Thursday, September 09, 2004

Literary Pick-up Lines

Bibliophiles all know the thrill of picking up a book and having the first line ensnare you before you are aware of its having happened. As Nancy Pearl says in yesterday's interview on Morning Edition, it's like falling in love.

I'd like to invite those of you who read this and are interested to post your own favorite opening lines from novels (or stories) in the Comments section.

I'll start here: readers of the article will note that Pearl cites two opening lines by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Years ago, I read an interview with him in which he said that as a young man he had wanted to be a writer but wasn't sure whether he could be one. Then he read the opening sentence of Kafka's The Metamorphosis: "When Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous insect." And, he said, he knew then he could be a writer.


Anonymous said...

I'm afraid I'm going to be terribly boring and cite the first lines of George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-four and Tolstoy's Anna Karenina as two of my favourites. I'll let you know if I come up with anything more interesting.
In the meantime, I seem to remember mentioning Kevin Jackson's Invisible Forms ages ago, which has an entire chapter on opening sentences.


Anonymous said...

Some more obvious ones: Lolita (for its poetry) and The Catcher in the Rye (for...well, I don't much feel like going into it, to tell you the truth) both get my vote.

'The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there' is a great first line for a terrible novel (L. P. Hartley's The Go-Between, which I studied at school, under great duress *shudder*).

'The world is everything that is the case', from Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. In fact, if skip the rest of the text and just read the first line and the last line, it's quite a readable little book.

Speaking of last lines, I'd like to mention Flaubert, the undisputed master of the last line. People often say that Portnoy's Complaint is the only novel to have a punchline at the end, but I reckon that the pay-offs at the end of Madame Bovary and L'Education sentimentale, terse and bitterly ironic, give it a run for its money. His first lines aren't all that memorable, though.

Anonymous said...

Erm...that last post was by me.


Anonymous said...

Oops, I misquoted Wittgenstein there, and in the process completely disrupted the iambic rhythm of the line.

It should of course be: 'The world is all that is the case'

I'm not doing very well today, am I?


John B. said...

Good choices all, though I'm surprised more people haven't contributed suggestions.

I have to admit a fondness for the first sentence of Gravity's Rainbow: "A screaming comes across the sky."

Anonymous said...

Yeah, well I'm still thinking.
The first line of Hallgrímur Helgason's Hr. Alheimur [Mr. Universe] was what prompted me to read that book in the first place. Unfortuately the rest of the book didn't really live up to its beginning.
I'm assuming you're not familiar with it, but the first line is:
"Guð (Marlon Brando) var í símanum." [God (Marlon Brando) was on the phone.]

If it does sound familiar I expect it's because I've mentioned it here previously.


Anonymous said...

I have to admit a fondness for the first sentence of Gravity's Rainbow: "A screaming comes across the sky."Another iambic tetrameter! Maybe we've hit upon the golden formula. I can't help thinking that if the King James Vesion has started with 'First GOD cre-ATE-ed HEAV'N and EARTH' instead of the rather prosaic 'In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth', then the Bible would have had a much better reception.

Anonymous said...


This is starting to get annoying. I'm an idiot, ignore me.

jennifer said...

My favorite lines aren't so much out of the beginning of the book, but rather odd places such as the end of the preface. In "The Culture of Make Believe" Derrick Jensen writes,"This book is a weapon. It is a gun to be put into the hands of all of us who wish to oppose these atrocities, and a manual on how to use it. It is a knife to cut the ropes that bind us to our ways of perceiving and being in the world. It is a match to light a fuse."

Another is actually Carolyn Forche's prefaced quote from Walter Benjamin in her book "The Angel of History" (and his from "Theses on the Philosophy of History, IX")
"This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he seens one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it hs got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistably propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward."


Anonymous said...

My favorite "Chick-Lit" first line: "It's been a long time since I've played with dolls." From Why Girls are Weird, by Pamela Ribon

My favorite love-story first line: "He met her in a van, in the rain, on his way to the Girl Scout camp at Chincoteague." From Into the Great Wide Open by Kevin Canty--it's a great book because no one really ends up happy in the end.

And not really a first line, but in the book Prozac Nation by Elizabeth Wurtzel, the prologue is titled "I Hate Myself and I Want to Die," which, coincidentally, is exactly how that book made me feel after I read it for about two months. I do not recommend it.

That is all for now.

Amy (deliriumspeaks)

P.S. What a fun topic!