Top 10 Best Book Opening Lines

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Sometimes, you can tell whether or not a text is worth your time just by its opening line.

There are some books that you pick up, turn to the opening page, and–nothing. It’s a dud. A failure. There’s no point reading a book if the author hasn’t got a cracking opening. First impressions are everything in this day and age, as much so with books as with people. So which books really impress, and which are my favourite openings? The ones that catch the reader, the ones that jingle, and the deep philosophical ones-as long as it’s not dreary or contrived, I find that nearly anything goes. Obviously, some are a cut above the rest, the polished diamonds in a sea of rough ones. I have here assembled my favourite polished diamond collection, ready to share with you.

10. “Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the riverbank, and of having nothing to do: once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, ‘and what is the use of a book’, thought Alice, ‘without pictures or conversation?” Lewis Caroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
I’ll be honest, I’m not a fan of the first three quarters of this. I am, however, a fan of the last sentence. I can sympathise with Alice, I love a good book with pictures, and a book without conversation is like a song without sound, or a painting with no colours.

9. “The Mole had been working very hard all the morning, spring- cleaning his little home.” Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows
One from the country, Grahame juxtaposes the image of spring cleaning, and a mole–a Mole, no less–the idea of animals doing the same chores as humans is odd but strangely reassuring and pleasant, and it is indicative of the rest of the book.

8. “It was a bright, cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four
This is one of those ones that you read and go “wait, what?” The idea of a “bright, cold day in April” is familiar to pretty much everyone (especially if they live in the UK), as such everyone can imagine it–the biting cold not match the sky, a delicate shade of blue which, at any other time, would herald the start of summer. The clocks striking thirteen is so beautifully counter-intuitive, so outlandish, that they instantly hook the reader in.

7. “The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new.” Samuel Beckett, Murphy
Beckett has leant the opening of Murphy a brilliantly dry, ironical feel. It emphasises the monotony of life, and personifies the Sun into a being that would shine elsewhere if it only could. I can just feel Beckett’s wry smile reading the line.

6. “No one would have believed, in the last years of the nineteenth century, that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were being scrutinized and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinize the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water.” H. G. Wells, The War of the Worlds
Sinister, eerie, creepy, scary . . .  This opening is everything science fiction should be, man’s short-sightedness is emphasised and highlighted in the opening words, and the cold, clinical attitude with which these other beings view man with is . . . well, akin to the manner with which man ruthlessly examines all of nature. The reader is hooked, what are these other beings, mortal yet more intelligent than us? For what could possibly be more intelligent than man?

5. “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” L. P. Hartley, The Go-Between
In terms of quotes with great philosophical meaning, there is none better than Hartley’s. This is a perfect example of what is called many things: “Historian’s fallacy,” “presentism,” and so on: judging the standards of the past based on the standards of today. Obviously there are ethical problems in past eras, as there doubtless will be found in this era in the future. However, they were the norm, and utterers of such statements should not be judged as harshly as if they uttered the same statement today.

4. “Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to murder him.” Graham Greene, Brighton Rock
The ultimate hook, better than Plath’s from The Bell Jar; it is short, pithy, and to the point. The reader is grabbed by the lapels by the in-your-face plot; there is no escaping the fact that it is both a brilliant hook and a brilliant cliff-hanger. The reader wants to find out who Hale is, why he’s in Brighton, who’s going to murder him, how he knows someone wants to murder him . . . So many questions are raised from those 16 words.

3. “The sun did not shine, it was too wet to play, so we sat in the house on that cold, cold wet day.” Dr Seuss, The Cat in the Hat
I’m a big fan of rhyme, especially in a poem. Although this is quite surely not a poem, the fact that all this information has been conveyed so naturally, and so lyrically, and so beautifully by Seuss is fantastic. It has a fun, jokey sort of beauty to it that appeals to practically everyone.

2. “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.” Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
No list of opening lines would be complete without this classic. Dickens’s list of beautiful juxtapositions perfectly captures the setting, and makes me want to read the rest of the book whenever I see it. The first words especially, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” is so famous now, that it has slipped into common usage in its own right, though admittedly not in a big way. A fantastic and eternal classic.

Before I reveal my number one, here are some highly commended openings:

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

“All children, except one, grow up.” JM Barrie, Peter Pan

1. “Once upon a time . . . .”
The classic opening to all fairy tales, other tales, and even pop culture such as Star Wars. It sets the time vaguely, leaving everything to the reader’s imagination. It could be The Crusades, it could be yesterday, it all depends on who’s reading it and their interpretation–a truly magical introduction. If in doubt, a perennial classic such as this will work wonders. Unless you’re writing a completely unsuitable genre, such as…well, this can work with anything, which is a good part of its beauty. That and the classic, medieval nature that it comes with, of ages of adventure, of exploration, of victory . . .

 

Today’s guest post was contributed by TheBookBlogger2014 (a.k.a. Matt) and the blog At the Foot of the Sierras. Matt does a terrific job of reviewing books that are both “classics” and modern texts over at his blog, The Book Blogger.

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36 thoughts on “Top 10 Best Book Opening Lines”

  1. The cover is what draws me in, but if the first line doesn’t grab me, the book goes back:) One of my favorites is from The Hobbit:

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

    And the opening paragraph from The Two Towers –

    “Aragorn sped on up the hill. Every now and again he bent to the ground. Hobbits go light, and their footprints are not easy even for a Ranger to read, but not far from the top a spring crossed the path, and in the wet earth he saw what he was seeking.”

    Actually, this is one of my favorite opening ever. Whenever I get writer’s block, I go back and reread the first page of The Two Towers to refresh myself.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. This was a great read for a Saturday morning. Thanks for sharing. Here’s another great (lol) opening line for you from English novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton in his 1830 novel Paul Clifford.

    “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.”

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Dicken’s a tale of two cities has such memorable lines:
    “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

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Reblogged this on dewdropper bopper and commented:
    This is a good list. I’ve read most of these books, and opening lines are important to me. Almost as important than the last sentence of the book. I’m wondering if I should make a list of my own too.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. All good but my vote for #1 is:

    “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.” —Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

    Liked by 1 person

  6. “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. But a man’s character is his fate, says Heraclitus, and in the end there isn’t any way to disguise the nature of the knocks by acoustical work on the door or gloving the knuckles.”

    That one is my favorite. The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow.

    “Robert Cohn was once middleweight boxing champion of Princeton.”
    -Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises

    “Here is an account of a few years in the life of Quoyle, born in Brooklyn and raised in a shuffle of dreary upstate towns.”

    -Annie Proulx, The Shipping News

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I would have to say, the best first line I have come across myself, was from The Book Theif. If you haven’t read it yet, see if this first lines makes you a little more interested to pick it up!

    [First lines] Here is a small fact: You are going to die. I am in all truthfulness attempting to be cheerful about this whole topic, though most people find themselves hindered in believing me, no matter my protestations. Please trust me. I most definitely can be cheerful. I can be amiable. Agreeable. Affable. And that’s only the A’s. Just don’t ask me to be nice. Nice has nothing to do with me.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Bit disappointed to not see Pride and Prejudice in here, but this is a great list! The first line of any piece of fiction is always the most important.

    Like

  9. My absolute favourite first line is from Iain Banks “The Crow Road”:

    ‘It was the day my grandmother exploded.’

    It isn’t a comedy, but a story of a teenaged lad growing up and coming to terms with mortality, family and a hidden secret from his parents’ past. It does, however, have Banks’s mischevious humour sprinkled throughout. One of my all-time faves, even without the excellent opener.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. “It was Sunday, and, according to his custom on that day, McTeague took his dinner at two in the afternoon at the car conductors’ coffee joint on Polk Street. He had a thick gray soup; heavy, underdone meat, very hot, on a cold plate; two kinds of vegetables; and a sort of suet pudding, full of strong future and sugar.” – Frank Norris from McTeague

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Wonderful! Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is a great one. But how about this one:

    “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.”
    –The Gunslinger, Stephen King

    Liked by 2 people

  12. Thanks for checking out my blog, great list! One of my faves has always been “Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday; I can’t be sure.” from Albert Camus’ The Outsider, so much is said in just that short line.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Very interesting list! I’ve read some of the books and a couple of them have been on my “to read list” for ages. I’m with writesofdan – The opening line of Albert Camus’ “L’Étrnager” is one of my favorites.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Also, I like this one: “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.” – from Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye.

    Like

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