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The 50 Book Challenge #3-The Fantastic Finality of First Lines

book blog
(Staff Graphic/Tasha Robinson)

(Staff Graphic/Tasha Robinson)

It is a truth universally acknowledged that once upon a time, it was a dark and stormy night…  You see, I have this thing about first lines. Even if you accept the adage that we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover—something that I am convinced is far more true of people than actual books, but that is the ramblings of another time—we have to start judging a book somewhere. For me, that moment is more often than not at the first line.

But honestly, it is much more than that. In a way, I collect first lines like someone might collect Pez dispensers. I am undeniably fascinated by them. I have this game with my mom and brother, started in younger years and carried on to the point of tradition. We seek out the truly great first lines and read them off, pitting one against the other to see which line comes out on top.

First lines set the tone of the story, sweeping us in instantly like an ice cream shop sample that leaves you salivating for the scoop. “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife,” famously starts Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” off with the tongue-in-cheek style that encompasses the romance. This is incredibly different from the way Libba Bray begins her short story “Prom Night”: “The horizon was one long abrasion, the setting sun turning everything an angry red as it slipped below the dusk-bruised mountain range.” Instantly, something as beautiful as a sunset is compared to abrasions and bruises. You know right away this isn’t going to be the kind of story that Hollywood would make into a chick-flick.

First lines can introduce us to characters like a peripheral glance that makes us turn our head to see them better. When Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote the line “To Sherlock Holmes she is always the woman,” he caused the instant desire to know “her” in his readers. Who was the woman who could produce such a reaction in the unemotional heart of Sherlock Holmes? And with that one line, a character was forever solidified in the minds of his fans. Then there is John Green’s “An Abundance of Katherines” that starts with this fantastic line: “The morning after noted child prodigy Colin Singleton graduated from high school and got dumped for the nineteenth time by a girl named Katherine, he took a bath.” Doesn’t that tell you everything you need to know about Colin? But just as much as it lets you know him, it also lets you know how much more there is unknown. What do you mean “for the nineteenth time”? And why did it end with the simple and entirely unextraordinary act of bath taking?  It was the first of his solo novels I ever read, and he had me at that first line.

Sometimes, it’s almost as if writers willfully choose to rebel against set conventions. “You should start your book with an appeal to the reader’s sympathy,” says the helpful advice-giver. “Ha,” replies the writer. “If you are interested in stories with happy endings, you would be better off reading some other book,” is the first line that launches Lemony Snicket’s “A Series of Unfortunate Events,” daring the reader to put the novel down. Of course, then we readers showed our own rebellious natures by not obeying and skyrocketing the series to the best-seller list. Let me go put on my James Dean red jacket and read your book whether you like it or not, Mr. Snicket. Who knew we bookworms could be such anarchists.

It has always fascinated me how some first lines can simply intrigue us without saying anything astounding at all, as with Jedediah Berry’s “The Manual of Detection.” “Lest details be mistaken for clues, note that Mr. Charles Unwin, lifetime resident of this city, rode his bicycle to work every day, even when it was raining.” Say the line out loud, roll it around your mouth a couple of times. “Lest details be mistaken for clues.” There is something in the sound of that that gets to me, even if it leaves me completely unable to figure out why.

Then there is that one first line. The one that nearly everyone knows and almost no one can say where it’s from. It has been quoted and requoted, analyzed and parodied. It has become a standard and a joke. All of this for one simple weather forecast. “It was a dark and stormy night.” This infamous line was first put to pen by Edward Bulwer-Lytton  in his novel “Paul Clifford.“ This little seven word phrase is just an iota of the 400 plus page Victorian era novel. Who could have predicted it would far outlive its original source? Certainly not Mr. Lytton.

Still, though all of these first lines are close to my heart, my favorites are always the most simple ones. The lines that can be made or broken by one word, or one punctuation mark. “Elantris was beautiful, once,” wrote Brandon Sanderson in his first novel, “Elantris.” A simple sentence made so much more powerful by a comma that asks us to rest on the word “once” and everything it means. Or look at the work of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s best friend’s most famous first line, “All children, except one, grow up.” J.M. Barrie definitely knew the power a few words can hold when he wrote “Peter Pan.” But in the end my favorite first line comes from a novel that is especially important to me. Not only is it the first line, but the whole first paragraph from the master of clever wording, Ray Bradbury, in his most renowned novel, “Fahrenheit 451.”  It is the kind of first line that encompasses every element of the others. It is simple, intriguing, an introduction to the lead character and certainly unconventional:  “It was a pleasure to burn.”

These are just a few of the first lines in my collection and there are certainly a lot left. So, tell me, my fair readers, what are your favorite first lines?

13 Comments on "The 50 Book Challenge #3-The Fantastic Finality of First Lines"

  1. Craig Clagett | March 12, 2012 at 4:51 pm | Reply

    Love the post. My dad used to have a game that always started with “on a dark and stormy night I met a man…” and went on endlessly in a circular way–great fun.

    To be a little contrary to your thread, I also like to capture great closes to books. A personal favorite from a young age:

    “Stuart rose from the ditch, climbed into his car, and started up the road that led toward the north. The sun was just coming up over the hills on his right. As he peered ahead into the great land that stretched before him, the way seemed long. But the sky was bright, and he somehow felt he was headed in the right direction.”

    • Thank you, Craig. I’m a big fan of closers too, and I may end up doing a post about them at some later time. That is a great one, what is it from?

  2. Diane Bradford | March 13, 2012 at 11:28 am | Reply

    “First lines set the tone of the story, sweeping us in instantly like an ice cream shop sample that leaves you salivating for the scoop.”

    It may not be the first line in your article, but it certainly is a wonderful one! Each first line you wrote about made me want to read the book – even if I have already read it.

    • Thank you so much, Diane. I’m glad you enjoyed it.
      I hope you do read them, they are all worth it.

  3. Siobhan Wright | March 13, 2012 at 2:01 pm | Reply

    How about comparing first lines of novels in translation. Who wins, Empire or Norton?

    When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself changed in his bed into a monstrous vermin. (Norton)

    One morning, when Gregor Samsa woke from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a horrible vermin. (Empire)

    • I am going to have to go with Norton on this one. Thanks for the comment.

    • I am going to side with the Nabokov-corrected Muir translation:

      “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from a troubled dream he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous insect.”

      My friend, and this house’s resident Nabokov expert, says this from his blog:

      “Applying this detail-oriented approach to The Metamorphosis allowed Nabokov to confidently determine what sort of “gigantic” (Nabokov preferred “monstrous”) insect Gregor Samsa had become. Some people had said he was a cockroach, but Nabokov pointed out that cockroaches are flat and have large legs, while Gregor was “convex on both sides” with small legs. “He approaches a cockroach in only one respect: his coloration is brown. That is all.” Nabokov concluded with certainty that Gregor Samsa must be a beetle, but what did this yield? Well, Gregor never realized he had wings! Nabokov: “This is a very nice observation on my part to be treasured all your lives. Some Gregors, some Joes and Janes, do not know that they have wings.”” (http://the-tarpeian-rock.blogspot.com/2010/02/nabugkov_07.html)

      Hence the importance of translating “Ungeziefer” as “insect” and not “vermin.”

      “Als Gregor Samsa eines Morgens aus unruhigen Träumen erwachte”

      Muir’s is also probably the best, most literal translation of “Als” – “as,” instead of “when.” I also prefer the singular “dream” as it is more accurate here – that singular is more inviting to an interpretation of what that dream might be. Life itself, perhaps?

      The last correction is the switch from “gigantic” to “monstrous.”

      “ungeheueren” generally does refer to the size – it can mean “enormous,” “tremendous,” “immense.” But, of course, monstrous lends itself well to the fact that Gregor has been transformed into a, albeit gregarious, monster.

      Sorry for the length of the response. I just find this particular discussion very interesting – especially Nabokov’s very clever interpretation.

  4. Nancy Matthews | March 13, 2012 at 3:01 pm | Reply

    According to Poe, every story should have a single effect and that effect should be made clear in the first sentence. So his stories have some chilling first lines.

    Your article is interesting and makes me want to go back and check out the first lines of some favorite books.

  5. Joann Pilachowski | March 14, 2012 at 7:46 pm | Reply

    You have such an impressive voice, Chris. In fact, since St. Patrick’s Day is almost upon us, I would describe it as lilting. I look forward to your next piece.

  6. Love this article!

    Looking forward to more games of first lines! I liked the suggestion of closes, too. Great idea.

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