Genre: History & Historical Fiction
Murder & Madness: The Secret Life of Jack the Ripper (1992)
The murders and mutilations of five prostitutes in Whitechapel, in the East End of London, began on the morning of Friday, August 31, 1888.
Abrahamsen continued: “Mary Anne Nichols was found dead, lying in a back street named Buck’s Row. Murders connected to theft or rape were common occurrences, and under ordinary circumstances the death of a prostitute would cause no more than a momentary ripple in the dark pool that was the East End. But these circumstances were not ordinary.”
Dan Abrams and David Fisher
Lincoln’s Last Trial: The Murder Case That Propelled Him to the Presidency (2018)
Mister Robert Roberts Hitt, the well-known steno man, arrived in Springfield late on the sweltering afternoon of August 28, 1859. As he stepped down onto the platform of the new station, he paused briefly and nattily patted the beads of sweat from his forehead, then vainly attempted to tug the wrinkles out of his jacket.
Abrams and Fisher continued in the first paragraph: “The Alton Express had covered the two hundred miles from Chicago in a quite acceptable nine hours. Hitt had tried with limited success to practice his shorthand on the ever-shaking rails. It had not surprised young Hitt that the carriage was far more crowded than he had previously experienced: the Peachy Quinn Harrison murder trial had attracted considerably more attention than might otherwise have been expected once it became known that Abe Lincoln was going to defend the accused killer.”
“A College Vagabond”, in Cattle Brands: A Collection of Winter Camp-Fire Stories (1906)
The ease and apparent willingness with which some men revert to an aimless life can best be accounted for by the savage or barbarian instincts of our natures.
The narrator continued: “The West has produced many types of the vagabond—it might be excusable to say, won them from every condition of society. From the cultured East, with all the advantages which wealth and educational facilities can give to her sons, they flocked; from the South, with her pride of ancestry, they came; even the British Isles contributed their quota. There was something in the primitive West of a generation or more ago which satisfied them. Nowhere else could it be found, and once they adapted themselves to existing conditions, they were loath to return to former associations.”
Twenty Years at Hull House (1910)
On the theory that our genuine impulses may be connected with our childish experiences, that one’s bent may be tracked back to that “No-Man’s Land” where character is formless but nevertheless settling into lines of future development, I begin this record with some impressions of my childhood.
Some modern readers may find these words a bit too formal or old-fashioned, but I can’t read them without admiring the beautiful phrasing. Read it again—slowly this time, and pausing after each comma to let the words sink in—and I think you will know what I mean. I first read this opening paragraph many, many decades ago, and one phrase in particular—where character is formless but nevertheless settling into lines of future developmentstill comes to mind when I observe prepubescent children.
Generations of Winter (1994)
Just think—in 1925, the eighth year of the Revolution, a traffic jam in Moscow!
The opening words of the novel—which the Washington Post called “the 20th-century equivalent of War and Peace“—describe a scene unimagined several years earlier, when famine and epidemics had almost completely paralyzed the post-czarist country that was becoming known as “Russia of the Reds.“
A Place to Hang the Moon (2021)
Funeral receptions can be tough spots to find enjoyment, but eleven-year-old Edmund Pearce was doing his best.
In her debut novel, Albus had her narrator continue: “He was intent on the iced buns. Some of them had gone squashy on one side or the other, some had lost their icing when a neighboring bun had been removed, and a few had been sadly neglected in the icing department from the start.”
As the opening paragraph continued, the narrator neatly captured additional age-appropriate behavior for an eleven-year-old boy: “Undaunted, Edmund picked through the pile, finding two that met with his approval. He shoved one into each of his trouser pockets and, scooping up a handful of custard cream cookies to round out the meal, navigated through the crowd until he found a vacant armchair. There he settled, quite content despite the occasion. It helped that he’d never cared much for his grandmother, anyway.”
Stephen E. Ambrose
Crazy Horse and Custer: The Parallel Lives of Two American Warriors (2014)
This is the story of two men who died as they lived—violently.
Books about the parallel lives of famous figures have been around since the Greeks (the first was Plutarch’s Parallel Lives in the 1st c. A.D.), but few have begun with a better opening sentence. Ambrose continued in the first paragraph:
“They were both war lovers, men of aggression with a deeply rooted instinct to charge the enemy, rout him, kill him. Men of supreme courage, they were natural-born leaders in a combat crisis, the type to whom others instinctively looked for guidance and inspiration. They were always the first to charge the enemy, and the last to retreat.”
Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956 (2012)
Among many other things, the year 1945 marked one of the most extraordinary population movements in European history.
Applebaum continued: "All across the continent, hundreds of thousands of people were returning from Soviet exile, from forced labor in Germany, from concentration camps and prisoner-of-war camps, from hiding places and refuges of all kinds. The roads, footpaths, tracks, and trains were crammed full of ragged, hungry, dirty people."
Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine (2017)
The warning signs were ample. By the early spring of 1932, the peasants of Ukraine were beginning to starve.
Applebaum continued: “Secret police reports and letters from the grain-growing districts all across the Soviet Union—The North Caucases, the Volga region, western Siberia—spoke of children swollen with hunger; of families eating grass and acorns; of peasants fleeing their homes in search of food. In March a medical commission found corpses lying on the street in a village near Odessa. No one was strong enough to bury them.“
Kane & Abel (1979)
She only stopped screaming when she died. It was then that he started to scream.
Kane & Abel was Archer’s second novel and, of the scores of books he went on to write, it was his most successful, selling nearly forty million copies (Wikipedia lists it as one of the 100 best-selling books of all time). In a 2017 article in Dubai’s Khaleej Times, Archer said: “If you’re going to open a book and you want to make people say, ‘I’m not going to put this down,’ you’re going to have to have a sensational opening sentence.” He went on to add that many people had written to him over the years saying Kane & Abel’s opening line “made it impossible not to go on reading.”
In the novel’s second paragraph, the narrator continued: “The young boy who was hunting rabbits in the forest was not sure whether it was the woman’s last cry or the child’s first that alerted his youthful ears. He turned suddenly, sensing the possible danger, his eyes searching for an animal that was so obviously in pain. He had never known any animal to scream in quite that way before.”
The Bible: A Biography (2006)
Human beings are meaning-seeking creatures. Unless we find some pattern or significance in our lives, we fall very easily into despair.
A History of God (1993)
In the beginning, human beings created a God who was the First Cause of all things and Ruler of heaven and earth.
Armstrong begins by memorably reversing the conventional “In the beginning” narrative of the Old Testament—and then goes on to suggest that a primitive monotheism actually preceded the well-known polytheism of the ancient Egyptians and Greeks. She continued: “He was not represented by images and had no temple or priests in his service. He was too exalted for an inadequate human cult. Gradually he faded from the consciousness of his people. He had become so remote that they decided that they did not want him anymore. Eventually he was said to have disappeared.”
Behind the Scenes at the Museum (1995)
I exist! I am conceived to the chimes of midnight on the clock on the mantelpiece in the room across the hall. The clock once belonged to my great-grandmother (a woman called Alice) and its tired chime counts me into the world. I’m begun on the first stroke and finished on the last when my father rolls off my mother and is plunged into a dreamless sleep, thanks to the five pints of John Smith’s Best Bitter he has drunk in the Punch Bowl with his friends, Walter and Bernard Belling.
The novel begins at the exact moment the narrator is conceived, and it captures precise details, including key aspects of her parents’ lovemaking patterns. The narrator, who will ultimately be known as Ruby Lennox, continued in the first paragraph: “At the moment at which I moved from nothingness into being my mother was pretending to sleep—as she often does at such moments. My father, however, is made of stern stuff and he didn’t let that put him off.”
Atkinson’s brilliant opening had a vague, but familiar feeling about it, but I couldn’t put my finger on the reason why until I read what she wrote in her Introduction to the 25th Anniversary edition of the book: “The beginning of the book is a nod to Tristram Shandy.” She went on to add that her novel—like Sterne’s classic work and, indeed, all of literature—is “about the journey of the self toward the light.”
Behind the Scenes at the Museum was Atkinson’s debut novel, and what a way to start a career. It won the 1995 Whitbread Book of the Year award and is now regarded as a modern classic.
Burning Boy: The Life and Work of Stephen Crane (2021)
Born on the Day of the Dead and dead five months before his twenty-ninth birthday, Stephen Crane lived five months and five days into the twentieth century, undone by tuberculosis before he had a chance to drive an automobile or see an airplane, to watch a film projected on a large screen or listen to a radio, a figure from the horse-and-buggy world who missed out on the future that was awaiting his peers, not just the construction of those miraculous machines and inventions but the horrors of the age as well, including the destruction of tens of millions of lives in two wars.
When one brilliant writer chooses to write a biography of another brilliant writer, readers can legitimately expect an extraordinary work, and Burning Boy is just that. The book also begins with a tour de force of an opening sentence—all 104 words of it. For reasons I’m sure you will understand, this was one of my choices for a Smerconish.com post on “Twenty-One of the Best Opening Lines of 2021.“
A bit later in the book, Auster also captured Crane’s pivotal role in American letters: “Crane’s work, which shunned the traditions of nearly everything that had come before him, was so radical for its time that he can be regarded now as the first American modernist, the man most responsible for changing the way we see the world through the lens of the written word.”
Amelia E. Barr
The Maid of Maiden Lane: A Love Story (1900)
Never, in all its history, was the proud and opulent city of New York more glad and gay than in the bright spring days of Seventeen-Hundred-and-Ninety-One. It had put out of sight every trace of British rule and occupancy, all its homes had been restored and re-furnished, and its sacred places re-consecrated and adorned.
Yes, The Maid of Maiden Love is a novel, and a love story at that. But it begins with a remarkable historical assessment of the state of the city—and the new American nation—shortly after the Revolutionary War had come to a successful end. The narrator continued: “Like a young giant ready to run a race, it stood on tiptoe, eager for adventure and discovery—sending ships to the ends of the world, and round the world, on messages of commerce and friendship, and encouraging with applause and rewards that wonderful spirit of scientific invention, which was the Epic of the youthful nation.“
The Sot-Weed Factor (1960)
In the last years of the Seventeenth Century there was to be found among the fops and fools of the London coffee-houses one rangy, gangling flitch called Ebenezer Cooke, more ambitious than talented, and yet more talented than prudent, who, like his friends-in-folly, all of whom were supposed to be educating at Oxford or Cambridge, had found the sound of Mother English more fun to game with than her sense to labor over, and so rather than applying himself to the pains of scholarship, had learned the knack of versifying, and ground out quires of couplets after the fashion of the day, afroth with Joves and Jupiters, aclang with jarring rhymes, and string-taut with similes stretched to the snapping-point.
Whenever I hear writers opining that a novel’s opening words should be pithy and punchy, I think about the many brilliant opening sentences that stretch out to more than 100 words—as in this gem from one of the modern era’s most acclaimed writers.
Barth’s 119-word opening sentence dazzled the critics of his day, and continues to impress modern readers. In a 2010 Time magazine feature on “The 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005,” critic Richard Lacayo wrote:
“A feast. Dense, funny, endlessly inventive (and, OK, yes, long-winded) this satire of the 18th-century picaresque novel—think Fielding’s Tom Jones or Sterne’s Tristram Shandy—is…impossibly rich, a wickedly funny take on old English rhetoric and American self-appraisals.”
The Man Nobody Knows (1952)
It was very late in the afternoon.
If you would like to learn the measure of a man that is the time of day to watch him. We are all half an inch taller in the morning than at night; it is fairly easy to take a large view of things when the mind is rested and the nerves are calm. But the day is a steady drain of small annoyances, and the difference in the size of men becomes hourly more apparent. The little man loses his temper; the big man takes a firmer hold.
It was very late in the afternoon in Galilee.
This lovely, philosophical beginning has the flavor of an older, wiser person—a teacher or clergyman, perhaps—passing along time-honored wisdom. As the third paragraph begins, we begin to sense that the book is a fictionalized version a very real historical figure. Reading on, we discover that Barton—one of the era’s most successful business executives—has reframed the life of Jesus, portraying him as a brilliant adman, a superb salesman, and a role model for businesspeople everywhere.
**A Condition of Doubt: The Meanings of Hypochondria (2012)
Hypochondriacs have two significant beliefs; that their bodies contain something that will kill them, and that, if they could only read their bodies closely enough, they should be able to find that lurking threat before it is too late.
Belling continued: “If a doctor examines such a patient and announces that no evidence of disease can be found, the patient (who would love to be able to believe the doctor) is not finally convinced. The patient concludes that this particular doctor is just not good enough to have found the horror that must—surely?—be hidden somewhere within.”
Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present (2020)
On November 4, 2008, when many world leaders waited to hear the results of the American presidential election, Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi was in his Roman residence preparing to have sex.
This is a highly unusual way for a serious scholar to begin a serious book about modern autocratic leaders, but I think you will agree that it is also highly effective in achieving two of the goals of all Great Opening Lines: (1) to “frame” the story about to be told, and (2) to get the reader to continue reading.
The book continues with a brief discussion between Berlusconi and one of his many mistresses, Patrizia D’Addario, about which bed they will be using that night. He replies that it will be a bed he received as a gift from his strongman pal, Vladimir Putin. Ben-Ghiat, a history professor at New York University, went on to explain: “Berlusconi’s ‘Putin bed’ symbolized the intimacy of a friendship sustained by the leaders’ common drive to exercise as much personal power as their political systems allowed and to appear to the world—and each other—as virile.”
The Rose’s Kiss: A Natural History of Flowers (1999)
Fresh flowers accompany us through some of the most emotional moments of our lives.
Bernhardt, a trained botanist and popular science writer, continued in the first paragraph: “High school students give and receive corsages before the prom. Courtships, weddings, and anniversaries must have their bouquets. Mourners hope that floral tributes and wreaths will lend grace to a funeral and help ease the immediate burden of grief.”
Michael R. Beschloss
Presidents of War: The Epic Story, from 1807 to Modern Times (2018)
And so it had come to this. Horrified as he stood on a height above the Potomac, James Madison, the fourth President of the United States—and now, some wondered, the last?—watched his beloved Washington City as it seemed to vanish into a crimson-orange swirl of fire.
Beschloss continued: “It was after midnight on Wednesday, August 24, 1814, and Madison was a fugitive, escaping the Capital—first by ferry, then by galloping horse—for the dark wilderness of Virginia.“
In the book’s second paragraph, Beschloss continued the gripping narrative: “Still wearing formal knee breeches and buckled shoes, the sixty-three-year-old Madison knew that the invader-incendiaries from Great Britain were out for his capture and arrest, which might force him to be hanged. But he kept dismounting his horse to stare, with those intelligent blue eyes that ‘sprinkled like stars,’ at the inferno across the Potomac. He could not help himself.”
T. H. Huxley: Scientist, Humanist and Educator (1959)
On the 4th of May 1825, when Thomas Henry Huxley was born in the sleepy old village of Ealing, English society still had its roots deep in the eighteenth century. By the 29th June 1895, when he died at the newly developing seaside resort of Eastbourne, it was already feeling its way into the twentieth.
“An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,“ in The San Francisco Examiner (July 13, 1890); reprinted in Tales of Soldiers and Civilians (1891)
A man stood upon a railroad bridge in northern Alabama, looking down into the swift water twenty feet below. The man’s hands were behind his back, the wrists bound with a cord. A rope closely encircled his neck.
The narrator continued: “It was attached to a stout cross-timber above his head and the slack fell to the level of his knees. Some loose boards laid upon the ties supporting the metals of the railway supplied a footing for him and his executioners—two private soldiers of the Federal army, directed by a sergeant who in civil life may have been a deputy sheriff.”
In a May 10, 2012 article in The New York Review of Books (titled “One of America’s Best”), Michael Dirda wrote: “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” has been called—by Kurt Vonnegut, himself a kinder, gentler Bierce—the greatest short story in American literature. Surely, no first-time reader ever forgets the shock of its final sentences.” I won’t say anything more about the ending here, but the entire short story may be found here).
Dances with Wolves (1988)
Lieutenant Dunbar wasn’t really swallowed. But that was the first word that stuck in his mind.
The opening words attempt to capture the emotional experience of Union Army Lieutenant John Dunbar when, in the 1860s, he first witnessed the vastness of the American frontier, now known as The Great Plains. The narrator continued:
“Everything was immense.
“The great, cloudless sky. The rolling ocean of grass. Nothing else, no matter where he put his eyes. No road. No trace of ruts for the big wagon to follow. Just sheer, empty space.
“He was adrift. It made his heart jump in a strange and profound way.”
In 1990, the novel was adapted into a film directed by and starring Kevin Costner (it was his directorial debut). A critical as well as a commercial success, it was the fourth-highest grossing film of 1990. Nominated for 12 Academy Awards, it won seven (including Best Picture and Best Director). It also became the second Western in film history (after Cimarron in 1931) to win the Best Picture Oscar.
Utopia for Realists (2016)
Let’s start with a little history lesson: In the past everything was worse.
I have a weakness for books that begin with a Grand Declaration, whether simply stated, like this one, or eloquently phrased, like the opening line of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, or axiomatically expressed, like the first sentence of C. Northcote Parkinson’s Parkinson’s Law.
In Bregman’s second paragraph, he continued: “For roughly 99% of the world’s history, 99% of humanity was poor, hungry, dirty, afraid, stupid, sick and ugly.”
Humankind: A Hopeful History (2019)
This is a book about a radical idea.
An idea that’s long been known to make rulers nervous. An idea denied by religions and ideologies, ignored by the news media and erased from the annals of world history.
At the same time, it’s an idea that’s legitimized by virtually every branch of science. One that’s corroborated by evolution and confirmed by everyday life. An ideal so intrinsic to human nature that it goes unnoticed and gets overlooked.
If only we had the courage to take it more seriously, it’s an idea that might just start a revolution. Turn society on its head. Because once you grasp what it really means, it’s nothing less than a mind-bending drug that ensures you’ll never look at the world the same again.
So what is this radical idea?
That most people, deep down, are pretty decent.
Agnes Grey (1847)
All true histories contain instruction; though, in some, the treasure may be hard to find, and when found, so trivial in quantity that the dry, shrivelled kernel scarcely compensates for the trouble of cracking the nut.
These opening words from English governess Agnes Grey are among the most beautiful ever written on an important question: what can we learn from an analysis of our past? As she continues, there is a tantalizing suggestion that some of her own personal choices might have been questionable: “Whether this be the case with my history or not, I am hardly competent to judge; I sometimes think it might prove useful to some, and entertaining to others, but the world may judge for itself: shielded by my own obscurity, and by the lapse of years, and a few fictitious names, I do not fear to venture, and will candidly lay before the public what I would not disclose to the most intimate friend.“
Jayne Eyre (1847)
There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.
When many readers think of Jane Eyre, their minds go to the legendary closing line (“Reader, I married him”), but the novel’s opening line has also been admired by many for its subtle, straight-to-the-point strength. In The 100 Best Novels in English (2015), Robert McCrum called Brontë’s opener “a haunting first line” that “takes her audience by the throat with a fierce narrative of great immediacy.”
In a 2011 blog post, English writer Kit Whitfield wrote: “Some books begin with a flourish, others with a handshake. Jane Eyre occupies the former category: the opening sentence, rather than being a standalone moment, is the beginning of a discursive paragraph deftly bringing in landscape, weather and social frictions, all major themes throughout the book. But the first sentence, flexible and authoritative, quickly establishes the voice of the narrator.”
And, finally, in a 2019 BBC.com “Culture” post (“What Are the Best First Lines in Fiction?”) Hephzibah Anderson wrote about the opening line: “As sentences go, its charms are discreet to say the least. And yet those 10 words, as anyone who returns to them having reached the novel’s end, capture so much about its eponymous heroine’s character—her low expectations, her bottomless capacity for disappointment.”
“Perhaps,” in The Green Shoe Sanctuary website (June 30, 2021)
They went by Alberto and Maria when they moved to Italy. Albert Einstein and Marie Curie decided to spend their retirement years together, living in neighboring flats in Pisa.
I have a soft spot in my heart for alternate history tales, but, frankly, most of them do not have great opening lines. This short story by Brook is a delightful exception—and the story’s second paragraph is as exceptional as the first:
“Many afternoons, Alberto would play his violin in public, typically on the carless Borgo Stretto, busking for change which he would collect and donate monthly to a local animal rights group. He was particularly fond of the Ippoasi sanctuary, which he and Maria periodically visited. Maria spent many of her afternoons writing science fiction stories, which she would mail to friends around the world. It was quite a change from their Nobel Prize-winning days.”
Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague (2001)
I used to love this season.
It is apple-picking time in the harvest season of 1666 and, after only six words, we’re wondering what happened—and already know it must have been bad.
In Our Time: Memoir of a Revolution (1999)
I was not there at the beginning. Few people were. And although I can speak with confidence of a beginning, of certain documented rebellions sparked by a handful of visionaries with suborn courage, there were antecedents to those rebellions, and antecedents to the antecedents.
These opening words beautifully capture the early history of the women’s movement, and the author’s role in it. Brownmiller, who helped propel the movement forward with her pioneering 1975 book Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape, continued in the opening paragraph:
“This is how things happen in movements for social change, in revolutions. They start small and curiously, an unexpected flutter that is not without precedence, a barely observable ripple that heralds a return to the unfinished business of prior generations. If conditions are right, if the anger of enough people has reached the boiling point, the exploding passion can ignite a societal transformation. So it was with the Women’s Liberation Movement in the latter half of the twentieth century.”
A Short History of Nearly Everything (2003)
Welcome. And congratulations. I am delighted you could make it. Getting here wasn’t easy, I know. In fact, I suspect it was a little tougher than you think.
Bryson continued in the second paragraph: “To begin with, for you to be here now trillions of drifting atoms had somehow to assemble in an intricate and intriguingly obliging manner to create you. It’s an arrangement so specialized and particular that it has never been tried before and will only exist this once. For the next many years (we hope) these tiny particles will uncomplainingly engage in all the billions of deft, cooperative efforts necessary to keep you intact and let you experience the supremely agreeable but generally underappreciated state known as existence.”
The Mother Tongue: English and How it Got that Way (1990)
More than 300 million people in the world speak English and the rest, it sometimes seems, try to. It would be charitable to say the results are sometimes mixed.
Bryson continued in the book’s second paragraph: “Consider this hearty announcement in a Yugoslavian hotel: ‘The flattening of underwear with pleasure is the job of the chambermaid. Turn to her straightaway.’ Or this warning to motorists in Tokyo: ‘When a passenger of the foot heave in sight, tootle the horn. Trumpet at him melodiously at first, but if he still obstacles your passage, then tootle him with vigor.’”
When many foreigners attempt to write in English, Bryson wrote that they often aren’t hampered in the least by their ignorance of the language—and he expressed his opinion in a most delightful way: “It would appear that one of the beauties of the English language is that with even the most tenuous grasp you can speak volumes if you show enough enthusiasm—a willingness to tootle with vigor, as it were.”
Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders (1974, with Curt Gentry)
Saturday, August 9, 1969
It was so quiet, one of the killers would later say, you could almost hear the sound of ice rattling in cocktail shakers in the homes way down the canyon.
These are the dramatic opening words to the bestselling true-crime book of all time, with over seven million copies sold. In the second paragraph, Bugliosi—who was the Los Angeles Deputy District Attorney who successfully prosecuted Mason and his “family” members—continued:
“The canyons above Hollywood and Beverly Hills play tricks with sounds. A noise clearly audible a mile away may be indistinguishable at a few hundred feet.”
A book’s opening words can have multiple purposes, but one of the most common is to “establish an atmosphere”—and few non-fiction books can rival Helter Skelter when it comes to opening atmospherics. After describing the three-day heat wave that preceded the murders of seven people, including actress Sharon Tate, who was eight-months pregnant with husband Roman Polanski’s child. Bugliosi capped off his opening remarks with three simple but haunting sentences:
“All things considered, it’s surprising that more people didn’t hear something.
“But then it was late, just after midnight, and 10050 Cielo Drive was secluded.
“Being secluded, it was also vulnerable.”
Helter Skelter was an immediate success, jumping to the top of The New York Times Best Seller list and winning the 1975 Edgar Award for the best true-crime book of the year.
Edward George Bulwer-Lytton
Paul Clifford (1830)
It was a dark and stormy night.
A case could be made that these are the most famous opening words in literary history. They come from a popular 19th-century English writer who also composed some other famous lines, including “the pen is mightier than the sword” and “the pursuit of the almighty dollar.” The opening words of a novel are often about setting an atmosphere, and this one is a doozy. The entire first paragraph goes this way:
“It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents, except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the house-tops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.”
Almost immediately after the book’s publication, the Paul Clifford opening was regarded as an exceptional piece of writing. By the middle of the twentieth century, the line was so familiar it had become a cliché. In 1962, Madeleine L’Engle paid homage to the line when she opened her classic novel A Wrinkle in Time with the exact same words. When asked why she decided to do so, L’Engle said it was her way of indicating to the reader that a scary story was coming. She had heard it hundreds of times since her childhood, and it brought back childhood memories of huddling around campfires as a little girl and listening to scary tales.
By the mid-1960s, the phrase gradually began to become a victim of its own success. In a 1965 Peanuts cartoon, Charles Schulz featured a strip in which the character Snoopy attempted to write a novel. The first words came easy: “It was a dark and story night….” In future strips, however, whenever Snoopy sat down at his typewriter, these were the only words he could come up with. And thus began the line’s slow descent from fame to infamy.
A respectable writer, if not a particularly great one, Bulwer-Lytton doesn’t deserve the fate that has befallen him. In 1982, Scott Rice, an English professor at San Jose State University, appropriated his name for an annual contest for deplorable writing (yes, deplorable writing). Every year for the past four decades, contestants in The Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest have been invited “to compose the opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels.” The competition attracted only three entries the first year, but in recent years routinely receives more than 10,000 entries (there are now so many entries, in fact, that winners are announced in a variety of categories (romance, westerns, detective stories, etc.).
Kat, Incorrigible (2011; pub. in England in 2010 as A Most Improper Magick)
I was twelve years of age when I chopped off my hair, dressed as a boy, and set off to save my family from impending ruin.
I made it almost to the end of my front garden.
The setting is Regency, England in 1803, and these delightful opening words come from Kat Stephenson, a young girl who discovers she has inherited magical powers from her mother, who died ten days after she was born. The novel went on to win the Waverton Good Read Children’s Award in 2011 for Best Debut Children’s Novel by a British writer.
In a 2014 SFSignal.com “Mind Meld” post, writer Paul Weimer asked a number of writers to identify their favorite opening lines. Writer Beth Bernobich wrote about this opener:
“Imagine a cup of frothy hot chocolate, served in an elegant cup, with a dollop of cream—sweet, but with an edge of that dark chocolate bitterness—a perfect antidote to cold November days. The opening paragraph to Kat, Incorrigible…is that first sip that tells right away what a treat you’re in for.”
Lincoln and the Civil War (2011)
If the legendary oddsmaker Jimmy the Greek had been alive when the Civil War began, he would probably have given the South a better-than-even chance of winning.
In the opening paragraph, Burlingame continued: “As historian William Hanchett has cogently argued, ‘Contrary to the conventional assumption, the North, not the South, was the underdog in the Civil War.’”
An American Marriage: The Untold Story of Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd (2021)
Abraham Lincoln was apparently one of those men who regard “connubial bliss” as an oxymoron.
In the book’s opening paragraph, Burlingame—described by Time magazine as “a towering figure in Lincoln scholarship”—continued with this revealing anecdote: “During the Civil War, he pardoned a Union soldier who had deserted to return home and wed his sweetheart, who reportedly had been flirting with another swain in his absence. As the president signed the necessary document sparing the miscreant’s life, he said: ‘I want to punish the young man—probably in less than a year he will wish I had withheld the pardon.’” This was one of my choices for a Smerconish.com post on “Twenty-One of the Best Opening Lines of 2021.“
In his book, Burlingame attempted to set the historical record straight by telling the unvarnished truth about Lincoln’s notoriously unhappy marriage. On top of the countless monumental problems the 16th U.S. President wrestled with, Burlingame wrote that “he had to cohabit the White House with a psychologically unbalanced woman whose indiscrete and abusive behavior taxed his legendary patience and forbearance to the limit.”
How the Irish Saved Civilization (1995)
The word Irish is seldom coupled with the word civilization.
Cahill continued: “When we think of peoples as civilized or civilizing, the Egyptians and the Greeks, the Italians and the French, The Chinese and the Jews may all come to mind. The Irish are wild, feckless, and charming, or morose, repressed, and corrupt, but not especially civilized.“
The Gifts of the Jews (1998)
The Jews started it all—and by “it” I mean so many of the things we care about, the underlying values that make us all, Jew and gentile, believer and atheist, tick.
Cahill, whose book was subtitled How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels, continued: “Without the Jews, we would see the world through different eyes, hear with different ears, even feel with different feelings.“
Robert A. Caro
Master of the Senate [Book 3 of The Years of Lyndon Johnson] (2002)
The room on the first floor of the Barbour County Courthouse in the little town of Eufaula, Alabama, was normally the County Clerk’s Office, but after it had closed for the day on August 2, 1957, it was being used by the county’s Board of Registrars, the body that registered citizens so they could vote in elections—not that the Board was going to register any of the three persons who were applying that day, for the skin of these applicants was black.
GUEST COMMENTARY from Jeff Jacoby, American journalist and Boston Globe Op-Ed columnist: “I nominate this opening line from Caro’s Master of the Senate (2002), the third volume in his biography of Lyndon Johnson, and to my mind the best of them so far. The very first sentence establishes a tone of moral seriousness and gripping narrative power. Eufaula, Alabama is far removed from LBJ’s native Texas, and even farther from the U.S. Senate chamber where he became such an influential national figure. But Caro’s first line aptly foreshadows the immense struggle over black civil rights that would be the backdrop to Johnson’s rise to power. With four volumes in his “Years of Lyndon Johnson” series now published, Caro is only up to 1964—and his legions of fans are hoping that he lives long enough to get through Volume 5.”
The Angel of Darkness (1997)
There’s likely some polished way of starting a story like this, a clever bit of gaming that’d sucker people in surer than the best banco feeler in town. But the truth is that I haven’t got the quick tongue or the slick wit for that kind of game.
The narrator is Stevie Taggert, the proprietor of a Manhattan tobacco shop. Taggert is a good friend of John Moore, an elderly New York Times reporter who’s been struggling to find a publisher for a manuscript he has completed about a grisly murder case solved years earlier by their mutual friend, the alienist Dr. Laszlo Kreizler. When Taggert suggests that Moore might be approaching things in the wrong way, the reporter gets testy and essentially says: if you think you can do a better job, do it.
The result is Taggert’s story about the case of Libby Hatch. Taggert begins the tale by apologizing for his deficient writing skills, but in doing so expresses himself more than adequately, even artfully. He continued: “Words haven’t figured much in my life, and though over the years I’ve met many of what the world counts to be the big thinkers and talkers of our time, I’ve stayed what most would call a plain man. And so a plain way of starting will suit me well.“
The Alienist (1994)
January 8th, 1919
Theodore is in the ground.
The opening words refer to the burial of Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th U. S. President and, earlier in his career, New York City Police Commissioner. They come from narrator John Moore, a crime reporter for The New York Times and a friend of the novel’s protagonist, Dr. Laszlo Kreizler, a New York City physician and noted alienist.
For those unfamiliar with the term, a “Note” at the beginning of the novel explained: “Prior to the twentieth century, persons suffering from mental illnesses were thought to be ’alienated, not only from the rest of society but from their own true natures. Those experts who treated mental pathologies were known as ’alienists.’“
In the novel’s second paragraph, Moore continued: “The words as I write them make as little sense as did the sight of his coffin descending into a patch of sandy soil near Sagamore Hill, the place he loved more than any other on earth. As I stood there this afternoon, in the cold January wind that blew off Long Island Sound, I thought to myself: Of course it’s a joke. Of course he’ll burst the lid open, blind us all with that ridiculous grin and split our ears with a high-pitched bark of laughter. Then he’ll exclaim there’s work to do—’action to get’—and we’ll all be martialled to the task of protecting some obscure species of newt from the ravages of a predatory industrial giant bent on planting a fetid factory on the little amphibian’s breeding ground.“
Even as other Civil War generals rushed to publish their memoirs, flaunting their conquests and cashing in on their celebrity, Ulysses S. Grant refused to trumpet his accomplishments in print.
When Chernow was asked by Brian Lamb in a C-Span interview why he chose to start his book with these words, the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian replied: “When I started working on the book...I ran into a friend who said to me, ‘Ron, how can you write a great biography of someone who wrote a great autobiography?’ And that really kind of stopped me dead in my tracks. I thought about that comment for many days. And then I realized that it actually helped to define the direction of my book because I realized that what my job was as a biographer was to zero in on the silences and the evasions in Grant’s memoirs.” And, a moment later, he added, “I ended up…zeroing in on those things that Grant did not want to talk about, particularly his lifelong struggle with alcoholism and his repeated business failures.”
In the opening paragraph, Chernow followed up on his opening words this way: “The son of an incorrigible small-town braggart, the unassuming general and two-time president harbored a lifelong aversion to boasting. He was content to march to his grave in dignified silence, letting his extraordinary wartime record speak for itself.
In a 2017 New York Times interview, Chernow was asked which of his books was his favorite. He replied that he’d always avoided the question in the past, but no more: “Grant is my favorite book,“ he announced, “and not just because it’s wall-to-wall drama. Some quality of pathos in this story of a defeated man, ground down by failure, who then soars into the firmament got under my skin and haunted me all the way through the telling.“
The Warburgs: The Twentieth-Century Odyssey of a Remarkable German Family (1993)
The German Jews were a people shipwrecked by history.
This is a compelling opening line in its own right, and the beginning of an equally compelling first paragraph. Describing German Jews just prior to the Nazis, Chernow continued: “Arguably the most productive group of Jews in history, they were also, in many ways, the least typical. Few groups have been so admired for their achievements or so maligned for their attitudes. Persecuted by other Germans as too Jewish, they were often scorned by other Jews as too German. Their existence rested on a tenuous illusion of acceptance until the Nazis came along and tore the dream to tatters. People still puzzle over why these bright, industrious people were so blind to a mortal threat to their existence. In frustration, some Jews deny them the dignity of their tragedy.”
About this oft-mentioned blindness to an existential threat, Chernow wrote that a major purpose of the book was his attempt to “clarify the mystery” through an examination of one of history’s most illustrious Jewish families, the Warburgs.
Washington: A Life (2010)
In March 1793 Gilbert Stuart crossed the North Atlantic for the express purpose of painting President George Washington, the supreme prize of the age for any ambitious portrait artist.
It’s unusual for a biography begin by focusing on a person other than the subject of the work, but Chernow’s selection of Stuart—the painter whose legendary Washington portrait has been immortalized on American one-dollar bills—turns out to be inspired.
By describing Stuart’s view of Washington as a portrait subject—as well as how Washington interacted with his portraitist—Chernow found a way of shining a new light on a U.S. President he described as “the most famously elusive figure in American history, a remote, enigmatic personage more revered than truly loved.” Chernow’s book went on to win the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Biography.
Arthur C. Clarke
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Behind every man now alive stand thirty ghosts, for that is the ratio by which the dead outnumber the living. Since the dawn of time, roughly a hundred billion human beings have walked the planet Earth.
These are the opening words to the book’s Foreword. Clarke, who wrote the novel as a companion volume to Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film by the same title, continued: “Now this is an interesting number, for by a curious coincidence there are approximately a hundred billion stars in our local universe. So for every man who has ever lived, in this universe there shines a star.”
Chapter One of the novel actually begins this way: “The drought had lasted now for ten million years, and the reign of the terrible lizards had long since ended. Here on the Equator, in the continent which would one day be known as Africa, the battle for existence had reached a new climax of ferocity, and the victor was not yet in sight.”
The gale tore at him and he felt its bite deep within and he knew that if they did not make landfall in three days they would all be dead. Too many deaths on this voyage, he thought, I’m Pilot-Major of a dead fleet.
The Stars at Noon (1954)
I am a refugee from Sawdust Road, which is located in the South close by Tobacco Road of theater and movie fame.
Cochran—the first female pilot to break the sound barrier—was one of the most celebrated women in aviation history. By placing her real North Florida birthplace near one of history’s most famous—or infamous—literary locations, she found an extremely creative way to set the stage for her incredible life story.
In her memoir’s second paragraph, Cochran continued: “Until I was eight years old, I had no shoes. My bed was usually a pallet on the floor and sometimes just the floor. Food at best consisted of the barest essentials—sometimes nothing except what I foraged for myself in the woods or in the waters of the nearby bayou....“
The Confessions of Frannie Langton (2019)
My trial starts the way my life did: a squall of elbows and shoving and spit. From the prisoners’ hold they take me through the gallery, down the stairs and past the table crawling with barristers and clerks. Around me a river of faces in flood, their mutters rising, blending with the lawyers’ whispers. A noise that hums with all the spite of bees in a bush. Heads turn as I enter. Every eye a skewer.
The year is 1826, the city is London, and these taut opening words come from Frannie Langton, a black Jamaican woman who has been accused of the double murder of her employers, the eminent English scientist George Benham and his French wife Marguerite. In the novel’s second paragraph, Frannie continued: “I duck my head, peer at my boots, grip my hands to stop their awful trembling. It seems all of London is here, but then murder is the story this city likes best,”
All in all, this is a compelling opening to a spectacular debut novel. About the book, writer Christine Mangan (Tangerine) wrote: “From the sweltering heat of the West Indies to the rain-slicked cobbles of London, Collins transports her readers to the nineteenth century with an enthralling historical thriller. Frannie Langton is an unforgettable heroine, one who boldly reclaims her narrative within the context of a history that seeks to silence her. The Confessions of Frannie Langton is gorgeous―Gothic writing at its very best.”
The Red Badge of Courage (1895)
The cold passed reluctantly from the earth, and the retiring fogs revealed an army stretched out on the hills, resting.
This is one of the most beautiful opening sentences in the history of American literature—so beautifully crafted that all we have to do is close our eyes and let the scene slowly appear in our minds. As impressive as is the opening sentence, things only get better as the opening paragraph continues:
“As the landscape changed from brown to green, the army awakened, and began to tremble with eagerness at the noise of rumors. It cast its eyes upon the roads, which were growing from long troughs of liquid mud to proper thoroughfares. A river, amber-tinted in the shadow of its banks, purled at the army’s feet; and at night, when the stream had become of a sorrowful blackness, one could see across it the red, eyelike gleam of hostile campfires set in the low brows of distant hills.“
In a 1914 article in the Yale Review (“Stephen Crane As I Knew Him”), Hamlin Garland wrote: “The first sentence fairly took me captive. It described a vast army in camp on one side of a river confronting with its thousands of eyes a similar monster on the opposite bank.”
A little over a century later, in The 100 Best Novels in English (2015), Robert McCrum described Crane’s classic work as “the godfather of all American war novels.” He also sang the praises of the opening paragraph, writing: “The Red Badge of Courage is not a conventional historical novel. Its texture is cinematic; at the same time, breaking the rules, it eschews all reference to time and place. As the ‘retiring fog’ lifts on the opening page, an army is revealed ‘stretched out on the hills, resting.’ This is followed by a brilliant passage, surely an inspiration to subsequent generations of screenwriters.”
In her 1998 biography, Badge of Courage: The Life of Stephen Crane, Linda H. Davis dropped a delicious tidbit about the novel’s opening words: Apparently, Crane had told close friends that the entire first paragraph came to him one night in something like an epiphany, with “every word in place, every comma, every period fixed.” Lacking a typewriter, he carefully wrote it out in longhand—and in ink—on legal-sized paper, and it went on to appear in exactly that way when the book was ultimately published.
Richard Henry Dana, Jr.
Two Years Before the Mast (1840)
The fourteenth of August was the day fixed upon for the sailing of the brig Pilgrim, on her voyage from Boston, round Cape Horn, to the Western coast of North America.
In 1834, Dana was a Harvard undergraduate who—after a severe case of measles had threatened his vision—dropped out of college and enlisted as a common sailor on a brig departing Boston Harbor for California, then a part of Mexico. A diary he kept during the two-year voyage eventually resulted in a book that became an American classic.
In his memoir, Dana continued: “As she was to get under way early in the afternoon, I made my appearance on board at twelve o’clock, in full sea-rig, with my chest, containing an outfit for a two or three years’ voyage, which I had undertaken from a determination to cure, if possible, by an entire change of life, and by a long absence from books, with a plenty of hard work, plain food, and open air, a weakness of the eyes, which had obliged me to give up my studies, and which no medical aid seemed likely to remedy.“
The Divine Comedy: Inferno (1321)
Midway upon the journey of our life, I found myself within a forest dark, for the straightforward pathway had been lost.
In 1985, replying to a query about a “favorite opening passage in a work of literature.” Gloria Vanderbilt told New York Times Book Review staffers that this was her personal favorite. She explained: “This strikes into the center of the dark night of the soul. Unforgettable, haunting, mysterious—the spirit plunges into the abyss. At the same moment it gives a kind of wild hope—a surge of will, a determination to find the road back from darkness into light.”
The Selfish Gene (1976)
Intelligent life on a planet comes of age when it first works out the reason for its own existence.
Highly quotable opening lines are relatively rare in non-fiction writing, and this is especially true in science writing. In a refreshing exception to the rule, Dawkins begins his classic 1976 book with an observation we want to linger over—even savor—for a few moments before reading on. In the rest of the opening paragraph, Dawkins continued:
“If superior creatures from space ever visit earth, the first question they will ask, in order to assess the level of our civilization, is: ‘Have they discovered evolution yet?’ Living organisms had existed on earth, without ever knowing why, for over three thousand million years before the truth finally dawned on one of them. His name was Charles Darwin.”
Near the end of The Selfish Gene, Dawkins coined the word meme, a cultural analog to the concept of a gene in biology. The coinage quickly became a meme in itself, and life in The Internet Age would never be the same. Twenty-three years later, in 1999, Dawkins returned to the subject of memes in a Time magazine essay—and he introduced the subject in an interesting and effective way. See the entry below.
Simone de Beauvoir
The Second Sex, Vol. 2 (1949)
One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.
Epigrammatic opening lines have always been popular with readers, and this one has become de Beauvoir’s most famous observation (one could almost argue that it is her signature line). In nine simple words, she encapsulated her groundbreaking thesis that being female is a cultural rather than a biological construct. It’s a perfect opening line, in my opinion, and I only wish she had used it to begin the first volume of her classic work, not the second. Volume I opened memorably, but I think you will agree that it isn’t in the same league:
“Woman? Very simple, say the fanciers of simple formulas: she is a womb, an ovary; she is a female—this word is sufficient to define her. In the mouth of a man the epithet female has the sound of an insult….”
A Tale of Two Cities (1859)
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
This is the full 119-word opening sentence of the novel, but most people remember only the first twelve words—among the most famous and most beautiful in literary history. Dickens was writing about the French Revolution, but his words applied equally to the era he was living in: The Industrial Revolution. It was a time of massive contradictions (immense wealth and poverty; great knowledge and ignorance, etc.), and Dickens chose the perfect literary device—antithesis—to capture it.
Few descriptions of the passage can improve upon English writer Clare Balding’s assessment, offered in a Stylist.com article a few years back: “There is so much there, in one sentence. I love the rhythm and the perfect balance of every clause, the promise of what is to come and the juxtaposition of hope with dread. It is poetry as prose, perfect in itself and yet tempting you on to turn the page.”
Perhaps the most original analysis of the famous opening, though, came from American writer and writing teacher Peter Selgin. In Your First Page (2019), he described the passage as “the rhetorical equivalent of what, in a movie, would be a wide-angle establishing shot.” Selgin went on to add: “Rather than plunge us into the heart of the story, such an opening serves as a sort of framing device, an imposing ornate gate through which we pass to get to the story. Call it the red-carpet treatment. But gate and carpeting are there not merely to flatter but to orient us. Along with all the pomp and paradox, Dickens lays out the period in which his story is set.”
Rameau’s Nephew (1762)
Come rain or shine, my custom is to go for a stroll in the Palais-Royal every afternoon about five. I am always to be seen there alone, sitting on a seat in the Allée d’Argenson, meditating.
The opening words—which are not exactly sizzling—come from an unnamed narrator who bears an uncanny resemblance to the real-life author. Continuing in the first paragraph, though, the narrator heats things up considerably as he continues with one of literary history’s great metaphorical passages: “I hold discussions with myself on politics, love, taste or philosophy, and let my thoughts wander in complete abandon, leaving them free to follow the first wise or foolish idea that comes along, like those young rakes in the Allée de Foy who run after a giddy-looking little piece with a laughing face, sparkling eye and tip-tilted nose, only to leave her for another, accosting them all, but sticking to none. In my case my thoughts are my wenches.”
This entire first paragraph—but especially the final portion—has such a modern, on-the-edge sensibility that it is hard to believe it was written more than a dozen years before the American Revolution (to be precise, it was written in 1761-62, but first published in a German edition by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in 1805). According to historians, Diderot did not want the piece published during his lifetime for fear of being sued or arrested for his portrayal of the rich and powerful of the time (he had been briefly imprisoned in 1749 for some other writings, so his wariness was understandable). All modern translations of the work are based on a complete manuscript—in Diderot’s own handwriting—found by a French librarian in 1890.
It was because of passages like this that book critic Michael Dirda preferred Diderot over such other French Enlightenment writers as Rousseau and Voltaire. In his Classics for Pleasure (2007), Dirda wrote that Diderot possessed “the kind of restless, original mind that throws off ideas like a Fourth of July sparkler. He is irresistible.”
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave (1845)
I was born in Tuckahoe, near Hillsborough, and about twelve miles from Easton, in Talbot County, Maryland. I have no accurate knowledge of my age, never having seen any authentic record containing it.
This a soft beginning, but it’s about to take a dramatic turn. Douglas continued: “By far the larger part of the slaves know as little of their ages as horses know of theirs, and it is the wish of most masters within my knowledge to keep their slaves thus ignorant. I do not remember to have ever met a slave who could tell of his birthday.”
As I began to think about the immense psychological significance of not knowing one’s own birth date, I was eager to learn more, and Douglass didn’t disappoint. He continued: “They seldom come nearer to it than planting-time, harvest-time, cherry-time, spring-time, or fall-time. A want of information concerning my own was a source of unhappiness to me even during childhood. The white children could tell their ages. I could not tell why I ought to be deprived of the same privilege. I was not allowed to make any inquiries of my master concerning it. He deemed all such inquiries on the part of a slave improper and impertinent, and evidence of a restless spirit.”
In mid-February of 1817, Frederick Douglass was born into slavery in Tuckahoe (near Easton) Maryland. As indicated in the dramatic opening line above, the exact date of his birth was not known, and he later chose February 14th as the day to celebrate his birthday. He escaped from his servitude in 1838, quickly changing his name to avoid capture as a “fugitive slave,“ and ultimately settled in Massachusetts. He went on to become a popular spokesman for the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society, traveling throughout the U. S. and the British Isles. He also became a successful businessman (the first Black man to own a publishing house), a diplomat (ambassador to Haiti), and the author of three autobiographies (considered among the best “slave narratives” ever written).
You might also find it interesting that Booker T. Washington was almost certainly inspired by Douglass’s opening words when he wrote Up From Slavery (1901).
“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.”
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.
W. E. B. Du Bois
The Souls of Black Folk (1903)
Herein lie buried many things which if read with patience may show the strange meaning of being black here at the dawning of the Twentieth Century. This meaning is not without interest to you, Gentle Reader; for the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line.
Du Bois offered these words in the book’s “Forethought,“ and the final portion (“The problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line”) went on to become one of the most important quotations of the twentieth century. He continued: “I pray you, then, receive my little book in all charity, studying my words with me, forgiving mistake and foible for sake of the faith and passion that is in me, and seeking the grain of truth hidden there.“
Du Bois was one of the most influential figures in black history. A co-founder of the NAACP in 1909, he was the first African-American person to be awarded a Ph.D. (from Harvard, in 1895). In Living Black History (2011), historian Manning Marable wrote: “Few books make history and fewer still become foundational texts for the movements and struggles of an entire people. The Souls of Black Folk occupies this rare position.“
Daphne du Maurier
Mary Ann (1954)
Years later, when she had gone and was no longer part of their lives, the thing they remembered about her was her smile.
George Eliot (pen name of Mary Ann Evans)
Felix Holt, the Radical (1866)
On the first of September, in the memorable year 1832, some one was expected at Transome Court.
Someone is coming, and given the phrasing some one, it is probably an important person, perhaps even a royal. But who, exactly? A sense of expectancy is created in the first few words, and continues for the remainder of the opening paragraph:
“As early as two o’clock in the afternoon the aged lodge-keeper had opened the heavy gate, green as the tree trunks were green with nature’s powdery paint, deposited year after year. Already in the village of Little Treby, which lay on the side of a steep hill not far off the lodge-gates, the elder matrons sat in their best gowns at the few cottage-doors bordering the road, that they might be ready to get up and make their curtsy when a travelling-carriage should come in sight; and beyond the village several small boys were stationed on the lookout, intending to run a race to the barnlike old church, where the sexton waited in the belfry ready to set the one bell in joyful agitation just at the right moment.”
The Plague of Doves (2008)
The gun jammed on the last shot and the baby stood holding the crib rail, eyes wild, bawling. The man sat down in an upholstered chair and began taking his gun apart to see why it wouldn’t fire. The baby’s crying set him on edge.
This is the dramatic first sentence of “Solo” a preliminary piece—a kind of preface—that was so powerful I had to put the book down before reading on. I won’t provide the rest of it here, but let me say that it would be well worth your while to read it for yourself. It’s one of the most arresting book beginnings I’ve ever read.
Erdrich’s novel was based on a real-life crime that happened in rural North Dakota in the 1890s. A finalist for the 2009 Pulitzer Prize, the novel went on to win the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, an American literary award honoring books that have made an important contribution to understanding racism and celebrating human diversity.
In a 2008 New York Times review, Michiko Kakutani wrote: “With The Plague of Doves, [Erdrich] has written what is arguably her most ambitious, and in many ways, her most deeply affecting work yet.”
Clarissa Pinkola Estés
Women Who Run with the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype (1992)
Wildlife and the Wild Woman are both endangered species.
This is the entire first paragraph of a book that is now regarded as a classic in feminist thought. The book, written by a Jungian psychoanalyst, drew heavily from folk tales, fairy tales, and worldwide mythology. It remained on The New York Times bestseller list for nearly three years—145 weeks in all (Estés was the first Latina to make the coveted list).
In the second paragraph, Estés continued: “Over time, we have seen the feminine instinctive nature looted, driven back, and overbuilt. For long periods it has been mismanaged like the wildlife and the wildlands. For several thousand years, as soon and as often as we turn our backs, it is relegated to the poorest land in the psyche. The spiritual lands of Wild Woman have, throughout history, been plundered or burnt, dens bulldozed, and natural cycles forced into unnatural rhythms to please others.”
The Trees (2021)
Money, Mississippi, looks exactly like it sounds. Named in that persistent Southern tradition of irony and with the attendant tradition of nescience, the name becomes slightly sad, a marker of self-conscious ignorance that might as well be embraced because, let’s face it, it isn’t going away.
Normally, it is inadvisable for an opening paragraph to include a word that will send readers scrambling for a dictionary, but in this case, it seems quite fitting to insert a word defined by the American Heritage Dictionary as, “Absence of knowledge or awareness; ignorance.”
About Everett’s opening paragraph, Lorraine Berry wrote in a Los Angeles Times review: “The butt of the joke here is the white Establishment, reduced by Everett’s tropes and puns to a redneck laughingstock.”
Buried Mistakes: A Cry for Justice From Beyond the Grave (2014)
That night I dreamed.
Someone’s at the door. I don’t want to open it. But I must.
A young soldier stands before me, trembling. I nod and he follows me into the tiny room. I light the lamp so I can see him better. Then I sit on the small wooden crate that contains my belongings and wait.
He kneels on the floor before me, his body tense as the strings on the shamisen I used to play.
“The fighting was close today,” I say to him.
The soldier looks frightened—they all do. He nods and bows his head. But I have already looked into his eyes—eyes that have seen too much.
He reaches for me and I flinch. It’s a mistake.
His eyes flash as the wounded beast within him roars.
He hits me, striking at me with all of his pent up rage.
Then he rapes me
We normally think of a “hook” as a short, pithy sentence that opens a novel in a compelling, intriguing, or powerful way, but Ezpeleta’s novel—inspired by the stories of the “comfort women” the Japanese military provided their soldiers during WWII—proves that a hook can be much longer; in this case, the ten short paragraphs that make up the entire Prologue of the book.
A Vain and Indecent Woman The Scandalous Life of Joan of Kent (2018)
They call my little Joan the most beautiful woman in all England. Well, every father thinks that about his daughter. That she is special, and prettier. But I never had the opportunity to boast. My name is Edmund of Woodstock and I am the son of a king and the brother of a king and the grandfather of a king.
The narrator of the novel, the father of Joan of Kent, immediately piques our interest with the comment about never having had the opportunity to boast about his daughter. He then takes the story in a whole new direction when he continues:
“I was twenty-nine years old when I died.
“Died; I use the term loosely. I was murdered, but within the dictates of the law and with the full approval of the king, even though he was barely eighteen years at the time.”
Silk Road (2011)
Toulouse, France 1293
They found him in the cloister, lying on his back with ice in his beard. He was half conscious, muttering about a Templar knight, a secret commission from the Pope, and a beautiful woman on a white pony.
Falconer, a widely acknowledged master of the historical novel, is also a master of the opening paragraph. Few writers are as skilled at laying the foundation, setting the stage, and introducing an air of mystery or intrigue—all in a sentence or two.
The narrator continued: “His fellow monks carried him back to his cell and laid him on the hard cot that had been his bed for the last twenty years. He was an old man now and there was nothing to be done. His eyes had the cold sheen of death. A brother went to fetch the abbot so that the old fellow might make his last confession.”
Toulouse, France: 1205
God chose Fabricia Bérenger during a lightning storm. With one thunderous touch of his finger, he sent her reeling.
The narrator continued in the second paragraph: “The day had been mild, unseasonably so. The storm appeared suddenly, ink-black clouds broiling up the sky in the north, as the bells of Saint-Étienne were ringing for vespers. A blast of icy wind hit her like a slap as she ran across the marketplace, a blow so violent and unexpected that it almost knocked her off her feet.”
Isabella: Braveheart of France (2015)
“You will love this man. Do you understand? You will love him, serve him, and obey him in all things. This is your duty to me and to France. Am I clear?“
King Philippe of France is speaking to his daughter, Princess Isabella, about the man he has selected as her future husband, King Edward of England. The story takes an unexpected turn in the next paragraph when the narrator explains: “Isabella is twelve years old and astoundingly pretty, a woman in a girl’s body. She keeps her eyes on the floor and nods her head.”
Cry Justice [Book 4 in the Charlie George series] (2021)
The head had been impaled on a railing outside the Royal Courts of Justice in the Strand in the early hours of a cold November morning. There was a fine dusting of frost on the corpse’s hair and eyelids which gave it a festive touch.
Stark contrasts are a staple of Great Opening Lines, and this exquisite opener is one of the best from a master craftsman. It was also one of my choices for a Smerconish.com post on “Twenty-One of the Best Opening Lines of 2021.“
The opening paragraph also contains a suggestion that more dark humor will be awaiting the reader—and that proves to be exactly the case. The narrator continued: “The dead man looked disconsolate. Reasonably so, in the circumstances, Charlie thought.“
“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.
F. Scott Fitzgerald
The Last Tycoon (1941)
Though I haven’t ever been on the screen I was brought up in pictures. Rudolph Valentino came to my fifth birthday party—or so I was told.
In December of 1940, Fitzgerald died of a heart attack—at age 44—before he could finish his roman à clef of the legendary film producer Irving Thalberg. His friend Edmund Wilson stepped in to finish the novel, and it was published as “an unfinished novel” a year later.
The Invention of Murder (2011)
“Pleasant it is, no doubt, to drink tea with your sweetheart, but most disagreeable to find her bubbling in the tea-urn.“ So wrote Thomas de Quincy in 1826, and indeed, it is hard to argue with him.
It’s relatively uncommon for writers to use a quotation as an opening line, but Flanders chose a perfect one for her delightful book on a grim subject. Subtitled How the Victorians Revelled in Death and Detection and Created Modern Crime, Flanders continued in the opening paragraph: “But even more pleasant, he thought, was to read about someone else’s sweetheart bubbling in the tea-urn, and that, too, is hard to argue with, for crime, especially murder, is very pleasant to think about in the abstract: it is like hearing blustery rain on the windowpane when sitting indoors. It reinforces a sense of safety, even of pleasure....“
The Key to Rebecca (1980)
The last camel collapsed at noon.
The narrator is describing a camel belonging to Alex Wolff, a fictional character based on the real-life WWII Nazi spy Johannes Eppler, an Egyptian-born man of German and Arab cultural heritage. Code-named “The Sphinx,” Eppler was described by the German General Edwin Rommel this way: “Our spy in Cairo is the greatest hero of them all.” The novel’s first sentence has long been admired by lovers of great opening lines, and The Last Camel Died at Noon even went on to become the title of a 1991 novel by American suspense writer Elizabeth Peters.
In the novel’s second paragraph, the narrator continued with this delightful observation about camels: “It was the five-year-old white bull he had bought in Gialo, the youngest and strongest of the three beasts, and the least ill-tempered: he liked the animal as much as a man could like a camel, which is to say that he hated it only a little.”
The Pillars of the Earth (1989)
The small boys came early to the hanging.
These are the opening words of the Prelude to the novel. The narrator continued: “It was dark when the first three or four of them sidled out of the hovels, quiet as cats in their felt boots. A thin layer of fresh snow covered the little town like a new coat of paint, and theirs were the first footprints to blemish its perfect surface. They picked their way through the huddled wooden huts and along the streets of frozen mud to the silent marketplace, where the gallows stood waiting.”
The Diary of Anne Frank (1947; originally titled The Annex)
June 12, 1942
I hope I will be able to confide everything to you, as I have never been able to confide in anyone, and I hope you will be a great source of comfort and support.
This was the very first entry written by Anne Frank in a diary she’d been given on her 13th birthday. Bound with red-and-white checkered cloth, the book had a small lock on the front, giving the newly minted teenager a secure feeling that no one but her would be able to read the contents. An exceptional student in a local Montessori school, Anne was already dreaming of a literary career—and the diary’s opening words reveal a sophistication beyond her years.
In February of 1934, Frank was four-and-a-half-years-old and living temporarily with her grandmother when she joined her parents and older sister Margot in Amsterdam, Netherlands. A year earlier, after the Nazi Party won the federal elections and Hitler became Chancellor, thousands of Jewish families began fleeing their native Germany and settling in neighboring European countries. The Franks lived a comfortable (if slightly uneasy) life until May of 1940, when Germany formally occupied the Netherlands and began to identify and deport the country’s Jews.
In the summer of 1942, just after Margot received a letter ordering her to report to a work camp, the family began hiding in a secret room in a building where her father worked. The “secret annex,” as they sometimes called it, was hidden behind a bookcase, and it kept them and a number of other Amsterdam Jews safe until they were arrested by the Gestapo in 1944. Anne and Margot were first sent to Auschwitz, and then the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, where they died—most likely of typhus—several months later.
After the war, Anne’s father Otto—the only surviving member of the Frank family—returned to Amsterdam to discover that his secretary had saved Anne’s diary. To honor his daughter’s dream of becoming a writer, he published a Dutch version in 1947.
First published in English as Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl in 1952, the book failed to find an audience and was out of print the following year. In 1955, “The Diary of Anne Frank”, a play by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, debuted on Broadway. A critical success, the play won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1956 and greatly fueled interest in Anne’s story. In 1959, the play was adapted into the “The Diary of Anne Frank,” a film starring Millie Perkins (it was nominated for seven Oscars, winning three.) Now regarded as a cinematic classic, the film re-ignited interest in Anne’s diary, which went on to become one of the world’s most popular books, translated into more than 70 languages and selling more than 35 million copies.
Viktor E. Frankl
Man’s Search for Meaning (1946)
This book does not claim to be an account of facts and events but of personal experiences, experiences which millions of prisoners have suffered time and time again. It is the inside story of a concentration camp, told by one of its survivors.
These are the opening lines of one of the most influential books of the 20th century. In 1942, Frankl was a Viennese neurologist and psychiatrist when he, his wife, and his parents were transported to a Czechoslovakian concentration camp. Two years later, they were sent to Auschwitz (where his wife and parents perished).
In 1945, after Allied forces liberated many of the Nazi concentration camps, he put the finishing touches on a memoir he began while reflecting on his experiences as a prisoner. The original title of his book, first published in 1946, was Saying Yes to Life in Spite of Everything: A Psychologist Experiences the Concentration Camp. After the book was published in English in 1956 (under the title Man’s Search for Meaning), it became an international best-seller and Frankl was hailed as one of modern psychology’s most influential figures.
Cold Mountain (1997)
At the first gesture of morning, flies began stirring. Inman’s eyes and the long wound at his neck drew them, and the sound of their wings and the touch of their feet were soon more potent than a handful of roosters in rousing a man to wake.
As Confederate soldier W. P. Inman lies in a makeshift military hospital near Raleigh, North Carolina, he awakens to the sensation of flies zeroing like dive bombers on a gaping wound in his neck. It’s a grisly but captivating opening.
Frazier’s debut novel went on to become a surprise best-seller, with worldwide sales of over three million copies. In a New York Times review, James Polk wrote: “For a first novelist, in fact for any novelist, Charles Frazier has taken on a daunting task—and done extraordinarily well by it. In prose filled with grace notes and trenchant asides, he has reset much of the Odyssey in 19th-century America, near the end of the Civil War.”
The book was awarded the 1997 National Book Award for Fiction. In 2003, the novel was adapted into a film of the same title, starring Jude Law, Nicole Kidman, and Renée Zellweger (who won a Best Supporting Actress for her role.)
Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War (1989)
Watching a newsreel or flipping through an illustrated magazine at the beginning of the American war, you were likely to encounter a memorable image: the newly invented jeep, an elegant, slim-barreled 37-mm gun in tow, leaping over a hillock.
Fussell continued: “Going very fast and looking as cute as Bambi, it flies into the air, and behind, the little gun bounces high off the ground on its springy tires. This graceful duo conveyed the firm impression of purposeful, resourceful intelligence going somewhere significant, and going there with speed, agility, and delicacy—almost wit.”
Go Tell the Bees That I Am Gone [Book 9 of the Outlander Series] (2021)
You know that something is coming. Something—a specific, dire, and awful something—will happen. You envision it, you push it away. It rolls slowly, inexorably, back into your mind.
You make what preparation you can. Or you think you do, though your bones know the truth—there isn’t any way to sidestep, accommodate, lessen the impact. It will come, and you will be helpless before it.
You know these things.
And yet, somehow, you never think it will be today.
It’s been seven years since the last novel in the series—a period of time called a droughtlander by Gabaldon fans—and the Prologue of her most recent installment contains this eloquent description of an experience that will resonate with almost all readers. It was one of my choices for a Smerconish.com post on “Twenty-One of the Best Opening Lines of 2021.“
Outlander [Book 1 of Outlander Series] (1991)
People disappear all the time. Ask any policeman. Better yet, ask a journalist. Disappearances are bread-and-butter to journalists.
Young girls run away from home. Young children stray from their parents and are never seen again. Housewives reach the end of their tether and take the grocery money and a taxi to the station. International financiers change their names and vanish into the smoke of imported cigars.
Many of the lost will be found, eventually, dead or alive. Disappearances, after all, have explanations.
Voyager [Book 3 of Outlander Series] (1993)
He was dead. However, his nose throbbed painfully, which he thought odd, in the circumstances.
I have a soft spot in my heart for oxymoronic opening lines, and this intriguing reflection describes the slightly disoriented James Fraser, whose eyelids are sealed shut from dry blood as he comes to consciousness in the middle of a casualty-filled battlefield. After removing a dead body that has been heavily draped over one of his legs, he sees hovering crows above and hears sounds of wailing from injured soldiers lying nearby.
The narrator says of him: “Memory flooded back, and he groaned aloud. He had been mistaken. This was hell. But James Fraser was unfortunately not dead, after all.”
John Kenneth Galbraith
The Affluent Society (1958)
Wealth is not without its advantages and the case to the contrary, although it has often been made, has never proved wildly persuasive.
Galbraith continued: “But, beyond doubt, wealth is the relentless enemy of understanding. The poor man has always a precise view of his problem and its remedy: he hasn’t enough and he needs more. The rich man can assume or imagine a much greater variety of ills and he will be correspondingly less certain of their remedy. Also, until he learns to live with his wealth, he will have a well-observed tendency to put it to the wrong purposes or otherwise to make himself foolish.“
Everyone Knows Your Mother is a Witch (2021)
Herein I begin my account, with the help of my neighbor Simon Satler, since I am unable to read or write. I maintain that I am not a witch, never have seen a witch, am a relative to no witches. But from very early in life, I had enemies.
The year is 1619, and the opening words come from Katharina Kepler, an illiterate and curmudgeonly herbalist who, we will shortly learn, is also the mother of the renowned mathematician, scientist, and astronomer, Johannes Kepler. In this fictionalized, darkly comic portrayal of an actual 1620 witchcraft trial, Katharina’s son actually shows up at the proceedings to defend his mother against the charges.
In Chancery [Volume 2 of The Forsyte Saga] (1906)
The possessive instinct never stands still.
The narrator continued: “Through fluorescence and feud, frosts and fires, it followed the laws of progression even in the Forsyte family which had believed it fixed forever.”
Maid in Waiting (1931)
The Bishop of Porthminster was sinking fast; they had sent for his four nephews, his two nieces and their one husband. It was not thought that he would last the night.
Two nieces and their one husband? I’m sure Galsworthy must’ve enjoyed crafting that phrase.
The Man of Property [Volume I of The Forsyte Saga] (1906)
Those privileged to be present at a family festival of the Forsytes have seen that charming and instructive sight—an upper middle-class family in full plumage.
An upper middle-class family in full plumage is a magnificent metaphor in its own right, but when encased in a beautifully-crafted observation about a well-to-do English family, it makes for an unforgettable opening line.
“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?”
John W. Gardner
Excellence: Can We Be Equal and Excellent Too? (1984. rev. ed.)
If we accept the common usage of words, nothing can be more readily disproved than the old saw, You can’t keep a good man down.
Gardner continued: “Most human societies of which we have any historical record have been beautifully organized to keep good men and women down. The reasons are many, but the most obvious is that throughout most of recorded history societies of hereditary privilege have predominated.”
Mozart: A Life (1999)
The life of Mozart is the triumph of genius over precociousness.
A perfectly crafted opening sentence can compress a wealth of information into a handful of words, as Gay so ably demonstrates here. His writing continued to impress as he continued:
“A few five- or six-year-olds of his time could produce pretty variations on a theme or lure coherent tunes from a harpsichord with its keyboard covered so that they could not see their hands. But unlike other mid-eighteenth-century Wunderkinder, Mozart refined his inventions and his performances into breathtaking beauty and never showed the slightest sign of fading into ordinary adolescence, a fate that has always bedeviled prodigies.”
Black Wave (2020)
“What happened to us?“ The question haunts us in the Arab and Muslim world. We repeat it like a mantra.
Ghattas, a Lebanese scholar and journalist, provides a glimpse of his thesis in the book’s subtitle: Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the Forty-Year Rivalry That Unraveled Culture, Religion, and Collective Memory in the Middle East.
In the first paragraph of the book, Ghattas continued: “You will hear it from Iran to Syria, from Saudi Arabia to Pakistan, and in my own country of Lebanon. For us, the past is a different country, one that is not mired in the horrors of sectarian killings; a more vibrant place, without the crushing intolerance of religious zealots and seemingly endless, amorphous wars. Though the past had coups and wars too, they were contained in time and space, and the future still held much promise.“
In writing “the past is a different country” above, Ghattas was almost certainly inspired by one of the most famous opening lines in literary history, from L. P. Hartley’s The Go-Between (1953): “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there. See the Hartley entry here.
The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776) (1776)
In the second century of the Christian era, the empire of Rome comprehended the fairest part of the earth, and the most civilized portion of mankind.
When we read an opening line like this, we can understand why historian J. B. Bury would write, “Edward Gibbon is one of those few who hold as high a place in the history of literature as in the roll of great historians.“
In the first paragraph of his classic work, Gibbon continued: “The frontiers of that extensive monarchy were guarded by ancient renown and disciplined valor. The gentle, but powerful influence of laws and manners had gradually cemented the union of the provinces. The peaceful inhabitants enjoyed and abused the advantages of wealth and luxury.“
First Friends: The Powerful, Unsung (and Unelected) People Who Shaped Our Presidents (2021)
I was in the third grade when I saw Abraham Lincoln assassinated.
The opening words come from the book’s Preface, and, after reading them, it is virtually impossible not to read on. Ginsberg continued: “It was during the sixth-grade play at Windermere Elementary School, outside of Buffalo, New York, and I was jarred and transfixed. Until then I didn’t know anything about politics let alone Lincoln, but from that moment on I was obsessed with the American presidency.”
The opening paragraph has nothing to do with the precise subject of the book—the best friends of American presidents, and their almost-always-overlooked impact on American history—but they send an important subliminal message to readers: the author has been fixated on the U.S. presidency since childhood, and anything he chooses to write about it should be seen from that perspective.
The Bomber Mafia: A Dream, a Temptation, and the Longest Night of the Second World War (2021)
There was a time when the world’s largest airport sat in the middle of the western Pacific, around 1,500 miles from the coast of Japan, on one of a cluster of small tropical islands known as the Marianas. Guam. Saipan. Tinian.
To open a book with a little known historical fact is a time-honored tradition among non-fiction authors, and for reasons I’m not sure I can easily articulate, I found something especially appealing about this opening sentence. Gladwell continued: “The Marianas are the southern end of a largely submerged mountain range—the tips of volcanoes poking up through the deep ocean waters. For most of their history, the Marianas were too small to be of much interest or use to anyone in the wider world. Until the age of airpower, when all of a sudden they took on enormous importance.”
During WWII, the Japanese controlled the entire area until the summer of 1944, when a brutal and costly series of victories by American forces brought them under Allied control. Almost immediately, U.S. Navy Seabees commenced one of the most ambitious construction projects in military history. With a few months, American commanders had at their disposal four of the largest airports the world had ever seen, all equipped with the 8,500-foot runways that were needed to accommodate massive B-29 “Superfortress” bombers—and ultimately bring the war to an end.
There are things we can’t undo, but perhaps there is a kind of constructive remorse that could transform regrettable acts into something of service to life.
It’s common for an opening sentence to express the novel’s central theme, but it is rare for those opening words to be so eloquently expressed that they will likely find their way into a future edition of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations. When I came upon this haunting opening sentence for the first time, I immediately set the book down and added the observation to my personal “Words to Live By” computer file. I now also regard it as the single best thing ever said on the subject of remorse.
The opening reflection comes from 70-year-old Helen, who is still tormented by memories from when she was ten years old. In the novel’s second paragraph, she pulls readers deeper into the story:
“That summer, Flora and I were together every day and night for three weeks in June, all of July, and the first six days of August. I was ten, going on eleven, and she was twenty-two. I thought I knew her intimately, I thought I knew everything there was to know about her, but she has since become a profound study for me, more intensely so in recent years. Styles have come and gone in storytelling, psychologizing, theologizing, but Flora keeps providing me with something as enigmatic as it is basic to life, as timeless as it is fresh.”
About the novel and the author, John Irving wrote: “Godwin has flawlessly depicted the kind of fatalistic situation we can encounter in our youth--one that utterly robs us of our childhood and steers the course for our adult lives. This is a luminously written, heartbreaking book.”
Doris Kearns Goodwin
Leadership in Turbulent Times (2018)
Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson—the lives and times of these four men have occupied me for half a century. I have awakened with them in the morning and thought about them when I went to bed at night.
“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.”
Angels and Ages: A Short Book about Darwin, Lincoln, and Modern Life (2009)
We are all pebbles dropped in the sea of history, where the splash strikes one way and the big tides run another, and though what we feel is the splash, the splash takes place only within those tides. In almost every case, the incoming current drowns the splash; once in a while the drop of the pebble changes the way the ocean runs.
After opening with an impressive metaphorical flourish, Gopnik nicely sets up the thesis of the book—that a spectacular coincidence can change the course of world history. He continued: “On February 12, 1809, two baby boys were born within a few hours of each other on either side of the Atlantic. One entered life in a comfortable family home, nicely called the Mount, that still stands in the leafy English countryside of Shrewsbury, Shropshire; the other opened his eyes for the first time in a nameless long-lost cabin in the Kentucky woods.”
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.”
The Tin Drum (1959)
Granted: I am an inmate of a mental hospital; my keeper is watching me, he never lets me out of his sight.
The novel’s opening words come from Oskar Matzerath, a Polish man in his late twenties who is being confined in a mental hospital in the early 1950s. Is he a legitimate patient, or some kind of Cold War political prisoner? He offers a hint at the answer when he goes on to say: “There’s a peephole in the door, and my keeper’s eye is the shade of brown that can never see through a blue-eyed type like me.”
The Tin Drum was Grass’s first novel (his previous works were poetry, dramatic plays, and libretti for ballet), and he originally struggled to turn the ideas he had about the novel to words on a page. He struggled and struggled until the first sentence above came to him. After that, he reported, “The barriers fell, language surged forward, memory, imagination, the pleasure of invention, and an obsession with detail all flowed freely.”
Forrest Gump (1986)
Let me say this: bein an idiot is no box of chocolates. People laugh, lose patience, treat you shabby. Now they say folks is sposed to be kind to the afflicted, but let me tell you—it ain’t always that way. Even so, I got no complaints, cause I reckon I done live a pretty interestin life so to speak.
With these words, we are introduced to one of the modern era’s most interesting fictional characters (brought to life by actor Tom Hanks in a 1994 film adaptation).
Gump continues his irresistible self-introduction in the novel’s second paragraph: “I been an idiot since I was born. My IQ is near 70, which qualifies me, so they say. Probly, tho, I’m closer to bein a imbecile or maybe even a moron, but personally, I’d rather think of myself as a halfwit, or something—an not no idiot—cause when people think of a idiot, more’n likely they be thinkin of one of them Mongolian idiots—the ones with they eyes too close together what look like Chinamen an drool a lot an play with theyselfs.”
In the 1994 film adaptation, starring Tom Hanks, the novel’s opening metaphor was changed to, “My mama always said, life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.” The movie version of the thought is the one that is best remembered today.
Water for Elephants (2007)
I am ninety. Or ninety-three. One or the other.
The narrator, ninety-something nursing home resident Jacob Jankowski, is about to embark on a remarkable reminiscence. Before jumping in, he continues: “When you’re five, you know your age down to the month. Even in your twenties you know how old you are. I’m twenty-three, you say, or maybe twenty-seven. But then in your thirties something strange starts to happen. It’s a mere hiccup at first, an instant of hesitation. How old are you? Oh, I’m—you start confidently, but then you stop. You were going to say thirty-three, but you’re not. You’re thirty-five. And then you’re bothered, because you wonder is this is the beginning of the end. It is, of course, but it is decades before you admit it.”
Plays Well with Others (1997)
There are just two kinds of people in the world: those who will help you and those who won’t.
The Greek Way (1930)
Five hundred years before Christ in a little town on the far western border of the settled and civilized world, a strange new power was at work.
Hamilton continued: “Something had awakened in the minds and spirits of the men there which was so to influence the world that the slow passage of long time, of century upon century and the shattering of changes they brought, would be powerless to wear away that deep impress.”
The Four Winds (2021)
Elsa Wolcott had spent years in enforced solitude, reading fictional adventures and imagining other lives. In her lonely bedroom, surrounded by the novels that had become her friends, she sometimes dared to dream of an adventure of her own, but not often. Her family repeatedly told her that it was the illness she’d survived in childhood that had transformed her life and left it fragile and solitary, and on good days, she believed it.
The exact nature of Elsa’s illness, the details of her dreams and fantasies, the specific novels that influenced her, and a number of other things as well, have not yet been revealed, but we’re eager to read on—and already rooting for the young, female protagonist.
In the novel’s second paragraph, the narrator further stirred the pot by adding: “On bad days, like today, she knew that she had always been an outsider in her own family. They had sensed the lack in her early on, seen that she didn’t fit in.”
“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 day had gone by just as days go by. I had killed it in accordance with my primitive and retiring way of life. I had worked for an hour or two and perused the pages of old books. I had had pains for two hours, as elderly people do. I had taken a powder and been very glad when the pains consented to disappear. I had lain in a hot bath and absorbed its kindly warmth. Three times the mail had come with undesired letters and circulars to look through. I had done my breathing exercises, but found it convenient today to omit the thought exercises. I had been for an hour’s walk and seen the loveliest feathery cloud patterns penciled against the sky. That was very delightful. So was the reading of old books. So was the lying in the warm bath.
Impatient readers might be tempted to stop reading at this point, thinking these are simply the meanderings of an aging, but contented man. But that would be a mistake. The protagonist, a middle-aged man named Harry Haller, continued:
“But, taken all in all, it had not been exactly a day of rapture. No, it had not even been a day brightened with happiness and joy. Rather, it had been just one of those days which for a long while now had fallen to my lot; the moderately pleasant, the wholly bearable and tolerable, lukewarm days of a discontented middle-aged man; days without special pains, without special cares, without particular worry, without despair; days when I calmly wonder, objective and fearless, whether it isn’t time to follow the example of Adalbert Stifter and have an accident while shaving.”
Seabiscuit: An American Legend (2001)
In 1938, near the end of a decade of monumental turmoil, the year’s number-one newsmaker was not Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Hitler, or Mussolini. It wasn’t Pope Pius XI, nor was it Lou Gehrig, Howard Hughes, or Clark Gable. The subject of the most newspaper column inches in 1938 wasn’t even a person. It was an undersized, crooked-legged racehorse named Seabiscuit.
I love great opening lines, true, and that love also occasionally extends to the things written about them. If I spent a month crafting my own thoughts about Hillenbrand’s remarkable opening paragraph, it wouldn’t hold a candle to an amazing assessment made by professor Richard Goodman of the University of New Orleans. In an October 2012 article in The Writer’s Chronicle (titled “In the Beginning: Creating Dynamic, Meaningful & Compelling Openings”), he offered a Masterclass in literary criticism in these three paragraphs:
“How do writers take advantage of the opening of their story and use it skillfully to accomplish what they need to do? We can begin with the simple act of dispensing of information. There’s no better example of how that’s done well than the Preface of Laura Hillenbrand’s nonfiction book Seabiscuit: An American Legend. Remember that when this book was published in 2001, very few people had ever heard of Seabiscuit, much less had known anything about the horse’s remarkable, unlikely drama. That seems incredible now, after the hugely successful book and the equally successful movie, but it’s true. Not only that, Hillenbrand knew very well that no book about a horse had ever done remotely well in the history of American literature. (I’m excluding books for children and young adults, because this book is not in that category.) She had her work cut out for her….
“What she does here, foremost, in this brief paragraph, is to get the reader to understand how big, culturally speaking, Seabiscuit was. First, we notice the famous—and infamous—company she puts Seabiscuit in: Roosevelt, Pope Pius XI, Clark Gable. Mussolini and Hitler. But it’s how she puts Seabiscuit in that company that makes this so convincing. The names are intricately balanced. If you were to diagram them, poetically speaking, it would be AAA—all the political figures—; B—the Pope—; and CCC—all the well-known cultural icons. Look closely, and you’ll see this paragraph is even more fully balanced. The year 1938 is at the start of the paragraph, and it’s also near the end. The word ‘newspaper’ is placed before the litany of names, as well as after. Hillenbrand further provides a sense of balance with the litany itself: ‘was not’; ‘wasn’t’; ‘nor was’; ‘wasn’t even’, setting up the dramatic ‘It was.’ Having been set to expect a person, we are, instead, given the name of a horse. That horse—the one who was more famous that Roosevelt, Clark Gable or the Pope—was named Seabiscuit.
“No good artist ever does anything without a reason. So you can be certain that every single thing in this paragraph was done deliberately. The effect is to get you to look at this horse in a way you’ve never looked at another horse and to believe this is going to be a story worth reading. Of course we know the denouement to this paragraph is going to be Seabiscuit. That’s the name on the cover of the book. So how can we still be surprised? We’re surprised by the facts that we didn’t know, and by how they’re presented to us. This writing is the result of patient crafting, but it’s also the result of research and of marshaling facts. These facts didn’t just fall from the sky, though; Hillenbrand rooted them out—obsessively, as she herself describes it. To find those facts she began, ‘prowling Internet search engines, memorabilia auctions, and obscure bookstores, writing letters and placing information wanted ads, and making hundreds of calls to strangers.’ She didn’t stop until she found what she was looking for. This, with her craft, produced a gem of an opening paragraph.”
Very well said, professor Goodman, very well said, indeed. Thank you for granting me permission to quote you.
The Kite Runner (2003)
I became what I am today at the age of twelve, on a frigid overcast day in the winter of 1975. I remember the precise moment, crouching behind a crumbling mud wall, peeking into the alley near the frozen creek.
The opening words come from a 38-year-old Afghan-American novelist we know only by his first name: Amir. Now a successful writer, he is reflecting on his life as a boy growing up in Afghanistan prior to the Soviet invasion in 1979. In the opening paragraph, he continued:
“That was a long time ago, but it’s wrong what they say about the past, I’ve learned, about how you can bury it. Because the past claws its way out. Looking back now, I realize I have been peeking unto that deserted alley for the last twenty-six years.”
The Kite Runner was the debut novel of Dr. Khaled Hosseini, a 38-year-old California physician. Born in Kabul, Afghanistan in 1965, he was the eldest of five children born to the wife of an Afghan diplomat. The entire family moved to America in 1980 after his father was granted political asylum. In 1999, Hosseini was six years into his medical practice when he learned that the Taliban had banned kite-flying in Afghanistan. Appalled by the decision to ban an activity he loved so much as a child, he quickly penned a 25-page short story about the improbable friendship that develops between two kite-loving Afghan boys—one from a privileged family, the other the son of his father’s servant. When the short story was rejected by Esquire and The New Yorker, Hosseini filed the manuscript away, figuring his writing career was over.
Two years later, in 2001, a friend read the short story and urged Hosseini to turn it into a novel. The rest, as they say, is history. When the book was published in hardcover in 2003, Hosseini took a year-long sabbatical to promote the book. After a slow start, it became a darling of book clubs all across America and ultimately spent 101 weeks on The New York Times Best Seller list. In 2007, the novel was adapted into an Oscar-nominated film. In 2007, it was adapted to the stage, and in 2011 into a popular graphic novel.
Adolph Sutro: King of the Comstock Lode and Mayor of San Francisco (2020)
I hate biographies; they always end badly.
When reading biographies, it’s rare to find an opening line that might work perfectly in a standup-comedy routine, but that’s what happened when I opened the pages of Huber’s book about one of the most fascinating personalities in San Francisco’s colorful history. This great line came at the beginning of Chapter One. A page earlier, in the book’s Introduction, Huber also began memorably, writing: “A biography of one born in 1830 is sure to end with the death of the subject, and the opening chapter describes that inevitable outcome.”
Les Misérables (1862; Norman Denny translation)
In the year 1815 Monseigneur Charles-François-Bienvenu Myriel was Bishop of Digne. He was then about seventy-five, having held the bishopric since 1806.
The first paragraph of Hugo’s classic novel isn’t exactly a bell-ringer, but the second paragraph clearly reflected Hugo’s belief that readers always perked up when they were provided with rumor and gossip. The narrator continued:
“Although it has no direct bearing on the tale we have to tell, we must nevertheless give some account of the rumors and gossip concerning him which were in circulation when he came to occupy the diocese.”
William Bradford Huie
The Revolt of Mamie Stover (1951)
A six-foot-tall, yellow-haired whore from Mississippi was the most successful revolutionary of the Second War. Her name was Mamie Stover.
Few protagonists in literary history have been introduced as effectively, or as memorably. The narrator continued: “She made a fortune. The war wasn’t a disaster for her; it was an opportunity. It multiplied the demand for her merchandise. It brought her long lines of eager new customers.”
Huie’s novel was a blockbuster, selling over three million copies in paperback alone When 20th Century Fox acquired film rights in 1955, they intended it as a vehicle for Monroe, but they were never able to finalize a deal. Jane Russell ultimately starred in the 1956 film adaptation, and her performance was widely praised, even by critics who panned the film as a highly sanitized version of the original novel.
“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.
An Enquiry Concerning The Principles of Morals (1751)
Disputes with men, pertinaciously obstinate in their principles, are, of all others, the most irksome; except perhaps, those with persons, entirely disingenuous, who really do not believe the opinions they defend, but engage in the controversy, from affectation, from a spirit of opposition, or from a desire of showing wit and ingenuity, superior to the rest of mankind.
The language may be a little dated and high-flown, but few philosophical works have opened with a better combination of elegant phrasing and forceful expression. As Hume brought the first paragraph to a close, he offered an important generalization about the human experience: “And as reasoning is not the source, whence either disputant derives his tenets; it is in vain to expect, that any logic, which speaks not to the affections, will ever engage him to embrace sounder principles.”
This is one of intellectual history’s best opening paragraphs—and as relevant today as when it was written 270 years ago. In The Great Guide: What David Hume Can Teach Us About Being Human and Living Well (2021), Julian Baggini summarized the essence of the paragraph this way: “When reason has nothing to do with why people hold their beliefs, reason is powerless to change them.”
Zora Neale Hurston
Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937)
Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board.
In a 2011 DailyWritingTips.com post on “20 Great Opening Lines to Inspire the Start of Your Story,“ Mark Nichol wrote about this legendary first sentence: “Every once in a while there comes an opening line that seems to have an entire story folded up inside it. But it’s just the label on the envelope. And I challenge you to withstand the urge to open it up and read the message.“
In 2005, Time magazine included Their Eyes Were Watching God on its list of the 100 best English-language novels since 1923. The opening line served as a springboard to two paragraphs that capture a familiar theme in gender dynamics—men and women pursue their dreams in very different ways:
“Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board. For some they come in with the tide. For others they sail forever on the horizon, never out of sight, never landing until the Watcher turns his eyes away in resignation, his dreams mocked to death by Time. That is the life of men.
“Now, women forget all those things they don’t want to remember and remember everything they don’t want to forget. The dream is the truth. Then they act and do things accordingly.”
In a 2020 ThoughtCo.com article, writer Julia Pearson nicely summarized the meaning of the opening paragraphs: “The metaphor of ‘ships at a distance’ describes how reality is shaped differently for men and women. Men view their dreams far away, and few are able to fulfill them (only ‘some’ who are lucky to have them ‘come in with the tide’). Women, on the other hand, don’t think of dreams as far-away vessels they will never set foot on. For women, ‘the dream is the truth.’”
In One Person (2012)
I’m going to begin by telling you about Miss Frost. While I say to everyone that I became a writer because I read a certain novel by Charles Dickens at the formative age of fifteen, the truth is I was younger than that when I first met Miss Frost and imagined having sex with her, and this moment of my sexual awakening also marked the fitful birth of my imagination.
The narrator and protagonist, a bisexual novelist named Billy Abbott, continued: “We are formed by what we desire. In less than a minute of excited, secretive longing, I desired to become a writer and to have sex with Miss Frost—not necessarily in that order.”
The World According to Garp (1978)
Garp’s mother, Jenny Fields, was arrested in Boston in 1942 for wounding a man in a movie theater. This was shortly after the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor and people were being tolerant of soldiers, because suddenly everyone was a soldier, but Jenny Fields was quite firm in her intolerance of the behavior of men in general and soldiers in particular.
The narrator continued: “In the movie theater she had to move three times, but each time the soldier moved closer to her until she was sitting against the musty wall, her view of the newsreel almost blocked by some silly colonnade, and she resolved she would not get up and move again. The soldier moved once more and sat beside her.”
The novel begins with a description of a feisty woman standing up to a rape attempt. In an Introduction to a 40th anniversary edition of the book in 2018, Irving wrote: “The World According to Garp was always a feminist novel, but in the passage of time I’ve become more of a feminist. Why? Because the inequalities and discrimination women faced in the start-up days of the women’s movement haven’t gone away…. Garp is a political novel, and the politics of sexual intolerance and suppression haven’t gone away.” The novel was Irving’s first bestseller, and the first to be translated into other languages. It went on to win the 1980 National Book Award for Paperback General Fiction.
Last Night in Twisted River (2009)
The young Canadian, who could not have been more than fifteen, had hesitated too long. For a frozen moment, his feet had stopped moving on the floating logs in the basin above the river bend; he’d slipped entirely underwater before anyone could grab his outstretched hand.
From the very first sentenced, the reader is thrust into a dramatic and dangerous scene. The technical term for this is in media res (Latin for “into the middle of things”), and Irving demonstrates great skill at employing the device.
In the first paragraph, the narrator continued: “One of the loggers had reached for the youth’s long hair—the older man’s fingers groped around in the frigid water, which was thick, almost soupy with the sloughed-off slabs of bark. Then two logs collided hard on the would-be rescuer’s arm, breaking his wrist. The carpet of moving logs had completely closed over the young Canadian, who never surfaced; not even a hand or one of his boots broke out of the brown water.”
A Prayer for Owen Meany (1989)
I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice—not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany.
These powerful opening words come from narrator John Wheelwright, who, along with his best friend Owen Meany, grew up in a small New Hampshire town in the 1950s. John described Owen as remarkable young man who saw himself as God’s instrument on earth, and as fulfilling a role that had been prophesied for him. The novel is generally regarded as an homage to Günter Grass’s The Tin Drum. Grass, along with Charles Dickens, was an enormous influence on the adolescent Irving, and it can hardly be a coincidence that Owen Meany has the same initials as The Tin Drum’s protagonist, Oskar Matzerath. In a 2007 New York Times article (“A Soldier Once”), Irving formally acknowledged that the Meany book was written in “homage” to Grass.
In a 2019 Book Chase blog post, reviewer Sam Sattler identified his three favorite opening paragraphs, this one from Owen Meany, another from Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove, and a third from Peter Dexter’s Spooner. About them, he wrote: “A good first paragraph is one of the most important tools an author has available to grab my book-browsing attention—usually quickly and in less than 100 words. I can learn more about the style and readability of an author from an opening paragraph than I will ever gather from a canned dust jacket summary or some blurb from a fellow author of the writer’s that I wouldn’t believe in a million years anyway.”
“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.
Kissinger: A Biography (1992)
As his parents finished packing the few personal belongings that they were permitted to take out of Germany, the bespectacled fifteen-year-old boy stood in the corner of the apartment and memorized the details of the scene.
Isaacson continued: “He was a bookish and reflective child, with that odd mixture of ego and insecurity that can come from growing up smart yet persecuted. ’I’ll be back someday,’ he said to the customs inspector who was surveying the boxes.“
Benjamin Franklin: An American Life (2003)
His arrival in Philadelphia is one of the most famous scenes in autobiographical literature: the bedraggled 17-year-old runaway, cheeky yet with a pretense of humility, straggling off the boat and buying three puffy rolls as he wanders up Market Street. But wait a minute. There’s something more.
Isaacson begins his biography with a reference to the beginning of Franklin’s Autobiography, where Franklin had talked about arriving in Philadelphia after hastily leaving Boston. The “something more” is what Franklin’s original description had revealed about him. “Benjamin Franklin is the founding father who winks at us,“ Isaacson concluded. And a moment later, he described Franklin this way:
“Ben Franklin, that ambitious urban entrepreneur, seems made of flesh rather than marble, addressable by nickname, and he turns to us from history’s stage with eyes that twinkle from behind those newfangled spectacles. He speaks to us, through his letters and hoaxes and autobiography, not with orotund rhetoric but with a chattiness and clever irony that is very contemporary, sometimes unnervingly so.“
Leonardo da Vinci (2017)
Leonardo da Vinci had the good luck to be born out of wedlock.
This is a superb opening line—a classic example of oxymoronic phrasing—and easily the best of any of Isaacson’s fine biographies. I also regard it as one of the all-time best first sentences in the biography genre that Isaacson has come to dominate.
In his first paragraph, the affable Tulane University professor continued: “Otherwise, he would have been expected to become a notary, like the firstborn legitimate sons in his family stretching back at least five generations.”
“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.”
“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.’”
“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.“)
“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 bunch-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.”
A Richer Dust [Book 3 in the Triumph of Time series] (1931)
The past is a scene from which the light is slowly fading.
This is a spectacular metaphorical observation—and a fabulous opening line—from a female writer who was well known and widely praised in her era (she was so familiar to English readers that publishers selected her to write the Introduction to the 1952 British edition of The Diary of Anne Frank). Sadly, she has been largely forgotten by modern readers.
If Jameson’s opening line is stirring a thought in you—but you’re not sure why— it’s probably because you’re thinking about a similar but even more famous metaphorical opening line: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” This was the first sentence of L. P. Hartley’s 1953 novel The Go-Between, and many regard it as one of the greatest opening lines in literary history. Even though I have no evidence to support my speculation, I’ve always suspected that Hartley might have been inspired by Jameson’s earlier opening line.
Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and razor lay crossed.
I was never all that impressed with this opener, but the folks at the American Book Review ranked it number 21 in their 2006 listing of the “100 Best First Lines from Novels.“ In a 2012 Guardian article, English wordsmith Robert McCrum included it in his compilation of “The Ten Best First Lines in Fiction.” About it, he wrote: “This is the classic third-person opening to the 20th-century novel that has shaped modern fiction, pro and anti, for almost a hundred years.”
One of literary history’s most influential novels, Ulysses was an epic “stream-of-consciousness” novel that had famous supporters and dissenters. T. S. Eliot said it was “the most important expression which the present age has found.” Vladimir Nabokov hailed it as a “divine work of art.” And Virginia Woolf wrote about it: “Ulysses was a memorable catastrophe—immense in daring, terrific in disaster.”
Dancing With Eva (2006)
For some weeks Edith left the opened letter on the white mantelpiece in the sitting room. It would have been easy—forefinger and thumb, a flick of the wrist—to consign it to the beech-log fire she always lit in winter before tea.
Edith Mecklenburg, now in the final years of her life, was Eva Braun’s personal secretary during WWII. After the war, she created a new life for herself in England, but a recent letter from someone in her past has disquieted her.
The narrator continued: “Then she could have tried to forget it, since he surely would not have written again. If you don’t hear from someone for half a century, then suddenly you do, you can assume he’s probably not going to pester you for a reply.“
“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!”
Schindler’s Ark [published in America as Schindler’s List] (1982)
In Poland’s deepest autumn, a tall young man in an expensive overcoat, double-breasted dinner jacket beneath it and—in the lapel of the dinner jacket—a large ornamental gold-on-black enamel swastika, emerged from a fashionable apartment block in Straszewskiego Street on the edge of the ancient center of Crakow, and saw his chauffeur waiting with fuming breath by the open door of an enormous and, even in this blackened world, lustrous Adler limousine.
“Watch the pavement, Herr Schindler,” said the chauffeur. “It’s icy like a widow’s heart.”
John F. Kennedy
Profiles in Courage (1956)
This is a book about that most admirable of human virtues—courage. “Grace under pressure,” Ernest Hemingway defined it.
Kennedy’s book went on to win the 1957 Pulitzer Prize in Biography and nicely positioned him for a presidential run a few years later. At the time, many believed Theodore Sorenson, a noted historian and close friend of the Kennedy family, had actually ghostwritten the work.
JFK didn’t say much about the matter, but in 1957 his father famously threatened to sue political commentator Drew Pearson for asserting that Sorenson was the real author. The controversy even resulted in a popular apocryphal story that one of Kennedy’s colleagues in the Senate had said to him, “Jack, I wish you had a little less profile and a lot more courage.” The whole matter remained murky until 2008, when Sorenson revealed in his memoir (Counselor: A Life at the Edge of History) that he had, in fact, written “a first draft of most of the chapters” and “helped choose the words of many sentences.”
In the opening words to the book, Kennedy continued: “And these are the stories of the pressures experienced by eight United States Senators and the grace with which they endured them—the risks to their careers, the unpopularity of their courses, the defamation of their characters, and sometimes, but sadly only sometimes, the vindication of their reputations and their principles.”
A Most Dangerous Method (1993)
Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung met for the first time on 3 March 1907. They talked for thirteen hours straight.
Kerr continued: “The last time the two men were together in the same room was at the Fourth International Psychoanalytic Congress, held in Munich on 7-8 September 1913. On that occasion, so far as is known, they said not a single word to each other. So it was in silence that one of the most vexed partnership in the history of ideas ended.”
The Other Side of Silence [Book 11 in the Bernie Gunther series] (2016)
Yesterday I tried to kill myself.
It wasn’t that I wanted to die as much as the fact that I wanted the pain to stop.
These are dramatic opening words, and I believe they perfectly capture the reality of most people considering suicide: they don’t want to end their lives so much as they want to bring an end to the unbearable pain they’ve been experiencing. In this case, the pain-sufferer is Bernie Gunther, an aging former Berlin homicide detective with a dark past. As the novel begins, he is working under a false name as a concierge at a hotel in the French Riviera—and he is definitely not a happy camper. In his opening words, he continued: “Elizabeth, my wife, left me a while ago and I’d been missing her a lot. That was one source of pain, and a pretty major one, I have to admit. Even after a war in which more than four million German soldiers died, German wives are hard to come by. But another serious pain in my life was the war itself, of course, and what happened to me way back then, and in the Soviet POW camps afterward.”
Sue Monk Kidd
The Book of Longings (2020)
I am Ana. I was the wife of Jesus ben Joseph of Nazareth. I called him Beloved and he, laughing, called me Little Thunder.
This was one of my selections for The Top Twenty Opening Lines of 2020. The idea that Jesus had a wife, and that she is telling the story of their life together, is compelling. It also raises a question few have ever asked: What kind of husband would Jesus have been?
In the novel, Ana continued: “He said he heard rumblings inside me while I slept, a sound like thunder from far over the Nahal Zippori valley or even farther beyond the Jordan. I don’t doubt he heard something. All my life, longings lived inside me, rising up like nocturnes to wail and sing through the night. That my husband bent his heart to mine on our thin straw mat and listened was the kindness I most loved in him. What he heard was my life begging to be born.”
As they were leaving the Mumbanyo, someone threw something at them. It bobbed a few yards from the stern of the canoe. A pale brown thing.
“Another dead baby,” Fen said.
The opening words are gripping—even horrifying—but they immediately capture the reader’s attention. As it turns out, the pale brown thing may not be a baby after all, but who could stop reading after such a sizzling opener?
King’s novel, inspired by a field trip that anthropologist Margaret Mead made to New Guinea in 1933, was one of the most acclaimed books of the year, winning numerous awards, including the 2014 Kirkus Prize for Fiction and the 2014 New England Book Award for Fiction. It was also named one of the 10 Best Books of 2014 by The New York Times Book Review.
The Walking Drum (1984)
Nothing moved but the wind and only a few last, lingering drops of rain, only a blowing of water off the ruined wall. Listening, I heard no other sound. My imagination was creating foes where none existed.
In one of the few L’Amour novels that is not a western, the opening words come from narrator and protagonist Mathurin Kerbouchard. A historical novel set in the twelfth century, The Walking Drum was intended to be a trilogy, but the remaining two books were never written due to the author’s declining health, and death in 1988.
The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America (2003)
In Chicago at the end of the nineteenth century amid the smoke of industry and the clatter of trains there lived two men, both handsome, both blue-eyed, and both unusually adept at their chosen skills. Each embodied an element of the great dynamic that characterized the rush of America toward the twentieth century.
In this compelling work—named “Best Book of the Year” by the San Francisco Chronicle—Larson brought a novelist’s sensibility to a history book. Larson continued: “One was an architect, the builder of many of America’s most important structures, among them the Flatiron Building in New York and Union Station in Washington, D.C.; the other was a murderer, one of the most prolific in history and harbinger of an American archetype, the urban serial killer. Although the two never met, at least not formally, their fates were linked by a single, magical event.”
That single, magical event was, of course, Chicago’s 1893 World’s Fair (officially named “The 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition”). Larson’s book reintroduced modern readers to the legendary American architect Daniel Burnham and interwove his story with that of H. H. Holmes, a Chicago man who is often described as America’s first serial killer.
This is the Fire: What I Say to My Friends About Racism (2021)
May 25, 2020
Today I heard a dying man call out to his mama, and I wept for the world that will soon belong to you. I know what comes next as surely as I know the Mississippi rolls down to the sea.
The weeping passes, and rage takes hold.
The rage burns out, and blame begins.
The blame bounces back and forth, and promises are made.
The promises wither, and complacency returns.
And the complacency stays. It stagnates like a lullaby on autoplay, until another man dies facedown on another street in another city, and the weeping begins again.
These are the opening words to the book’s Prologue, titled “A Letter to My Nephew.” After the unmistakable allusion to the George Floyd killing, Lemon offered a bleak-but-beautifully-phrased assessment of the likely aftermath.
Astute readers will quickly surmise that, in approaching his book, Lemon was inspired by James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time (1963). Both books have fire in the title, and Baldwin also began his classic work with a letter to his nephew. Both books also contain a similar tone of deep frustration and controlled rage at America’s failure to learn from its own painful history.
These Truths: A History of the United States (2018)
The course of history is unpredictable, as irregular as the weather, as errant as affection, nations rising and falling by whim and chance, battered by violence, corrupted by greed, seized by tyrants, raided by rogues, addled by demagogues.
It takes a touch of audacity to attempt a one-volume history of the United States, and Lepore—a Harvard University history professor as well as a New Yorker staff writer—opens with a bang. Bruce Watson, a noted writer/historian in his own right, alerted me to Lepore’s opening words, writing: “It’s not easy to sum up history in a sentence, nor is it easy to do a full U.S. history in a single book, but Lepore rises to both tasks. Introducing her monumental single-volume history, she makes many profound statements about history as an inexact science and America as a work in progress. She had me from the start.”
Lepore’s book was widely hailed, but my favorite critical comment came from Casey Cep, also a New Yorker staff writer, in a Harvard Magazine review. After describing the work as “Astounding,” Cep went on to write that Lepore “has assembled evidence of an America that was better than some thought, worse than almost anyone imagined, and weirder than most serious history books ever convey.”
The title of Lepore’s book, of course, comes from the second line of the Declaration of Independence, which begins, “We hold these truths to be self-evident….“
Elmer Gantry (1927)
Elmer Gantry was drunk. He was eloquently drunk, lovingly and pugnaciously drunk.
Following the example of the American Book Review, which published a 2006 list of “100 Best First Lines from Novels,” many subsequent lists of Great Opening Lines offer only the first sentence (“Elmer Gantry was drunk”), shortsightedly omitting the beauty and the power of the novel’s full first words. In their compilation, the ABR editors made this mistake with some other entries as well, most notably the opening words of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (1961). See the Heller entry here.
In the novel, the narrator continued: “He leaned against the bar of the Old Home Sample Room, the most gilded and urbane saloon in Cato, Missouri, and requested the bartender to join him in ‘The Good Old Summer Time,’ the waltz of the day.”
Elmer Gantry was the most controversial book of 1927, banned in Boston, of course, and in many other American cities. After the influential American evangelist Billy Sunday denounced Lewis as “Satan’s cohort,” ministers all around the country followed suit, suggesting he be “tarred and feathered,“ and even imprisoned for his heresy (not surprisingly, the author received numerous death threats and, for a time, even had police protection). The controversy greatly spurred book sales, ultimately making it the best-selling novel in the U.S. for 1927. In 1960, director Richard Brooks adapted the novel into an Oscar-nominated film with a riveting, Oscar-winning performance by Burt Lancaster in the title role.
The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, and the Unlikely Ascent of Hallelujah (2012)
Allen Ginzberg once said, “Dylan blew everybody’s mind except Leonard’s.”
For a writer, it’s got to be a major challenge to craft an exemplary opening for a biography about the legendary Leonard Cohen and his equally legendary song, “Hallelujah.” But Light finds a way to do it with style—bringing together three iconic historical figures in one intriguing observation about two of them.
The Call of the Wild (1903)
Buck did not read the papers, or he would have known that trouble was brewing, not alone for himself, but for every tide-water dog, strong of muscle and with warm, long hair, from Puget Sound to San Diego.
From the phrasing of the first sentence, it becomes clear that Buck is a dog, and not a human being. The opening words also offer the intriguing suggestion that this tale will be a told from a canine perspective, not a human one.
The narrator continued: “Because men, groping in the Arctic darkness, had found a yellow metal, and because steamship and transportation companies were booming the find, thousands of men were rushing into the Northland. These men wanted dogs, and the dogs they wanted were heavy dogs, with strong muscles by which to toil, and furry coats to protect them from the frost.“
M. G. Lord
The Accidental Feminist: How Elizabeth Taylor Raised Our Consciousness and We Were Too Distracted by Her Beauty to Notice (2012)
You could say it began in 1944 with National Velvet, when Elizabeth Taylor, age twelve, dressed as a boy and stole America’s collective heart. By “it,” I mean the subversive drumbeats of feminism, which swelled in the star’s important movies over decades from a delicate pitty-pat to a resounding roar.
Few people would regard Elizabeth Taylor as an influential figure in the early history of feminism, but Lord’s mission is to set the record straight. In the second paragraph, she continued: “Feminism may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the name Elizabeth Taylor. But it might if you share your definition with writer Rebecca West: ‘I myself have never been able to find out precisely what feminism is. I only know that people call me a feminist when I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat.”
Year of the Reaper (2021)
When it came to the dead, it was best to pretend he did not see them.
This is a terrific first line—straightforward, succinct, but highly evocative. The narrator continued: “This Cas had learned the hard way, early on, when the plague had struck and the bodies lay blanketed around him. And as he crossed the bridge, the ghost keeping pace by his side, it became clear he would have to pretend harder. This particular spirit was growing suspicious.”
The protagonist, we will shortly learn, is 18-year-old Lord Cassia, a young nobleman recently emerged from prison and returning to his home in the middle of a devastating worldwide plague and after a long, costly war with a neighboring kingdom. About the book, Jennifer Harlan. said in a New York Times review: “This moving book explores what it means to rebuild and how much history depends on who is left to tell it.”
The Mirror and the Light (2020)
Once the queen’s head is severed, he walks away.
Few first sentences combine pith and drama as well as this one—making it an easy selection for my list of Twenty of the Best Opening Lines of 2020. In this third volume of Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy, the queen in question is Anne Boleyn, the second wife of England’s King Henry VIII, and the man walking away is Thomas Cromwell, a prominent English jurist and chief minister to the king (a few years later, Cromwell would also be beheaded, on orders from the king he tried to serve so faithfully).
After the captivating opening sentence, the narrator continued about Cromwell: “A sharp pang of appetite reminds him that it is time for a second breakfast, or perhaps an early dinner. The morning’s circumstances are new and there are no rules to guide us.“
Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels
The Communist Manifesto (1848)
A specter is haunting Europe, the specter of Communism.
This is the first sentence of the Preamble to the book—originally written more than a decade before the American Civil War!—and it went on to become one of the most famous opening lines in history.
The first line of the book’s first chapter went on to rival the Preamble opener in fame: “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.”
The Communist Manifesto is a political treatise—and one of the most influential in world history—but these two opening lines reveal one other thing: the book was written by two men who also had some serious writing skills.
W. Somerset Maugham
The Razor’s Edge (1944)
I have never begun a novel with more misgiving. If I call it a novel it is only because I don’t know what else to call it.
The opening words come not from an unknown narrator, but from Maugham himself. From the outset, he asserts that the story he is about to tell is not a work of fiction, but an account of real people and actual events (as the book unfolds, Maugham also becomes a minor character in the story, periodically showing up in the lives of the major characters). He goes on to pledge that he will forego “the exercise of invention” and set down only what he knows to be true.
In the book’s second paragraph, Maugham continued: “In the present book…I have invented nothing. To save embarrassment to people still living I have given to the persons who play a part in this story names of my own contriving, and I have in other ways taken pains to make sure that no one should recognize them.”
The entire novel generally reflected Maugham’s longstanding interest in Eastern culture, and it specifically began to take form after a 1938 visit he made to the Sri Ramana Ashram in Tamil Nadu, India. The book’s title came from an epigraph at the beginning of the book: “The sharp edge of a razor is difficult to pass over; thus the wise say the path to ‘enlightenment’ is hard.” The passage is from the Katha Upanishad, one of the great spiritual texts of Hinduism.
Michael Tolliver Lives [Book 7 in the Tales of the City Series] (2007)
Not long ago, down on Castro Street, a stranger in a Giants parka gave me a loaded glance as we passed each other in front of Cliff’s Hardware.
Sometimes, an opening sentence works simply because of a phrase or small snippet—and for me, the idea of a loaded glance pulled me directly into the story.
To be honest, serendipity also played a significant role in piquing my interest, for only a few weeks prior to picking up the book, I had stumbled on a remarkable new (to me) observation by Ralph Waldo Emerson. In his “Behavior” essay in The Conduct of Life (1860), Emerson wrote: “The glance is natural magic. The mysterious communication established across a house between two entire strangers, moves all the springs of wonder.”
So, with all this in the back of my mind, I returned with a heightened interest to the novel’s opening paragraph. The narrator, a middle-aged gay man named Mike Tolliver, continued: “He was close to my age, I guess, not that far past fifty—and not bad-looking either, in a beat-up Bruce Willis-y sort of way—so I waited a moment before turning to see if he would go for a second look. He knew this old do-si-do as well as I did, and hit his mark perfectly.”
The Good Lord Bird (2013)
I was born a colored man and don’t you forget it. But I lived as a colored woman for seventeen years.
The narrator and protagonist is a former slave named Henry Shackleford, and he introduces himself in a most memorable way. As an eleven-year-old (or thereabouts) baby-faced boy in the Kansas Territory of 1856, he accidentally meets the legendary abolitionist John Brown, who mistakenly believes him to be a girl, gives him a dress to wear, and enlists him as a good luck charm in his anti-slavery crusade. As the tale unfolds, Henry—dubbed “Little Onion” by Brown—discovers it is easier to keep up the charade than to reveal his true gender. The book won the 2013 National Book Award for Fiction.
“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….
“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 Last of the Savages (1996)
The capacity for friendship is God’s way of apologizing for our families.
This is one of literary history’s most quotable opening lines, but you should know that the underlying idea is not original to McInerney. He was piggybacking on a famous remark from the English writer Hugh Kingsmill, who was quoted in 1970 as describing friends as “God’s apology for relations.”
The narrator is Patrick Keane, a 46-year-old principal partner of a New York City law firm, whose memories of his earlier years are triggered by an interview with police detectives about a former member of his firm. He continued: “At least that’s one way of explaining my unlikely fellowship with Will Savage.”
Sin Killer [Book 1 of the Berrybender Narratives] (2002)
In the darkness beyond the great Missouri’s shore at last lay the West, toward which Tasmin and her family, the numerous Berrybenders, had so long been tending.
Lonesome Dove (1985)
When Augustus came out on the porch the blue pigs were eating a rattlesnake—not a very big one.
In a 2016 Texas Monthly article, editor-in-chief Brian D. Sweany wrote: “Here’s a sentence I wish I had been the one to write.” About the opener, Sweany went added: “He packs a lot into those nineteen words: the arrival of Gus, the violence happening right outside his door, the exotic nature of the pigs, and the dismissive description of the snake, suggesting that not everything is as it seems. All of these details propel you forward into one of the greatest westerns ever written. Of course, that could just be the English major in me talking.”
In his tribute, Sweany doesn’t even mention the novel’s second sentence, which is every bit as good as the first: “It had probably just been crawling around looking for shade when it ran into the pigs. They were having a fine tug-of-war with it, and its rattling days were over.”
Lonesome Dove, a captivating tale of retired Texas Rangers who decide to herd cattle for a living, was originally written as a screenplay by McMurtry and Peter Bogdanovich in the early 1970s (they had collaborated on the screenplay for the 1971 film The Last Picture Show, and enjoyed the experience so much they decided to give it another whirl). The screenplay was well received by studio execs, but the screenwriters were so opposed to the aging actors being considered for the starring roles (Jimmy Stewart, Henry Fonda, and John Wayne) that they backed out of the deal.
The screenplay languished “in development” for the next dozen years before McMurtry finally purchased the rights (for $35,000) and adapted it into a novel. Once published, the book was a critical and commercial success, almost immediately becoming a national bestseller, and eventually winning the 1986 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. In 1989, CBS adapted it into an equally popular television miniseries, starring more age-appropriate protagonists: Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones.
Call me Ishmael.
From the day Moby-Dick was published, these three simple opening words have captivated readers. Because of the phrasing, it is clear that Ishmael is not the narrator’s real name. But why would he want to keep his real name secret, and choose an alias instead? And what lay behind his choice of Ishmael, the biblical name of an exiled social outcast?
In 2006, the American Book Review ranked “Call me Ishmael” Number 1 on its classic list of “The 100 Best First Lines from Novels” (it has also been hailed by countless writers, including Margaret Atwood and Stephen King). The three opening words are so legendary, in fact, that the exceptional quality of the entire first paragraph is ignored by most readers:
“Call me Ishmael. Some years ago—never mind how long precisely—having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen, and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.”
The opening sentence of Moby-Dick is so famous it has been emulated by many writers. Kurt Vonnegut began Cat’s Cradle (1963) with “Call me Jonah.” Philip Roth began The Great American Novel (1973) with “Call me Schmitty.” And humorist Peter De Vries brilliantly demonstrated how a simple punctuation mark can change the entire meaning of the passage when he opened The Vale of Laughter (1967) with: “Call me, Ishmael.”
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.
On 24 October 1944 planet Earth was following its orbit about the sun as it has obediently done for nearly five billion years.
This would be a good opening line without the word obediently, but the inclusion of that single word transforms it into a great one. The narrator continued: “It moved at the stunning speed of sixty-five thousand miles an hour, and in doing so, created the seasons. In the northern hemisphere it was a burnished autumn; in the southern, a burgeoning spring.”
The chief character in this narrative is the Caribbean Sea, one of the world’s most alluring bodies of water, a rare gem among the oceans, defined by the islands that form a chain of lovely jewels to the north and east.
The narrator continued: “Although bounded on the south and west by continental land masses, it is the islands that give the Caribbean its unique charm.”
For some time now they had been suspicious of him. Spies had monitored his movements, reporting to the priests, and in the tribal councils his advice against going to war with those beyond the bend had been ignored.
The novel begins with a description of Pentaquod, an Indian warrior who is opposed to his chief’s decision to send a raiding party to a neighboring tribe. There is a suggestion from the outset that his principled opposition may cost him plenty. The narrator continued: “Even more predictive, the family of the girl he had chosen to replace his dead wife had refused to accept the three lengths of roanoke he had offered as her purchase price.”
For those not familiar with the word, roanoke refers to polished sea shell beads that were a form of Native American currency on Maryland’s eastern shore in the 16th and 17th centuries. A single length of roanoke was measured from the fingertip to the elbow.
My bad luck started just before Christmas 1985. But at the time, as so often happens, it seemed like good luck.
In this fictional account of the Iran-Contra affair, the opening words come from U. S. Army Major Norman Starr. A member of the National Security Council, he has received a subpoena to appear before a congressional committee investigating illegal covert activities by U.S. military personnel.
In the novel’s second paragraph, Starr continued: “I had graduated from West Point just in time to join the final fighting in the rice paddies of Vietnam. Returning with a chest full of medals, a few earned, most routine, I married Nancy Makin, a girl from Maryland whom I’d been dating whenever I found myself with stateside duty. We had spent our first three years of married life in the Panama Canal Zone, where I had the shameful task of watching as Jimmy Carter gave away that marvel of engineering to the Panamanians.”
Millions upon millions of years ago, when the continents were already formed and the principal features of the earth had been decided, there existed, then as now, one aspect of the world that dwarfed all others.
Of his many multi-generational, whopper-sized, historical sagas, Hawaii may be Michener’s most famous. In the work, the narrator continued: “It was a mighty ocean, resting uneasily to the east of the largest continent, a restless ever-changing gigantic body of water that would later be described as pacific.”
From the moment the novel was published, it was clear it was going to be a huge commercial success, despite the lukewarm reception from critics. In a New York Times review, critic Orville Prescott offered this prescient assessment of the book: “It may never make literary history, but for some time it has been making publishing history.”
The Bridges at Toko-Ri (1953)
The sea was bitter cold. From the vast empty plains of Siberia howling winds roared down to lash the mountains of Korea, where American soldiers lost on patrol froze into stiff and awkward forms.
This is a grisly, but captivating opening, and it grew out of Michener’s experience as a combat journalist. After serving as a U. S. Navy officer in WWII, in 1951 he was embedded with Task Force 77, an historic strike force of battleships and aircraft carriers brought back into action during the Korean War. Throughout the conflict, he wrote periodic dispatches for The Saturday Evening Post and other publications.
Michener’s Toko-Ri novella chronicled the experiences of U. S. Navy helicopter pilots who were tasked with destroying a series of heavily defended bridges in North Korea. An immediate bestseller, the book was quickly adapted into a highly regarded film by the same title, starring William Holden, Grace Kelly, Fredric March, Mickey Rooney, and others.
I had been sent to Mexico to cover a murder, one of a remarkable kind. And since it had not yet happened, I had been ordered to get photographs, too.
Oxymoronic openings are always intriguing to readers, and this is one of the best. The opening words come from Norman Clay, an American journalist who has been assigned to cover an annual bullfighting festival in the Mexican city of Toledo. A few weeks earlier, he received a telegram from his editor, saying: “Rumor tells me two Mexican matadors are heading for a showdown in which one of them is likely to force the other to such extremes that it will be the same as murder.”
Gone With the Wind (1936)
Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charms as the Tarleton twins were.
In a 2011 blog post, English writer Kit Whitfield wrote: “So begins Gone With The Wind, that dizzying whirlwind of romance, false history, social Darwinism, compelling character drama and stomach-turning racism that has, since its publication, captivated readers far, far nicer than the book would have them be.“
Despite the problems enumerated by Whitfield, the novel won the 1937 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. It also gave readers one of the most unforgettable female characters in the history of literature, brought to life in an equally unforgettable way by Vivian Leigh in David O. Selznick’s 1939 film adaptation.
In the novel, the narrator continued about Scarlett: “In her face were too sharply blended the delicate features of her mother, a Coast aristocrat of French descent, and the heavy ones of her florid Irish father. But it was an arresting face, pointed of chin, square of jaw. Her eyes were pale green without a touch of hazel, starred with bristly black lashes and slightly tilted at the ends. Above them, her thick black brows slanted upward, cutting a startling oblique line in her magnolia-white skin—that skin so prized by Southern women and so carefully guarded with bonnets, veils and mittens against hot Georgia suns.“
J. Leslie Mitchell
When Kleon heard the news from Capua he rose early one morning, being a literatus and unchained, crept to the room of his Master, stabbed him in the throat, mutilated that Master’s body even as his own had been mutilated: and so fled from Rome with a stained dagger in his sleeve and a copy of The Republic of Plato hidden in his breast.
One of the most gratifying aspects of my research for this project was discovering spectacular opening paragraphs in the works of authors I’d never heard of. Mitchell, a popular Scottish author in the early decades of the twentieth century, published many novels, including Spartacus, under his own name, and many others under his pen name, Lewis Grassic Gibbon.
This is not the Spartacus novel that inspired Stanley Kubrick’s popular 1960 film adaptation, though. Douglas relied on Dalton Trumbo’s screenplay of Howard Fast’s 1951 novel of the same name. Mitchell’s opening line above demonstrates great flair and style, and I feel certain that, nearly twenty years later, Howard Fast must have devoured Mitchell’s earlier work when he was writing his version of the Spartacus legend.
J. Leslie Mitchell
The Thirteenth Disciple (1931)
One of his earliest memories was of how, at the age of five, he set out to commit suicide.
Suicide at age five? A perfect example of what writers describe as a “hook.“
“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.”
Viet Thanh Nguyen
The Sympathizer (2015)
I am a spy, sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces. Perhaps not surprisingly, I am a man of two minds. I am not some misunderstood mutant from a comic book or a horror movie, although some have treated me as such. I am simply able to see any issue from both sides.
The setting is the Vietnam War and the unnamed narrator is a captured North Vietnamese spy with one foot in each of two different worlds (his mother was Vietnamese and his father a French Catholic priest). As the novel opens, he is being forced to write a confession while confined to a 3-by-5-foot solitary cell. Nguyen’s debut novel went on to win the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and many other awards.
In 2017, Nguyen, a professor of English and American Studies at the University of Southern California, told the Atlantic’s Joe Fassler that he’d been struggling for months to write an opening sentence that would “grab the reader from the beginning” and “once it was written, would drive the rest of the novel completely.” One day, after many months poring over a new 2011 translation of António Lobo Antune’s 1979 novel Os Cus de Judas (published under the title Land at the End of the World), a line popped into his mind: “I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces.” Nguyen was elated. Finally, he had found his first sentence, saying to Fassler: “It just came to me. And I thought, that’s it. All I have to do is follow this voice for the rest of the novel, however long it takes.”
In the novel, the narrator continued: “Sometimes I flatter myself that this is a talent, and although it is admittedly one of a minor nature, it is perhaps also the sole talent I possess. At other times, when I reflect on how I cannot help but observe the world in such a fashion, I wonder if what I have should even be called talent. After all, a talent is something you use, not something that uses you. The talent you cannot not use, the talent that possesses you—that is a hazard, I must confess. But in the month when this confession begins, my way of seeing the world still seemed more of a virtue than a danger, which is how some dangers first appear.”
Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood (2016)
The genius of apartheid was convincing people who were the overwhelming majority to turn on each other. Apart hate, is what it was. You separate people into groups and make them hate one another so you can run them all.
These are the very first words of the book, coming from what is essentially an untitled Preface. When Noah, the popular host of The Daily Show, was born in Johannesburg, South Africa in 1984, his father had Swiss-German heritage and his mother was of Xhosa descent (a people native to the region). At the time, South Africa was governed by a strict policy of apartheid, which made interracial marriage—and, in fact, all intimate interracial relationships—illegal. A year after Noah’s birth, interracial relationships were decriminalized, but the very notion that he was born a crime went on to become a defining feature of his life, and it was no surprise when he chose the phrase as the title of his memoir.
In the opening paragraph above, Noah succinctly summarized the political strategy behind apartheid rule. In the second, he continued: “At the time, black South Africans outnumbered white south Africans nearly five to one, yet we were divided into different tribes with different languages…. Long before apartheid existed these tribal factions clashed and warred with one another. Then white rule used that animosity to divide and conquer. All nonwhites were systematically classified into various groups and subgroups. Then these groups were given differing levels of rights and privileges in order to keep them at odds.”
In the formal first Chapter of his memoir, titled “Run,” Noah began with what are usually described as the opening words of the book: “Sometimes in big Hollywood movies they’ll have these crazy chase scenes where somebody jumps or gets thrown from a moving car. The person hits the ground and rolls for a bit. Then they come to a stop and pop up and dust themselves off, like it was no big deal. Whenever I see that I think, That’s rubbish. Getting thrown out of a moving car hurts way worse than that.”
And then, in the next paragraph, he added: “I was nine years old when my mother threw me out of a moving car.” This unusual and, quite frankly, intriguing revelation pretty much ensured that readers would want to find out more about the incident—and why he would choose to begin his memoir with it
In the year of our Lord 1894, I became an outlaw. Like a lot of things, it didn’t happen all at once.
First I had to get married.
After these opening words, I have just one question: how can you not read on? This was one of my choices for a Smerconish.com post on “Twenty-One of the Best Opening Lines of 2021.”
After this delightful opening, North took the classic western novel and turned it on its head. In a Ms. magazine review, Karla J. Strand wrote: “A western unlike any other, Outlawed features queer cowgirls, gender nonconforming robbers and a band of feminists that fight against the grain for autonomy, agency and the power to define their own worth.” I also enjoyed NPR commentator Maureen Corrigan’s summary description of the novel: “The Handmaid’s Tale meets Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.“
Joyce Carol Oates
them [Book 3 of the Wonderland Quartet] (1969)
One warm evening in August 1937 a girl in love stood before a mirror.
Joyce Carol Oates
My Life as a Rat (2019)
Once I’d been Daddy’s favorite of his seven kids. Before something terrible happened between us, I am trying still to make it right.
This painful declaration comes from Violet Rue Kerrigan, a 25-year-old woman who, thirteen years earlier, was presented with a gut-wrenching choice: do the right thing by telling the truth about a violent, racist murder, or lie about it to protect members of her family.
Joyce Carol Oates
Expensive People [Book 2 of the Wonderland Quartet] (1968)
I was a child murderer.
I don’t mean child-murderer, though that’s an idea. I mean child murderer, that is, a murderer who happens to be a child, or a child who happens to be a murderer. You can take your choice.
The concept of a child being a murderer immediately raises a number of questions: Who was murdered? Why did the child do it? And how?
The opening words come from Richard Everett, an angry, obese adolescent boy growing up in an upscale Detroit suburb in the 1960s (his father is a successful business executive, his mother a glamorous novelist who describes herself as a Russian émigré, but actually grew up in a working-class family in upstate New York). Throughout the first chapter, Richard makes frequent reference to being a murderer, but provides no details. It’s clear we must read on to learn more, and we do so eagerly.
Joyce Carol Oates
You Must Remember This (1987)
She had been waiting for a sign to release her into Death, now the sign was granted.
She swallowed forty-seven aspirin tablets between 1:10 A.M. and 1:35 A.M. locked in the bathroom of her parents’ rented house.
These gripping words come from the book’s Prologue. In the next three paragraphs, the narrator continued:
“She swallowed the tablets slowly and carefully drinking tepid water from the faucet.
“She knew to go slowly and carefully not wanting to get overexcited feverish not wanting to get sick to her stomach.
“Better to light a single candle than to curse the darkness her father often said but she preferred the darkness.”
“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.“
Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985)
We were keeping our eye on 1984. When the year came and the prophecy didn’t, thoughtful Americans sang softly in praise of themselves. The roots of liberal democracy had held. Wherever else the terror had happened, we, at least, had not been visited by Orwellian nightmares.
Postman’s book, written before Facebook, Twitter, and the rise of Social Media, can only be considered prescient, as we see in his second paragraph: “But we had forgotten that alongside Orwell’s dark vision, there was another—slightly older, slightly less well known, equally chilling: Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Contrary to common belief even among the educated, Huxley did not prophesy the same thing. Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.”
The Disappearance of Childhood (1982)
Children are the living messages we send to a time we will not see.
This is not simply a Great Opening Line, it is one of the best things ever said on the topic of children (one day, I’m hoping to do a book titled The Single Best Thing Ever Said on Just About Any Topic You Can Think Of, and this is my Number One choice for observations about children).
“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 20 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.”
Gravity’s Rainbow (1973)
A screaming comes across the sky.
In 2006, The American Book Review ranked this Number 3 on its classic list of “The 100 Best First Lines from Novels.” Younger readers may be forgiven for not recognizing this classic opening line as an unparalleled description of a WWII V-2 rocket propelling toward its target. Many modern readers also fail to appreciate how the book’s metaphorical title perfectly captures the parabolic trajectory of such a rocket from launch to final impact.
After the book was named co-winner (with Isaac Bashevis Singers’s A Crown of Feathers and Other Stories) of the 1974 National Book Award for Fiction, the notoriously reclusive Pynchon declined the award. Sensing a rare publicity opportunity, the president of Viking Press suggested that Professor Irwin Corey, an up-and-coming comedian, accept the award on Pynchon’s behalf. During Corey’s mock acceptance speech, a streaker famously ran across the stage and throughout the auditorium.
“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 once 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.
Erich Maria Remarque
All Quiet on the Western Front (1928)
This book is to be neither an accusation nor a confession, and least of all an adventure, for death is not an adventure to those who stand face to face with it. It will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped shells, were destroyed by the war.
These are the first words one reads after opening the book—and they are among the most powerful I have ever seen at the beginning of a novel.
The opening paragraph is clearly an Author’s Note, a Prologue, or a Preface, but it has no formal heading. It simply appears as you see it above—naked, stark, and honest—and the impact is very real. For me, they kept reverberating in my mind as I began to read Chapter I, which formally began: “We are at rest five miles behind the front. Yesterday we were relieved, and now our bellies are full of beef and haricot beans. We are satisfied and at peace.”
Remarque was a German veteran of WWI, and the original German title of his book was Im Westen nichts Neues, which translates to “Nothing New in the West,” with West referring to the Western Front of the war. When the book appeared in an English edition in 1929, it was given the now-classic title All Quiet on the Western Front. An international bestseller, it was quickly adapted into an Academy Award-winning 1930 film by the same title. In 2008, the American Film Institute ranked the film Number 7 in its list of “Top Ten Epic Films.”
I recently began to see Remarque’s opening paragraph in a new way when I learned that, fresh out of school, he was drafted at age eighteen and sent directly to the front lines of WWI. Wounded five separate times, he lost all of his friends in combat and was haunted by wartime memories for the rest of his life.
In Pursuit of Laughter (1936) (1936)
No man pursues what he has at hand. No man recognizes the need of pursuit until that which he desires has escaped him.
Books that begin with a grand, sweeping generalization carry an aura of authority, and this one is no exception. In her beautifully-phrased opening observation, Repplier immediately comes across as someone who knows what she’s talking about—and there is a clear suggestion she is about to edify us on the subject. In this case, the opening words also provide a strong clue as to the thesis of the book: humans pursue laughter the most when there is little true humor in their lives.
Repplier continued in the first paragraph: “Those who listen to the Middle Ages instead of writing about them at monstrous length and with undue horror and commiseration, can hear the echo of laughter ringing from every side, from every hole and corner where human life existed. Through the welter of wars and famine and pestilence, through every conceivable disaster, through an atmosphere darkened with ignorance and cruelty and needless pain there emerges, clear and unmistakable, that will to live that man shares with the beast, and which means that, consciously or unconsciously, he finds life worth the living.”
Heather Cox Richardson
West from Appomattox: The Reconstruction of America after the Civil War (2007)
A week after the 2004 presidential election, a friend sent me a map of America with the red and blue states superimposed over the Confederate and Union states of the Civil War years. The Republican red states fit almost perfectly over the southern states that supported the Confederacy…and the Democratic blue states fit closely over the states that had supported the Union.
Professor Richardson’s opening words have done their job: our interest has been aroused. And that interest only deepened as she continued: “The caption of the map suggested that today’s voters were still fighting the same issues over which they went to war in 1861. I was fascinated by the map, but not convinced by the caption. ‘This is exactly what my new book is about,’ I wrote back. ‘But it’s not the Civil War that made today’s map match the earlier one. The story is all about reconstruction.’”
Heather Cox Richardson
How the South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy, and the Continuing Fight for the Soul of America (2020)
The moment in July 1964 when Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater took the stage at Cow Palace outside San Francisco and beamed at the cheering Republicans who had just nominated him for president is iconic—but not for the reasons we remember.
This is a terrific opening salvo for any book—but especially a history book—fitting into a category of openers that might be titled: “You think you know something, but you have it wrong.” As she continues, she proceeds to (for me, at least) a startling conclusion:
“Goldwater delivered the line that became a rally cry for a rising generation of conservatives in the Republican Party…But the moment did much more than galvanize activists. It marked the resurrection of an old political movement by a modern political party. In Goldwater’s time, people claiming to be embattled holdouts defending American liberty called themselves ‘Movement Conservatives.’ A century before, their predecessors had called themselves ‘Confederates.’”
A Conversation with the Mann: A Novel (2002)
I don’t think you can imagine the loneliness of a child born different. Not physically different, not handicapped, not deformed or marked. A child born different in a way you can’t describe or recognize, but that’s just as real as the kid with a bad leg or mangled hand—always the outcast, always the one standing in a corner, ghostlike, watching the rest of the world pass by.
These powerful opening words come from Jackie Mann, an aspiring comic who came of age in Harlem in the 1950s. In describing himself, of course, Mann captures the early experiences of countless others—including many readers of the book, who are almost certainly paying a return vist to their growing up years and resonating to the idea of feeling different.
In the opening paragraph, Jackie continued with a gripping passage that, though contained in a novel, would feel equally at home in an adolescent psychology textbook (ellipsis in original):
“It’s as if there’s something about him, some odd and un-normal thing inside him, invisible but clearly advertising he’s not the same as everyone else. The response from everyone else being laughs and ridicule because they don’t know what to do with a kid born different except to mock it. And that feeling of not belonging, of lonely isolation in a world of people and the knowing that you will never ever be like them and will never ever be accepted by anyone…It’s a feeling that lasts a lifetime. It’s a scar that never fades.”
Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex (2008)
A man sits in a room, manipulating his kneecaps. It is 1983, on the campus of the University of California, Los Angeles. The man, a study subject, has been told to do this for four minutes, stop, and then resume for a minute more. Then he can put his pants back on, collect his payment, and go home with an entertaining story to tell at suppertime.
Manipulating his kneecaps? Where on earth could this be going? It all becomes clear—and delightfully so—as Roach continues in her opening paragraph: “The study concerns human sexual response. Kneecap manipulation elicits no sexual response, on this planet anyway, and that is why the man is doing it: It’s the control activity. (Earlier, the man was told to manipulate the more usual suspect while the researchers measured whatever it was they were measuring.)”
About Bonk, writer A. J. Jacobs (The Year of Living Biblically) said: “I would read Mary Roach on the history of Quonset huts. But Mary Roach on sex? That’s a godsend!” As we saw earlier with Roach’s Stiff book, many of the opening lines of other chapters in Bonk are also inspired. Let me cite a few examples. In Ch. 2 (“Dating the Penis-Camera”), Roach began: “Let me state it simply. Women came into Masters and Johnson’s laboratory and had sex with a thrusting mechanical penis-camera that filmed—from the inside—their physical responses to it.”
Ch. 6 (“The Taiwanese Fix and the Penile Pricking Ring”), opened this way: “A man having penis surgery is the opposite of a man in a fig leaf. He is concealed face-to-feet in surgical sheets, with only his penis on view. It appears in a small, square cutout in the fabric, spotlit by surgical lamps.”
And in Ch. 12 (“Mind Over Vagina”), Roach’s opening paragraph began: “The human vagina is accustomed to visitors. Even the language of anatomy imbues the organ with an innlike hospitality, the entrance to the structure being named the ‘vaginal vestibule.’ Take off your coat and stay awhile.”
Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife (2005)
I don’t recall my mood the morning I was born, but I imagine I felt a bit out of sorts. Nothing I looked at was familiar. People were staring at me and making odd sounds and wearing incomprehensible items. Everything seemed too loud, and nothing made the slightest amount of sense.
Roach’s opening paragraph may not have much to do with life after death, but it’s an intriguing way to begin any book, especially a science book.
Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers (2003)
The way I see it, being dead is not terribly far off from being on a cruise ship. Most of your time is spent lying on your back. The brain has shut down. The flesh begins to soften. Nothing much new happens, and nothing is expected of you.
Science writers are not noted for a sense of humor, but in her debut book, Roach proved from the outset that it’s possible to write a serious science book that is also world-class quirky and laugh-out-loud funny. In the book’s Introduction, Roach continued by describing how cadavers have played an integral, even essential, role in human history—albeit in their own deathly quiet way.
In the remainder of the book, Roach proved herself to be an Opening Lines master, beginning almost every chapter in a way that would have garnered an A-plus from any college professor of Creative Writing. For example, in Chapter One (titled, “A Head Is a Terrible Thing to Waste”), here’s how she began a chapter on a Face-Lift Refresher Course for Plastic Surgeons:
“The human head is of the same approximate size and weight as a roaster chicken. I have never before had occasion to make the comparison, for never before today have I seen a head in a roasting pan. But here today are forty of them, one per pan, resting face-up on what looks to be a small pet-food bowl. The heads are for plastic surgeons, two per head, to practice on.”
Later chapters open in an equally impressive manner, and here are three examples. In Ch. 3 (“Life After Death”), Roach began: “Out behind the University of Tennessee Medical Center is a lovely, forested grove with squirrels leaping in the branches of hickory trees and birds calling and patches of green grass where people lie on their backs in the sun, or sometimes the shade, depending on where the researchers put them.”
In Ch. 4 (“Dead Man Driving”), Roach opened with: “By and large, the dead aren’t very talented. They can’t play water polo, or lace up their boots, or maximize market share. They can’t tell a joke, and they can’t dance for beans. There is one thing dead people excel at. They’re very good at handling pain.”
And in Ch. 8 (“How to Know If You’re Dead”), she began: “A patient on the way to surgery travels at twice the speed of a patient on the way to the morgue. Gurneys that ferry the living through hospital corridors move forward in an aura of purpose and push, flanked by caregivers with long strides and set faces, steadying IVs, pumping ambu bags, barreling into double doors. A gurney with a cadaver commands no urgency. It is wheeled by a single person, calmly and with little notice, like a shopping cart.”
Three Fates (2002)
Happily unaware he’d be dead in twenty-three minutes, Henry W. Wyley imagined pinching the nicely rounded rump of the young blonde who was directly in his line of sight.
When I came upon this great opening line many years ago, my first thought was, “This is not only a spectacular opening line, it’s coming from a female author who really gets the way men think.
Wyley, we will shortly learn, is a passenger on the RMS Lusitania, and the narrator continued about him in the first paragraph: “It was a perfectly harmless fantasy that did nothing to distress the blonde, or Henry’s wife, and put Henry himself in the best of moods.”
American Pastoral (1997)
The Swede. During the war years, when I was still a grade school boy, this was a magical name in our Newark neighborhood, even to adults just a generation removed from the city’s old Prince Street ghetto and not yet so flawlessly Americanized as to be bowled over by the prowess of a high school athlete.
In the novel, which won the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, the narrator continued: “The name was magical; so was the anomalous face. Of the few fair-complexioned Jewish students in our preponderantly Jewish public high school, none possessed anything remotely like the steep-jawed, insentient Viking mask of this blue-eyed blond born into our tribe as Seymour Irving Levov.”
Lincoln in the Bardo (2017)
On our wedding day I was forty-six, she was eighteen. Now, I know what you are thinking: older man (not thin, somewhat bald, lame in one leg, teeth of wood) exercises the marital prerogative, thereby mortifying the young—
But that is false.
That is exactly what I refused to do, you see.
The opening words come from Hans Vollman, a former printer who, after his unexpected death, exists in the Bardo, a space between death and the afterlife. Vollman and some of his ghostlike compatriots go on to figure prominently in the period just after the death of Abraham Lincoln’s 11-year-old son Willie.
“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.”
“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.”
Warrior Statesman: The Life of Moshe Dayan (1991)
The black eyepatch dominated Moshe Dayan’s appearance, like some dark, spidery animal wrapped around his face.
A dazzling physical description is a time-honored way of beginning a book—especially a biography—and few can rival this description of one of Israel’s most colorful figures. Slater continued: “With its thin straps sliding over his bald head and upper cheek, the oval eyepatch jarred, dismayed, overwhelmed. The message conveyed was unmistakable: This man has been through hell and survived.”
The Violin Conspiracy (2022)
On the morning of the worst, most earth-shattering day of Ray McMillan’s life, he ordered room service: scrambled eggs for two, one side of regular bacon (for Nicole), one side of vegan sausage (for him), one coffee (for Nicole), one orange juice (for him).
Unexpected juxtapositions are a staple of great opening lines, and the co-mingling of an earth-shattering day with a routine room service order is clearly designed to get our attention. The subsequent details about the food preferences of the couple we’re about to meet also pique our curiosity.
In the novel’s second paragraph, the narrator continued with an insight about a predictable thought process that occurs when people try to make sense out of an event that has shaken their world: “Later, he would try to second-guess those choices and a thousand others that, in hindsight, vibrated in his memory: What if he’d ordered French toast instead of eggs? What if grapefruit juice instead of orange? What if no juice at all?”
Ray McMillan, we will shortly learn, is a black classical violinist who has risen to the world stage after growing up on the edge of poverty in rural North Carolina. As a young child, after taking an interest in fiddle-playing, his grandmother gave him a decrepit and dilapidated old violin that belonged to his great-great-great grandfather, a former enslaved person (the violin, buried in an upstairs attic for decades, was given to “PopPop” as a gift by his former “owner” when he achieved freedom). The violin turns out to be a Stradivarius—but that’s only the beginning of what is essentially a literary trifecta: an exceptional mystery/thriller, a frank exploration of the powerful role still played by systematic racism, and an in-depth portrayal of the world of classical music that brings to mind what The Queen’s Gambit did for the world of championship chess (see the Walter Tevis entry for the opening words of that fine novel).
The Violin Conspiracy is the spectacular debut novel for Slocumb, who clearly built upon his own experiences as a young, black musical prodigy growing up in Fayetteville, North Carolina. In a New York Times review, Joshua Barone described the novel as “a musical bildungsroman cleverly contained within a literary thriller.”
On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century (2017)
History does not repeat, but it does instruct.
These are the opening words of the Prologue to the book. Snyder continued: “As the Founding Fathers debated our Constitution, they took instruction from the history they knew. Concerned that the democratic republic they envisioned would collapse, they contemplated the descent of ancient democracies and republics into oligarchy and empire. As they knew, Aristotle warned that inequality brought instability, while Plato believed that demagogues exploited free speech to install themselves as tyrants.”
In the remainder of the book, Snyder explored each of the twenty lessons, and many of them began with sparkling opening lines. For example, the first chapter and first lesson (“Do Not Obey in Advance”) begins: “Anticipatory obedience is a political tragedy.”
The Oak and the Calf: Sketches of Literary Life in the Soviet Union (1975)
Underground is where you expect to find revolutionaries. But not writers.
In his literary memoir, Solzhenitsyn continued: “For the writer intent on truth, life never was, never is (and never will be!) easy; his like have suffered every imaginable harassment—defamation, duels, a shattered family life, financial ruin or lifelong unrelieved poverty, the madhouse, jail.”
“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.“
You’re Too Kind: A Brief History of Flattery (2002)
Perfect, gentle reader: I will not begin this book with a tribute to your discernment, because a person of your obvious accomplishments would certainly be immune to such blandishments. You would surely see through such transparent puffery and reject it out of hand. Someone with as much self-assurance and insight as you would not want any soft soap and sycophancy, but rather candor and direct truth.
Well, nothing personal, dear reader, but I doubt it.
Stengel continued: “We like to think that the smarter a person is, the higher she ascends up the ladder of success, the less susceptible that individual is to flattery. In fact, the opposite seems to be the case. People of high self-esteem and accomplishment generally see the praise directed at them as shrewd judgment rather than flattery.”
Miss Kopp Just Won’t Quit [Book 4 of the Kopps Sisters series] (2018)
On the day I took Anna Kayser to the insane asylum, I was first obliged to catch a thief.
This terrific opening sentence from narrator and protagonist Constance Kopp—a fictionalized version of a real-life woman by the same name who became New Jersey’s first female deputy sheriff in 1914—pulls us directly into the book. There’s also something especially attractive about the inclusion of that word obliged.
Sensing our interest in the word, Miss Kopp—one of literary history’s most recent, and most interesting, female detectives—continued: “I say ‘obliged’ as if it were a hardship, but in fact I enjoy a good chase. A man fleeing a crime scene presents any sworn officer with the rare gift of an easy win. Nothing is more heartening than a solid arrest, made after a little gratifying physical exertion, particularly when the thief is caught in the act and there are no bothersome questions later about a lack of evidence or an unreliable witness.”
The Agony and the Ecstasy (1961)
He sat before the mirror of the second-floor bedroom sketching his lean cheeks with their high bone ridges, the flat broad forehead, and ears too far back on the head, the dark hair curling forward in thatches, the amber-colored eyes wide-set but heavy lidded.
The narrator is describing a young Michelangelo, who doesn’t like what he sees in the mirror:
“I’m not well designed,” thought the thirteen-year-old with serious concentration. “My head is out of rule, with the forehead overweighing my mouth and chin. Someone should have used a plumb line.”
Harriet Beecher Stowe
Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852)
Late in the afternoon of a chilly day in February, two gentlemen were sitting alone over their wine, in a well-furnished dining parlor, in the town of P____, in Kentucky. There were no servants present, and the gentlemen, with chairs closely approaching, seemed to be discussing some subject with great earnestness.
Sophie’s Choice (1979)
In those days cheap apartments were almost impossible to find in Manhattan, so I had to move to Brooklyn. This was in 1947, and one of the pleasant features of that summer which I so vividly remember was the weather, which was sunny and mild, flower-fragrant, almost as if the days had been arrested in a seemingly perpetual springtime. I was grateful for that if for nothing else, since my youth, I felt, was at its lowest ebb.
The protagonist, a WWII veteran and struggling young writer with the unusual name of Stingo, opens the novel nicely, but it’s about to get a whole lot better. As he continues, he advances the story with what I regard as literary history’s best-ever description of that dreaded condition known as Writer’s Block:
“At twenty-two, struggling to become some kind of writer, I found that the creative heat which at eighteen had nearly consumed me with its gorgeous, relentless flame had flickered out to a dim pilot light registering little more than a token glow in my breast, or wherever my hungriest aspirations once resided. It was not that I no longer wanted to write, I still yearned passionately to produce the novel which had been for so long captive in my brain. It was only that, having written down the first few fine paragraphs, I could not produce any others, or—to approximate Gertrude Stein’s remark about a lesser writer of the Lost Generation—I had the syrup but it wouldn’t pour.“
The novel went on to win the 1980 National Book Award for Fiction, but the story didn’t become a part of popular culture until the 1982 film adaptation, featuring an Oscar-winning performance by Meryl Streep.
Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (1985)
In eighteenth-century France there lived a man who was one of the most gifted and abominable personages in an era that knew no lack of gifted and abominable personages. His story will be told here.
The narrator continued: “His name was Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, and if his name—in contrast to the names of other gifted abominations, de Sade’s, for instance, or Saint-Just’s, Fouché’s, Bonaparte’s, etc.—has been forgotten today, it is certainly not because Grenouille fell short of these more famous blackguards when it came to arrogance, misanthropy, immorality, or, more succinctly, to wickedness, but because his gifts and his sole ambition were restricted to a domain that leaves no traces in history: to the fleeting realm of scent.”
Perfume has become one of the best-selling German novels of the 20th century, selling more than twenty million copies in more than twenty different languages.
The Magnificent Ambersons (1918)
Major Amberson had “made a fortune” in 1873, when other people were losing fortunes, and the magnificence of the Ambersons began then.
William Makepeace Thackeray
The Luck of Barry Lyndon (1844)
Since the days of Adam, there has been hardly a mischief done in this world but a woman has been at the bottom of it.
William Makepeace Thackeray
Vanity Fair: A Novel without a Hero (1848)
As the Manager of the Performance sits before the curtain on the boards, and looks into the Fair, a feeling of profound melancholy comes over him in his survey of the bustling place.
One of the great satires in literary history, Vanity Fair is framed as a puppet show in which the Manager of the Performance—think Thackeray—is able to look down on the performers and their actions. The opening line above comes from the Preface to the novel, where the narrator continued:
“There is a great quantity of eating and drinking, making love and jilting, laughing and the contrary, smoking, cheating, fighting, dancing and fiddling: there are bullies pushing about, bucks ogling the women, knaves picking pockets, policemen on the look-out, quacks (other quacks, plague take them!) bawling in front of their booths, and yokels looking up at the tinselled dancers and poor old rouged tumblers, while the light-fingered folk are operating upon their pockets behind. Yes, this is Vanity Fair; not a moral place certainly; nor a merry one, though very noisy.”
Anna Karenina (1877)
Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
This legendary opening line came to the attention of Western readers in a 1901 English translation of the novel by Constance Garnett (another popular translation is: “All happy families resemble one another, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” The narrator continued in the second paragraph:
“Everything was in confusion in the Oblonsky’s house. The wife had discovered that the husband was carrying on an intrigue with a French girl, who had been a governess in their family, and she had announced to her husband that she could not go on living in the same house with him. This position of affairs had now lasted two days, and not only the husband and wife, but all the members of their family and the household, were painfully conscious of it.”
In the Foreword to a 1939 edition of the novel, Thomas Mann shared what he described as “a marvelously pretty little anecdote” about the writing of Anna Karenina. Tolstoy, according to Mann, originally intended to begin the novel with the “Everything was in confusion” line. After reading an Alexander Pushkin short story, however, he decided it just didn’t work and he replaced it with the now-legendary opening line.
Mann didn’t go into any detail about how it all transpired, simply saying in an understated way: “The present beginning, the aperçu about happy and unhappy families, was introduced later.” I’m still trying to learn more about the inspiration for the “happy families” opening, but so far have not been successful. If you have something to add to the discussion, please write me.
The Last Days of Hitler (1947)
Now that the new order is past, and the thousand-year reich has crumbled in a decade, we are able at last, picking among the still smoking rubble, to discover the truth about that fantastic and tragical episode.
About this opening line, The Guardian’s Robert McCrum wrote in 2016: “From his commanding opening sentence, the author of this engrossing forensic masterpiece, a work of brilliant reportage, knows that the story he is about to unfold will be unputdownable, a scoop of historic proportions: history in the making.” It was opening lines like this that led Irish writer John Banville to describe Trevor-Roper as “The Prince of the Essay” (see the Banville entry for more, including a lovely opening paragraph in its own right).
McCrum ranked The Last Days of Hitler at No. 32 in The Guardian’s list of “The 100 Best Nonfiction Books” of all time. About the book, McCrum wrote: “Some books simply exude excitement and self-confidence, as if the writer is on fire with ideas, or intoxicated with information. This is one of those titles.”
Harry S Truman
Memoirs: Years of Trial and Hope, 1946-1949 (1956)
Within the first few months I discovered that being a President is like riding a tiger. A man has to keep on riding or be swallowed. The fantastically crowded nine months of 1945 taught me that a President either is constantly on top of events or, if he hesitates, events will soon be on top of him. I never felt I could let up for a single moment.
Of all the presidential memoirs I’ve read, these opening words are by far the best. Instead of slowly wading in, Truman jumped right with an in media res (“in the middle of things”) observation that went on to become widely quoted.
Barbara W. Tuchman
The Guns of August (1962)
So gorgeous was the spectacle on the May morning of 1910 when nine kings rode in the funeral of Edward VII of England that the crowd, waiting in hushed and black-clad awe, could not keep back gasps of admiration.
The book, an exhaustive examination of the first month of WWI, became an immediate hit and remained on The New York Times Best Seller list for 42 consecutive weeks. President Kennedy was so impressed with the work that he purchased copies for his entire cabinet and all of his principal military advisors, and ordered them to read it. The book went on to win the 1963 Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction (it was ineligible for the history award because Pulitzer Prizes for History must be about American History).
Barbara W. Tuchman
The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam (1984)
A phenomenon noticeable throughout history regardless of place or period is the pursuit by governments of policies contrary to their own interests. Mankind, it seems, makes a poorer performance of government than of almost any other human activity.
This is one of my all-time favorite opening lines—an elegant, if troubling, assertion, expressed with all the confidence of an overarching principle or scientific law.
Tuchman continued: “In this sphere, wisdom, which may be defined as the exercise of judgment acting on experience, common sense, and available information, is less operative and more frustrated than it should be. Why do holders of high office so often act contrary to the way reason points and enlightened self-interest suggests? Why does intelligent mental process seem so often not to function?”
Ordinary Heroes (2005)
All parents keep secrets from their children. My father, it seemed, kept more than most.
In 2006, when Turow was asked by NPR’s Maureen Pao if he had a favorite sentence, he identified the first sentence of this opening paragraph, saying, “It’s the first line of the narrative in my seventh novel, Ordinary Heroes, and it reverberates on almost every page that follows.”
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.”
Aeneid (1st c. B.C.)
I sing of arms and the man.
Also often translated as “Of arms and the man I sing,” these are the words that begin Virgil’s epic tale of Aeneas, a prince in the nation-state of Troy and a man in search of a new land following his exile after the Trojan War. His wanderings finally take him to Italy, where he becomes the progenitor of a people who ultimately become known as Romans.
One of history’s most famous phrases, it shows up in numerous plays and novels (G. B. Shaw titled his 1994 play Arms and the Man). About the opening passage, Alice Hubbard wrote in a December 1912 issue of The Fra: “It is a trumpet-call to attention. We listen and we have listened since man observed and was interested in other men. War has been the writer’s theme since man first wrote.”
Erich von Däniken
Chariots of the Gods? Unsolved Mysteries of the Past (1968)
It took courage to write this book, and it will take courage to read it.
So begins a book described by Sam Leith in a Jan. 7, 2022 Telegraph article as, “The cult non-fiction book of all cult non-fiction books.” When the book was first published, it was heavily promoted with the tagline “Was God an Astronaut?” reflecting von Däniken’s theory that extraterrestrial beings visited the earth around 5,000 B.C., mated with human beings, and introduced them to technology that resulted in such previously unexplained phenomena as Egypt’s great pyramids, Stonehenge, and the Nazca Lines in Peru.
In the opening paragraph, von Däniken continued: “Because its theories and proofs do not fit into the mosaic of traditional archaeology, constructed so laboriously and firmly cemented down, scholars will call it nonsense and put it on the Index of those books which are better left unmentioned.”
Some opening lines are a bit like a secret handshake, making sense only to people “in the know.” The Index here refers to the Index Liborum Prohibitorum (“List of Prohibited Books”), an extensive list of books that, for many centuries, practicing Catholics were forbidden to read. Begun in the 16th century, the Index continued until its abolishment by Pope Paul VI in 1966.
Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1880)
The Jebel es Zubleh is a mountain fifty miles and more in length, and so narrow that its tracery on the map gives it a likeness to a caterpillar crawling from the south to the north.
In a lifetime of reading, this is the first opening line I recall recognizing as a Great Opening Line. It was in the winter of 1959, and I was a high school senior in Garrison, North Dakota. The epic William Wyler film adaptation of the novel was running at our local movie theater, and my high school English teacher was showcasing the novel in the school library. When I opened the book and read the first sentence, I was so struck by the “caterpillar” image that I asked her if it was an example of a metaphor. She clearly sensed that a “teachable moment” had arrived, and explained that, technically speaking, it was a simile and not a metaphor—because of the “likeness” word. Many years later, I would recognize that, on that day, a seed was planted in my mind, one that would eventually blossom into my love affair with metaphorical language.
A few years after the original novel was published, Ben-Hur surpassed Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) as the best selling novel in American history. It remained in the top position until it was nudged into second place by Gone with the Wind (1936). One of the most famous novels of all time, it has seen five separate film adaptations, the first in 1907 and the most famous the 1959 version starring Charlton Heston, which went on to receive eleven Academy Awards.
Judith Paris [Book 2 in The Herries Chronicles] (1931)
The old woman and the new-born child were the only living things in the house.
This simple, but compelling, first sentence is the novel’s entire first paragraph—and even though written close to a century ago, it has the feel of what is often described these days as a “hook.” In the next three paragraphs, the narrator reels the reader in:
“The old woman, Mrs. Henny, had finished her washing and laying-out of the bodies of the child’s father and of the child’s mother. She had done it alone because she had been afraid to leave the house with no one alive in it save the new-born child. Now she was exhausted and, in spite of her labor, fearfully chilled, for the snow, although it fell now more lightly, was piled high about the doors and windows as if, with its soft thick fingers, it wished to strangle the house.
“She was very cold, so she drank some gin, although it was not as a rule her weakness. The bodies of Mr. and Mrs. Herries lay, the eyes decently closed, the pale hands folded, each in its proper bed.
“A fine heat burnt through Mrs. Henny’s old body. The gin was good. Then her head fell forward and she slept.”
The clear, unsettling implication is that the baby is now being left unattended. We anxiously read on, in large part to see what will happen with the child.
Mary Jane Ward
The Snake Pit (1946)
“Do you hear voices?” he asked.
So begins one of the most influential novels of the twentieth century, responsible for bringing public attention to the substandard care in state psychiatric hospitals—and ultimately to much-needed reforms. After the novel was adapted into a 1948 film (starring Olivia de Havilland in an Oscar-nominated performance), a publicity release from 20th Century Fox claimed that Ward’s book had resulted in regulatory reform in twenty-six of the then forty-eight states.
Robert Penn Warren
Night Rider (1939)
When the train slowed at the first jarring application of the brakes, the crowd packed in the aisle of the coach swayed crushingly forward, with the grinding, heavy momentum of the start of a landslip.
The narrator continued: “Percy Munn, feeling the first pressure as the man behind him lurched into contact. arched his back and tried to brace himself to feel the full impact which, instinctively, he knew would come.” Opening lines commonly provide a preview of the novel’s central theme, and that appears to be the case here: a single man buffeted around by powerful outside forces that are far bigger than him.
Robert Penn Warren
A Place to Come To (1977)
I was the only boy, or girl either, in the public school of Dugton, Claxford County, Alabama, whose father had ever got killed in the middle of the night standing up in the front of his wagon to piss on the hindquarters of one of a span of mules and, being drunk, pitching forward on his head, still hanging on to his dong, and hitting the pike in such a position and condition that both the left front and the left rear wheels of the wagon rolled, with perfect precision, over his unconscious neck, his having passed out being, no doubt, the reason he took the fatal plunge in the first place. Throughout, he was still holding on to his dong.
I still recall—quite vividly, in fact—reading this opening paragraph when I was in college many decades ago, and thinking, “I have a feeling I’m going to enjoy this novel.” The narrator and protagonist is Jed Tewksbury, a world-renowned literary scholar who was born dirt-poor in rural Alabama. Jed opens with a vivid description of an event that has become something close to folklore in Claxford County.
In Lonelier Than God: Robert Penn Warren and the Southern Exile (2000), biographer Randy Hendricks described this first paragraph—comprised of two sentences, the first one ninety-six words long—as “one of the most interesting in contemporary fiction.” He added: “The novel’s opening suggests that Jed has reached something akin to a stand-up comic’s distance from his source material.”
Booker T. Washington
Up From Slavery (1901)
I was born a slave on a plantation in Franklin County, Virginia. I am not quite sure of the exact place or exact date of my birth, but at any rate I suspect I must have been born somewhere and at some time.
I’m not sure what I was expecting when I began reading this classic American autobiography, but one of the last would’ve been a wry display of humor. By beginning with a touch of levity, Washington sent a clear message to readers that, despite the many sordid details of his early life, he was going to do everything he could to make his autobiography an enjoyable read.
During his lifetime, Washington never knew anything about the circumstances of his birth. He did not know the day, month, or year of his birth; and nor did he know that has mother had been impregnated by a white man from a neighboring plantation. After his death in 1915, evidence emerged that he was born on April 5, 1856.
You might also find it interesting that, in composing his opening words, Washington was almost certainly inspired by the opening of another famous autobiography by a black man: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave (1845).
“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.”
Freedom Summer: The Savage Season of 1964 That Made Mississippi Burn and Made America a Democracy (2010)
In the fall of 1963, America was suffused with an unbearable whiteness of being.
It’s rare for a serious work of history to begin with a dash of wordplay, but Watson’s opening sentence does exactly that—cleverly playing off the title of Milan Kundera’s 1984 novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being. If I read the meaning of the opening line correctly, I believe Watson was making a subtle, but extremely important point: when a racially diverse society gives overwhelming power and authority to only its white members, the result can be summarized in a single word: unbearable.
In his opening paragraph, Watson went on to describe America in the fall of 1963: its unprecedented prosperity, its handsome young president, its cold war tensions with the Soviet Union, its massive cars with flamboyant fins and taillights, and the fact that ninety-nine percent of homes had TVs, almost all of them black and white. About the offerings of the seven channels then available for viewing, Watson wrote: “Not a single program showed a dark face in any but the most subservient role.” He then ended the opening paragraph this way: “In the halls of Congress and in city halls across the nation, all but a few politicians were as white as the ballots that elected them. Yet, from this ivory tower, the future could be spotted.”
In a recent personal communication, Watson wrote to me: “My editor didn’t like the opening line, thinking people wouldn’t get the ‘unbearable lightness of being’ reference, but I stuck to it.” And I am glad he did.
Ethan Frome (1911)
I had the story, bit by bit, from various people, and, as generally happens in such cases, each time it was a different story.
The narrator, an unnamed engineer who is visiting Starkfield, Massachusetts, is referring to stories he has heard about Ethan Frome, an intriguing village resident who presents a “striking figure” despite a marked limp from a mysterious “smash-up” suffered decades ago. In a Wonderslist.com post on “10 of the Most Powerful Opening Lines in Novels,” writer Sufia Banu ranked this opening line Number Seven.
In a 1911 review in The New York Times, the novel was described as “A cruel, compelling, haunting story of New England.” In 1993, the famed English director John Madden adapted the novel into a film of the same title, starring Liam Neeson and Patricia Arquette.
Hudson River Bracketed (1929)
By the time he was nineteen Vance Weston had graduated from the College of Euphoria, Illinois, where his parents then lived, had spent a week in Chicago, invented a new religion, and edited for a few months a college magazine called “Getting There,” to which he had contributed several love poems and a series of iconoclastic essays.
Any opening paragraph containing the words invented a new religion is certain to get the attention of most readers. As the narrator continues, there is another four-word phrase—for a whole week—that has a similar intriguing quality:
“He had also been engaged for a whole week to the inspirer of the poems, a girl several years older than himself called Floss Delaney, who was the somewhat blown-upon daughter of an unsuccessful real-estate man living in a dejected outskirt of the town.”
The Underground Railroad (2016)
The first time Caesar approached Cora about running north, she said no.
We know from the first sentence that Cora will eventually say yes, and that this will be a tale about a man and woman fleeing slavery. As we continue reading, however, we have no clue at this point that this is an “alternate history” tale—or, more significantly, that the legendary underground railroad isn’t a metaphor, but a literal underground railroad
One of the most acclaimed books of the year, The Underground Railroad won the 2016 National Book Award for Fiction, the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and the 2017 Arthur C. Clarke Award for science fiction literature. In 2019, The Guardian ranked the novel at Number 30 on its list of “The 100 Best Books of the 21st Century.”
In a New York Times review, book critic Michiko Kakutani described the novel as “potent, almost hallucinatory,” adding that “It possesses the chilling matter-of-fact power of the slave narratives collected by the Federal Writers’ Project in the 1930s, with echoes of Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, and brush strokes borrowed from Jorge Luis Borges, Franz Kafka and Jonathan Swift.”
Jazz (1926, with M. M. McBride)
Jazz came to America three hundred years ago in chains.
If I were to put together a list of “The 20 Best Metaphorical Opening Lines in Literary History,” this one would most certainly be included, and it would be very close to the top spot. When I first came upon the line many decades ago, I was stunned by its brilliance.
In “The Roaring Twenties” and early 1930s, Whiteman was the leader of one of America’s most popular bands. About him, Duke Ellington wrote: “Paul Whiteman was known as the King of Jazz, and no one as yet has come near carrying that title with more certainty and dignity.”
Even though Whiteman was of Anglo-Saxon heritage, he was fully aware of the new musical genre’s African origins. He continued in the book’s first paragraph:
“The psalm-singing Dutch traders, sailing in a man-of-war across the ocean in 1619, described their cargo as ‘fourteen black African slaves for sale in his Majesty’s colonies.’ But priceless freight destined three centuries later to set a whole nation dancing went unnoted and unbilled by the stolid, revenue-hungry Dutchmen.”
A Theory of Everything: An Integral Vision for Business, Politics, Science, and Spirituality (2000)
We live in an extraordinary time: all of the world’s cultures, past and present, are to some degree available to us, either in historical records or as living entities. In the history of the planet Earth, this has never happened before.
The Bridge of San Luis Rey (1927)
On Friday noon, July the twentieth, 1714, the finest bridge in all Peru broke and precipitated five travellers into the gulf below.
This is the dramatic beginning to one of America’s most acclaimed novels. As we read on, we learn that the catastrophe was witnessed by Brother Juniper, a Franciscan monk who was about to step onto the bridge when it collapsed. Juniper so completely believes that God wills all things that he attempts to prove his thesis by embarking on a six-year study of the lives of the victims.
The narrator continued: “This bridge was on the highroad between Lima and Cuzco and hundreds of persons passed over it every day. It had been woven of osier by the Incas more than a century before and visitors to the city were always led out to see it. It was a mere ladder of thin slats swung out over the gorge, with handrails of dried vines.”
The novel—Wilder’s second, and published before he turned thirty—was a commercial as well as a critical success. The best-selling novel of 1928, it also won the 1928 Pulitzer Prize for the Novel. In 1998, it was selected by the American Modern Library as one of the 100 best novels of the 20th century.
In the Foreword to a new 2021 edition of the novel, writer Russell Banks wrote about the work: “As close to perfect a moral fable as we are ever likely to get in American literature.”
The Beauty Myth (1990)
At last, after a long silence, women took to the streets.
After an opening that nods in the direction of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963), Wolf continued: “In the two decades of radical action that followed the rebirth of feminism in the early 1970s, Western women gained legal and reproductive rights, pursued higher education, entered the trades and the professions, and overturned ancient and revered beliefs about their social role. A generation on, do women feel free?”
In the second paragraph, Wolf provided a partial answer to the question (they “do not feel as free as they want to”) and hinted at the thesis of her book (it “has to do with the relationship between female liberation and female beauty”).
Show Way (2005)
When Soonie’s great-grandma was seven, she was sold from the Virginia land to a plantation in South Carolina without her ma or pa but with some muslin her ma had given her.
Few children’s books have approached the topic of slavery, and none in a more touching, meaningful, or sophisticated way. Based on the true experiences of Woodson’s ancestors, Soonie’s great-grandma is raised by a slave woman named Big Mama, who teaches her how to read, tells her stories about slaves “growing up and getting themselves free,” and teaches her how to sew quilts. These are not ordinary quilts, however, but rather secret maps—called show ways—that can be used by escaped slaves seeking freedom.
During the Top Secret President’s Daily Brief the afternoon of Tuesday, January 28, 2020, discussion in the Oval Office turned to a mysterious pneumonia-like virus outbreak in China. Public health officials and President Trump himself were telling the public the virus was low-risk for the United States.
“This will be the biggest national security threat you face in your presidency,” Robert O’Brien, the national security adviser, told Trump, expressing a jarring, contrarian view as deliberately and as strongly as possible.
Trump’s head popped up.
Rage was one of my selections for “The 20 Best Opening Lines of 2020.“
Bob Woodward and Robert Costa
Two days after the January 6, 2021, violent assault on the United States Capitol by supporters of President Donald Trump, General Mark Milley, the nation’s senior military officer and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, placed an urgent call on a top secret, back-channel line at 7:03 a.m. to his Chinese counterpart, General Li Zuocheng, chief of the Joint Staff of the People’s Liberation Army.
It’s rare for a book—as opposed to a newspaper—to be the source of breaking news, but that’s exactly what happened when the opening paragraph of Woodward & Costa’s new book revealed Gen. Milley’s previously unknown telephone call to his Chinese counterpart. The book’s next three paragraph filled out the picture nicely:
“Milley knew from extensive reports that Li and the Chinese leadership were stunned and disoriented by the televised images of the unprecedented attack on the American legislature.
“Li fired off questions to Milley. Was the American superpower unstable? Collapsing? What was going on? Was the U.S. military going to do something?
“‘Things may look ’unsteady,’ Milley said, trying to calm Li, whom he had know for five years. ‘But that’s the nature of democracy, General Li. We are 100 percent steady. Everything’s fine. But democracy can be sloppy sometimes.”
The entire phone call lasted for an hour and a half, and it seemed to calm down the rattled Chinese general. But what General Li did not know at the time—as the book would soon reveal—was that Gen. Milley had completely “misled” him. Despite Milley’s reassurances about America’s steadiness or its occasionally sloppy democratic practices, Woodward and Costa wrote that Milley believed that the events of Jan. 6th were nothing short of a treasonous attempt at a coup d’état in the world’s most powerful democracy. Peril became an immediate bestseller, and was one of my choices for “21 of the Best Opening Lines of 2021.”
The Winds of War (1971)
Commander Victor Henry rode a taxicab home from the Navy Building on Constitution Avenue, in a gusty gray March rainstorm that matched his mood. In his War Plans cubbyhole that afternoon, he had received an unexpected word from on high which, to his seasoned appraisal, had probably blown a well-planned career to rags. Now he had to consult his wife about an urgent decision; yet he did not altogether trust her opinions.
The Caine Mutiny (1951)
It was not a mutiny in the old-time sense, of course, with flashing of cutlasses, a captain in chains, and desperate sailors turning outlaws. After all, it happened in 1944 in the United States Navy. But the court of inquiry recommended trial for mutiny, and the episode became known as “the Caine mutiny” throughout the service.
The story begins with Willie Keith because the event turned on his personality as the massive door of a vault turns on a small jewel bearing.
The novel’s first paragraph beautifully sets the stage for the story that is about to unfold. The second makes the intriguing suggestion that seemingly innocuous characters can sometimes set off hugely significant events—and it does so in one of literary history’s best analogies.
The winner of the 1952 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, the novel was adapted into a 1954 film, starring Humphrey Bogart as Captain Queeg and Robert Francis as Ensign Willie Keith. It was a magnificent film, and Bogart’s performance was legendary. At the Academy Award ceremonies later that year, though, the film lost out to On the Waterfront for Best Picture, and Bogart had to watch Marlon Brando walk off with the Oscar for Best Actor.
Rats, Lice, and History (1935)
This book, if it is ever written, and—if written—it finds a publisher, and—if published—anyone reads it, will be recognized with some difficulty as a biography.
Zinsser, a prominent American physician and bacteriologist, may have been the first person in history to write a biography about a thing rather than a person—and he directly addressed that issue in the opening words of his book on typhus (the formal subtitle was: Being a Study in Biography, Which, After Twelve Preliminary Chapters Indispensable for the Preparation of the Lay Reader, Deals with the Life History of Typhus Fever).
Biographical writing was enjoying great popularity in the early decades of the 20th century, and it seems clear that Zinsser was hoping to capitalize on the trend. A bit later in his Introduction, he wrote: “The subject of our biography is a disease,” and he went on to add: “We shall try to write it in as untechnical a manner as is consistent with accuracy. It will of necessity be incomplete, for the life our subject has been a long and turbulent one from which we can select only the high spots.“ Zinsser’s attempt to capitalize on the interest in biographical writing appears to have been successful, as his book became the 8th bestselling nonfiction book of 1935.
In the Preface to his work, Zinsser also offered some memorable opening words, and they provide a hint as to why he chose to frame the book as a biography: “These chapters—we hesitate to call so rambling a performance a book—were written at odd moments as a relaxation from studies of typhus fever in the laboratory and in the field. In following infectious diseases about the world, one ends by regarding them as biological individuals which have lived through centuries, spanning many generations of men and having existences which, in their developments and wanderings, can be treated biographically.”