Genre: Essays, Articles, & Columns
“The Hunger Artist,” in The New Yorker (Feb. 27, 2000)
Susan Sontag did two big things last year. She finished a novel, In America, and underwent treatment for cancer.
“How Martin Luther Changed the World,” in The New Yorker (Oct. 23, 2017)
Clang! Clang! Down the corridors of religious history we hear this sound: Martin Luther, an energetic thirty-three-year-old Augustinian friar, hammering his Ninety-five Theses to the doors of the Castle Church of Wittenburg, in Saxony, and thus, eventually, splitting the thousand-year-old Catholic Church into two churches—one loyal to the Pope in Rome, the other protesting against the Pope’s rule and soon, in fact, calling itself Protestant.
Acocella demonstrates here that a great opening line does not have to be short and punchy, it simply has to be well written. Her article was written to celebrate the five-hundredth anniversary of “Luther’s famous action,” which she quickly—and happily, I think—reminded us never actually happened.
Douglas Adams and Mark Carwardine
“Blind Panic,” in Last Chance to See (1990)
Assumptions are the things you don’t know you’re making, which is why it is so disorienting the first time you take the plug out of a wash-basin in Australia and see the water spiraling down the hole the other way around. The very laws of physics are telling you how far you are from home.
Douglas Adams and Mark Carwardine
“Heartbeats in the Night,” in Last Chance to See (1990)
If you took the whole of Norway, scrunched it up a bit, shook out all the moose and reindeer, hurled it ten thousand miles around the world, and filled it with birds, then you’d be wasting your time, because it looks very much as if someone has already done it.
This is the spectacular opening paragraph of one of the best travel essays I’ve ever read—Adam’s account of his visit to the Fiordland region of New Zealand in the late 1980s. This is writing at the level of virtuosity, and an extremely satisfying experience for any reader, and especially connoisseurs of travel writing.
Just when you think an essay’s opening words couldn’t get much better, Adams continues in the second paragraph: “Fiordland, a vast tract of mountainous terrain that occupies the southwest corner of South Island, New Zealand, is one of the most astounding pieces of land anywhere on God’s earth, and one’s first impulse, standing on a clifftop surveying it all, is simply to burst into spontaneous applause.”
And, remarkably, it gets even better as we move into the essay’s third paragraph: “It is magnificent. It is awe-inspiring. The land is folded and twisted and broken on such a scale that it makes your brain quiver and sing in your skull just trying to comprehend what it is looking at.”
Last Chance to See is a book of travel essays written by Adams as he and zoologist Mark Carwardine traveled the world in search of such exotic, endangered species as kakapos in New Zealand, komodo dragons in Indonesia, and white rhinos in Zaire. If you’re a fan of travel books and have not yet seen this one, make every effort to rectify the unfortunate situation as soon as you can. Adams’ writing skills are on dazzling display on almost every page, and you will never again look at some of the animals in the same way (about the kakapo, for example, Adams wrote: “You want to hug it and tell it everything will be all right, although you know that it probably won’t be”).
Mortimer J. Adler
“How to Mark a Book,” in The Saturday Review of Literature (July 6, 1940)
You know you have to read “between the lines” to get the most out of anything. I want to persuade you to do something equally important in the course of your reading. I want to persuade you to “write between the lines.” Unless you do, you are not likely to do the most efficient kind of reading.
Prior to 1940, books were considered prize possessions, and it was uncommon for people to underline passages or scribble notes in the margins. Many, indeed, considered such actions to be a defacing of books. Adler, who was thrilled by the appearance of new, inexpensive reprint editions of classic books, directly challenged this viewpoint by writing in the second paragraph: “I contend, quite bluntly, that marking up a book is not an act of mutilation but of love.”
“The Beckham of the Barre,” in London’s Telegraph (Jan. 4, 2003)
Beautiful, gifted and irresistible to both men and women, Rudolf Nureyev was ballet’s first pin-up—the Beckham of the barre. He danced, lived and made love with an appetite and abandon that was both thrilling and terrifying.
It’s rare for a newspaper’s book review to contain a world-class opening paragraph, but that’s exactly what happened in Allardice’s review of Colum McCann’s 2003 biographical novel, Dancer. For those not in-the-know, the catchy Beckham of the barre phrase was an allusion to David Beckham, one of the greatest professional soccer players of all time, and a true cultural icon in Britain.
“Merle Haggard: A Good ’Ol Boy Lets his Hair Hang Down,“ in Esquire (Sep. 1, 1981)
It all began rather innocently one languid afternoon in 1969. Merle Haggard and the Bakersfield bubbahs in his road band, the Strangers, were riding in their tour bus through the drab, dusty east Oklahoma flatlands when suddenly a road sign for Muskogee came into view. It was one of the band members who actually set the whole thing off when he yawned and mumbled, “Bet they don’t smoke no marijuana in Muskogee.“
Allen continued, “That one innocent line sparked a mysterious alchemy that instantly shook Haggard—whose own parents had migrated from East Oklahoma to California in 1934—and the boys out of their road-weary doldrums. Hooting, howling, they just kept coming up with line after line. And thus was born what would ultimately become Haggard’s signature song, ’Okie from Muskogee.’“
“Box Scores,“ in The Summer Game (1972)
Today the Times reported the arrival of the first pitchers and catchers at the spring training camps, and the morning was abruptly brightened, as if by the delivery of a seed catalogue.
Angell, often called “The poet laureate of sportswriters” (although he does not like the designation), continued: “The view from my city window still yields only frozen tundras of trash, but now spring is guaranteed and one of my favorite urban flowers, the baseball box score, will burgeon and flourish through the warm, languid, information-packed weeks and months just ahead.“
“Swingtime,“ in The New Yorker (Aug. 2, 1993)
Coming up out of the dugout before his next at-bat in a big game, Reggie Jackson was always accompanied by an invisible entourage: he was the heavyweight champion headed down the aisle for another title defense.
Angell continued: “The batter’s box was his prize ring, and once he’d dug in there—with those gauntleted arms, the squashed-down helmet, the shades and the shoulders—all hearts beat faster.“
“This Old Man: Life in the Nineties,“ in The New Yorker (Feb. 9, 2014)
Check me out. The top two knuckles of my left hand look as if I’d been worked over by the K.G.B. No, it’s more as if I’d been a catcher for the Hall of Fame pitcher Candy Cummings, the inventor of the curveball, who retired from the game in 1877. To put this another way, if I pointed that hand at you like a pistol and fired at your nose, the bullet would nail you in the left knee. Arthritis.
Angell wrote this when he was ninety-three years old, nicely demonstrating that he still possessed the writing chops of his younger years.
In the essay’s second paragraph, he continued: “Now, still facing you, if I cover my left, or better, eye with one hand, what I see is a blurry encircling version of the ceiling and floor and walls or windows to our right and left but no sign of your face or head: nothing in the middle. But cheer up: if I reverse things and cover my right eye, there you are, back again. If I take my hand away and look at you with both eyes, the empty hole disappears and you’re in 3-D, and actually looking pretty terrific today. Macular degeneration.”
"Men, Women, Sex and Darwin," in The New York Times Magazine (Feb. 21, 1999)
Life is short but jingles are forever: none more so, it seems, than the familiar ditty, variously attributed to William James, Ogden Nash and Dorothy Parker: "Hoggamus, higgamus,/Men are polygamous,/Higgamus, hoggamus,/Women monogamous."
"Why We're So Nice: We're Wired to Cooperate," in The New York Times (July 23, 2002)
What feels as good as chocolate on the tongue or money in the bank but won't make you fat or risk a subpoena from the Securities and Exchange Commission?
Angier continued: "Hard as it may be to believe in these days of infectious greed and sabers unsheathed, scientists have discovered that the small brave act of cooperating with another person, of choosing trust over cynicism, generosity over selfishness, makes the brain light up with quiet joy."
“Farewell—Farewell,” Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (August 1992)
I have written three hundred ninety-nine essays for Fantasy & Science Fiction. The essays were written with enormous pleasure, for I have always been allowed to say what I wanted to say. It was with horror that I discovered I could not manage a four hundredth essay.
This is the dramatic opening paragraph of Asimov’s final published article, written just before his death at age 72 on April 6, 1992 (it was formally published six months later). In the second paragraph, he continued:
“It has always been my ambition to die in harness with my head face down on a keyboard and my nose caught between two of the keys, but that’s not the way it worked out.”
After writing more than 500 books and thousands of essays and articles, Asimov had no desire to ever retire—and there is no way he could have foreseen the circumstances surrounding his own death. While the official cause of death was listed as heart and kidney failure, it wasn’t until a decade later that his widow and other family members revealed that his heart and liver problems were the result of an HIV infection contracted from a blood transfusion during a 1988 triple bypass surgery.
“Stranger Than Fiction,“ in The New York Times (June 23, 1991)
“The moment one begins to investigate the truth of the simplest facts which one has accepted as true,“ wrote Leonard Woolf in his autobiography, “it is as though one had stepped off a firm narrow path into a bog or quicksand—every step one takes one sinks deeper into the bog of uncertainty.“
Atlas begins his powerful essay on the elusive nature of truth by doing what many writers in history have done: offering a quotable quotation from a familiar or famous figure. Atlas continued in the first paragraph: “Trying to establish the age of Hogarth House, where he and Virginia Woolf once lived, Woolf unearthed such a tangle of contradictory evidence that he was left marveling at ’the impossibility of telling the truth, the extraordinary difficulty of unearthing facts.’“
W. H. Auden
Introduction to Edgar Allan Poe: Selected Prose, Poetry, and Eureka (1950)
What every author hopes to receive from posterity—a hope usually disappointed—is justice.
Auden continued: “Next to oblivion, the two fates which he most fears are becoming the name attached to two or three famous pieces while the rest of his work is unread and becoming the idol of a small circle which reads every word he wrote with the same uncritical reverence.“
W. H. Auden
“One of the Family,“ in The New Yorker (Oct. 23, 1965)
I never enjoy having to find fault with a book, and when the author is someone I have met and like, I hate it.
Auden was referring to David Cecil’s 1964 biography of Max Beerbohm.
W. H. Auden
"Werther and Novella" (1971), in Forewords and Afterwards (1973)
So far as I know, Goethe was the first writer or artist to become a Public Celebrity.
W. H. Auden
"Shakespeare's Sonnets" (1964), in Forewords and Afterwards (1973)
Probably, more nonsense has been talked and written, more intellectual and emotional energy expended in vain, on the sonnets of Shakespeare than on any other literary work in the world.
W. H. Auden
“A Marriage of True Minds” (1961),“ in Forewords and Afterwards (1973)
The mating of minds is, surely, quite as fascinating a relationship as the mating of the sexes, yet how little attention novelists have paid to it.
“Of Revenge,” in Essays (1625)
Revenge is a kind of wild justice, which the more man’s nature runs to, the more ought law to weed it out.
“Autobiographical Notes,“ in Notes of a Native Son (1955)
I was born in Harlem thirty-one years ago. I began plotting novels at about the time I learned to read.
Baldwin had published his first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, two years earlier, but he was still working hard to establish a reputation as an important American thinker. The remainder of the book consisted of ten essays he had written for such publications as Harper’s Magazine, Partisan Review, and The New Leader.
Baldwin continued: “The story of my childhood is the usual bleak fantasy, and we can dismiss it with the restrained observation that I certainly would not consider living it again. In those days my mother was given to the exasperating and mysterious habit of having babies.“
W. Kamau Bell
“On Being a Black Male, Six Feet Four Inches Tall, in America in 2014,” in Vanity Fair (Nov. 26, 2014)
I am afraid of the cops. Absolutely petrified of the cops. Now understand, I’ve never been arrested or held for questioning. I’ve never been told that I “fit the description.” But that doesn’t change a thing. I am afraid of cops the way that spiders are afraid of boots. You’re walking along, minding your own business, and SQUISH! You are dead.
This is an arresting—no pun intended—opening paragraph, and it’s hard to imagine readers not feeling a desire to read on. And when they do, Bell’s compelling narrative will most certainly keep them reading:
“Simply put, I am afraid of the cops because I am black. To raise the stakes even further, I am male. And to go all in on this pot of fear, I am six foot four, and weigh 250 pounds. Michael Brown, the unarmed Missouri 18-year-old shot dead by police this summer, was also six foot four. Depending on your perspective, I could be described as a ‘gentle giant,’ the way that teachers described Brown. Or I could be described as a ‘demon,’ the way that Officer Darren Wilson described Michael Brown in his grand-jury testimony.
The entire article is as relevant today as when it was first written in 2014, and I’m fairly certain Bell would describe himself the same way today as he did back then: “I’ve been endowed with the triple crown of being killed for no good reason: big, black, and male.”
“Getting to the ‘Click’: Teaching the MFA at Bennington,” in Los Angeles Review of Books (Oct. 12, 2021)
Teaching writing, unlike most other kinds of teaching, is an intervention, closer to therapy than to any transmissible instruction.
Roy Blount, Jr.
“Yea, Mr. Mays,” in Sports Illustrated (July 27, 1970)
In 1951 Marilyn Monroe was a starlet, Bobby Orr a baby, Hubert Humphrey a comer—and Willie Mays very nearly the same phenomenon he was last week.
Mays, in his 20th baseball season, was approaching a record reached by only sixteen previous players. Blount continued: “In harsh heat and foggy chill, and under the intense scrutiny such a situation demanded, he chased after his 3,000th hit—and seemed to blossom rather than wilt under the pressure.”
Roy Blount, Jr.
”Reading and Nothingness: Of Proust in the Summer Sun,” in The New York Times (June 2, 1985)
A feeling seems to have arisen that summer is the time for light reading. I don’t know where anyone got that idea.
Blount continued: “The truth about summer is this. There are an enormous number of hours in it—slow hours—and yet, before you know it, somehow it is over. So all you have to do is to start reading Heidegger, say, on the first day of summer. One day you look up and both summer and Heidegger are done.“
Roy Blount, Jr.
“Another Round?“ in Garden & Gun (Feb./March 2017)
“Whereya from?“ asks an intense-looking complete stranger sitting next to me in O’Hare airport as we experience quite possibly the only thing we will ever have in common: a weather delay.
It takes great skill to begin with an everyday, even banal, interaction and transform it into a great opening line—as Blount does here. In the opening paragraph, he continued:
“I dread being asked this question by a complete stranger, because my response, if truthful and factual, will be complex, and complete strangers who are quick to ask this question, cold, do not have time for complexity.“
“The Eyes of a Killer,” in Air Mail magazine (January 7, 2023)
Suppose you wanted to kill someone.
That would be easy. There are lots of ways.
But suppose you wanted to kill four people. All in the same house. All within moments of one another. And you chose to use a knife.
That could help eliminate the noise. But it would require skill, strength, and endurance. Murder is hard work, especially if people fight back.
It happens infrequently, but every now and then a magazine article about a recent news event begins with an impressive literary flourish—and that is exactly what we see in the opening words of Blum’s article about the gruesome stabbing-deaths of four University of Idaho students on November 13, 2022. In newspaper and magazine articles, an opener like this is called a lede, and this was one of the very best of 2023. In his article, Blum continued at an equally impressive literary level:
Then there’s the really big obstacle: you want to get away with it. You’re determined to stab four people living in a single home in the still of the night and then disappear without leaving a clue to your identity. Now that’s a more difficult challenge.
But you did it. You have everybody stumped. It’s the perfect crime.
After a six-week national manhunt, Bryan Kohberger, a 28-year-old Ph.D. student at Washington State University, was arrested at the Pennsylvania home of his parents. As of this writing, the case is still being adjudicated.
“Car Hits a Tree,” syndicated column (Jan. 24, 1971); reprinted in Forever, Erma (1996)
The other night a tree I had never seen before swerved in front of me at the end of our driveway and clipped my right fender.
“A Mother’s Eye,” syndicated column (Aug. 18, 1968); reprinted in Forever, Erma (1996)
Of all the means of communication known to man, none is quite as effective as the Mother’s Eye.
In her opening paragraph, Bombeck continued: “Or, as we say, one glance is worth a thousand punches in the mouth.”
“Paint Tint Caper,” syndicated column (Sep. 4, 1965); reprinted in Forever, Erma (1996)
Once…just once…I’d like to be dressed for an emergency.
Bombeck published more than 4,000 syndicated columns in her career (the first appeared in 1965, the last in the year she died, 1996. All forms of writing benefit from great opening lines, but given the competition for reader’s eyes, they may be more important in newspaper columns and magazine articles than in books.
“From Boy to Bono,” in The New Yorker (Sep. 19, 2022)
I have very few memories of my mother, Iris. Neither does my older brother, Norman. The simple explanation is that, in our house, after she died she was never spoken of again.
These are among the saddest words I have ever read, and they make for a powerful opening statement. And, as difficult as it may be to imagine this happening in a family, Bono went on to reveal an even more disturbing detail as he continued:
“I fear it was worse than that. That we rarely thought of her again.
“We were three Irish men, and we avoided the pain that we knew would come from thinking and speaking about her.”
Later this year, when I compile my annual list of “Twenty-Two of the Best Opening Lines of 2022,” this one will certainly be in contention.
Warren A. Boyd, Jr.
“The Army Mule is Back,” in Supthai Sentinel (August 23, 1968)
The nickel phone call and basketball’s two-hand set shot may never make a comeback, but the Army mule has returned.
Boyd’s clever nostalgic lead began a story about how the U.S. Army and Royal Thai Army joined forces to train 140 mules to provide support to troops in remote areas of Thailand during the Vietnam conflict.
“The Real Life of a Sugar Daddy,” in Gentleman’s Quarterly (August 27, 2015)
Thurston Von Moneybags (not his real name) was scammed once by a girl in Houston.
When Jacob Feldman, editor of The Sunday Long Read, was asked by editors of The Electric Typewriter to select “10 of his all-time favorite articles,” he included this one, adding about the piece: “To put it simply, this was the best written story of 2015, starting with the first line.”
In the opening paragraph of her article, Brodesser-Akner continued: “He had arranged to meet her so that he might size her up and determine whether he wanted to give her a monthly stipend in exchange for regular sex and sometimes maybe dinner. In other words: Was there chemistry? Was she blonde and blue-eyed, the way he liked them? Was she thin “but not anorexic, a shapely body, you know?” Could he talk to her? That was very important. It was a little important. It wasn’t that important. Anyway, she asked for money up front, and he sent her $800. She didn’t show to the meet, and that’s the last time Thurston Von Moneybags ever got hustled again. Now he meets the girls for lunch before he offers them an ahem arrangement, and he is very clear. He doesn’t give them money until their second date, when they’re in the bedroom.”
Feldman went on to add about the article: “It only gets better from [the first line]. In investigating the love-for-money economy budding on sites like SeekingArrangement, Taffy Brodesser-Akner not only entertained us, she made us think about what it means to ‘get what you want in this world.’”
“Jimmy Buffett Does Not Live the Jimmy Buffett Lifestyle,“ in The New York Times (Feb. 8, 2018)
Jimmy Buffett awoke one morning last year in one of his many homes—he can’t remember which one, there are a lot of them—and a panic gripped him in his throat.
The notion of a panic suggests something pretty serious, so this first sentence immediately gets our attention. Brodesser-Akner continued in the piece’s opening paragraph: “His new Broadway musical, “Escape to Margaritaville,” was coming along nicely, but something was off.“
As it turns, out Buffett was worried about Paul Alexander Nolan, the Canadian singer who had been cast in the role of Tully Mars, a singer at a rundown Caribbean hotel called Margaritaville. So what was the source of Buffet’s concern? Was it Nolan’s voice? His look? His acting chops? Nope, none of these. Buffett was concerned that he didn’t have a tan.
“Get to a tanning salon,” Mr. Buffett told Mr. Nolan the very next day, adding, “To me, it’s essential to the part. Tourists in Margaritaville are white and turn red. You need to be tan.” Happily, Mr. Nolan immediately complied—and Buffett’s panic attack came to an end.
“Adventure Made Painless,” in Pieces of Hate and Other Enthusiasms (1922)
One of my favorite characters in all fiction is D’Artagan. He was forever fighting duels with people and stabbing them, or riding at top speed over lonely roads at night to save a woman’s name or something.
Broun, an Algonquin Round Table member who became one of the most popular newspaper columnists in the early decades of the twentieth century, continued in the opening paragraph:
“I believe that I glory in D’Artagnan because of my own utter inability to do anything with a sword. Beyond self-inflicted razor wounds, no blood has been shed by me.”
“Miss Lachrymose,“ in London Review of Books (Sep., 2008)
In her very first stage appearance Doris Day wet herself.
This was the first line of Brown’s review of David Kaufman’s 2008 biography, Doris Day: The Untold Story of the Girl Next Door. Brown went on: “It was in her hometown of Cincinnati in 1927. She was five years old and not yet Doris Day. She was still Doris Kappelhoff and the red satin pants that her mother, Alma, had sewn for the kindergarten pageant were quick to betray her. It’s tempting to see this as a primal scene for Doris Day, the moment from which her longheld stage fright sprang.“
“If Only Trump Had Been Stopped From Grabbing America’s Steering Wheel,” in The New York Times (June 28, 2022)
If the Jan. 6 rioters weren’t going to be pointing their guns at him, then he didn’t care that they were armed.
This is the dramatic opening line of an opinion piece Bruni wrote just after Cassidy Hutchinson’s compelling testimony before the January 6 Committee on June 28, 2022. In her testimony, Hutchinson reported that Trump instructed the Secret Service to turn off the magnetometers so that more of his supporters—even those who were armed—could make it into his Jan. 6, 2021 rally at the Ellipse. According to Hutchinson, Trump said, “I don’t fucking care that they have weapons. They’re not here to hurt me. Take the fucking mags away.”
In Bruni’s second paragraph, he continued: “There may be no better distillation of Donald Trump’s narcissism.”
“Fish Story,” in Forbes Life (November 2012); reprinted in But Enough About You: Essays (2014)
My wife, in her wisdom, decreed that we must have a fish tank in our bathroom. Like Rumpole of the Bailey, I refer to my darling as She Who Must Be Obeyed. So the only answer was “Darling, what an excellent idea. I am so excited to have fish in our bathroom.”
In the second paragraph, Buckley continued: “I did not utter aloud the next sentence that formed in my mind: ‘How convenient for flushing them down the toilet after they have lived to the ripe old age of forty-eight hours.’”
“Hoof in Mouth,” in Forbes FYI (May 1998); reprinted in But Enough About You: Essays (2014)
“Good to see you again,” I greeted the gentleman, a family friend, important businessman and former cabinet secretary. “How’s Carol?” The friendly grin remained, but I caught the suppressed wince.
“She died three years ago,” he said.
Where does one go from there? “Gosh, well…seen any good movies lately?” I made my way to the men’s room to bash my head against the wall in private.
Buckley continued: “The Japanese are so much more efficient about this: you chop off the little finger and present it neatly wrapped in a pocket handkerchief to the offended party. If you really screw up, use a bigger knife and disembowel yourself. You have to admire a culture that has ritualized shame into a performance art.”
“Dogged Pursuit,” in Forbes Life (December 2009); reprinted in But Enough About You: Essays (2014)
It’s a bit cramped in the back of the Cessna 206. The windows are frosting over, and as I scrape away the rime with the edge of a credit card what I can make out is not entirely reassuring.
In the opening paragraph, Buckley continued: “Fog and terrain—the latter is disturbing because it is at eye level. Nor is it reassuring that the automatic warning keeps announcing in computer deadpan voice: ‘Caution, terrain. Caution, terrain.’ At such moments one asks oneself, What am I doing here?”
“The Emergence of Mankind” (1960); reprinted in Myths to Live By (1972)
Mythology is apparently coeval with mankind.
It’s rare to find a highly unusual word in a great opening line (coeval means “having the same age or date of origin”), but Joseph Campbell was a highly unusual man—a classical scholar with one foot in antiquity and the other in the modern world. After his death at age 83 in 1987, a Newsweek obituary said he’d “become one of the rarest intellectuals in American life: a serious thinker who has been embraced by the popular culture.“ In his opening paragraph, he continued:
“As far back, that is to say, as we have been able to follow the broken, scattered, earliest evidences of the emergence of our species, signs have been found which indicate that mythological aims and concerns were already shaping the arts and world of Homo Sapiens.”
“An Absurd Reasoning,“ in The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays (1955)
There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.
These are the powerful opening words of the first essay in the collection. Camus continued: “Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest—whether or not the world has three dimensions, whether the mind has nine or twelve categories—comes afterwards.“
“The Myth of Sisyphus” (1942), in The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays (1955)
The gods had condemned Sisyphus to ceaselessly rolling a rock up to the top of a mountain, whence the stone would fall back of its own weight. They had thought with some reason that there is no more dreadful punishment than this futile and hopeless labor.
“Introduction,” to Expletives Deleted: Selected Writing (1992)
I am known in my circle as notoriously foul-mouthed. It’s a familiar paradox—the soft-spoken, middle-aged English gentlewoman who swears like a trooper when roused.
A candid bit of self-disclosure is always a good way to begin a work of non-fiction—and Carter does it very nicely in the Introduction to a collection of her book reviews. She continued:
“I blame my father, who was neither English nor a gentleman but Scottish and a journalist, who bequeathed me bad language and a taste for the print, so that his daughter, for the last fifteen-odd years, has been writing book reviews and then conscientiously blue-pencilling out her first guy reactions—‘bloody awful’, ‘fucking dire’—in order to give a more balanced and objective overview.”
“Kindred Spirits,” in The New Yorker (May 31, 2021)
It’s a good time to be dead—at least, if you want to keep in touch with the living.
Cep continued: “Almost a third of Americans say they have communicated with someone who has died, and they collectively spend more than two billion dollars a year for psychic services on platforms old and new. Facebook, Tik Tok, television: whatever the medium, there’s a medium.“ This was one of my choices for a Smerconish.com post on “Twenty-One of the Best Opening Lines of 2021.“
E. M. Cioran
“Some Blind Alleys: A Letter,” in Phillip Lopate, ed., The Art of the Personal Essay (1994)
Every form of talent involves a certain shamelessness.
Right out of the gate, Cioran helps us see a familiar topic in a whole new way. A first-class first sentence.
“A Personal Tribute to Mothers and Role Models,” in OpEdNews.com (May 7, 2022)
It was a house of love and a safe haven where laughter was frequent, anxiety had no place, affection reigned. It was a Cape Cod bungalow with a white picket fence that made me feel warm and happy. In short, it was 1950s perfect and I wished it were mine.
In this beautiful—and bittersweet—opener, Clift leads readers down an idyllic path until, at the end, she ingeniously departs from it. Later this year, when I compile my annual list of “Twenty-Two of the Best Opening Lines of 2022,” this one will certainly be in contention.
Clift’s essay explored a painful theme in human life—many mothers are painfully deficient in meeting the needs of their children, and when our own falls short, we look for great mother-figures in other families. In the article, Clift, a New England journalist, writer, and political activist, continued:
“I lived across the street in a house that became a place of illness, loneliness, and ‘quiet despair.’ My mother’s chronic depression began there as my father’s tense nature worsened when business failures mounted. So I began to virtually reside in the perfect Cape Cod cottage and to make of myself a part of that Dick-and-Jane family, to internalize their traditions, to survive my childhood pain.”
Barnaby Conrad III
“Martini Madness,” in Cigar Aficionado (Spring 1996)
The Martini is a cocktail distilled from the wink of a platinum blonde, the sweat of a polo horse, the blast of an ocean liner’s horn, the Chrysler building at sunset, a lost Cole Porter tune, and the aftershave of quipping detectives in natty double-breasted suits.
This was the brilliant opening line of Conrad’s article about “The Great Martini Revival” of the mid-1990s. He continued: “It’s a nostalgic passport to another era—when automobiles had curves like Mae West, when women were either ladies or dames, when men were gentlemen or cads, and when a ‘relationship’ was true romance or a steamy affair.”
“Barbara Warley Was Loved by Everyone,” in A Lowcountry Heart: Reflections on a Writing Life (2016)
March 26, 2014
I’ve come to that point in my life when my memories seem as important as the life I’m now leading.
Conroy was sixty-eight when he wrote these words, the opening sentence of a eulogy he was delivering for the wife of one of his best friends from college. When I first read the opening sentence, I was immediately reminded of something May Sarton wrote in her 1984 memoir At Seventy: “I suppose real old age begins when one looks backward rather than forward.“
Over the years, I’ve noticed that eulogies penned by writers are often as much about the people writing the eulogy as those they are eulogizing—and that is certainly the case here. In reflecting back to when he first met Warley, for example, Conroy wrote: “Instinctively, we identified ourselves as members of the unhappy tribe who come from troubled and deeply flawed families.”
Two years after Warley’s death, Conroy himself died, at age 70, of a fast-spreading pancreatic cancer.
“Robert Frost,” in Talk About America (1973)
It was a splendid day in Vermont when they buried Robert Frost, the sky without a cloud, the light from the white landscape making every elm and barn as sharp as a blade, and the people crunching quietly through the deep snow and squinting in the enormous sun.
“Frank Lloyd Wright,” in America Observed (1989)
I met him first on a winter’s afternoon in what I almost slipped into calling the vestry of his suite at the Plaza Hotel in New York.
Wright had such a hallowed reputation when Cooke first met him that the British visitor to America resorted to liturgical imagery to describe him: “I pressed the electric button at first timorously, then boldly, then incessantly, and was about to turn away when the door was opened by a pretty young woman, a secretary, or granddaughter, or vestal virgin perhaps, who beckoned me into the hushed gloom behind her through which I expected to see sacramental tapers.”
“Cadaver,” in Travels (1988)
It is not easy to cut through a human head with a hacksaw.
Crichton is best known for his novels—so many of which have been adapted in classic American films—but he was also a skilled non-fiction writer, as he demonstrates in this “hook” he wrote for a piece on his experiences as a student at the Harvard Medical School.
“Prince Harry and the Value of Silence,” in The New York Times (Jan. 7, 2023)
During the early stages of my father’s Alzheimer’s, when he still had lucid moments, I apologized to him for writing an autobiography many years earlier in which I flung open the gates of our troubled family life. He was already talking less at that point, but his eyes told me he understood.
Davis, the daughter of Ronald and Nancy Reagan, was referring to her 1992 autobiography The Way I See It (a no-holds-barred memoir that was described by J. D. Podolsky in People magazine as “The work of an angry daughter with scores still to settle”).
Davis decided to revisit the whole idea of “writing a book I now wish I hadn’t written” after reading Prince Harry’s controversial new memoir Spare (2023). Reflecting on what she learned after her own unfortunate “tell-all” memoir, she went on to write:
“Of course, people generally don’t respond well to being embarrassed and exposed in public. And in the ensuing years, I’ve learned something about truth: It’s way more complicated than it seems when we’re young. There isn’t just one truth, our truth—the other people who inhabit our story have their truths as well.”
“The Selfish Meme,” in Time magazine (April 11, 1999)
Years ago, in an Oxford tutorial, I taught a young woman who affected an unusual habit. When asked a question that required deep thought, she would screw her eyes tight shut, jerk her head down to her chest and then freeze for up to half a minute before looking up, opening her eyes and answering the question with fluency and intelligence.
In the essay’s opening paragraph, Dawkins continued: “I was amused by this and did an imitation of it to divert my colleagues after dinner. Among them was a distinguished Oxford philosopher. As soon as he saw my imitation, he immediately said, ‘That’s Wittgenstein! Is her surname ____ by any chance?’ Taken aback, I said that it was. ‘I thought so,’ said my colleague. ‘Both her parents are professional philosophers and devoted followers of Wittgenstein.’ The gesture had passed from the great philosopher, via one or both of her parents, to my pupil.”
Here, Dawkins nicely demonstrates how a well-chosen anecdote can achieve two important goals at the same time—engaging the reader and illustrating the topic under discussion. He continued in the second paragraph:
“Our cultural life is full of things that seem to propagate virus-like from one mind to another: tunes, ideas, catchphrases, fashions, ways of making pots or building arches. In 1976 I coined the word meme (rhymes with cream) for these self-replicating units of culture that have a life of their own.”
“The Women’s Movement,” in The New York Times (July 30, 1972)
To make an omelette you need not only those broken eggs but someone “oppressed” to break them.
“White Album,” title essay from The White Album (1979)
We tell ourselves stories in order to live.
These words—which have become something of a signature line for Didion—begin an acclaimed autobiographical essay about her life in San Francisco in the 1960s. In a 2012 Publisher’s Weekly article, Robert Atwan included it in “The Top Ten Essays Since 1950.”
“The Hard Choices of Elizabeth Hardwick,” in The New Yorker (Nov. 15, 2021)
Elizabeth Hardwick was a master of the opening sentence. Few writers have the guts to begin so boldly—or with so many adjectives.
A moment later, after ticking off several examples of great opening lines from Hardwick, Doherty wrote: “Her friend Susan Sontag said that she wrote ‘the most beautiful sentences, more beautiful sentences than any living American writer.’”
“Insatiable,“ in Granta magazine (Autumn 2011)
Only a sentence, casually placed as a footnote in the back of Justin Kaplan’s thick 2003 biography of Walt Whitman, but it goes off like a little explosion: “Bram Stoker based the character of Dracula on Walt Whitman….”
In a 2018 ThoughtCo.com article on “Eight Great Opening Lines,” literary scholar Richard Nordquist selected Doty’s first sentence as an example of an opening that illustrates H. G. Wells 1898 advice on the importance of “whacking” readers at the beginning of an essay.
Wells’s complete advice went as follows: “So long as you do not begin with a definition you may begin anyhow. An abrupt beginning is much admired, after the fashion of the clown’s entry through the chemist’s window. Then whack at your reader at once, hit him over the head with the sausages, brisk him up with the poker, bundle him into the wheelbarrow, and so carry him away with you before he knows where you are.” For more on Well’s 1898 essay, titled “The Writing of essays,“ go here).
Are Men Necessary? When Sexes Collide (2005)
I don’t understand men.
I don’t even understand what I don’t understand about men.
They’re a most inscrutable bunch, really.
Dowd, a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The New York Times, is best known for her political commentary, but she also wrote extensively about gender dynamics. She previewed her views on the subject when she continued: “I had a moment of dazzling clarity when I was twenty-seven, a rush of confidence that I had cracked the code. But it was, alas, an illusion. I think I overcomplicated their simplicity. Or oversimplified their simplicity. Are they as complicated as a pile of wood? Or as simple as a squid?”
“We Are Trapped in the Madness of Powerful Individuals,” in The New York Times (Feb. 27, 2022)
What has surprised me most about the history I have lived through is how often we get dragged on demented, destructive rides by leaders who put their personal psychodramas over the public’s well-being.
In the article, published just after Vladimir’s Putin’s infamous invasion of Ukraine in February, 2022, Dowd was reminded of a number of previous “demented, destructive rides” she’d been forced to take in her lifetime. She continued: “And it always feels as though we are powerless to stop the madness of these individuals, that we are trapped in their ego or libido or id or delusion.”
“Hence, Mike Pence,” in The New York Times (June 18, 2022)
The fate of a sycophant is never a happy one.
This is one of the best opening lines of 2022, in my opinion, and a perfect way to describe the fate of Mike Pence, who, after years of loyally standing by Donald J. Trump, defied Trump’s wishes by helping to certify Joseph Biden as the winner of the 2020 presidential election. The opening line was followed by three brief paragraphs that matched it in quality:
“At first, you think that fawning over the boss is a good way to move forward. But when you are dealing with a narcissist—and narcissists are the ones who like to be surrounded by sycophants—you can never be unctuous enough.
“Narcissists are Grand Canyons of need. The more they are flattered, the more their appetite for flattery grows.
“That is the hard, almost fatal, lesson Pence learned on Jan. 6, when he finally stood up to Donald Trump after Trump asked for one teensy favor: Help destroy American democracy and all we stand for.”
Peter F. Drucker
“Managing Oneself,“ in Harvard Business Review (January 2005)
History’s great achievers—a Napoleon, a da Vinci, a Mozart—have always managed themselves. That, in large measure, is what makes them great achievers.
When most people use the term manage, they think of it as directing the activities of others—mainly subordinates—but Drucker, often described as “The Father of Modern Management,“ helpfully reminds us here that great achievers are great in large part because they are skilled at managing themselves.
Meghan, Duchess of Sessex (formerly Meghan Markle)
“The Losses We Share,” in The New York Times (Nov. 25, 2020)
It was a July morning that began as ordinarily as any other day: Make breakfast. Feed the dogs. Take vitamins. Find that missing sock. Pick up the rogue crayon that rolled under the table. Throw my hair in a ponytail before getting my son from his crib.
After changing his diaper, I felt a sharp cramp. I dropped to the floor with him in my arms, humming a lullaby to keep us both calm, the cheerful tune a stark contrast to my sense that something was not right.
I knew, as I clutched my firstborn child, that I was losing my second.
This is a deeply personal—and a remarkably effective—way to begin an Op-Ed column. The opening was so impressive, in fact, that I selected it as one of “Twenty of the Best Opening Lines of 2020” in a Smerconish.com post.
“Tutti Frutti. Little Richard,” in The Philosophy of Modern Song (2022)
A-Wop-Bop-A-Loo-Bop-a-Wop-Bam-Boom. Little Richard was speaking in tongues across the airwaves long before anybody knew what was happening.
These are the opening words of one of the sixty-plus essays in a book described by The New Yorker’s David Remnick as “Dylan wandering through the enormous record bin of his mind.” Based in part on Dylan’s popular “Theme Time Radio Hour,” a weekly program on XM Satellite Radio from 2006-2009, The Philosophy of Modern Song is a collection of intellectually and emotionally evocative essays on the modern era’s most popular songs. In his tribute to Little Richard and his 1955 “Tutti Frutti” classic, Dylan continued:
“He took speaking in tongues right out of the sweaty canvas tent and put it on the mainstream radio, even screamed like a holy preacher—which is what he was.”
The book is filled with similar delights. For one other example, here are the two opening paragraphs of his essay on the 1963 song “Detroit City,” by Bobby Bare:
“In this song you’re the prodigal son. You went to sleep last night in Detroit City. This morning you overslept, dreamt about white snow cotton fields, and had delusions about imaginary farmsteads. You’ve been speculating about your mother, having visions about your old pappy, making up stories about your brother, and idealizing your sister, and now you want to go home. Back to where things are more neighborly.
“From the postcards and junk mail that you dashed off, everybody assumes you’re a bigwig, that things are cool and beautiful, but they’re not, and the disgrace of failure is overwhelming. Your life is unraveling. You came to the big city, and you found out things about yourself you didn’t want to know, you’ve been on the dark side too long.”
“Notes for an Autobiography,” in Saturday Review of Literature (Nov. 26, 1949)
Here I sit in order to write, at the age of sixty-seven, something like my own obituary. I am doing this because I believe it is a good thing to show those who are striving alongside us how one’s own striving and searching appear to one in retrospect.
Shortly after the end of WWII, Einstein was invited by the Library of Living Philosophers to write an autobiographical essay about the development of his ideas. The result was short on personal revelations, and a bit technical for the average reader, but it was the closest to an autobiography Einstein ever wrote. A slightly revised version of the “Notes” essay went on to appear in a Library of Living Philosophers volume titled Albert Einstein: Philosopher-Scientist (1949).
“Vaginal Politics,” in Crazy Salad (1975)
We have lived through the era when happiness was a warm puppy, and the era when happiness was a dry martini, and now we have come to the era when happiness is “knowing what your uterus looks like.”
“Crazy Ladies,” in Crazy Salad (1975)
Washington is a city of important men and the women they married before they grew up.
“Reunion,” in Crazy Salad (1975)
A boy and a girl are taking a shower together in the bathroom.
Ephron continued: “How to explain the significance of it? It is a Friday night in June, the first night of the tenth reunion of the Class of 1962 of Wellesley College, and a member of my class has just returned from the bathroom with the news. A boy and girl are taking a shower together. No one can believe it.”
“On Never Having Been a Prom Queen,” in Crazy Salad (1975)
The other night a friend of mine sat down at the table and informed me that If I was going to write a column about women, I ought to deal straight off with the subject most important to women in all the world. “What is that?” I asked. “Beauty,” she said.
“Moving On,” in I Feel Bad About My Neck (2006)
In February 1980, two months after the birth of my second child and the simultaneous end of my marriage, I fell in love.
“Who Are You?” in I Remember Nothing (2010)
I know you. I know you well. It’s true I always have a little trouble with your name, but I do know your name. I just don’t know it at this moment.
Ephron continued: “We’re at a big party. We’ve kissed hello. We’ve had a delightful conversation about how we are the last two people on the face of the earth who don’t kiss on both cheeks. Now we’re having a conversation about how phony all the people are who do kiss on both cheeks. Ha ha ha ha ha ha. You’re so charming. If only I could remember your name.”
“The D Word,” in I Remember Nothing (2010)
The most important thing about me, for quite a long chunk of my life, was that I was divorced. Even after I was no longer divorced but remarried, this was true.
Ephron continued: “I have now been married to my third husband for more than twenty years. But when you’ve had children with someone you’re divorced from, divorce defines everything; it’s the lurking fact, a slice of anger in the pie of your brain.”
“The O Word,” in I Remember Nothing (2010)
I am sixty-nine years old.
Really old is eighty.
But if you are young, you would definitely think I’m old.
No one actually likes to admit that they’re old.
The most they will cop to is that they’re older. Or oldish.
“Funny, But I Do Look Jewish,” in The Weekly Standard (Dec. 15, 2003)
Funny, but I do look Jewish, at least to myself, and more and more so as the years go by.
Epstein continued: “I’m fairly sure I didn’t always look Jewish, not when I was a boy, or possibly even when a young man, though I have always carried around my undeniably Jewish name, which was certainly clue enough. But today, gazing at my face in the mirror, I say to myself, yes, no question about it, this is a very Jewish-looking gent.”
“Duh, Bor-ing,” in Commentary magazine (June 2011)
Unrequited love, as Lorenz Hart instructed us, is a bore, but then so are a great many other things: old friends gone somewhat dotty from whom it is too late to disengage, the important social-science-based book of the month, 95 percent of the items on the evening news, discussions about the Internet, arguments against the existence of God, people who overestimate their charm, all talk about wine, New York Times editorials, lengthy lists (like this one), and, not least, oneself….
“Why We Build,” in Virginia Writers Club Journal (2023)
Peter grabbed the end of his finger as it rolled across the top of his brand-new table saw.
This is a sensational in media res (“in the middle of things”) opener, dramatically capturing the danger inherent in using power tools. In the opening paragraph, Evans continued:
“Grabbing the rescued tip in his good hand just before it tumbled onto the sawdust-strewn floor below, he saw the gushing blood. The rush of pain was about to catch up.”
“Civilization: Evolution of a Word and a Group of Ideas” (1930); reprinted in A New Kind of History (1973; P. Burke, ed.)
It is never a waste of time to study the history of a word. Such journeys, whether short or long, monotonous or varied, are always instructive.
“How I Wound Up with a Wound from Heteronyms,” in The Washington Post (May 20, 2021)
The English language has something to confuse or annoy just about anyone—the mysteries of who and whom usage, the e.g. vs. i.e. standoff, the polarizing Oxford comma. I have a long-standing, personal problem with heteronyms—words that are spelled the same but don’t sound alike. Allow me to explain with a little story.
“Outlaws,” in ’Scuse Me While I Whip This Out (2004)
The life of a country singer can at times be very tedious. You have to pretend that your life is a financial pleasure even when your autographs are bouncing.
“Ode to Billy Joe,” in ’Scuse Me While I Whip This Out (2004)
If Carl Sandburg had come from Waco, his name would have been Billy Joe Shaver.
“A Salty Piece of Land: Wise Old Jimmy Buffett,” in The New York Times (Nov. 28, 2004)
There is a fine line between fiction and nonfiction, and I believe Jimmy Buffett and I snorted it in 1976.
It’s uncommon to find a killer opening line in a book review, but Friedman is not exactly your typical book reviewer. He continued: “The two of us are among the few musicians in the Western world who make a regular habit of writing prose, which may also explain why this newspaper decided upon me to review this book rather than, say, Philip Roth.”
In an Oct. 21, 2007 New York Times article, Dwight Garner wrote about the opening words of Friedman’s review: “The Book Review editors, like editors everywhere, value a memorable first sentence.”
Garner went on to write: “Reviewing Robbins’s novel ’The Carpetbaggers’ in 1961, Murray Schumach, writing in The Book Review, began his assessment with these two sentences: ’It was not quite proper to have printed ‘The Carpetbaggers’ between covers of a book. It should have been inscribed on the walls of a public lavatory.’ Not quite as fun as Kinky’s opener, but it does get its point across.”
“Foreword” to Willie Nelson’s Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die (2012)
In April 1933, Willie’s mother, Myrle, gave birth to him in a manger somewhere along the old highway between Waco and Dallas.
Thomas L. Friedman
“The Big Liar and His Losing Little Liars,” in The New York Times (Nov. 15, 2022)
I got a little emotional voting this year.
Friedman’s simple-but-powerful lede about the 2022 mid-term elections perfectly summed up my own feelings about voting this year—and probably yours as well. I was delighted to honor it in my compilation of “The Best Opening Lines of 2022” on Smerconish.com (see the full list here).
“Mrs. O’Grady,” in A Thousand Friends (1974)
How many silent, uneventful tragedies are played out in thousands of marriages?
A well-crafted rhetorical question can occasionally be a perfect way to open an article or essay, as Fuldheim demonstrates here. She continued:
“How many women stay married though they experience a dull nagging unhappiness; stay because after years of marriage they have developed no skill to qualify for a job and if they are over forty, their age is an additional hindrance. If ever there are lives led in “quiet desperation,” they are marriages without friendship, dignity, love, and passion.“
“I Threw Jerry Rubin off My Show,” in A Thousand Friends (1974)
This is a youth-oriented society, and the joke is on them because youth is a disease from which we all recover.
This is the wry and highly quotable first sentence of an article describing one of the most fascinating interviews in Fuldheim’s long and fascinating career. While doing an on-air interview with hippie Jerry Rubin in the early 1960s, Fuldheim grew so frustrated with the political activist’s smug and smart-alecky remarks that, after about ten minutes, she abruptly ended the interview by standing up and shouting, “Out! Stop the interview!“ The opening line of the article went on to become Fuldheim’s most popular observation, subsequently appearing in numerous quotation anthologies.
Often described as “The First Lady of Television News,“ Fuldheim was the first woman in history to anchor a television news broadcast (in 1947, at WEWS-TV in Cleveland). Barbara Walters frequently credited Fuldheim for her trailblazing role, once observing that she was “the first woman to be taken seriously doing the news.”
John Kenneth Galbraith
“Promises to Keep,” in The New York Times (April 25, 1971)
Truth, not unconvincing humility, is the grandest virtue and accordingly I may observe that I am better qualified than any man alive to review a book on the public life of Chester Bowles.
A man must be in possession of quite an ego to begin a review of someone else’s memoir with a grandiose statement about himself, but nobody ever accused Galbraith of being a Shrinking Violet. In point of fact, though, Galbraith began his review of Chester Bowles’s 1971 memoir (My Years in Public Life, 1941-1969) by simply suggesting that the careers of the two men paralleled each other in so many ways that he was the perfect person to review his memoir. Galbraith went on to write: “He is a friend, which is a disadvantage only if the book in question is bad. Only then do you have to consider whether the author should get the truth from you or someone else. This, fortunately, is an extremely good book.”
“Adventures Of a Mathematician: The Man Who Invented the H-Bomb,” in The New York Times (May 9, 1976)
Biographical history, as taught in our public schools, is still largely a history of boneheads: ridiculous kings and queens, paranoid political leaders, compulsive voyagers, ignorant generals—the flotsam and jetsam of historical currents. The men who radically altered history, the great creative scientists and mathematicians, are seldom mentioned if at all.
This is the opening paragraph of Gardner’s review of S. M. Ulam’s 1976 book, Adventures of a Mathematician. In the review, he described Ulam, a Polish mathematician, as the man who, modifying a previously failed plan of Edward Teller’s, deserves credit for inventing the H-Bomb.
In the review’s second paragraph, Gardner wrote: “Imagine Aristotle revivified and visiting Manhattan. Nothing in our social, political, economic, artistic, sexual or religious life would mystify him, but he would be staggered by our technology. Its products—skyscrapers, cars, airplanes, television, pocket calculators—would have been impossible without calculus. Who invented calculus?”
“In ‘Yours in Haste and Adoration,’ Terry Southern’s Thoughts Spill Out,” in The New York Times (Dec. 15, 2015)
It must have been a gas, to borrow one of his favorite terms, to get a letter from Terry Southern. Each was its own little acid trip, streaked with innuendo and poached in a satirical kind of intellectual flop sweat. He used thin, expensive paper and sealed some of his letters with wax. People were said to read them aloud to whoever was in the room.
In the article’s second paragraph, Garner continued: “It must further have been a groove, to use another of his favorite terms, to get a letter from Southern (1924-95) because he seemed to know everyone, from George Plimpton and Lenny Bruce to Ringo Starr and Dennis Hopper and had stories to tell.”
“Metaphysics Laced with Magic,” in The New York Times (February 8, 2022)
Sheila Heti’s new novel, Pure Colour, is about a young woman who turns into a leaf. “Unrequited love’s a bore,” Billie Holiday sang. So, it turns out, is photosynthesis.
GUEST COMMENTARY from veteran poet, playwright, and author Louis Phillips, who writes:
“Although I may not fully agree with Dwight Garner’s assessment of Heti’s new novel, I’m impressed with how he’s able to deliver his entire review in three simple, eye-opening sentences. Each one elicits a specific reaction. The first startles with a great improbability. The second is a clever allusion about the novel. And the third delivers the witty knock-out punch.”
See some of Phillips’ great opening lines on the Short Stories page, beginning here).
“The Muse of the Coyote Ugly Saloon,” in Esquire magazine (March 1997)
I was not the prettiest bartender at the Coyote Ugly Saloon. In my opinion, that would have been Caroline. I was partial to Caroline, though, because she had been so nice to me when I began working here. She was very pretty and also very funny. When I asked Caroline how she’d gotten her first bartender job, she cupped her breasts and said simply, “These.”
These are the opening words of the original Esquire article that turned an East Village bar into a New York City cultural landmark. Early in Gilbert’s career, while attempting to make a living as a working journalist, she supplemented her income with waitressing and bartending jobs, including a stint at the Coyote Ugly Saloon. Her article inspired the 2000 film “Coyote Ugly.“
By the way, if you don’t know the meaning of the slang term “coyote ugly,“ a Wikipedia entry says it “refers to the feeling of waking up after a one-night stand, and discovering that one’s arm is underneath someone who is so physically repulsive that one would gladly chew it off without waking the person just so one can get away without being discovered. Coyotes are known to gnaw off limbs if they are stuck in a trap, to facilitate escape.”
“From Its Myriad Tips,” in London Review of Books (May 20, 2021)
Try to imagine what it is like to be a fungus.
This was the opening line of Gooding’s review of Merlin Sheldrake’s 2020 book, Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds, and Shape our Futures. The idea is not as far-fetched as it might originally seem, for that is exactly what Sheldrake—a respected English biologist—attempted to do when he sought the assistance of LSD and psilocybin in an attempt to expand his thinking about how fungi reproduce and spread.
“In the Beginning: Creating Dynamic, Meaningful & Compelling Openings,“ in The Writer’s Chronicle (October 2012)
The beginning of your story, essay, or novel carries more weight than any other part of your work. This is simply because it is the beginning.
Goodman, a professor of English at the University of New Orleans, continued: “The reason for its prominence is similar to seeing anything for the first time. Your senses are attuned. Your expectations are high. You’re looking intently at what’s there. It’s analogous to seeing a person for the first time.”
About a first sentence (or first paragraph), Goodman also wrote: “There is one thing it must do: compel the reader to continue reading. Or, to put it another way, to make the reader unable not to read on. If the reader stops cold after the first line, it doesn’t matter what else that line does, or what follows.”
And a little later in the article, Goodman offered this information-packed paragraph on the subject: “What can, and should, an opening do, besides being irresistible? It can provide information. Not necessarily by providing facts—although it can do that—because information can be emotional or tonal. It can, speaking of tone, set the tone. It can create a sense of drama, mystery or tension. It can introduce a character. It can hint at a problem. It can engage the reader by the voice of the narrator. It can foretell the ending. (“In my beginning is my end,” T. S. Eliot wrote.) It can do all of these things, or some of them, at the same time. It’s a unique opportunity. You’ll have only one first opened door with your story. Only one, ‘Ladies and Gentlemen, may I have your attention, please?’”
“Why Don’t the French Celebrate Lafayette?” in The New Yorker (Aug. 16, 2021)
Lafayette, like Betsy Ross and Johnny Appleseed, is so neatly fixed in the American imagination that it is hard to see him as a human being. Betsy sews stars, Johnny plants trees, Lafayette brings French élan to the American Revolution.
Gopnik continued: “He is, in the collective imagination, little more than a wooden soldier with a white plume on his cocked hat. In the original production of ‘Hamilton,’ Daveed Diggs portrayed him affectionately, with a comically heavy French accent and an amorous manner—a hero, yes, but of the cartoon kind, a near relation of Pepé le Pew.”
Stephen Jay Gould
“A Most Ingenious Paradox,” in The Flamingo’s Smile: Reflections in Natural History (1985)
Abstinence has its virtuous side, but enough is enough.
Stephen Jay Gould
“The Rule of Five,” in The Flamingo’s Smile: Reflections in Natural History (1985)
The human mind delights in finding pattern—so much so that we often mistake coincidence or forced analogy for profound meaning.
Stephen Jay Gould
“The Flamingo’s Smile,” title essay from The Flamingo’s Smile: Reflections in Natural History (1985)
Buffalo Bill played his designated role in reducing the American bison from an estimated population of 60 million to near extinction.
Gould continued: “In 1867, under a contract to provide food for railroad crews, he and his men killed 4,280 animals in just eight months.”
A respected paleontologist and Harvard University professor for thirty-five years, Gould is widely regarded as one of history’s best science writers. He also became something of a celebrity in the broader culture as a result of 300-plus essays he wrote for Natural History magazine. The essays were compiled into many bestselling books with great titles: The Panda’s Thumb (1980), Hen’s Teeth and Horse’s Toes (1983), The Flamingo’s Smile (1985), Bully for Brontosaurus (1991), and Dinosaur in a Haystack (1995).
Rachel E. Gross
“Half the World Has a Clitoris. Why Don’t Doctors Study It?” in The New York Times (October 17, 2022)
If there was one thing Gillian knew, it was that she did not want a hole punch anywhere near her genitals.
In the world of journalism, a great opening line is commonly called a lede, and they don’t get much better than this first sentence of Gross’s story about a registered nurse’s medical misadventures after her gynecologist recommended a vulval biopsy.
“Zounds! What the Fork Are Minced Oaths?” in TheConversation.com (July 16, 2020)
What in tarnation is “tarnation?” Why do people in old books exclaim “zounds!” in moments of surprise? And what could a professor of linguistics possibly have against “duck-loving crickets?”
So begins a fascinating article on the subject of “minced oaths,” which Hazen, a professor of linguistics at West Virginia University, described this way: “They are a kind of euphemism: an indirect expression substituted to soften the harsher blow of the profane.”
In the article’s second paragraph, Hazen continued: “I’ll get to the crickets later. But what unites all these expressions is a desire to find acceptable versions of profane or blasphemous words. ‘God’ becomes ‘gosh,’ ‘hell’ becomes ‘heck,’ and ‘damnation’ becomes ‘tarnation.’ In a similar vein, the rather antiquated phrase ‘God’s wounds’ turns into ‘zounds.’”
“How to Find Someone to Fall in Love With,” in Sex Tips for Girls (1983)
There are certain magazines which should be avoided. They call themselves “women’s” magazines, which is absurd, since their complete raison d’étre is the care and feeding of the male.
When I first read these wry and witty opening words many decades ago, it forever changed the way I looked at so-called women’s magazines.
To drive her point home, Heimel continued: “How to make him happy in bed, how to choose his socks, how to tell if he’s screwing his secretary, and how to prepare his income tax returns are, according to these magazines, topics deemed monumental in importance.”
“Who Are We?” in Sex Tips for Girls (1983)
These are the times that try a girl’s soul.
Playing off the famous Thomas Paine observation, this is the opening line of Heimel’s first published collection of articles that she had written for New York Magazine and The Village Voice. You can see Paine’s historic first sentence here.
“Big Brother is Us,” in Get Your Tongue Out of My Mouth, I’m Kissing You Good-Bye! (1993)
Every so often I grow despondent over my body and soul marching inexorably into middle age: I go to a nightclub and deeply inhale the heady odor of tobacco, whisky, dirt, and hormones, then after fifteen minutes I get tired and go home.
“Hiroshima,“ in The New Yorker (Aug. 31, 1946)
At exactly fifteen minutes past eight in the morning, on August 6, 1945, Japanese time, at the moment when the atomic bomb flashed on Hiroshima, Miss Toshiko Sasaki, a clerk in the personnel department of the East Asia Tin Works, had just sat down at her place in the patent office and was turning her head to speak to the girl at the next desk.
In a 2020 NPR interview, Lesley Blume, author of Fallout: The Hiroshima Cover-Up and the Reporter Who Revealed It to the World (2020), described this as “one of the most famous introductions in journalistic history.”
After the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings brought WWII to an end, the U.S. government released plenty of pictures of mushroom clouds and landscape devastation, but nothing about the horrifying human toll. The government’s reluctance to be transparent was captured in a remark by Henry Stimson, then U. S. Secretary of War: “I did not want to have the United States get the reputation for outdoing Hitler in atrocities”
Hersey, a respected war correspondent at the time, chose to tell his story through the experiences of six Japanese survivors of the atomic blast. His 30,000-word article took up nearly the entire August 31, 1946 issue of The New Yorker magazine. For the first time, the American public was learning about such ghastly details as melting eyeballs and people being vaporized.
The issue sold out within hours of publication, and the article was soon reprinted in newspapers around the country, unheard of at the time for a piece of such enormous length. Two months later, the article was published as a full-length book. A main selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club, it was sent free to members (the first and only time this has happened). The book is now regarded as a classic in journalism history.
The Paranoid Style in American Politics: and Other Essays (1964)
The most difficult and delicate task that faces the author of a book of essays is that of writing an Introduction that makes his various pieces seem considerably more unified, in theme and argument, than they were in fact when they were written.
This opening line from the book’s Introduction is not only beautifully written, it perfectly captures the challenge awaiting all essayists who attempt to put together compilations of previously-published essays.
Originally a 1959 BBC radio lecture titled “The American Right Wing and the Paranoid Style,“ Hofstadter’s in-depth examination of political extremism in America first appeared in essay form in a November 1964 issue of Harper’s magazine. More than four decades later, staff writer Scott Horton wrote in 2007 that Hofstadter’s essay was “one of the most important and most influential articles published in the 155-year history of the magazine.“
When I recently re-read the essay, it presciently shed light on the motivation of modern-day conspiracy theorists and right-wing nationalists. And in a 2018 New York Times op-ed article on the growing signs of authoritarianism in the Republican Party, Paul Krugman tipped his hat to Hofstadter by titling his piece, “The Paranoid Style in G.O.P. Politics.”
“From Harlem to Paris,” in The New York Times (Feb. 26, 1956)
I think that one definition of the great artist might be the creator who projects the biggest dream in terms of the least person.
This is the first sentence of Hughes’s review of James Baldwin’s book of essays—Notes of a Native Son—published several months earlier. Hughes continued: “There is something in Cervantes or Shakespeare, Beethoven or Rembrandt, or Louis Armstrong that millions can understand.”
While acknowledging that the 31-year-old Baldwin was not yet “a great artist,” Hughes certainly recognized his great potential, writing: “Few American writers handle words more effectively in the essay form than James Baldwin. To my way of thinking, he is much better at provoking thought in the essay than he is in arousing emotion in fiction…. In his essays, words and material suit each other. The thought becomes poetry, and the poetry illuminates the thought.”
"The Platonist", in Essays: Moral, Political, & Literary (1741-42)
To some philosophers it appears [a] matter of surprise that all mankind, possessing the same nature and being endowed with the same faculties, should yet differ so widely in their pursuits and inclinations, and that one should utterly condemn what is fondly sought after by the other.
“Of the Independency of Parliament,“ in Essays: Moral, Political, & Literary (1741-42)
Political writers have established it as a maxim that, in contriving any system of government…every man ought to be supposed a knave, and to have no other end in all his actions than private interest.
“Of the First Principles of Government,“ in Essays: Moral, Political, & Literary (1741-42)
Nothing appears more surprising to those who consider human affairs with a philosophical eye than the easiness with which the many are governed by the few; and the implicit submission with which men resign their own sentiments and passions to those of their rulers.
“Franklin and the Art of Leadership,” in American Sketches (2009)
Benjamin Franklin would, I think, have been pleased, even tickled by the election of Barack Obama as president.
American Sketches (2009)
I was once asked to contribute an essay to the Washington Post for a page called “The Writing Life”. This caused me some consternation.
Isaacson continued: “A little secret of many nonfiction writers like myself—especially those of us who spring from journalism—is that we don’t quite think of ourselves as true writers, at least not of the sort who get called to reflect upon “the writing life.“
“Soap Opera,” in The Progressive (October 1967)
You could probably prove, by judicious use of logarithms and congruent triangles, that real life is a lot more like soap opera than most people will admit.
“Magnolias and Moonshine,” in Mother Jones (June 1988)
Watching the candidates metamorphose into Southerners was sort of like watching The Fly.
In a column on the ingratiating quality of presidential candidates early in the election season, Ivins continued: “Bob Dole claimed to be a Southerner-in-law. Paul Simon noted he is from southern Illinois. Albert Gore, Jr., fondly reminisced about shoveling pig manure, and Pat Robertson ate grits in public. George Bush, who only the week before had been in New Hampshire claiming to be the full-blooded Yankee—Drink Syrup or Die—turned up in Houston wearing boots, cowboy hat, and neckerchief.”
“Good Morning, Fort Worth! Glad to Be Here,“ in Fort Worth Star-Telegram (1992)
I dearly love the state of Texas, but I consider that a harmless perversion on my part, and discuss it only with consenting adults. If Texas were a sane place, it wouldn’t be nearly as much fun.
“Texas Woman: True Grit and All the Rest,” in Cosmopolitan magazine (Vol. 212, 1992)
They used to say that Texas was hell on women and horses—I don’t know why they stopped.
“My, Oh, My, It’s the Ninth Wonder of the World,” in Fort-Worth Star-Telegram (May 15, 1994)
Great Caesar’s armpit! Sweet suffering catfish! Holey Gamoley! I have been to the Pyramids of America. I have seen the cathedral of commerce, our Coliseum, our Chartres. I have been to the Mall of America, the world’s largest shopping mall.
“Say So,” in Rosie magazine (2001, Vol. 128)
I like politicians, which is sort of like confessing that you are into interspecies dating. I consider this a harmless perversion on my part, and besides, I discuss it only with consenting adults.
“Who Needs Breasts, Anyway,“ in Time magazine (Feb. 18, 2002)
Having breast cancer is massive amounts of no fun. First they mutilate you; then they poison you; then they burn you. I have been on blind dates better than that.
Ivins retained her irreverent sense of humor even while struggling with the cancer that would take her life—at age 62—in 2007. She continued: “One of the first things you notice is that people treat you differently when they know you have it. The hushed tone in which they inquire, ‘How are you?’ is unnerving. If I had answered honestly during 90% of the nine months I spent in treatment, I would have said, ’If it weren’t for being constipated, I’d be fine.’ In fact, even chemotherapy is not nearly as hard as it once was, although it still made all my hair fall out.”
“Love Match,” in Video Night in Kathmandu (1988)
Rambo had conquered Asia.
Iyer continued: “In China, a million people raced to see First Blood within ten days of its Beijing opening, and black marketeers were hawking tickets at seven times the official price. In India, five separate remakes of the American hit went instantly into production, one of them recasting the macho superman as a sari-clad woman.”
“The Quest Becomes a Trek,” in Video Night in Kathmandu (1988)
Within minutes of landing in Kathmandu, I found myself in Eden.
This is the piece’s entire first paragraph. In the second, Iyer continued: “The Hotel Eden, that is, not to be confused with the Paradise Restaurant around the corner or the Hotel Shangri-La. The Eden was on the intersection of Freak Street and the Dharmapath, which was, I thought, the perfect location: at the intersection of hippiedom and Hinduism, where Haight-Ashbury meets the Himalayas.”
“Why We Travel,” in Salon.com (March 18, 2000)
We travel, initially to lose ourselves; and we travel, next, to find ourselves.
On its own, this is a spectacular aphorism, well deserving of inclusion in any of the major anthologies of great quotations. in the article, Iyer continued:
“We travel to open our hearts and eyes and learn more about the world than our newspapers will accommodate. We travel to bring what little we can, in our ignorance and knowledge, to those parts of the globe whose riches are differently dispersed. And we travel, in essence, to become young fools again—to slow time down and get taken in, and fall in love once more.”
“Making Kindness Stand to Reason,” in Sun After Dark (2004)
Though the Dalai Lama is increasingly famous as a speaker, his real gift, you see as soon as you begin talking to him, is for listening.
Iyer is best known for his travel writings, but his profiles about people are also beautifully written—and this particular opener is outstanding. He continued: “And though he is most celebrated around the world these days for his ability to talk to halls large enough to stage a Bon Jovi concert, his special strength is to address twenty thousand people—Buddhists and grandmothers and kids alike—as if he were talking to each one alone, in the language she can best understand.”
“Welcome to the Much-Maligned World of the Conservative,” in The Boston Globe (Feb. 24, 1994)
So what’s a nice conservative like me doing in a newspaper like this?
In his very first column for the liberal-leaning Boston Globe, the conservative Jacoby couldn’t have written a better opening line.
“See How They Lie,” in The Boston Globe (Nov. 13, 1997)
This column is about lying, so let me just confess, full-disclosurewise, that I have on occasion failed to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Like everyone else, I learned early on that honesty is sometimes the best policy—for getting in trouble.
The opening words nicely tweak the old saying about honesty being the best policy. In the article’s opening paragraph, Jacoby continued: “My father often warned my siblings and me that if we got caught doing something wrong, we would be punished, but if we got caught lying, the punishment would be doubled. Naturally, we lied, hoping not to get caught at all. Sometimes it even worked.”
“My Father’s Shoes,” in The Boston Globe (April 15, 1999)
They were nice to my father the second time he went to Auschwitz.
The best way to describe this dramatic opener is “arresting.” As soon as its read, it not only gets the reader’s attention, it holds it for some time after.
Jacoby went on to write: “It was in September 1997, during a trip he’d always insisted he wouldn’t take. He never wanted to go back to his native Czechoslovakia, he’d said; never wanted to revisit Auschwitz, where his parents, his brothers, and his two younger sisters were murdered by the Germans in 1944.”
“Romney’s Secret ‘R,’” in The Boston Globe (Oct. 6, 2002)
It’s the deep, dark secret of the Mitt Romney campaign, the one he and his handlers are desperately hoping no one will find out.
He’s a Republican.
Jacoby was referring to Romney’s presidential campaign in the traditionally liberal state of Massachusetts. He continued: “Shh—keep it to yourself. Nobody’s supposed to know. That’s why on the campaign trail, Romney never mentions his party affiliation. That’s why the word ‘Republican’ can barely be found on his lavish web site, Romney2002.com. That’s why it doesn’t cross his lips during debates, and why his press releases routinely avoid it. (They identify him not as the GOP gubernatorial nominee but as “Former Winter Olympic Chief Mitt Romney.“)
“Arafat the Monster,” in The Boston Globe (Nov. 11, 2004)
Yasser Arafat died at the old age of 75, lying in bed and surrounded by familiar faces. He left this world peacefully, unlike the thousands of victims he sent to early graves.
Jacoby went on to add: “In a better world, the PLO chief would have met his end on a gallows, hanged for mass murder much as the Nazi chiefs were hanged at Nuremberg. In a better world, the French president would not have paid a visit to the bedside of such a monster. In a better world, well-wishers would not be flocking to the hospital grounds to create a makeshift shrine of flowers, candles, and admiring messages. In a better world, George Bush would not have said, on hearing the first reports that Arafat had died, ‘God bless his soul.’”
“The House of Tudor Didn’t Get the Last Word,” in The Boston Globe (March 26, 2015)
It’s remarkable what five centuries can do for a man’s reputation.
This clear and confident assertion formed the article’s entire first paragraph. In the second, Jacoby continued: “When Richard III, the last Plantaganet king of England, was killed at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485, his corpse was stripped and hauled in disgrace through the streets of Leicester… stuffed into a crude grave, naked and coffinless….”
In 2012, after King Richard’s bones were found under a London parking lot (yes, a parking lot!), the discovery prompted an historic reappraisal of an English monarch who’d been denigrated by Shakespeare as “That bottled spider, that foul hunch-back’d toad.” In 2015, three years after his body was discovered, the remains were reburied—with full honors—in Leicester Cathedral. Jacoby believed there was much to learn from this unusual turn of events, writing: “It may have taken 530 years, but history’s verdict on Richard III turned out to be very different from the malignant reputation ascribed to him by the Tudor loyalists of his era. There is a lesson in that, and not only for medievalists.”
“Who Poisoned Joe Gilliam…Twice?” in Willamette Week (Nov. 3, 2021)
Joe Gilliam, one of the most influential voices in Oregon politics, has been silenced.
For more than two decades, Gilliam, 59, served as president of the Northwest Grocery Association, which counts Fred Meyer, Safeway and Costco among its members. He represented their interests in Salem, battled competitors and earned a reputation as a punishing opponent and loyal friend.
But for the past nine months, WW recently learned, Gilliam has been lying in a vegetative state at an undisclosed care facility in Clark County, Wash. Vigorous and athletic as recently as May 2020, he can now neither move nor speak.
It wasn’t COVID-19 that laid him low.
Nor was it heart disease or a car crash.
It was poison.
It’s rare for a newspaper article—especially one from a small community newspaper—to begin like a first-rate crime thriller, but Jaquiss accomplishes that feat here.
“An Answer to the Question: ’What is Enlightenment?’“ in Berlin Monthly (Dec. 1784)
Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity.
Kant continued: “Immaturity is the inability to use one’s own understanding without the guidance of another. This immaturity is self-incurred if its cause is not lack of understanding, but lack of resolution and courage to use it without the guidance of another. The motto of enlightenment is therefore: Sapere aude! Have courage to use your own understanding.”
Sapere aude! is a Latin proverb generally translated as “Dare to know!” or “Dare to be wise!” In modern usage, it has also come to mean something close to: “Dare to think for yourself!”
“Great Hookers I Have Known,“ in Secret Windows: Essays and Fiction on the Craft of Writing (2000)
When I finally understand what my thirteen-year-old son was talking about, I told him no problem, I could find him a couple of good hookers easy—maybe even a couple of great ones.
Writers have been referring to Great Opening Lines as hooks for many generations, but I’d never heard them described as hookers until I read this essay by King. He went on to explain: “He’d asked about opening lines, and pulp-magazine editors used the slang term “hookers” to describe such lines. The editors knew pretty well who the audience was. Truckers. Short-order cooks. Steelworkers. Farmhands. Working guys, in other words, who wanted to get away from the gray lives they lived and experience more exciting ones—lives that were bright with color and adventure. If you were good enough to cut it, that readership would support you and the magazines would continue to publish you. But if what you wrote started off flat, the readers would quickly flip past you to the next story.“
“The Collateral Damage of Queen Elizabeth’s Glorious Reign,” in The New Yorker (April 29, 2022)
The Queen is the only royal who actually matters or does anything. That’s not fair, of course, but the monarchy is unfairness personified and glorified, long to reign over us.
It’s hard to imagine a better description of the modern English monarchy, and it was a pleasant surprise to find it in Knight’s review of Tina Brown’s The Palace Papers (2022). In his first paragraph, he continued:
“Naturally, the rest of the Royal Family—the heirs; the spares; Princess Michael of Kent, whose father was in the S.S. and whom Diana nicknamed the Führer; Princess Anne, Charles’s younger sister, who’s known to feed the chickens in a ballgown and Wellington boots after a night at the palace—are all busy. They have numberless engagements and causes, which fill their identical, repeating years, but they exist only as heralds for the magical authority of the Crown, which resides in the Queen and nobody else.”
By the way, in Brown’s in-depth examination of the House of Windsor, the long-time royal observer referred to the entirety of Queen Elizabeth’s relatives in a memorable metaphorical way: “They are high-born scaffolding.”
“A. K. Phone Home,” in The Best Women’s Travel Writing, 2007 (2007; Lucy McCauley, ed.)
In theory, I’m a grownup. Crow’s feet, mortgage payments, shattered illusions…name the badge of adulthood, and I’m probably sporting it.
After these engaging opening words about herself, Kozolchyk continued:
“Still, I’ve never met another thirty-six-year-old whose parents expect daily communiques from wherever she happens to be. And where I happen to be, quite often, is the boonies—if not the official, geographic Middle of Nowhere, then damned close.”
“It’s Good to Remember: We Are All on Borrowed Time,” in The New York Times (October 30, 2023)
Getting older is almost like changing species, from cute middle-aged, white-tailed deer, to yak. We are both grass eaters, but that’s about the only similarity.
In the opening paragraph, Lamott—writing at age sixty-nine—continued:
“At the Safeway sushi bar during lunchtime, I look at the teenage girls in their crop tops with their stupid flat tummies and I feel bad about what lies beneath my big, forgiving shirts but—and this is one of the blessings of aging—not for long.”
“A Few Words on a Few Words,“ in Metropolitan Life (1978)
Democracy is an interesting, even laudable, notion and there is no question but that when compared to Communism, which is too dull, or Fascism, which is too exciting, it emerges as the most palatable form of government.
Lebowitz continued: “This is not to say that it is without its drawbacks—chief among them being its regrettable tendency to encourage people in the belief that all men are created equal.”
“Taking a Letter,“ in Metropolitan Life (1978)
As one with a distinct aversion to newspapers I rely heavily for information on the random remarks of others. Therefore my sources are far from impeccable.
“Writing: A Life Sentence,“ in Metropolitan Life (1978)
Contrary to what many of you might imagine, a career in letters is not without its drawbacks—chief among them the unpleasant fact that one is frequently called upon to actually sit down and write.
“Modern Sports,“ in Metropolitan Life (1978)
When it comes to sports I am not particularly interested. Generally speaking, I look upon them as dangerous and tiring activities performed by people with whom I share nothing except the right to trial by jury.
Lebowitz continued: “It is not that I am totally indifferent to the joys of athletic effort—it is simply that my idea of what constitutes sport does not coincide with popularly held notions on the subject.”
“Sleep,“ in Metropolitan Life (1978)
I love sleep because it is both pleasant and safe to use.
“My Day: An Introduction of Sorts,“ in Metropolitan Life (1978)
12:35 P.M.—The phone rings. I am not amused. This is not my favorite way to wake up.
Writer and critic Edmund White once called Fran Lebowitz “The funniest woman in America,“ and these opening words are a perfect example of her wry wit. What makes the opener so witty, of course, is that the phone call awakening Lebowitz has come just after noontime.
In the opening essay of her now-classic 1978 collection of essays, Lebowitz continued: “My favorite way to wake up is to have a certain French movie star whisper to me softly at two-thirty in the afternoon that if I want to get to Sweden in time to pick up my Nobel Prize for Literature I had better ring for breakfast. This occurs rather less often than one might wish.”
“People,” in Social Studies (1981)
People (a group that in my opinion has always attracted an undue amount of attention) have often been likened to snowflakes. This analogy is meant to suggest that each is unique—no two alike. This is quite patently not the case.
In the opening paragraph, Lebowitz continued: “People, even at the current rate of inflation—in fact, people especially at the current rate of inflation—are quite simply a dime a dozen. And, I hasten to add, their only similarity to snowflakes resides in their invariable and lamentable tendency to turn, after a few warm days, to slush.”
“How John McCain Turned His Cliches into Meaning,” in The New York Times (Dec. 18, 2013)
When I walk into John McCain’s office a week before Thanksgiving, he is not at all happy—and he seems to be enjoying it.
This oxymoronic opening serves as an example about why Leibovich was hailed by The Washingtonian’s Garrett M. Graff as “Washington’s reigning master of the political profile.” In the piece’s second paragraph, Leibovich continued:
“He is sampling none of the usual flavors of upset we tend to associate with the Arizona senator: not the ‘McCain is bitter’ or ‘get off my yard’ varieties, not even the ‘deeply troubled’ umbrage that politicians of all stripes love to assume. Here is a man, instead, who is gleefully seizing an opportunity for outrage.”
“Game of Crones,” in Longreads.com (May 2019)
My daughter was 10 days old the first time I was asked if I were her grandmother.
Lippmann, fifty years old when she and her husband adopted a baby girl, found an intriguing way to introduce her essay on the topic of older mothers. She was invited to write the piece for the Longreads.com “Fine Lines” series.
“Willy,” in Getting Personal: Selected Essays (2003)
My mother was seeing another man. His name was Willy.
We’re used to seeing the phrase, “My wife was seeing another man,” but to see it applied to mothers is fresh and unexpected. It’s also a helpful reminder than an affair does not merely involve a husband and a wife, but sometimes an entire family.
In the opening paragraph, Lopate continued: “It may have been childish confusion—I was eight years old at the time—or a trick memory plays on us, but I seem to remember the Jeep he drove was also a Willys. This car has disappeared from modern life. I am unable even to picture it. But at the time it colored all my thinking about the affair.”
“Samson and Delilah and the Kids,” in Getting Personal: Selected Essays (2003)
I grew up in the era of the great Jewish Lovers.
If you’re anything like me, your first reaction to this opening line is probably something along the lines of: “The era of the great Jewish lovers? When was that?”
Lopate clearly anticipated that reaction, and continued: “Samson and Delilah, David and Bathsheba, Solomon and Sheba were burning up screens across the land. I never managed to see David and Bathsheba (though I know the coming attractions by heart), because the movie industry in its wisdom decreed that I was too young for this adulterous tale. Inconsistently, they let me into Samson and Delilah when I was seven.”
“My Early Years at School,” in Getting Personal: Selected Essays (2003)
In the first grade I was in a bit of a fog.
The opening line above comes from the very first chapter, and Lopate followed it by writing: “All I remember is running outside at three o’clock with the others to fill the safety zone in front of the school building, where we whirled around with our book bags, hitting as many proximate bodies as possible. The whirling dervishes of Kabul could not have been more ecstatic than we with our thwacking book satchels.”
In the Introduction to the book, Lopate—who is seventy-seven as I write this in 2021, and still very much alive—plays around with readers by suggesting that this book of heavily autobiographical essays is being published posthumously. The Introduction even includes a note from Lopate’s friend and running partner, Dr. Horst Shovel (yes, that’s his real name), who writes that this collection of essays will have to serve as “the informal version of the autobiography he never got around to writing” during his lifetime. I’m not sure why Lopate decided to employ this deceased author conceit, but I’m hoping to one day find out the answer. I’ll let you know when I do.
To Show and To Tell: The Craft of Literary Nonfiction (2013)
I should explain straight-out that I consider myself to be as much a teacher as writer. It’s not simply that a good deal of my annual income derives from teaching; it’s also that I find it a fascinating challenge, one that nourishes my psyche—and my own writing.
More than any other contemporary writer, Phillip Lopate’s name is virtually synonymous with the form of writing known as the personal essay. In the book’s opening paragraph, he continued: “Many of my fellow writers treat teaching as a lower calling; they only do it to pay the rent, or until such time as they can support themselves entirely from royalties and advances. For my part, I think I would continue to teach even if I were to win the lottery.”
“‘Max’ in Danger” (1922), in Essays on Life and Literature (1951)
Max is in danger of being canonized.
Since canonization is typically regarded as a good thing, Lynd immediately gets our attention by suggesting that, at least in this case, the very opposite is true. At the time the article was written, all literate readers would have known that the “Max” in question was Max Beerbohm, one of the truly great wits in the early decades of the twentieth century. In his opening paragraph, Lynd continued: “Critics may quarrel about him, but it is only because the wreaths get in the way of one another, and every critic thinks that his should be on top.”
After this engaging introduction to the subject of the essay, Lynd continued to write with great flair as he went on to say: “In order to avert this unseemly canonization—or, at least, to keep it within the bounds of reason—one would like to adopt the ungracious part of advocatus diaboli and state the case against ‘Max’ in the strongest possible terms. But, alas! one finds that there is nothing to say against him, except that he is not Shakespeare or Dr. Johnson.”
“The Vassar Girl,” in Holiday magazine (May, 1951)
Like Athena, goddess of wisdom, Vassar College sprang in full battle dress from the head of a man.
“My Confession,” in Partisan Review (Fall, 1953)
Every age has a keyhole to which its eye is pasted.
“The Vita Activa,” in The New Yorker (October 18, 1958)
Teaching for the wisest of the ancients, was only a form of prompting. Socrates’ pupils, who sought to know what was love, what was justice, what was beauty, and so on, were shown by the philosopher that they already knew the answers to these questions, though they did not know they knew them….
“Artists in Uniform,” in Harper’s Magazine (March, 1953); reprinted in On the Contrary (1961)
“Pour it on, Colonel,” cried the young man in the Dacron suit excitedly, making his first sortie into the club-car conversation. His face was white as Roquefort and of a glistening, cheeselike texture; he had a shock of tow-colored hair, badly cut and greasy, and a snub nose with large gray pores. Under his darting eyes were two black craters.
We typically expect luxuriant character descriptions in works of fiction, but McCarthy demonstrates here that they can work equally well in non-fiction articles. She continued: “He appeared to be under some intense nervous strain and had sat the night before in the club car drinking bourbon with beer chaser and leafing through magazines which he frowningly tossed aside, like cards into a discard heap.”
“Twilight on the Buffalo Paddock,” in An Outside Chance: Essays of Sport (1980)
Dawn: a curious mixture of noises. Birds, ocean trees soughing in a breeze off the Pacific; then, in the foreground, the steady cropping of buffaloes.
McGuane continued: “They are massing peacefully, feeding and nuzzling and ignoring the traffic. They are fat, happy, numerous beasts; and all around them are the gentle, primordial hills of Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, U.S.A. It is dawn on the buffalo paddock; the frontier is nowhere in sight.”
“Me and My Bike and Why,” in An Outside Chance: Essays of Sport (1980)
Like many who buy a motorcycle, there had been for me the problem of getting over the rather harrowing insurance statistics as to just what it is that is likely to happen to you.
“Molly,” in An Outside Chance: Essays of Sport (1980)
I have been bird hunting since I was ten years old. I was not much good at it when I was ten, and many years of experience have not made me any better. Sometimes, when asked about the results of my shooting, I am ashamed. Sometimes so ashamed that I lie about it vividly and recklessly.
“Motocross,” in An Outside Chance: Essays of Sport (1980)
The fastest way to go from point to point on the face of the earth, assuming that you do not prepare the ground in front of you but take it rough and unimproved, is on a motorcycle.
McGuane continued: “The right bike in the right hands can travel full tilt in bumps, slides, and vaults over ground that would gunnysack Land Rovers and Power Wagons. In the hands of the cyclists who dominate motocross racing, the progress is made with a power and alacrity that makes your hair stand on end.”
“A World-Record Dinner,” in An Outside Chance: Essays of Sport (1980)
I concede that “mutton snapper” is hardly a prepossessing title. The sheep, from which the name derives, is not much of an animal. No civilized person deals with him except in chops and stews. To bleat is not to sing out in a commanding baritone; to be sheepish is scarcely to possess a virtue for which civilization rolls out its more impressive carpets.
The title of the essay is nothing to write home about, but the opening paragraph is exceptional, and the writing only gets better as McGuane moves into the second paragraph:
“And it is true that the fish, as you may have suspected, is not at all handsome, with its large and vacant-looking head, crazy red eye, and haphazard black spot just shy of its tail. Yet its brick-orange flanks and red tail are rather tropical and fine, and for a number of reasons it deserves consideration as major light-tackle game. When you have been incessantly outwitted by the mutton snapper, you cease to emphasize his vaguely doltish exterior.”
“Wading the Hazards,” in An Outside Chance: Essays of Sport (1980)
Lately I’ve been having trouble with golf. Which of us has not?
McGuane continued: “Traced upon the minds of many of our countrymen are the perimeters of a golf course, a last frontier, a wonderful great lawn whose spacious nocturnal gloom always served the fantasies of young trespassers when nothing else in the republic did.”
Dead Man in the Silver Market: An Autobiographical Essay on National Prides (1954)
Men of all races have always sought for a convincing explanation of their own astonishing excellence and they have frequently found what they were looking for.
Menen has been largely forgotten by modern readers, but he was popular enough to be remembered in a warm New York Times obituary after his death in 1989. A prolific writer of two-dozen novels, travel books, and non-fiction works, Menen was born in London in 1912 to an Irish mother and Indian father. He was also known as a gifted satirist, as he proves in this magnificent opening line. Menen’s book is often described as an autobiography, but it is in reality a series of essays, many of a semi-autobiographical nature.
Gouverneur Morris IV
“Introduction” to Richard Harding Davis’s “The Red Cross Girl” (1912), in The Novels and Stories of Richard Harding Davis, Vol. 11 (1916)
He was almost too good to be true. In addition, the gods loved him, and so he had to die young.
One of the most delightful surprises in my research into great opening lines was discovering remarkable specimens in the most unexpected places. This spectacular tribute came at the beginning of the “Introduction” to Richard Harding Davis’s 1912 short story “The Red Cross Girl.” The writer was Davis’s good friend and fellow pulp fiction writer Gouverneur Morris IV (1876-1953), the great-great-grandson of one of America’s Founding Fathers. In the opening words, the tribute continued at an exceptionally high level:
“Some people think that a man of fifty-two is middle-aged. But if R. H. D. had lived to be a hundred, he would never have grown old. It is not generally known that the name of his other brother was Peter Pan.”
Richard Harding Davis has been almost entirely forgotten by modern readers, but he was a major American celebrity in the early 1900s. A pioneering war correspondent and bestselling writer of adventure stories, he was also Theodore Roosevelt’s good friend. There is no question that Davis’s writing about the exploits of Roosevelt and his Rough Riders was instrumental in creating the legend that continues to surround the 26th President. A handsome, dashing figure, Davis also served as the model for Charles Dana Gibson’s “Gibson Man,” created to match his famous “Gibson Girl.” Davis died unexpectedly of a heart attack at age 51 in 1916.
“The Woke Target Metaphors, Leaving No Scone Unturned,” in The Wall Street Journal (Dec. 27, 2021)
I once knew a magazine journalist who was addicted to metaphors. He was, so to speak, an alcoholic of metaphors. If he took one sip from the demon rum of analogy, he would be in the gutter by the end of the paragraph. His journalism suffered from what might be called cirrhosis of the prose.
Thus begins Morrow’s review of a newly published Inclusive IT Language Guide by the folks at the University of California, Irvine. The Guide contained much questionable advice, according to Morrow, himself a recognized language expert, including the suggestion that the saying “Killing two birds with one stone” be replaced by “Feeding birds with two scones.”
In the second paragraph of his essay, Morrow wrote: “My friend would sit down at his typewriter—this was a long time ago—and set out to tell a seemingly straightforward news story. But in the first or second sentence, his mind would be seized by an image (jaunty, visual, arresting), and pretty soon the seductive analogy would take over the story altogether, hijacking the news report that it was intended merely to embellish.”
“I Want U.S. History to Make My Kids Uncomfortable,” in The News & Observer (Raleigh, NC; Nov. 17, 2021)
I signed up to serve on the media review committee for my middle daughter’s public school library. Meetings are at 7:45 a.m. I am not a morning person and I do not know how I am going to manage one more thing, but as the white Christian mother of three public school students it is very important to me to have influence on what materials my daughters are exposed to in school.
Op-Ed articles aren’t usually admired for their impressive openings, but this one by the pastor of The Grove Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, NC, is an exception to the rule. In her opening paragraph, Murphy gives the impression of going in a certain direction—and then dramatically heads in the opposite way, writing: “It’s critical to me that the things my children read about American history make them uncomfortable. I want them to be troubled, deeply troubled.”
After arguing that it is our patriotic duty to recognize and confront the darker aspects of American history, Rev. Murphy concluded: “I want my girls to struggle with American history. But it’s not because I want them to hate America or themselves. I want them to struggle with the past so that they can fall in love with all that America could be. I want them to be uncomfortable with the past so they can join us to change the future.”
“Politics and the English Language,“ in Horizon magazine (April 1946)
Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way, but it is generally assumed that we cannot by conscious action do anything about it.
Orwell continued: “Our civilization is decadent and our language—so the argument runs—must inevitably share in the general collapse. It follows that any struggle against the abuse of language is a sentimental archaism, like preferring candles to electric light or hansom cabs to aeroplanes. Underneath this lies the half-conscious belief that language is a natural growth and not an instrument which we shape for our own purposes.”
“The American Crisis,” in The Pennsylvania Journal (Dec. 19, 1776)
These are the times that try men’s souls.
These are the opening words of the first of sixteen pamphlets that Paine published between 1776 and 1783. Paine was well known in colonial America for his writings in support of the Revolutionary cause, but he became enshrined in American history when, four days after these words first appeared in print, George Washington read the entire pamphlet to his battle-weary, half-frozen Continental Army troops on December 23, 1776. General Washington’s purpose was to raise the morale of his troops, and it worked. Three days later, they crossed the Delaware River and emerged victorious in the Battle of Trenton.
While Paine is often omitted from lists of America’s Founding Fathers, there are many who believe the country might not have been founded without his assistance. In an 1819 letter to Thomas Jefferson, John Adams wrote: “History is to ascribe the American Revolution to Thomas Paine” And in 1925, Thomas Edison wrote: “I consider Thomas Paine our greatest political thinker.“
C. Northcote Parkinson
Parkinson’s Law: or, The Pursuit of Progress (1957)
Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.
This is the legendary opening line of Parkinson’s classic book, but when he introduced his famous “law” two years earlier in a November, 19, 1955 article in The Economist, the opening words were slightly more expansive: “It is a commonplace observation that work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”
“Welcome to Hell, Elon: You Break It, You Buy It,” in The Verge (Oct. 28, 2022)
You fucked up real good, kiddo.
Patel, a prominent technology journalist and founder of The Verge, opens his article with what I regard as the year’s single best assessment of Elon Musk’s head-scratching purchase of Twitter in 2022. His first sentence also made my compilation of “The Best Opening Lines of 2022” on Smerconish.com (see the full list here).
In the article’s second paragraph, Patel continued:
“Twitter is a disaster clown car company that is successful despite itself, and there is no possible way to grow users and revenue without making a series of enormous compromises that will ultimately destroy your reputation and possibly cause grievous damage to your other companies.”
I also loved Patel’s closing line: “Anyhow, welcome to hell. This was your idea.”
“Supreme Court, Consider Justice Sponsorship!” in the Washington Post (June 23, 2023)
It is a truth universally acknowledged that an American billionaire, in possession of sufficient fortune, must be in want of a Supreme Court justice.
Here, Petrie cleverly tweaks one of literary history’s most famous first sentences to open her satirical article suggesting the Supreme Court should consider the formal sponsorship of judges, like NASCAR and other sports. In the opening paragraph, she continued:
“Nothing seems to bring billionaires so much simple joy as having a personal justice to accompany them on yacht and fishing trips, flights on their private planes and jaunts to rustic lodges....”
Katherine Anne Porter
“The Flower of Flowers,” in Flair magazine (May 1950); reprinted in The Collected Essays and Occasional Writings of Katherine Anne Porter (1990)
Its beginnings were obscure. Like that of the human race whose history it was destined to adorn.
In her beautifully-phrased opening sentence, Porter was describing “the flower of flowers,“ also known as the rose. In the opening paragraph, she continued:
“The first rose was small as the palm of a small child’s hand, with five flat petals in full bloom, curling in a little at the tips, the color red or white, perhaps even pink, and maybe sometimes streaked. It was a simple disk or wheel around a cup of perfume, a most intoxicating perfume, like that of no other flower.”
Katherine Anne Porter
“The Laughing Heat of the Sun” (1949), in The Collected Essays and Occasional Writings of Katherine Anne Porter (1990)
Of all fine sights in the world to me, the best is that of an artist growing great, adding to his art with his years, as his life and his art are inseparable.
After offering Henry James, W. B. Yeats, and Edith Sitwell as examples, Porter went on to write:
“The true sign of this growth, in all alike, is the unfailing renewal, the freshness of every latest piece of work, the gradual, steady advance from phase to phase of increased power and direction, depth of feeling, and virtuosity, that laurel leaf added to technical mastery.”
“The Roe Baby,” in The Atlantic (Sep. 9, 2021)
Nearly half a century ago, Roe v. Wade secured a woman’s legal right to obtain an abortion. The ruling has been contested with ever-increasing intensity, dividing and reshaping American politics. And yet for all its prominence, the person most profoundly connected to it has remained unknown: the child whose conception occasioned the lawsuit.
Like almost everybody, I assumed that Jane Roe—the pseudonymous plaintiff on the winning side of the landmark Roe v. Wade case in 1973—went on to have an abortion. The law works far too slowly for such a thing to happen, though, and the plaintiff (a Dallas waitress named Norma McCorvey) had given up the child for adoption two and one-half years before the case was settled.
Prager first learned about the existence of “The Roe Baby,” as she was called by Pro-Life activists, while doing research for his book The Family Roe: An American Story (also published in September, 2021). In the Atlantic article, Prager revealed for the first time the name—and the emotionally-riveting story—of the child at the heart of the case: fifty-one-year-old Shelley Lynn Thornton. Prager’s gripping article began with a remarkable opening paragraph that easily made my list of the 21 Best Opening Lines of 2021.
“The Horrible Waste of War,” in New York World-Telegram (June 16, 1944)
I took a walk along the historic coast of Normandy in the country of France.
It was a lovely day for strolling along the seashore. Men were sleeping on the sand, some of them sleeping forever. Men were floating in the water, but they didn’t know they were in the water, for they were dead.
These are the opening words of a D-Day dispatch filed by Pyle to his American readers. About them, writer and editor David A. Fryxell wrote in a 2008 Writer’s Digest article: “Understated? Certainly. Powerful? Even 50 years later.” Fryxell went on to add: “Pyle could have opened with a burst of exclamation-point prose; no question that his subject warranted it. He could have screamed about the casualties and the massive invasion fleet. He could have doled out comparisons to the Norman Conquest or piled adjective upon adverb. But instead he took his readers for a walk along the beach.”
In Fryxell’s article—titled “Tips for Powerful, Understated Writing”—he offered wise advice about the importance of understatement in nonfiction writing, especially when the topics being written about are large, powerful, or historic. He argued: “It’s precisely when writing about subjects that seem extreme that understatement can be most effective. If your subject is grand or overwrought or hyperbolic, if it comes already laden with innate drama (real or manufactured), you might find that speaking softly works better than a big stick.“
In the third paragraph of Pyle’s dispatch, he decided to add a dash of irony to his exceptional opening: “The water was full of squishy little jellyfish about the size of your hand. Millions of them. In the center each of them had a green design exactly like a four-leaf clover. The good-luck emblem. Sure. Hell, yes. Four-leaf clovers are supposed to be good-luck charms, but for the doughboys who perished on this blood-soaked beach of indescribable mayhem, D-Day was anything but lucky.”
“Faith and Force: The Destroyers of the Modern World,” lecture at Yale University (Feb. 17, 1960); reprinted in Philosophy, Who Needs It (1982)
If you want me to name in one sentence what is wrong with the modern world, I will say that never before has the world been clamoring so desperately for answers to crucial problems—and never before has the world been so frantically committed to the belief that no answers are possible.
“Through Your Most Grievous Fault” in The Los Angeles Times (August 19, 1962); reprinted in Rand’s The Voice of Reason (1990)
The death of Marilyn Monroe shocked people with an impact different from their reaction to the death of any other movie star or public figure. All over the world, people felt a peculiar sense of personal involvement and of protest, like a universal cry of “Oh, no!”
Rand was writing two weeks after Monroe’s death. She continued in the next paragraph: “They felt that her death had some special significance, almost like a warning which they could not decipher—and they felt a nameless apprehension, the sense that something terribly wrong was involved. They were right to feel it.”
“The Metaphysical Versus the Man-Made,” in The Ayn Rand Letter (March 12, 1973); reprinted in Philosophy, Who Needs It (1982)
“God grant me the serenity to accept things I cannot change, courage to change things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”
This remarkable statement is attributed to a theologian with whose ideas I disagree in every fundamental respect: Reinhold Niebuhr. But—omitting the form of a prayer, i.e., the implication that one’s mental-emotional states are a gift from God—that statement is profoundly true, as a summary and a guideline: It names the mental attitude which a rational man must seek to achieve.”
This is a terrific way to begin a philosophical article—presenting a statement from a man you disagree with “in every fundamental respect,” and then not only agreeing with the statement, but praising it as “profoundly true.”
About Niebuhr’s famous maxim, Rand continued with this intriguing tease: “The statement is beautiful in its eloquent simplicity; but the achievement of that attitude involves philosophy’s deepest metaphysical-moral issues.”
“An Untitled Letter,” in The Ayn Rand Letter (Jan-Feb, 1973); reprinted in Philosophy, Who Needs It (1982)
The most appropriate title for this discussion would be “I told you so.” But since that would be in somewhat dubious taste, I shall leave this untitled.
In the universe of titillating openings, this is one of the very best. Who can not read on?
“Florence King,“ in The New Brunswick News (July 1, 2016)
On a Sunday morning, tucked into bed on the island of St. Simons, the place where I, at the age of 13, accepted the calling that had haunted me since I was four — that of becoming a writer—Tink brought me a copy of The New York Times and coffee loaded with cream.
Rich continued: “There on the front page of this revered Yankee newspaper, I discovered the obituary of perhaps the first Southern woman to write about the region’s people and draw attention to the differences between us and them—them being anyone else in the world who doesn’t possess an ounce of Southern blood or the common sense to understand we are to be celebrated, not mocked. ’Florence King died,’ I mused quietly. ’She was 80.’”
“The Kiss,” in Playboy (Feb., 1990); reprinted under the title “Kissing” in Wild Ducks Flying Backward (2005)
Kissing is our greatest invention. On the list of great inventions, it ranks higher than the Thermos bottle and the Airstream trailer; higher, even, than room service, possibly because the main reason room service was created was so people could stay in bed and kiss without going hungry.
These are the opening lines of arguably the most entertaining essay ever written on the subject of kissing. Robbins went on to write: “Kissing . . . didn’t imitate nature so much as it restructured it. Kissing molded the face into a brand-new shape, the pucker shape, and then, like some renegade scientist grafting plops of sea urchin onto halves of ripe pink plums, it found a way to fuse the puckers, to meld them and animate them, so that one pucker rubbing against another generates heat, moisture, and a luminous neuro-muscular friction. Thomas Edison, switch off your dim bulb and slink away.” Robbins continued in this vein for three more pages, in a veritable tour de force on one of history’s most fascinating subjects.
“The Disappeared,” in The New Yorker (Sep. 10, 2012)
Afterward, when the world was exploding around him, he felt annoyed with himself for having forgotten the name of the BBC reporter who told him that his old life was over and a new, darker existence was about to begin. She called him at home, on his private line, without explaining how she got the number. “How does it feel,” she asked him, “to know that you have just been sentenced to death by Ayatollah Khomeini?”
These are the straightforward-but-still-captivating opening words of a remarkably candid autobiographical essay by an Indian-born British writer who, in 1989, was about to become the most discussed writer of the era. Rushdie continued in the opening paragraph:
“It was a sunny Tuesday in London, but the question shut out the light. This is what he said, without really knowing what he was saying: ‘It doesn’t feel good.’ This is what he thought: I’m a dead man. He wondered how many days he had left, and guessed that the answer was probably a single-digit number. He hung up the telephone and ran down the stairs from his workroom, at the top of the narrow Islington row house where he lived. The living-room windows had wooden shutters and, absurdly, he closed and barred them. Then he locked the front door.”
With a few modest changes, this New Yorker article served as the Prologue for Rushdie’s 2012 memoir Joseph Anton (the title—inspired by Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekhov—was the alias he chose for himself during his years in hiding after the fatwa was announced).
“Havelock Ellis: Life as an Art,“ in The Dial (November 1923)
Moralists, in the main, have been a somewhat forbidding race. Their main preoccupation has usually been to try to prevent people from doing that they wanted to do, on the ground—formerly explicit, but now seldom avowed—that the natural man is wicked.
Russell continued: “Psychoanalyzed, such moralists would be found to be moved principally by envy: being themselves too old or too sour or too stiff for the pleasures of life, they feel a discomfort, when they see others enjoying themselves, which appears in consciousness as moral reprobation.“
"Religion and Morals," (1952); reprinted in Why I Am Not a Christian (1957)
Many people tell us that without a belief in God a man can be neither happy nor virtuous.
Russell continued in the opening paragraph: "As to virtue, I can speak only from observation, not from personal experience. As to happiness, neither experience nor observation has led me to think that believers are either happier or unhappier, on the average, than unbelievers."
“Our Sexual Ethics“ (1936); reprinted in Why I Am Not a Christian (1957)
Sex, more than any other element in human life, is still viewed by many, perhaps by most, in an irrational way.
A simple assertion, crafted skillfully by a talented writer, can be a most effective way to begin an essay, as Russell demonstrates here. When I first read these opening words as a young man in the 1960s, my first reaction was, “How little things have changed.” And now, almost ninety years after Russell first penned the words, my reaction is exactly the same.
In his essay, Russell continued: “Homicide, pestilence, insanity, gold and precious stones—all the things, in fact, that are the objects of passionate hopes or fears—have been seen, in the past, through a mist of magic or mythology; but the sun of reason has now dispelled the mist, except here and there. The densest cloud that remains is in the territory of sex, as is perhaps natural since sex is concerned in the most passionate part of people’s lives.“
“A Sonnet to Salad,” in The Pilot (Southern Pines, NC; April 16, 2012)
If food were poetry, subs would be limericks, sushi a haiku and salad a sonnet—14 lines of freshness and exquisite flavor. An antidote to winter sludge. A rainbow of colors and often a surprise.
This is the opening paragraph of Salomon’s delicious tribute to salads. Regarding the surprises often involved in salads, Salomon continued in the second paragraph: “Where else do sweet onions and strawberries, avocados and oranges so happily marry?” She also ended her article on a memorable note: “If dance is poetry in motion, salad is a sonnet on a plate.”
“Picasso and the Weeping Women,” in The Village Voice (July 20, 1994)
Did Pablo Picasso exist? It gets harder to believe. Think of him wielding pencil and pecker, astride a century. He rewired the world’s optic nerves and imagination.
In a long and distinguished career, Schjeldahl, longtime art critic for The New Yorker and The Village Voice became one of the most respected—and entertaining—voices in the history of criticism. He continued in the opening paragraph: “He clambered through life on a jungle-gym of female flesh. ‘I’m God! I’m God!’ he crowed occasionally to his umpteenth girlfriend Dora Maar in the late thirties. He was then still four decades short of receiving the universe’s riposte. It must have killed him to die.”
“Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec,” in The Village Voice (August 27, 1996)
At a dinner party recently, a nice young political consultant rhapsodized to me about the portent of the millennium, in which he saw the dawn of, yes, a New Age. I wasn’t having it. I remarked that scholars now date the birth of Jesus to about 6 B.C., so the millennium passed already.
Schjeldahl continued: “Round numbers mean nothing, anyway, except when, as just happened to me, your Detroit clunker’s odometer rotates majestically from 99999.9 to all zeroes: prophecy of mounting repair bills.”
“The Art of Dying,” in The New Yorker (Dec. 16, 2019)
Lung cancer, rampant. No surprise. I’ve smoked since I was sixteen, behind the high-school football bleachers in Northfield, Minnesota. I used to fear the embarrassment of dying youngish, letting people natter sagely, “He smoked, you know.” But at seventy-seven I’m into the actuarial zone.
Four months earlier, Schjeldahl, the longtime art critic for The New Yorker magazine, was driving to his country home in the Catskills when he received a phone call from his oncologist. The lung cancer was indeed rampant, and he would soon learn that his Memorial Sloan Kettering team was giving him six months to live. In the essay’s second paragraph, he continued:
“I know about ending a dependency. I’m an alcoholic twenty-seven years sober. Drink was destroying my life. Tobacco only shortens it, with the best parts over anyway.“
“On Books and Reading,” in Parerga and Paralipomena, Vol. Two (1851)
Ignorance is degrading only when found in company with riches.
A popular technique in non-fiction writing—and especially in philosophical treatises—is to begin with a grand declaration that is subsequently explored in the rest of the piece. In this case, the provocative opening line comes from one of the great minds in the history of Western philosophy, and also one of the most quotable. His thesis is hard to disagree with: ignorance is understandable in people who have never had access to education or the grand world of ideas, but is a dark stain when it occurs among people of means.
In the opening paragraph, Schopenhauer continued: “The poor man is restrained by poverty and need: labor occupies his thoughts, and takes the place of knowledge. But rich men who are ignorant live for their lusts only…and they can also be reproached for not having used wealth and leisure for that which gives them their greatest value.”
“The Gaudy Career of Jonas Cord Jr.,“ in The New York Times (June 25, 1961)
It was not quite proper to have printed The Carpetbaggers between covers of a book. It should have been inscribed on the walls of a public lavatory.
These were the devastating opening words of Schumach’s review of Harold Robbins’s 1961 novel The Carpetbaggers. He continued: “Ostensibly Harold Robbins’ long novel is about the men and women in Hollywood, aviation, high finance. Actually it is an excuse for a collection of monotonous episodes about normal and abnormal sex—and violence ranging from simple battery to gruesome varieties of murder.“ In an Oct. 21, 2007 New York Times article, Dwight Garner paid Schumacher the highest compliment when he cited this as one of the two most memorable opening lines in the history of the New York Times Book Review.
In his tribute, Garner wrote: “The Book Review editors, like editors everywhere, value a memorable first sentence. (Writing here a few years ago, Kinky Friedman began a review this way: ’There is a fine line between fiction and nonfiction, and I believe Jimmy Buffett and I snorted it in 1976.’) This week, Tom Carson reviews a biography of the onetime best-seller page regular Harold Robbins. Reviewing Robbins’s novel The Carpetbaggers in 1961, Murray Schumach, writing in the Book Review, began his assessment with these two sentences: ’It was not quite proper to have printed The Carpetbaggers between covers of a book. It should have been inscribed on the walls of a public lavatory.’ Not quite as fun as Kinky’s opener, but it does get its point across.“
“What Bobby McIlvaine Left Behind,” in The Atlantic (September 2021)
When Bobby McIlvane died on September 11, 2001, his desk at home was a study in plate tectonics, coated in shifting piles of leather-bound diaries and yellow legal pads.
Senior’s article article about the Mcilvane family’s search for meaning in the two decades after his death on 9/11 begins with this remarkable metaphorical description of a cluttered, overflowing desk top. In the opening paragraph, Senior continued:
“He’d kept the diaries since he was a teenager, and they were filled with the usual diary things— longings, observations, frustrations—while the legal pads were marbled with more variety: aphoristic musings, quotes that spoke to him, stabs at fiction.”
Senior’s article won a 2022 Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing.
“It’s Your Friends Who Break Your Heart,” in The Atlantic (Feb. 9, 2022)
It is an insolent cliché, almost, to note that our culture lacks the proper script for ending friendships. We have no rituals to observe, no paperwork to do, no boilerplate dialogue to crib from.
This is a stellar opening paragraph in two different ways. First, it insightfully advances the argument that, over the centuries, no reliable coping mechanisms have ever been developed for an age-old problem—the ending of friendships. And, second, it provides lovers of language with such delicious metaphorical flourishes as an insolent cliché, a proper script for ending friendships, and boilerplate dialogue to crib from.
In the second paragraph, Senior argued that something important might be learned from the ending of one particular friendship—all painstakingly documented in The Wellness Letters, an unpublished (so far, at least) manuscript that cheerfully began as a celebration of a friendship and, eighteen months later, documented its painful dissolution. In the article’s second paragraph, Senior wrote:
“Yet when Elisa Albert and Rebecca Wolff were in the final throes of their friendship, they managed, entirely by accident, to leave behind just such a script. The problem was that it read like an Edward Albee play—tart, unsparing, fluorescent with rage.”
“Letter to the Editor,” in the Los Angeles Times (April 8, 1968)
There is a bitter sadness and special irony that attends the passing of Martin Luther King. Quickly and with ease, we offer up a chorus of posthumous praise—the ritual dirge so time-honored and comfortable and undemanding of anything but rhetoric. In death, we offer the acknowledgement of the man and his dream that we denied him in life.
When most people think about the subject of great opening lines, one of the last things to come to mind would probably be “Letters to the Editor.” However, as Serling so ably demonstrates here, even in this highly specialized sub-genre of writing, superlative openings are possible. He maintained the ironic tone by continuing in his opening paragraph: “In his grave, we praise him for his decency—but when he walked amongst us, we responded with no decency of our own.”
“Fabulous Tuba Museum Opens in Durham. Womp!“ in News & Observer [Raleigh, NC] (Feb. 22, 2016)
To the ears of a musical novice, the tuba ranks lowest in the family of instruments—an oafish cousin with a voice like a bullfrog. It lacks the flash of a saxophone, the brashness of a trumpet or the showiness of a piccolo—the melodic equivalent of a St. Bernard, warbling from the orchestra’s back row.
These were the opening words of Shaffer’s enthusiastic review of a unique new musical museum that had recently opened in Durham, NC. The full article contains other impressive rhetorical flourishes as well.
“Zebulon Now Boasts North America’s Only Crafter of Bagpipes,” in News & Observer [Raleigh, NC] (Jan. 24, 2023)
The bagpipe occupies the strangest rung on the musical ladder, shaped like an octopus in plaid pants, sounding to some like a goose with its foot caught in an escalator and played during history’s most lopsided battles—by the losing side.
Shaffer has crafted some memorable opening paragraphs in his career—commonly referred to as ledes in the world of journalism—and two of them are unforgettable descriptions of musical instruments (the other one, also in this section, pertains to the tuba). In this article about Roddy MacLellan and “the only North American studio that makes, sells and teaches the Scottish national instrument,” Shaffer continued:
“Add to this the bagpipe’s cantankerous nature, fashioned from some of the world’s rarest wood, a combination of cracking pipes and leaking bags that strain all but the heartiest lungs.”
“Anti-Vaxxers Won’t Stop Harassing Nurse They’re Convinced Is Dead,” in The Daily Beast (Feb. 1, 2021)
For weeks now, commenters have flooded Tennessee nurse Tiffany Dover’s Facebook wall with messages of tribute, praising her kindness and beauty and offering their condolences for her loss.
“Tiffany died a hero,” they wrote—and “RIP Angel.”
There are more than 22,000 comments on her last Facebook post, from people around the world—a collective grieving and outpouring of anger for the 30-year-old mother of two.
But Tiffany Dover is not dead.
This a fabulous opener to a fascinating article about the absurd lengths anti-vaxxers and Covid skeptics will go in order to prove themselves right—even when they’re completely wrong. It all started a few months earlier when Dover, a Chattanooga nurse, passed out shortly after getting her first Pfizer vaccine injection.
It turns out that Dover suffers from an overactive vagal response, which can cause her to faint from even the mild pain of, say, stubbing her tow. Her fainting after the vaccine injection was all the anti-vaxxers needed to see. One of their numbers quickly edited the video to make it look like she had died—and it soon went viral on sites favored by conspiracy theorists. Despite repeated assurances from hospital officials that Dover was alive and well—and even a “proof-of-life” video!—the insanity continued in the Far Right echo chamber.
“Hipster Megachurch in Shambles Over Pastor’s Alleged Affair,” in The Daily Beast (Jan. 21, 2022)
When volunteers at Venue Church in Chattanooga, Tennessee, arrived at their pastor’s house last November, they were hoping to raise his spirits with a surprise visit. Instead they got a shock: Pastor Tavner Smith was alone with a female church employee—she in a towel, he in his boxers.
This was the “Lede of the Week” in The Sunday Long Read on Jan 30, 2022. In the article’s second paragraph, Shugerman continued: “The charismatic 41-year-old hurriedly explained that the two of them had been making chili and hot dogs and gotten food on their clothes, according to one volunteer who was present. But, as the volunteer put it, “I don’t think none of us was that dumb.”
Walter “Red” Smith
“Miracle of Coogan’s Bluff,” in New York Herald-Tribune (Oct. 4, 1951)
Now it is done. Now the story ends. And there is no way to tell it. The art of fiction is dead. Reality has strangled invention. Only the utterly impossible, the inexpressibly fantastic, can ever be plausible again.
This is one of the most famous “ledes” in the history of sports journalism, opening Smith’s now-classic story about the New York Giants winning the National League pennant over the Brooklyn Dodgers in a legendary playoff series in 1951.
The game was decided in the bottom of the ninth inning when Bobby Thomson, the Giants’ 27-year-old third baseman, hit a three-run walk-off home run (baseball fans revere it as “The Shot Heard Round the World”). The winning home run also resulted in one of the most famous “calls” in the history of sports broadcasting, with Giants’ broadcaster Russ Hodges exclaiming “The Giants win the pennant!” four separate times.
“#YesAllWomen: Feminists Rewrite the Story,” in Men Explain Things to Me (2014)
It was a key match in the World Cup of Ideas. The teams vied furiously for the ball. The all-star feminist team tried repeatedly to kick it through the goalposts marked Widespread Social Problems, while the opposing team, staffed by the mainstream media and mainstream dudes, was intent on getting it into the net called Isolated Event.
Over the years, analogies have often opened books and essays, but rarely as effectively as this one. Solnit continued: “To keep the ball out of his net, the mainstream’s goalie shouted ‘mental illness’ again and again. That ‘ball,’ of course, was the meaning of the massacre of students in Isla Vista, California, by one of their peers.”
“Postscript,” in Men Explain Things to Me (2014)
One evening over dinner in March 2008, I began to joke, as I often had before, about writing an essay called “Men Explain Things to Me.” Every writer has a stable of ideas that never make it to the racetrack, and I’d been trotting this pony out recreationally once in a while.
So begins a brief article explaining the origins of “Men Explain Things to Me,” a 2008 essay originally published in TomDispatch.com. The original essay immediately struck a nerve in female readers, and went on to become enormously popular. Even though Solnit did not coin the term “mansplaining,” her essay inspired the term.
In her opening paragraph, Solnit continued: “My houseguest, the brilliant theorist and activist Marina Sitrin, insisted that I had to write it down because people like her younger sister Sam needed to read it. Young women, she said, needed to know that being belittled wasn’t the result of their own secret failings; it was the boring old gender wars, and it happened to most of us who were female at some point or other.”
“Misconceptions About Russia Are a Threat to America,” in Foreign Affairs (Spring 1980)
Anyone not hopelessly blinded by his own illusions must recognize that the West today finds itself in a crisis, perhaps even in mortal danger.
GUEST COMMENTARY from business consultant and political blogger Jack Altschuler, who wrote: “The dramatic opening line of Solzhenitsyn’s classic Foreign Affairs article clearly deserves inclusion in your wonderful collection. In the article, he helpfully differentiated the country of Russia from the Russia of the communists—and took a few swipes at American foolishness along the way. Solzhenitsyn’s analysis has clear relevance to the Putin-led Russia of today, and especially to the continued inability of many in the West to view Russia accurately.”
In the opening paragraph of the article, Solzhenitsyn continued: “One could point to numerous particular causes or trace the specific stages over the last 60 years which have led to the present state of affairs. But the ultimate cause clearly lies in 60 years of obstinate blindness to the true nature of communism.“
Robert Louis Stevenson
“The Plains of Nebraska,” in Across the Plains: With Other Memories and Essays (1892)
It had thundered on the Friday night, but the sun rose on Saturday without a cloud. We were at sea—there is no other adequate expression—on the plains of Nebraska.
At sea on the plains of Nebraska? How can that be? This is perfect example of metaphorical phrasing in which something is literally false, but figuratively true. It is also one of my all-time favorite metaphors, and it came at the beginning of a travel vignette Stevenson wrote in 1879 while on a train from New York City to San Francisco.
If you’ve ever lived in The Great Plains—or traveled through the area during the summer months—you will appreciate the similarity between the great oceans of the world and the thousands of acres of rolling fields of wheat, flax, or corn (in writing the lyrics for the patriotic song “America the Beautiful,“ Katherine Lee Bates employed a similar metaphor in the opening lines: “O beautiful for spacious skies,/For amber waves of grain”).
In his vignette, Stevenson continued: “I made my observatory on the top of a fruit-wagon, and sat by the hour upon that perch to spy about me, and to spy in vain for something new. It was a world almost without a feature; an empty sky, an empty earth; front and back, the line of railway stretched from horizon to horizon, like a cue across a billiard-board; on either hand, the green plain ran till it touched the skirts of heaven.”
Best known for his rollicking adventure tales, Stevenson was also an accomplished essayist and arguably the world’s first internationally-famous travel writer (he wrote ten separate travel memoirs from 1878 to 1905).
“Thoughts on Various Subjects, Moral and Diverting,” in Miscellanies (1711)
We have just religion enough to make us hate, but not enough to make us love one another.
“Thoughts on Various Subjects” is actually less of an essay than a compilation of Swift’s thoughts on various subjects. The opening quotation is a wonderful way to begin the collection, though, so I’ve included it here. Swift went on to offer some of his most famous observations in the piece, including “When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.” This was the line, of course, that inspired the title of John Kennedy Toole’s brilliant 1980 novel A Confederacy of Dunces (the Toole novel also had a wonderful opening paragraph, which you will find here).
“Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” in Esquire (April 1966)
Frank Sinatra, holding a glass of bourbon in one hand and a cigarette in the other, stood in a dark corner of the bar between two attractive but fading blondes who sat waiting for him to say something.
This is the impeccable opening line of a celebrity profile that helped launch the “New Journalism” movement. Now regarded as a classic in journalism history, the essay is taught in journalism classes all around the country. In 2003, the editors of Esquire magazine hailed it as “The Best Story Esquire Ever Published.” And in a 2007 Vanity Fair article, Frank DiGiacomo described it as “The greatest literary-nonfiction story of the 20th century.” Many also regard it as the best profile ever written about Sinatra.
In the opening paragraph, Talese continued: “But he said nothing; he had been silent during much of the evening, except now in this private club in Beverly Hills he seemed even more distant, staring out through the smoke and semidarkness into a large room beyond the bar where dozens of young couples sat huddled around small tables or twisted in the center of the floor to the clamorous clang of folk-rock music blaring from the stereo. The two blondes knew, as did Sinatra’s four male friends who stood nearby, that it was a bad idea to force conversation upon him when he was in this mood of sullen silence, a mood that had hardly been uncommon during this first week of November, a month before his fiftieth birthday.”
“My Inventions,” in Electrical Experimenter Magazine (February 1919)
The progressive development of man is vitally dependent on invention. It is the most important product of his creative brain. Its ultimate purpose is the complete mastery of mind over the material world, the harnessing of the forces of nature to human needs.
In the opening paragraph, Tesla continued: “This is the difficult task of the inventor who is often misunderstood and unrewarded. But he finds ample compensation in the pleasing exercises of his powers and in the knowledge of being one of that exceptionally privileged class without whom the race would have long ago perished in the bitter struggle against pitiless elements.”
“Amity Street,” in The Youngest Science: Notes of a Medicine Watcher (1983)
I have always had a bad memory, as far back as I can remember.
Thomas, one of the most accomplished science writers of all time, continued in the opening paragraph:
“It isn’t so much that I forget things outright, I forget where I stored them. I need reminders, and when the reminders change, as most of them have changed from my childhood, there goes my memory as well.”
“His Winning Season: The Story of Pat Conroy, the real ‘Great Santini’ and The Citadel Basketball Team’s Remarkable Run,” in ESPN.com (March 2009)
Pat Conroy’s dad hit him after games. He hit him with fists, and with open palms, hit him until blood ran from Pat’s nose or lip onto his basketball jersey. Don Conroy didn’t hit his son only after games. He hit him for smiling at the wrong time, talking at the wrong time, crying at the wrong time, for trying to defend his battered mother at the wrong time. On occasion, he hit him just for the hell of it.
These are the gripping opening words of Thompson’s article on the horrific domestic abuse suffered by writer Pat Conroy at the hands of his father, later to be immortalized as “The Great Santini” (for the opening words of the 1976 novel The Great Santini, go here). In the article, Thompson—a senior writer at ESPN—continued:
“Pat’s first childhood memory is of sitting in a high chair watching his mother try to kill his father with a kitchen knife and then his dad laughing while beating her to the floor. There was only one place during the long night of Pat’s childhood where his father’s fury couldn’t touch him. He felt safe on the basketball court.”
“Chubby” (1998), in Quite Enough of Calvin Trillin(2011)
It’s common these days for memoirs of childhood to concentrate on some dark secret within the authors ostensibly happy family. It’s not just common; it’s pretty much mandatory.
In his opening paragraph, Trillin continued: “Memoir in America is an atrocity arms race. A memoir that reveals incest is trumped by one that reveals bestiality, and that, in turn, is driven from the bestseller list by one that reveals incestuous bestiality.”
“Try to Remember,” in The New Yorker (April 4, 2011)
To memorize the first ten digits of pi, you simply have to sing, to the tune of the Mousketeers song, “If numbers had a heaven / their god would surely be / 3.1415 / 92653.”
“Nerds, Dorks, and Weenies” (1990), in Quite Enough of Calvin Trillin (2011)
The reason so many Hollywood movies are made about nerds in high school who triumph in some improbable way over the jocks is this: Nearly everybody who makes movies in Hollywood was himself a nerd in high school.
Trillin continued: “They weren’t called that, of course. The word changes all the time. But they know who they are. So do I. I keep track of these things. I even keep track of the current word for ‘nerd.’ I’m that sort of person.”
In his essay, Trillin ticked off a number of words that have been used to describes nerds over the years, including dork, weenie, dweeb, and the English term “wally.”
“The Lede,” in The New Yorker (Dec. 27, 2021)
It’s said that when James Thurber, as a young newspaper reporter, was told by an editor that his story’s first paragraph, what newspaper people might refer to as his lede, suffered from wordiness, he handed in a rewrite whose opening paragraph was, in its entirety, “Dead.”
There followed a second paragraph: “That’s what the man was when they found him with a knife in his back at 4pm in front of Riley’s saloon at the corner of 52nd and 12th streets.”
In the world of journalism, the opening (or “lead”) sentence in newspaper and magazine articles is often described as a “lede.” There’s some debate about the exact origins of the usage, but few people outside the world of journalism use the term. In his New Yorker article—a homage to ledes from a man who described himself as “a collector” of them—Trillin opened with a marvelous apocryphal story about James Thurber.
“Fates and Furies,” in The Observer (July 12, 1955); reprinted as “Macbeth” in Tynan on Theatre (1964)
Nobody has ever succeeded as Macbeth, and the reason is not far to seek. Instead of growing as the play proceeds, the hero shrinks; complex and many-levelled to begin with, he ends up a cornered thug, lacking even a death scene with which to regain lost stature.
In the opening paragraph, Tynan continued: “Most Macbeths, mindful of this, let off their big guns as soon as possible, and have usually shot their bolt by the time the dagger speech is out.”
The review, begun so pessimistically, was soon transformed into adulation for Laurence Olivier’s performance in the role: “The marvel of Sir Laurence Olivier’s reading is that it reverses this procedure, turns the play inside out, and makes it (for the first time I can remember) a thing of mounting, not waning, excitement.”
“The Lost Art of Bad Drama,” in The Observer (March 1955); reprinted in Tynan on Theatre (1964)
Night-nurses at the bedside of good drama, we critics keep a holy vigil. Black circles rim our eyes as we pray for the survival of our pet patient….
Tynan was one of history’s most influential drama critics, and also one of the most articulate, as he demonstrates in this impressive opener. The idea of critics as nurse-maids is a powerful metaphor, and it reveals something important about Tynan’s view of the critic’s role—as a defender of good drama, and, like a physician, one who regards bad drama as a sickness or disease that must be eradicated for the patient to enjoy good health.
Tynan will forever be remembered as a critic, but, as he demonstrates in the opening words of this review, he also deserves to be honored as a superlative writer.
“The Quare Fellow,” a 1956 Observer review; reprinted in Tynan on Theatre (1964)
“Bloody sparklin’ dialogue,” said a pensive Irishman during the first interval of The Quare Fellow—and sparkle, by any standards, it amazingly did.
On a number of occasions, Tynan used a snippet of overheard audience conversation to open a review. In this case, it was a terrific way to begin, and it only got better as Tynan expanded on the remark: “The English hoard words like misers; the Irish spend them like sailors; and in Brendan Behan’s tremendous new play language is out on a spree, ribald, dauntless, and spoiling for a fight.”
In the opening paragraph, Tynan continued with this stinging criticism of English drama: “In itself, of course, this is scarcely amazing. It is Ireland’s sacred duty to send over, every few years, a playwright to save the English theatre from inarticulate glumness.”
Laurel Thatcher Ulrich
“Virtuous Women Found: New England Ministerial Literature, 1668-1735,” in American Quarterly (Spring 1976)
Cotton Mather called them “The hidden ones.“ They never preached or sat in a deacon’s bench. Nor did they vote or attend Harvard. Neither, because they were virtuous women, did they question God or the magistrates. They prayed secretly, read the Bible through at least once a year, and went to hear the minister preach even when it snowed. Hoping for an eternal crown, they never asked to be remembered on earth. And they haven’t been. Well-behaved women seldom make history.
This is—hands down, I might add—the best opening paragraph to ever come from an obscure academic journal. Ulrich was a 37-year-old history professor at the University of New Hampshire when these words appeared at the beginning of an article on Puritan funeral practices in New England.
In writing “Well-behaved women seldom make history,” Ulrich was arguing that humble and prayerful women should make history, but her quotation gradually began to take on a life of its own under a different, and slightly more radical, interpretation: women should be less well-behaved, and even rebellious, if they wanted to make history.
In 1995, Ulrich’s pithy saying took its first step from obscurity to quotation immortality when journalist Kay Mills used it as an epigraph for her popular account of women’s history, From Pocahantas to Power Suits (for some reason, though, Mills misquoted Ulrich as saying “Well-behaved women rarely make history”). In 1996, the altered saying appeared in Rosalie Maggio’s New Beacon Book of Quotations. From there, it was picked up by an Oregon T-shirt company and, in a few years, it had become the firm’s most popular product.
The rest, as they say is history. As we moved into the new century, the saying became a full-blown cultural meme. Not unexpectedly, Ulrich even decided to write a book using the saying as the title: Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History (2007). She began her book with these words: “Some time ago a former student e-mailed me from California: ‘You’ll be delighted to know that you are quoted frequently on bumpers in Berkeley.’ Through a strange stroke of fate I’ve gotten used to seeing my name on bumpers. And on T-shirts, tote bags, coffee mugs, magnets, buttons, greeting cards, and websites.”
“Confessions of a Wild Bore,” in Assorted Prose (1965)
Pity the poor bore. He stands among us as a creature formidable and familiar yet in essence unknowable. We can read of the ten infallible signs whereby he may be recognized and of the seven tested methods whereby he may be rebuffed.
In an essay that is now regarded as a masterpiece of parody, Updike introduced his subject with an inspired tongue-in-cheek opening paragraph. He continued with a brilliant piece of writing that embedded one of his most quotable observations (it’s at the conclusion of the paragraph, and I’ve put it into italics so you can locate it more readily):
“Valuable monographs exist upon his dress and diet; the study of his mating habits and migrational routes is well past the speculative stage; and statistical studies abound. One out of three hundred and twelve Americans is a bore, for instance, and a healthy adult male bore consumes each year one and a half times his own weight in other people’s patience.”
“The Satiric World of Evelyn Waugh,” in The New York Times (Jan 7, 1962)
A satirist is a man profoundly revolted by the society in which he lives. His rage takes the form of wit, ridicule, mockery.
If you’re going to open an essay with an observation that attempts to capture the essence of your subject, it had better be a good one—and in this case, it turns out to be one of the very best things ever written about satirists. Indeed, Vidal’s first sentence was so eloquently expressed that I stopped reading for just a moment to appreciate the beauty of the construction.
Vidal was writing about the English writer Evelyn Waugh, who he described as “Our time’s first satirist.“ About Waugh, he continued: “For thirty years his savagery and wit have given pleasure and alarm. . .all set down in a prose so chaste that at times one longs for a violation of syntax to suggest that its creator is fallible, or at least part American.“
David Von Drehle
“My Neighbor Lived to Be 109. This is What I Learned from Him,” The Washington Post (May 22, 2023)
Early one August morning during a heat wave in Kansas City, Mo., I stepped outside to fetch the Sunday newspaper—and something stopped me in my tracks.
When I think about Great Opening Lines, I don’t restrict my thinking to only the first sentence of the piece, for it sometimes takes a few paragraphs to truly hook the reader. And that is most certainly the case with Von Drehles’s article, which continues:
“My new neighbor was washing a car. In my memory (this detail is a matter of some disagreement around the neighborhood), it was a shiny new Chrysler PT Cruiser, the color of grape soda pop. It belonged to my neighbor’s girlfriend, and I couldn’t help noting that the vehicle in question was parked in the same spot where she had left it the night before. I deduced that a Saturday night date with the glamorous driver had developed into the sort of sleepover that makes a man feel like being especially nice the next morning.
“My neighbor was bare-chested, dressed only in a pair of old swim trunks. With a garden hose in one hand and a soapy sponge in the other, he flexed his muscular chest with each splash and swirl, his wavy hair flopping rakishly over one eye. This was Dr. Charlie White. Age 102.”
Later in the year, Von Drehle told the fuller story about his very special neighbor in The Book of Charlie (2023). While I thoroughly enjoyed the book, I preferred the way he opened his earlier Washington Post article. And while a final decision remains to be made, the opening paragraphs of his article are in contention to make my end-of-year list of “23 of the Best Opening Lines of 2023.“
“Returning to Church,” in The New York Times Magazine (Dec. 22, 1985)
Just before Christmas of 1980, I was sitting in the Sevens, a neighborhood bar on Beacon Hill (don’t all these stories of revelation begin in bars?), when a housepainter named Tony remarked out of the blue that he wanted to find a place to go to mass on Christmas Eve. I didn’t say anything, but a thought came into my mind, as swift and unexpected as it was unfamiliar: I’d like to do that, too.
Wakefield wrote that he had left his “boyhood Protestant faith as a rebellious Columbia College intellectual more than a quarter-century before” and hadn’t set foot in a church since. So, what explained his newfound motivation to attend a Christmas church service? Despite his enormous success as a journalist, novelist, and screenwriter, Wakefield confessed that his life took a dark turn in the late 1970s, and it was continuing to downslide throughout 1980.
About his life at the time, he wrote: “I felt I was headed for the edge of a cliff. I could have scored at the top of those magazine tests that list the greatest stresses of life, for that year saw the dissolution of a seven-year relationship with the woman I had fully expected to live with the rest of my life, I ran out of money, left the work I was doing, the house I owned, and the city I was living in, and attended the funeral of my father in May and my mother in November.”
“The Gentle Wit of Robert Benchley,” in American Heritage magazine (Nov./Dec., 2021)
Comedians yammer on and on, but humorists are a somber bunch.
Watson, a noted American writer/biographer/historian and senior editor at American Heritage, continued with words almost guaranteed to get readers to stay glued to the page: “Though funny in print, their party personas tend to brooding. Their lives are often a mess. You don’t have to be Freud to see that sorrow is the soul of wit. But meet Robert Benchley.”
“New Auto Mechanic Can Barely Find the Engine,” in The Detroit Free Press (June 19, 1978)
Yesterday, I hardly knew anything about what an auto mechanic does. Today, I am one.
Weingarten was a reporter at the newspaper when his editor got a tip that the Michigan state licensing exam for auto mechanics was a “Mickey-Mouse multiple-choice test” that almost anyone could pass. As a result, the state was licensing completely incompetent people to work on vehicles. Weingarten, who described himself as “utterly ignorant about cars” took the exam, passed, and three days later received his license in the mail. The next day, the Free Press ran his article on the experience. His article appeared with a cartoon showing Mickey Mouse examining a car engine that was belching fire and black smoke. The caption read, “I think the tires are a little low.”
H. G. Wells
“The Writing of Essays” (1898), in Certain Personal Matters (1898)
The art of the essayist is so simple, so entirely free from canons of criticism, and withal so delightful, that one must needs wonder why all men are not essayists. Perhaps people do not know how easy it is. Or perhaps beginners are misled. Rightly taught it may be learnt in a brief ten minutes or so, what art there is in it. And all the rest is as easy as wandering among woodlands on a bright morning in the spring.
I include the opening paragraph of this essay, not because it is so deserving, but because of the essay’s final paragraph, which you will see in a moment (it includes one of the most interesting things ever written on the subject of Great Opening Lines). The best thing I can say about the opening paragraph above is that it is a little strange. I know of no other serious writer who has maintained that writing is simple or easy, or that it can be learned in a matter of minutes. I’m not sure what Wells was smoking when he wrote the essay, but it looks like it might have been some pretty strong stuff.
The most important thing about Wells’s essay is not the first paragraph, but the final one—which includes this thought about how to effectively begin an essay:
“So long as you do not begin with a definition you may begin anyhow. An abrupt beginning is much admired, after the fashion of the clown’s entry through the chemist’s window. Then whack at your reader (italics mine) at once, hit him over the head with the sausages, brisk him up with the poker, bundle him into the wheelbarrow, and so carry him away with you before he knows where you are.”
George F. Will
“The Cubs and Conservatism,” in The Washington Post (March 21, 1974); reprinted in Bunts: Pete Rose, Curt Flood, Camden Yards and Other Reflections on Baseball (1997)
A reader demands to know how I contracted the infectious conservatism for which he plans to horsewhip me. So if you have tears, prepare to shed them now as I reveal how my gloomy temperament received its conservative warp from early and prolonged exposure to the Chicago Cubs.
After a first sentence almost guaranteed to get a reader’s attention, Will suggested that the roots of his political conservativism could be traced to his early love of the perennially-losing Chicago Cubs. He then went on to offer a delightful two-paragraph comparison of liberals and conservatives:
“The differences between conservatives and liberals are as much a matter of temperament as ideas. Liberals are temperamentally inclined to see the world as a harmonious carnival of sweetness and light, where goodwill prevails, good intentions are rewarded, the race is to the swift, and a benevolent Nature arranges a favorable balance of pleasure over pain. Conservatives (and Cub fans) know better.
“Conservatives know the world is a dark and forbidding place where most new knowledge is false, most improvements are for the worse, the battle is not to the strong, nor riches to men of understanding, and an unscrupulous Providence consigns innocents to suffering. I learned this early.”
Caroline Randall Williams
“You Want a Confederate Monument? My Body is a Confederate Monument,” an Op-Ed article in The New York Times (June 26, 2020)
I have rape-colored skin.
Over the years, it’s been common to describe some opening lines as “arresting,” and this one clearly deserves that designation. It was my choice for The Best Opening Line of 2020, heading my Smerconish.com post on the twenty best openers of the year.
In her piece, Williams continued: “My light-brown-blackness is a living testament to the rules, the practices, the causes of the Old South. If there are those who want to remember the legacy of the Confederacy, if they want monuments, well, then, my body is a monument. My skin is a monument.”
A poet, author, and Writer-in-Residence at Vanderbilt University, Williams was directly addressing those who were calling for the preservation of Confederate statues in public places. Few people in America were more qualified to write on the subject. Williams’s great-grandfather was Arna Bontemps, one of the leading voices of the Harlem Renaissance; her grandmother was Avon Williams, an influential civil-rights lawyer in the 1960s; and her mother is Alice Randall, a popular songwriter and author of The Wind Done Gone (2001), a brilliant parody of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind.
That is only part of the story, though. Williams’s great-great-grandfather was Edmund Pettus—yes, the man the Selma, Alabama bridge was named after—a Confederate Army officer, a Grand Dragon of the KKK, and, in his later years, a U.S. Senator from Alabama. About her family legacy, Williams wrote: “The black people I came from were owned and raped by the white people I came from.”
“Your Land,” in The National Road: Dispatches from a Changing America (2020)
A summer afternoon in Kansas: shadows in the grass, and a diagonal slash cut into the earth.
After first reading this deliciously ambiguous opening line, the image that came into my mind was some kind of human creation, like a highway, airport landing strip, or worse, oil pipeline, desecrating the natural landscape. That first impression spurred me on to read further, and I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Zoellner continued—beautifully, I might add—in the second paragraph: “The trench in the soil had nailed me in place, as if I had just been shown the ribs of a dinosaur skeleton. Nothing here but a rut in the ground, but what a remarkable rut, because it had been carved here by hundreds of wagons traveling on the Santa Fe Trail in the mid-nineteenth century, jangling with goods headed southwest, crossing through territory of the Pawneee and Kiowa. The ground still wore a scar of their passage. I could not have been more mesmerized looking at a full-color telescope blast of the Crab Nebula, or the dark shroud of the Virgin of Guadalupe.”
A few months after he was captivated by the sight of the diagonal slash, Zoellner took a break from his work as a newspaper reporter, strapped forty pounds of gear on his back, and hiked the entire length of the trail—900 miles, from Missouri to New Mexico—keeping notes along the way.
“Value Shoppers Find Bargain in Golden Rule,” in The Chicago Tribune (February 28, 1996)
Straight from the mouth of Jesus come words that ought to appear, at least paraphrased, in 10-inch-high letters at the front of every public and private school classroom in America: “As you wish that men would do to you, do so to them.“
Zorn continued: “That’s from Luke 6:31 and, almost identically, Matthew 7:12. But it’s also from Aristotle (‘We should behave to our friends as we would wish our friends to behave to us’), Confucius (‘What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others’) and the prophet Muhammad (‘A person is not a believer unless and until he loves for his brother what he loves for himself,’ according to the translation of local Islamic scholar Irfan Khan.)”
And in the next paragraph, Zorn continued: “It is from the Talmud (‘What is hateful to you, do not do unto others’), the Hindu tradition (‘Whatever you do comes back to you,’ says Swami Varadananda, a South Side Hindu monk. ‘It’s the underlying precept of our ethical system.’) and is consistent with the philosophies of Buddhism and much of American Indian spirituality.”