Great First Lines

I was roaming around ew.com this morning and came across a photo gallery titled “20 Classic Opening Lines in Books”. At first I just wanted to see how many of these books I’ve read and which books I have yet to read. Now I’m wondering more about the “classic” part of the title. Some of these are classic. A lot of these are too modern and may not ever be classic. It might be too early to tell. I have only read 7 of the 20 books (but I’ve seen the movie “A River Runs Through It”. Does that count?). I have read other books by a couple of the authors, just not the book on this list. I have no interest in reading some of the books based on the genre or on the other books by the same author.

What makes a good, “classic”, opening line? Is it just that it is supposed to grab you right away? Is it something quotable? What do you think?

After you have read EW’s list, you might want to check out the Bulwer Lytton contest winners. They hold a contest each year for the worst opening book lines. Of course they aren’t real books, but they are hilarious. The link for the winners is here.

And now, according to EW, the 20 Classic Opening Lines in Books:

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.
–PRIDE AND PREJUDICE (1813), Jane Austen

Call me Ishmael.
–MOBY-DICK (1851), Herman Melville

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.
–A TALE OF TWO CITIES (1859), Charles Dickens

All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
–ANNA KARENINA (1877), Leo Tolstoy

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.
–THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN (1885), by Mark Twain

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.
–THE CATCHER IN THE RYE (1951), J.D. Salinger

It was a pleasure to burn.
–FAHRENHEIT 451 (1953), Ray Bradbury

It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.
–THE BELL JAR (1963), Sylvia Plath

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.
–ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE (1967), Gabriel García Márquez

We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.
–FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS (1971), Hunter S. Thompson

A screaming comes across the sky.
–GRAVITY’S RAINBOW (1973), Thomas Pynchon

Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog, Dr Robert Laing reflected on the unusual events that had taken place within this huge apartment building during the previous three months.
–HIGH-RISE (1977), J.G. Ballard

A green hunting cap squeezed the top of the fleshy balloon of a head.
–A CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES (1980), John Kennedy Toole

You better not never tell nobody but God.
–THE COLOR PURPLE (1981), Alice Walker

The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.
–NEUROMANCER (1984), William Gibson

In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly-fishing.
–A RIVER RUNS THROUGH IT (1989), Norman Maclean

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.
–MIDDLESEX (2002), Jeffrey Eugenides

Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.
–HARRY POTTER AND THE PHILOSPOHER’S STONE (1998), J.K. Rowling

They shoot the white girl first.
–PARADISE (1999), Toni Morrison

There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife.
–THE GRAVEYARD BOOK, by Neil Gaiman (2008)

6 responses to “Great First Lines

  1. Interesting. Makes me realize that I’m not really very well versed in the ‘Classics.’ Oh well, I love what I do read! I love the ‘Neuromancer’ one. I could totally picture the color of the sky. And ‘A Confederacy of Dunces’ was pretty funny. Of course, ‘Harry Potter’ is my favorite! Just call me a child! 😀

  2. Before I even read them I thought, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times….” I love that whole opening sentence but I don’t remember the rest of the book!
    I haven’t read most of the books. I guess I’m not much of a classic reader. I think I’m more eclectic…or boring…hmm… 😛

  3. I’ve read between eight and eleven of those books. That’s because three of them I started but don’t know if I finished. I know I didn’t finish Moby Dick.

    I don’t even know why some of them are on that list. I mean, I loved Harry Potter and Huckleberry Finn as much as the next person, but to me those opening lines are nothing very special.

  4. Not a single one of them begins with “Once upon a time” or “It was a dark and stormy night.” My elementary teachers have failed me. I shall never be a great writer.

    But I’m with you, shouldn’t a classic be old?

  5. You forgot Forrest Gump.

    ‘Mama always said life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get.”

    Or something like that.

  6. Sadly, I have only read 6 of those. But several more are on my mental list. You know, the one that you can never think of when you’re actually at the library. And I agree, I’m not sure they all fit the “classic” definition.

    But I LOVE the Bulwer-Lytton constest. Hi-larious!

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