--, a young man was making his way on foot northward from the great City to a town or place called Edgewood, that he had been told of but had never visited.  His name was Smoky Barnable, and he was going to Edgewood to get married; the fact that he walked and didn’t ride was one of the conditions placed on his coming there at all.
    --John Crowley, Little, Big

    Isserly alwasy drove straight past a hitch-hiker when she first saw him, to give herself time to size him up.
    --Michel Faber, Under the Skin

    Five hours’ New York jet lag and Cayce Pollard wakes in Camden Town to the dire and ever-circling wolves of disrupted circadian rhythm.
    --William Gibson, Pattern Recognition

    I am making this statement as an act of willful defiance of military authority, because I believe the war is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it.
    --Pat Barker, Regeneration

    I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.
    --Dodie Smith, I Capture the Castle

    The play - for which Briony had designed the posters, programs and tickets, constructed the sales booth out of a folding screen tipped on its side, and lined the collection box in red crepe paper - was written by her in a two-day tempest of composition, causing her to miss a breakfast and a lunch.
    --Ian McEwan, Atonement

    It’s a funny thing about mothers and fathers.  Even when their own child is the most disgusting little blister you could even imagine, they still think that he or she is wonderful.
    --Roald Dahl, Matilda

    The seller of lightning rods arrived just ahead of the storm.
    --Ray Bradbury, Something Wicked This Way Comes

    Sir Walter Elliot, of Kellynch Hall, in Somersetshire, was a man who, for his own amusement, never took up any book but the Baronetage; there he found occupation for an idle hour, and consolation in a distressed one; there his faculties were roused into admiration and respect, by contemplating the limited remnant of the earliest patents; there any unwelcome sensations, arising from domestic affairs, changed naturally into pity and contempt.
    --Jane Austen, Persuasion

    The primroses were over.
    --Richard Adams, Watership Down

    He was one hundred and seventy days dying and not yet dead.
    --Alfred Bester, The Stars My Destination

    Posted by Abigail  on  07/18  at  05:08 PM
  192. Five little puppies dug a hole under the fence and went for a walk in the wide, wide world.

    -- Janette Sebring Lowrey, The Poky Little Puppy

    Posted by Chris Clarke  on  07/18  at  11:48 PM
  193. These things are there. The garden and the tree
    The serpent at its root, the fruit of gold
    The woman in the shadow of the boughs
    The running water and the grassy space.
    They are and were there.
    (Byatt, Possession)

    In later years, holding forth to an interviewer or to an audience of aging fans at a comic book convention, Sam Clay liked to declare, apropos of his and Joe Kavalier’s greatest creation, that back when he was a boy, sealed and hog-tied insight the airtight vessel known as Brooklyn, New York, he had been haunted by dreams of Harry Houdini.

    St. Botolphs was an old place, an old river town.
    (Cheever, Wapshot Chronicle)

    A wide plain, where the broadening Floss hurries on between its green banks to the sea, and the loving tide, rushing to meet it, checks its passage with an impetuous embrace.

    It seems increasingly likely that I really will take the expedition that has been preoccupying my mind for some days.
    (Ishiguro, Remains of the Day)

    The schoolmaster was leaving the village, and everyone seemed sorry.
    (Hardy, Jude the Obscure)

    When Farmer Oak smiled, the corners of his mouth spread till they were within an unimportant distance of his ears, his eyes were reduced to chinks, and diverging wrinkles appeared round them, extending upon his countenance like the rays in a rudimentary sketch of the rising sun.
    (Hardy, Far from the Madding Crowd)

    To the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth.
    (Steinbeck, Grapes of Wrath)

    A site for amusingly bad first lines: http://www.bulwer-lytton.com

    A site for amusingly bad first lines (plus some bad last lines and other things), but much shorter first lines than the above:

    The fellow who compiled the latter site has written a novel with a striking first line of its own (actually, first two lines):

    The day I turned sixteen years old I had no idea that in four months nearly everyone I cared about would be dead. Unburdened by this foreknowledge, it was with a free and unclouded spirit that I went down to the DMV and failed my driving test.
    (Adam Cadre, Ready, Okay!)

    Posted by  on  07/18  at  11:58 PM
  194. Two that announce their own titles:

    I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice—not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany.

    I call our world Flatland, not because we call it so, but to make its nature clearer to you, happy readers, who are privileged to live in Space.

    And hat’s off to this one:

    One fine morning in the month of May an elegant young horsewoman might have been seen riding a handsome sorrel mare along the flowery avenues of the Bois de Boulogne.

    Posted by Fred Clark  on  07/19  at  10:28 AM
  195. "All of this happened while I was walking around starving in Christiania - that strange city no one escapes from until it has left its mark on him ...”

    “Once I was young and had so much more orientation and could talk with nervous intelligence about everything and with clarity and without as much literary preambling as this; in other words this is the story of an unself-confident man, at the same time of an egomaniac, naturally, facetious won’t do - just to start at the beginning and let the truth seep out, that’s what I’ll do-.”

    “The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.”

    Posted by Sam Jones  on  07/19  at  11:06 AM
  196. "Samuel Spade’s jaw was long and bony, his chin a jutting v under the more flexible v of his mouth. His nostrils curved back to make another, smaller, v. His yellow-grey eyes were horizontal. The v motif was picked up again by thickish brows rising outward from twin creases above a hooked nose, and his pale brown hair grew down—from high flat temples—in a point on his forehead. He looked rather pleasantly like a blond satan.”

    It’s the last bit that gets me.

    Posted by  on  07/19  at  12:39 PM
  197. Like many, I am astonished to find no mention of my personal favorite.  What is it about us that leads us to assume that everyone shares our sense of taste?  Anyway, in my case, my all time personal favorite is from Henry Miller’s Tropic of Capricorn:

    “Once you have given up the ghost, everything else follows with dead certainty, even in the midst of chaos.”

    You can almost see Miller reclining at the typewriter and thinking: “So put that in your pipe, and smoke it.”

    Posted by  on  07/19  at  01:23 PM
  198. "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.”

    Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger

    Posted by Bulworth  on  07/19  at  03:08 PM
  199. approaching 200 comments for this post.

    getting close to Berube goes to the Republican convention numbers.

    Posted by Bulworth  on  07/19  at  03:10 PM
  200. "The human race, to which so many of my readers belong, has been playing at children’s games from the beginning, and will probably do it till the end, which is a nuisance for the few people who grow up.”—First line of GKChesterton’s first novel, The Napoleon of Notting Hill.

    Posted by  on  07/19  at  05:05 PM
  201. approaching 200 comments for this post.

    getting close to Berube goes to the Republican convention numbers.

    Actually, Bulworth, the RNC series never garnered more than 43 comments.  (Really!  You can look it up.) The record-holding post on this blog, rather, is the “name the perfect pop song” thread that began Arbitrary But Fun Fridays three months ago, with 205 comments.

    We’re almost there!  Except that meta-comments about the number of comments don’t count.

    Posted by  on  07/19  at  05:54 PM
  202. Except that meta-comments about the number of comments don’t count.

    What about comments that ask a clarifying question with regard to the intent of metacomments about the number of comments?

    Posted by Chris Clarke  on  07/19  at  06:07 PM
  203. ... or non-sequiturous comments about bacon?

    Posted by Chris Clarke  on  07/19  at  06:08 PM
  204. "My purpose, my sole purpose—believe me!—is merely to re-establish the truth.”

    -- Home is the Sailor by Jorge Amado

    I was going to post the opening to Valis, but I see that I am too late.

    Posted by  on  07/19  at  07:44 PM
  205. Mmm… Bacon.

    But I don’t win a cookie for #205.


    Posted by Murph  on  07/19  at  10:56 PM
  206. If I can say that the first line of Black No More by George Schuyler is the dedication, that’s a pretty good opener:

    “This book is dedicated to all Caucasians in the great republic who can trace their ancestry back ten generations and confidently assert taht there are no Black leaves, twigs, limbs, or branches on their family trees.”

    Posted by Scrivener  on  07/19  at  10:59 PM
  207. Oh, I win a cookie?  Make mine chocolate chip, please.

    Posted by Scrivener  on  07/19  at  11:01 PM
  208. Finally someone mentions Schuyler!

    But no, no cookie, Scrivener.  Unless you want white chocolate chip.  Besides, Chris Clarke messed this up with his post-meta-infra-comments in 202 and 203.

    Mmmmm, bacon.  With ranch dressing.

    Posted by Michael  on  07/19  at  11:12 PM
  209. Cookie’s on me, Scrivener. With or without pork flesh. You too, Murph.

    (Come to think of it, the village in China where my father-in-law was born is known for its raw pork fat cookies. I’ve had a couple. Not bad.)

    Posted by Chris Clarke  on  07/19  at  11:27 PM
  210. Yeah, Michael, I was worried that someone else’d get to Schuyler before me.

    But if I got a white chocolate chip cookie, wouldn’t that be protesting a bit much?  Thanks, Chris, for the offer, but raw pork fat cookies don’t sound especially appetizing.  Aw, what the hell, I’ll try anything once.

    Hey, someone threw out a Cortazar before, and I’d like to add the opening of Hopscotch, but not the opening of the normal reading of the novel ("Would I find La Maga?” is not that great a beginning), but the first sentence according to the alternate sequence of readings proposed in the Table of Instructions--so, the first sentence of section 73:
    “Yes, but who will cure us of the dull fire, the colorless fire that at nightfall runs along the Rue de la Huchette, emerging from the crumbling doorways, from the little entranceways, of the imageless fire that licks the stones and lies in wait in doorways, how shall we cleanse ourselves of the sweet burning that comes after, that nests in us forever allied with time and memory, with sticky things that hold us here on this side, and which will burn sweetly in us until we have been left in ashes.”

    Posted by Scrivener  on  07/19  at  11:45 PM
  211. "I never was a virgin.”
    [Susan Isaacs, Lily White, 1996]

    “Most people won’t even open the door when someone rings their bell.”
    [Harold Q. Masur; So Rich, So Lovely and So Dead; 1952]

    “When a day that you happen to know is Wednesday starts off by sounding like Sunday, there is something seriously wrong somewhere.
    I felt that from the moment I woke.”
    [John Wyndham, The Day of the Triffids, 1951]

    “Masked eyes peered through the semi-darkness of the room.” [Charles Harness, The Paradox Men, 1953]

    “From the cold-storage locker at the rear of the store, Victor Nielson wheeled a cart of winter potatoes to the vegetable section of the produce department.” [Philip K. Dick, Time Out Of Joint, 1959]

    “The volcano that had reared Taratua up from the Pacific depths had been sleeping now for half a million years.” [Arthur C. Clarke, Childhood’s End, 1954]

    “Although I am writing this in the year 1877, I was not born until 1921. Neither the dates nor the tenses are error ... “ [Ward Moore, Bring the Jubilee, 1955]

    “When I was quite small I would sometimes dream of a city - which was strange because it began before I even knew what a city was.” [John Wyndham, The Chrysalids, 1955]

    “She was a girlygirl and they were true men, the lords of creation, but she pitted her wits against them and she won.” ["Cordwainer Smith” pseudonym of Paul Myron Anthony Linebarger, The Ballad of Lost C’Mell] well, actually a short story, as is:
    “Martel was angry. He did not even adjust his blood away from anger.” ["Cordwainer Smith”, Scanners Live In Vain]

    “It is established beyond doubt that Mr. Butler was drunk at the time.” [Rafael Sabatini, The Snare]

    “The young lieutenant-colonel was drunk, apparently, and determined to rush upon disaster.”
    [Gordon Dickson, Tactics of Mistake]

    “Mankind consisted of 128 people.” [Willaim Tenn, Of Men and Monsters, 1968]

    Posted by Jonathan Vos Post  on  07/19  at  11:57 PM
  212. White chocolate, raw pork fat, I don’t see a difference here.

    Posted by Chris Clarke  on  07/19  at  11:58 PM
  213. Chris, remind me not to ask you to cook for me if you can’t see a difference between white chocolate and raw pork fat.

    Posted by Scrivener  on  07/20  at  12:10 AM
  214. Hey, did anyone enter Manuel Puig?

    “--Something a little strange, that’s what you notice, that she’s not a woman like all the others.”

    Posted by Scrivener  on  07/20  at  12:11 AM
  215. Chris, remind me not to ask you to cook for me if you can’t see a difference between white chocolate and raw pork fat.

    It’s not really an issue. I would never ever cook with white chocolate.

    Posted by Chris Clarke  on  07/20  at  12:22 AM
  216. "Suddenly Rodrone understood why the scene before his eyes held such a fascination for him, and why he returned again and again to worlds like this one. Lurid, offbeat and infernal, it offered the exaggerated symbolism of a painting rendered by a schizophrenic; and so drew him to that attractive realm of mental aberration where thoughts and actions could all be bizarre without feelings of shame...”
    [Barrington Bayley, The Star Virus, his 1st novel]

    “We are each the love of someone’s life.”
    [Andrew Sean Greer, The Confessions of Max Tivoli : A Novel]

    “As the vibrations died down in the laboratory the big man arose from the glass chair and viewed the complicated apparatus on the table. It was complete to the last detail. He glanced at the calendar. It was September 1st in the year 2660. Tomorrow was to be a big and busy day for him, for it was to witness the final phase of the three-year experiment. He yawned and stretched himself to his full height, revealing a physique much larger than that of the average man of his times and approaching that of the huge Martians.
    His physical superiority, however, was as nothing compared to his gigantic mind. He was Ralph 124C 41+, one of the greatest living scientists and one of ten men on the whole planet earth permitted to use the Plus sign after his name. Stepping to the Telephot on the side of the wall, he pressed a group of buttons and in a few minutes the faceplate of the Telephot became luminous, revealing the face of a clean-shaven man about thirty, a pleasant but serious face.”
    [Hugo Gernsback, Ralph 124C 41+ — A Romance of the Year 2660, First serialized in the pages of Hugo Gernsback’s own magazine, Modern Electrics from April 1911, to March 1912, then printed in book form in 1925]

    “Because of who he was, and what he was, he asked for and they gave him, an aircraft to take him anywhere in the world.”
    [John Brunner]

    Posted by Jonathan Vos Post  on  07/20  at  12:46 AM
  217. {Theory of Opening Sentences}
    “ I’ll muck about with an idea for as long as it takes (months, usually, and sometimes years) to figure out what I want to do with it, jotting down notes and the occasional line of dialog until I’ve got what seems to me the perfect opening sentence, one that roots the reader in the situation and gives me the chance to move forward rapidly. ‘He died.’ Or ‘The Bureaucrat fell from the sky.’ Or ‘On a hilltop in Arcadia, Darger sat talking with a satyr.’ Then I keep on playing, thinking, inventing, projecting, until I’ve figured out how the story is going to end. And that’s the point when I can begin writing. I start at the beginning and aim at the end and try to see how fast I can get from one point to the other.....”
    “What would you like your epitaph to read?”
    This monument erected by his loving widow, Marianne Porter.”
    [Interview: Michael Swanwick: Twenty Questions from Lynne Jamneck
    By Lynne Jamneck
    17 November 2003]

    Posted by Jonathan Vos Post  on  07/20  at  12:50 AM
  218. "Oho. Like it starting, oui? Don’t be frightened, sweetness; is for the best. I go be with you the whole time. Trust me and let me distract you little bit with one anasi story: It had a woman, you see, a strong hard-back woman with skin like cocoa-tea. She two foot-them tough from hiking through the diable bush.”
    [Nalo Hopkinson, Brown Girl in the Ring, 1998]

    Posted by Jonathan Vos Post  on  07/20  at  12:53 AM
  219. "The men at work at the corner of the street had made a kind of camp for themselves, where, marked out by tripods hung with red hurricane-lamps, an abyss in the road led down to a network of subterranean drain-pipes. Gathered round the bucket of coke that burned in front of the shelter, several figures were swinging arms against bodies and rubbing hands together with large, pantomimic gestures: like comedians giving formal expression to the concept of extreme cold.”

    Anthony Powell, A Question of Upbringing (A Dance to the Music of Time).

    The truly stunning lines come one paragraph later, though, in Powell’s madeleine moment:

    “For some reason, the sight of snow descending on fire always makes me think of the ancient world--legionaries in sheepskin warming themselves at a brazier; mountain altars where offerings glow between wintry pillars; centaurs with torches cantering beside a frozen sea--scattered, unco-ordinated shapes from a fabulous past, infinitely removed from life; and yet bringing with them memories of things real and imagined. These classical projections, and something in the physical attitudes of the men themselves as they turned from the fire, suddenly suggested Poussin’s scene in which the Seasons, hand in hand and facing outward, tread in rhythm to the notes of the lyre that the winged and naked greybeard plays. The image of Time brought thoughts of mortality: of human beings, facing outward like the Seasons, moving hand in hand in intricate measure, stepping slowly, methodically, sometimes a trifle awkwardly, in evolutions that take recognisable shape: or breaking into seemingly meaningless gyrations, while partners disappear only to reappear again, once more giving pattern to the spectacle: unable to control the melody, unable, perhaps, to control the steps of the dance. Classical associations made me think, too, of days at school, where so many forces, hitherto unfamiliar, had become in due course uncompromisingly clear.”

    Posted by  on  07/20  at  01:42 AM
  220. It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.

    Posted by  on  07/20  at  05:21 PM
  221. Fron the genre of Westerns:

    “The second banner said ‘Hero of San Juan Hill.’”
    [Elmore Leonard, The Tonto Woman and Other Western Stories] Yes, he started in this genre before switching brilliantly to Mystery

    “IT IS ENTIRELY APPROPRIATE TO THE COURSE OF OUR own exploration that the first Western work devoted mainly to China should be evasive and problematic.”
    [Jonathan Spence, The Chan’s Great Continent: China in Western Minds] Okay, nonfiction and a pun on “Western.”

    “Here is the real world : monts of Neversummer like a heap of broken glass.”
    [James Galvin, The Meadow]

    “I want to know what salmons know, when they sail up very fast towards the source of the river, against the whole world, to die”.
    [Elwood Reid, What Salmons Know]

    “As it happened, Rebbecca’s feet did not grow, so though in time she herself became a very tall woman, her feet remained as small as a child’s, with tiny rosebud toes and nails as thin and translucent as the membranes of eggs. As it also happened, Rebbecca’s ambition in life, her one true and most steadfast desire, was to grow up and climb mountains. And not just any mountains either, but the tallest mountains in the world—Everest, K2, Denali. Old people had done it; young people had done it; even once, a blind man had done it—and Rebbecca reasoned, if they could, why not her?”
    [Katharine Haake, The Immortal Feet]

    “My parents’ Ford station wagon hit a concrete divider on U.S. 95 outside Biddeford, Maine, in August 1990.”
    [Ron McLarty, The Memory of Running]

    “Life is painful and disappointing.”
    [Michel Houellebecq, Against the world, against life]

    Posted by Jonathan Vos Post  on  07/20  at  09:45 PM
  222. Now, carefully avoiding the USA:

    “I was not sorry when my brother died.”
    [Tsitsi Dangarembga, Nervous Conditions, Women’s Press in 1988] This first novel, abour AIDS, is by an author born in Mutoko in colonial Rhodesia, which became the independent state of Zimbabwe in 1980.

    “I went down to the Piraeus yesterday.”
    [Plato, The Republic]

    “The Beast destroyed my brief peace.”
    [Guy Vanderhaeghe, My Present Age] Canada

    Back to Westerns:

    “On the third day of their honeymoon, infamous environmental activist Stewie Woods and his new bride, Annabel Bellotti, were spiking trees in the Bighorn National Forest when a cow exploded and blew them up.”
    [C. J. Box, Savage Run]

    “As full and frank a Portrayal as I am able of myself, Mary MacLane, for whom the world contains not a parallel.”
    [Mary MacLane, The Story of Mary MacLane, 1902] MacLane’s first book, The Story of Mary MacLane, sold nearly 100,000 copies in its first month, and was praised by H. L. Mencken and Hamlin Garland.

    And Easterns:

    “China is the European Middle Ages made visible.”
    [Edward Alworth Ross, The Changing Chinese: The Conflict of Oriental and Western Cultures in China, New York: Century, 1911, p. 3] 1st sentence, though p.3.

    And, pardon the French:

    “Take that fucking Walkman off, get your arse in here and show me how I do an all-staff e-mail.”
    [Matt Beaumont, “e"] British novel written in 2000 entirely in the form of e-mail communications.

    Posted by Jonathan Vos Post  on  07/20  at  10:12 PM
  223. May we humbly suggest a first line not by Tolstoy or Austen?

    It was the kind of October that makes April envious.
    --John Soltez, Only in America

    Posted by  on  07/20  at  11:52 PM
  224. "I am in a car park in Leeds when I tell my husband I don’t want to be married to him anymore.”
    [Nick Hornby, How To Be Good]

    “From the very first sentence of the prefatory note — ‘In The Mask of the Beggar a nameless artist seeks mutualities between cultures’ — to long statements in the final chapter, [Wilson]Harris expresses his ideas directly rather than, as in much of his previous work, engaging the reader in literary archeology.”

    “As a kind of aesthetic summation of Harris’s career, it is perhaps not surprising that The Mask of the Beggar is also his most personal novel. Some twenty pages from the end, the man who calls himself a sculptor suddenly makes a confession, declaring, ‘I am largely an intuitive writer,’ and proceeds for two and half pages of italicized prose to produce a sort of credo. ‘We have been intuitively seeking in this fiction hidden twinships and physicalities that are wholly neglected in creative complexity,’ the writer informs the reader, explaining some lines later that some events ‘lie beyond conventional language,’ for ‘bland convention . . . misses mutualities, dualities, ecstasies that grope into a marriage with infinity,’ meaning that the conventional novel cannot capture the simultaneous presence of the past and the future in any given present, nor arrive at ‘the intricate far-reaching truths that art seeks.’”
    [url="http://www.centerforbookculture.org/context/no14/Ghose.html"]Reading Wilson Harris’s
    The Mask of the Beggar, by
    Zulfikar Ghose[/url]

    Posted by Jonathan Vos Post  on  07/21  at  02:25 AM
  225. "Children all over the world wonder about the Easter Bunny.”
    [Linda Spaulding, Adventures to Easter Land]

    “I was a little boy playing around my father’s hut.”
    [Camara Laye, The Dark Child]

    “Ruth remembered drowning.”
    [Christina Schwarz, Drowning Ruth]

    “I learned the Chinese for ‘drop trou’ on the set of a nighttime television drama called Foreign Babes in Beijing.”
    [Rachel DeWoskin, Foreign Babes in Beijing]

    “‘Can’t complain.’ The first sentence sums up both the political dimension (complaint is impossible because there is nothing to complain of) and the attitude of the narrator. He counts himself most fortunate to subsist with his large family in a superannuated circus caravan (the decoration of this, “ a pig wearing a hat, a tiger baring its fangs”, is the first of a series of allegorical touches) and to work, sometimes on continuous shifts of more than twenty hours, as a hull-welder. For those reactionary elements among his work-mates who subscribe to such bourgeois – liberal slogans as “justice, equality, bread, meat” he feels pity and contempt. Give Us This Day [by Janusz Glowacki] is an effective documentary, a humorous, personal and matter-of-fact supplement to the frequently bombastic coverage given by media (predictably, there are jokes about the gullibility of the Western news teams).”
    [Lewis Jones, The Times Literary Supplement, 3 VI 1983, London]

    Posted by Jonathan Vos Post  on  07/21  at  02:35 AM
  226. "As the plot took shape, Frank Herbert needed a setting. According to a personal friend of his, Mr. Herbert originally planned to set the story on Mars, but that idea was changed as his idea for an ecological novel developed. One experience in his writing career helped him decide upon the novel’s home: Arrakis, also known as Dune. For a potential magazine piece about a project by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which was studying ways to control the movements of sand dunes, Mr. Herbert went to the coasts of Oregon. Remembering that our Western civilization started in the deserts of the Middle East, he made his decision. ‘I did what science fiction writers always do--I amplified the idea of desert to a whole planet. That meant I had to go into the history of desert cultures; their survival.’ Over the next six years, Frank Herbert primarily studied Arabic, and as a result, much of his Dune terminology uses Arabic roots. With the plot and most of the setting finally coming together, the world of Dune began to take shape. As Frank Herbert introduced his novel, he summed up the reasons for its success in the first sentence of the introduction taken from ‘Manual of Muad’Dib’ by Princess Irulan:

    ‘A beginning is a time for taking the most delicate care that the balances are correct.’”

    The Origins of the Dune Chronicles

    Posted by Jonathan Vos Post  on  07/21  at  02:40 AM
  227. <a href="http://www.bartleby.com/187/10.html “>Carl Van Doren (1885–1950).  The American Novel.  1921.
    VII.  Mark Twain</a>

    “OF the major American novelists Mark Twain derived least from any literary, or at any rate from any bookish, tradition. Hawthorne had the example of Irving, and Cooper had that of Scott, when they began to write; Howells and Henry James instinctively fell into step with the classics. Mark Twain came up into literature from the popular ranks, trained in the school of newspaper fun-making and humorous lecturing, only gradually instructed in the more orthodox arts of the literary profession.”

    “Tom Sawyer cannot be discussed except in connection with its glorious sequel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885). ‘By and by,’ Mark Twain had written to Howells when he announced the completion of Tom Sawyer, ‘I shall take a boy of twelve and run him through life (in the first person)’; and he had begun the new book almost at once; but with characteristic uncertainty of taste he had lost interest in it and turned to struggle over a preposterous detective comedy which he wanted to name Balaam’s Ass. Again in 1880 and finally in 1883 he came back to his masterpiece, published two years later. In spite of this hesitation and procrastination Huckleberry Finn has remarkable unity. To tell a story in the first person was second nature to Mark Twain. His travel books had so been told, no matter what non-autobiographical episodes he might elect to bring in. But he was more than a humorous liar; he was an instinctive actor; Sir Henry Irving regretted that Mark Twain had never gone upon the stage. Once he had decided to tell the story through Huck Finn’s mouth he could proceed at his most effortless pace. And his sense of identity with the boy restricted him to a realistic substance as no principles of art, in Mark Twain’s case, could have done. With the first sentence he fell into an idiom and a rhythm flawlessly adapted to the naïve, nasal, drawling little vagabond.

    ‘You don’t know 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 Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly. There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth.’”

    Posted by Jonathan Vos Post  on  07/21  at  02:44 AM
  228. bblog: Bill Brown’s Blog, March 29, 2003

    “David Crawford’s Stop Motion Studies are interesting photographic compositions, as long as you don’t read the pomo captions he’s attached to make them sound significant in addition to interesting:”

    “‘The Stop Motion Studies extend my long standing interest in narrative and, in particular, look at the subway as a stage upon which social dynamics and individual behavior are increasingly mediated by digital technology. As one of the most vibrant and egalitarian networks in our cities, subways bring people from a wide range of social and cultural backgrounds into close contact with each other. This process plays a significant role in shaping both the character of a city as well as our individual identities.’”

    “Please also note the lack of superlative qualifiers in the first sentence and the failure to use a more powerful adjective than ‘interesting.’ The pictures are interesting, though completely devoid of meaning.”

    “Surprisingly, Crawford ‘has received numerous grants, honors, and awards from organizations including the National Endowment for the Arts and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.’ The quote above was probably taken directly from his grant proposal.”

    Posted by Jonathan Vos Post  on  07/21  at  02:51 AM
  229. "Miss Marsalles is having another party.”
    [Alice Munro, Dance of the Happy Shades]


    David Gergen, editor-at-large of U.S. News & World Report, converses with Jill Ker Conway, Professor of Humanities at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, about her new book When Memory Speaks, Reflections on Autobiography.

    DAVID GERGEN: Jill, welcome.

    JILL KER CONWAY, Author, “When Memory Speaks:” Good to be here.

    DAVID GERGEN: It’s good to have you. And in your new book there are two questions embedded in your very first sentence. You say, “Why is autobiography the most popular form of fiction for modern readers?” Two questions: Why is autobiography so popular, and why is it fiction?


    “In his 1889 review of The Winning of the West [by Theodore Roosevelt], [Frederick Jackson] Turner showed himself as both a parochial introvert fascinated by his own isolation, and a bold thinker who would contribute importantly to new schools of historical thought. The insulated westerner made his appearance at the outset, when, in the first sentence, Turner somehow felt obliged to acknowledge that

    ‘America’s historians have for the most part, like the wise men of old, come from the East.’”

    Roosevelt, Wister, Turner, and Remington

    Posted by Jonathan Vos Post  on  07/21  at  03:00 AM
  230. "I want to say I may have seen my son die this morning.”

    Michael Joyce, “afternoon: a story”

    The trick here is that this is a hypertext story (the most famous, and either the first or nearly so). So you can say that this is definitely the first line, but what comes next changes with each reading.

    Posted by  on  07/21  at  09:56 AM
  231. Potter agent sends piracy warning.

    “Agents for author JK Rowling have sent legal warnings to websites hosting unauthorised electronic copies of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.”

    But officer, it was only the first sentence.  And it was posted by this eccentric Professor Jonathan Vos Post.

    Oh, you want to offer him the faculty position at Hogwarts of Defense Against the Dark Arts?

    Posted by Jonathan Vos Post  on  07/21  at  10:48 AM
  232. Late to the game here, but it looks like nobody got the best Graham Greene first line ever (from Brighton Rock

    Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to murder him.

    Posted by  on  07/21  at  11:38 AM
  233. Robert Rushing above referenced “If on a winter’s night a traveler”—I’d just like to add to that that “Speculate, reflect: every thinking activity implies mirrors for me.” is a pretty brilliant first sentence, even if it is only the first sentence of an imaginary novel. (viz. “A network of lines that intersect”, by either Silas Flannery or the Japanese supercomputer programmed to imitate him, or the rogue translator Ermes Marana.)

    Posted by Jeremy Osner  on  07/21  at  01:18 PM
  234. Or also possibly, the UFO aliens who are putatively using Flannery to communicate with earth.

    Posted by Jeremy Osner  on  07/21  at  01:20 PM
  235. Here’s one of my favorite last lines, from Jim Harrison’s A Good Day To Die:

    “Someone should take care of her but if I had any qualities of kindness and mercy left, any perceptions of what I was on earth however dim and stupid, I knew it couldn’t be me.”

    Posted by  on  07/21  at  02:58 PM
  236. Favorite last lines as of three years ago.

    Posted by Ray Davis  on  07/21  at  04:07 PM
  237. Rotten firsts -
    I know that airport thrillers aren’t held to a very high standard, but the Da Vinci Code is surely crappily written even for that. The first sentence - no, the first two words - no, the first word marks it as a clunker.
    ”Renowned curator Jacques Saunière staggered through the vaulted archway of the museum’s Grand Gallery.”
    ‘Renowned’ is a purely public word, used in obituaries and public speeches but never in interpersonal interaction. Its noun, ‘renown’is now confined absolutely to historical romances. The word itself is used when the user wants to say ‘famous’ but dimly realises that this would be an obviously laughable exaggeration, and so picks a word that has less content but the same aura.
    And “Renowned curator” is a particular example of a persistent weirdness about the book; the people involved are academic wet dreams, people who are celebrities for their work in obscure learned journals. Indiana Jones has a lot to answer for.

    Posted by Chris B  on  07/21  at  07:43 PM
  238. Michael,

    One thing I have noticed in reading over all these nominations—and what a great thread this has been and I hope some publisher is planning to all this into a good book soon! (hint hint)—is this: most of the opening lines listed here are from books or short stories written LONG AGO.

    And most of the posters seem to be people who born LONG AGO.


    in other words, very few novels written in the last 10-15 years have been mentioned. it seems that with the onslaught of hollywood movies, 500-channel TV choices, blogs and the Internet and email, not to mention video gaming and DVD viewing at home, NOBODY reads anymore, and very few NEW BOOKS have interesting opening lines.

    Am I wrong? It looks like most of the nominations come from the 1920 - 1980 period. PERIOD.

    game over?

    Posted by Danny Bloom  on  07/22  at  12:55 AM
  239. Telling it like it is

    Carol Jackson is a librarian in Davenport, Iowa who keeps a blog about
    books she likes, and ones she doesn’t like so much. She calls her blog
    Davenport Book Journal [http://davenport-bks.blogspot.com]
    and describes it as “a casual and careless reading log full of snap
    judgments, harsh criticism and soppy love. Not to be confused with
    actual, thoughtful reviews. Now encompassing the odd theater, movie,
    TV comment!”

    Jackson rates books with snap judgment words or phrases like this:

    liked awfully
    quit—too boring
    couldn’t read—too irritating
    loathed & quit

    Who needs syndicated book reviewers when blogging librarians like
    Jackson tell it like it is?

    Posted by Alain Lebrun  on  07/22  at  07:08 AM
  240. Danny Bloom:

    It’s not all bleak. Only in America’s first line made the committee’s final cut, and it was published just a few years ago. (See post #223)


    Posted by  on  07/22  at  09:13 PM
  241. “A man shot dead by police hunting the bombers behind Thursday’s London attacks was a Brazilian electrician unconnected to the incidents.”

    from “Shot man not connected to bombing”, a short BBC story.

    Posted by  on  07/23  at  08:01 PM
  242. The beginning of *The Shadow Line* looks basically like a decent hook for the beginning of any Cigars Online story, but WHAT is that baudelaire quote doing alongside it? The baudelaire quote with a different first sentence, or vice versa, but not both together---The effect is grotesque--like a pitcher hitting.

    Posted by Cigars Online  on  02/06  at  12:19 PM
  243. Hi Gans Press no. 240 above, GREAT NEWS


    Danny Bloom:

    It’s not all bleak. Only in America’s first line made the committee’s final cut, and it was published just a few years ago. (See post #223)


    Posted by Gans Press on 07/22 at 09:13 PM

    Posted by danny bloom  on  02/06  at  10:35 PM
  244. any more great lines?

    Posted by  on  02/06  at  10:46 PM
  245. The Burgundy Towards the south of the region, from around Macon, the soil changes to a reddish granite schist and sand of the Beaujolais. Here, the Gamay grape flourishes, making excellent red wines, many of which are drunk while they are young.

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    Posted by Antoinette B. Kean  on  02/27  at  12:09 PM
  246. Just found this site purely by accident.  As a child of the 60’s, there are so many seminal works I can quote chapter & verse, but for this ‘competition’, I have to enter my own personal favorite opening line - From ‘A Garden of Sand’ by Earl Thompson:

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    Posted by  on  08/31  at  01:23 PM
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  248. I really loved Fahrenheit 451 - had some great lines.

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  250. "It was the best of times, it was the blurst of times”

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    Posted by Sowan Karler  on  02/25  at  01:30 PM
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  255. Interesting article with great facts! Thanks for sharing!

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