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?
[Related: Want to know what’s holding your book back? Get a free book coaching sample.]
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.