Genre: Memoirs & Autobiographies
Henry Aaron with Lonnie Wheeler
I Had a Hammer: The Hank Aaron Story (1991)
The day I left Mobile, Alabama, to play ball with the Indianapolis Clowns, Mama was so upset she couldn’t come to the train station to see me off. She just made me a couple of sandwiches, stuffed two dollars in my pocket and stood in the yard crying....
It was 1951 and the first time the 18-year-old Aaron had ever been outside of the black section of his home town. Despite his youth, he had already made quite a splash with the Mobile Black Bears, a barnstorming semi-pro baseball team composed entirely of black ballplayers. In high school when he first joined the team, he was paid $3 a game, but only permitted to play home games, and only on Sundays.
Aaron went on to write: “My knees were banging together when I got on that train. I’d never ridden in anything bigger than a bus or faster than my daddy’s old pickup truck. As we pulled out of the station...I never felt so alone in my life. I just sat there clutching my sandwiches, speaking to nobody, staring out the window at towns I’d never heard of. It was the first time in my life that I had been around white people. After a while, I got up the courage to walk up and down the aisle a few times. I wanted to see what a dining car looked like, and I needed somebody to tell me where I wasn’t allowed to go.“
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Raymond Obstfeld
Becoming Kareem: Growing Up On and Off the Court (2017)
I didn’t realize I was black until third grade.
Memoirs from sports figures rarely begin with memorable openings, but this first sentence from one of the sports world’s most interesting and articulate figures is a refreshing exception. It begins the book’s first chapter, “How I Discovered I was Black.“
Abdul-Jabaar continued: “Although I was born in the predominantly black community of Harlem in 1947, I was raised in a multiethnic housing project in the Inwood section of Manhattan. Our project consisted of seven buildings, each fourteen stories tall, with twelve apartments on each floor. That totaled 1,176 apartments. Basically, a small, crowded city.“
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.
“Knoxville: Summer of 1915,” in The Partisan Review (June, 1938)
We are talking now of summer evenings in Knoxville, Tennessee, in the time that I lived there so successfully disguised to myself as a child.
This is the opening line—the brilliant opening line, I might add—to a prose poem Agee originally entered in a Partisan Review short story contest. The judges named it a runner-up in the competition, with the two entries from Delmore Schwartz and Mary King splitting the $100 First Prize. There’s a lot of history behind this famous line, which I will have more to say about at a future time. Stay tuned.
Tuesdays with Morrie (1997)
The last class of my old professor’s life took place once a week in his house, by a window in the study where he could watch a small hibiscus plant shed its pink leaves. The class met on Tuesdays. It began after breakfast. The subject was The Meaning of Life. It was taught from experience.
This is a wonderful opening paragraph to what many people regard as the best non-fiction book of 1997—and one of the most touching and inspirational books of all time. In 1995, Albom was an acclaimed sports reporter at the Detroit Free Press when he learned that one of his favorite Brandeis University professors, Morrie Schwartz, was dying of Lou Gehrig’s disease. The two men had been close in the 1970s, and Albom felt guilty about letting sixteen years pass with no contact. After reaching out to his former professor, Albom flew every week from Detroit to Boston to visit the 78-year-old Schwartz at his home (a newspaper strike in Detroit dictated the timing of the visits: every Tuesday for fourteen weeks).
Albom hoped the proceeds from an anticipated book might help to pay Schwartz’s medical bills, but he didn’t expect much. But after Tuesdays with Morrie was published in 1997, it spent four years on The New York Times Best Seller list, selling nearly twenty million copies (it was adapted into a popular 1999 made-for-tv film, with Jack Lemmon as Schwartz and Hank Azaria as Albom. The film received four Emmy nominations, winning three (Best Motion Picture Made for Television, Best Actor in a Motion Picture for Lemmon, and Best Supporting Actor for Azaria).
Madam Secretary: A Memoir (2003)
I didn’t want it to end.
In this simple but compelling opening sentence, Albright was referring to her term as U.S. President Bill Clinton’s Secretary of State, which was cut short after George H. W. Bush defeated Vice-President Al Gore in the 2000 presidential election. In the second paragraph, she continued: “Hoping to freeze time, I thought back to the phone ringing one December morning and the words, ‘I want you to be my Secretary of State,’ and to the swearing-in ceremony where my eagle pin came unstuck.”
Prague Winter: A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937-1948 (2012; with Bill Woodward)
I was fifty-nine when I began serving as U.S. secretary of state. I thought by then that I knew all there was to know about my past, who “my people” were, and the history of my native land. I was sure enough that I did not feel a need to ask questions. Others might be insecure about their identities; I was not and never had been. I knew.
Only I didn’t.
A common gambit in the world of great opening lines is to begin by confidently walking down a path of certitude, and then abruptly changing course with a frank admission that you were wrong. Albright does that very nicely here, introducing the greatest surprise of her life. She continued in the second paragraph:
“I had no idea that my family heritage was Jewish or that more than twenty of my relatives had died in the Holocaust. I had been brought up to believe in a history of my Czechoslovak homeland that was less tangled and more straightforward than the reality. I had much still to learn about the complex moral choices that my parents and others in their generation had been called on to make—choices that were still shaping my life and also that of the world.”
Apropos of Nothing (2020)
Like Holden, I don't feel like going into all that David Copperfield kind of crap, although in my case, a little about my parents you may find more interesting than reading about me.
In beginning his autobiography, Allen was inspired by the legendary opening line from Holden Caulfield in Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye (1951): "If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth."
In Apropos of Nothing, Allen continued with a lovely description of his father. And, as is typically the case with a man who is well known for his creative self-absorption, he found a way of bringing it all back to himself:
"Like my father, born in Brooklyn when it was all farms, ball boy for the early Brooklyn Dodgers, a pool hustler, a bookmaker, a small man but a tough Jew in fancy shirts with slicked-back patent leather hair a la George Raft. No high school, the Navy at sixteen, on a firing squad in France when they killed an American sailor for raping a local girl. A medal-winning marksman, always loved pulling a trigger and carried a pistol till the day he died with a full head of silver hair and twenty-twenty eyesight at a hundred. One night during World War I his boat got hit by a shell somewhere off the coast in the icy waters of Europe. It sank. Everyone drowned except for three guys who made the miles-long swim to shore. He was one of the three that could handle the Atlantic. But that's how close I came to never being born."
Paula: A Memoir (1994)
Listen, Paula, I am going to tell you a story, so that when you wake up you will not feel so lost.
Allende began the book as a letter to her 28-year-old daughter Paula. In 1991, she was suffering from a serious liver disorder when a medication error put her into a drug-induced coma. Expecting an eventual recovery, Allende's plan was to write her daughter a long letter describing everything she missed during her coma. When Paula died in 1992, Allende turned the book into a memoir.
Aphrodite: A Memoir of the Senses (1998)
I repent of my diets, the delicious dishes rejected out of vanity, as much as I lament the opportunities for making love that I let go by because of pressing tasks or puritanical virtue.
Allende continued: “Walking through the gardens of memory, I discover that my recollections are associated with the senses.
The Sum of Our Days: A Memoir (2008)
There is no lack of drama in my life. I have more than enough three-ring-circus material for writing, but even so, I always approach the seventh of January with trembling. Last night I couldn’t sleep.
On January 8, 1981, Allende wrote a letter to her dying grandfather, a first cousin of Salvador Allende, the president of Chile from 1970-73. That letter would ultimately turn into her first novel, The House of the Spirits (1982). Ever since, Allende has officially started every one of her subsequent twenty-four books on January 8th. She went on to explain: “For twenty-five years, I have begun a book on that date, more from superstition than discipline. I’m afraid that if I begin on any other day the book will be a failure and if I let an eighth of January go by without writing, I’ll not be able to start for the rest of the year.“
The Soul of a Woman: On Impatient Love, Long Life, and Good Witches (2021)
When I say that I was a feminist in kindergarten, even before the concept was known in my family, I am not exaggerating.
This opening line—from Allende’s fifth memoir—is a nice reminder that many of our most important guiding beliefs were formed well before we developed a capacity for critical thinking. Allende continued: “I was born in 1942, so we are talking remote antiquity. I believe that the situation of my mother, Panchita, triggered my rebellion against male authority. Her husband abandoned her in Peru with two toddlers in diapers and a newborn baby. Panchita was forced to return to her parents’ home in Chile, where I spent the first years of my childhood.“
My Invented Country: A Memoir (2003)
Let’s begin at the beginning, with Chile, that remote land that few people can locate on the map because it’s as far as you can go without falling off the planet.
Gregg Allmann (with Alan Light)
My Cross to Bear (2012)
I was sitting up talking, and I just kind of nodded off. But I didn’t nod off: I was Code Blue. I was bleeding inside, and I was drowning in blood.
These are the first words a reader sees after opening the book, and they appear on an enigmatic page that is simply titled “September 2001” (the words appear in italics in the book). After opening with this impressive “hook,” Allman also began the formal Prologue to the book quite memorably:
“It should have been the greatest week of my life, but instead I hit an all-time low. The Allman Brothers Band, the band my brother started, the band with our name on it, was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and I flat-out missed it. I was physically there, but otherwise I was out of it—mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. You might say that I had the experience but missed the meaning. Why? The answer is plain and simple—alcohol. I was drunk, man, just shitfaced drunk, the entire time.”
Let Me Finish (2006)
Most of the true stories in this book were written in the last three years and came as a surprise to me, the author. I’d not planned a memoir, if that’s what this is, and never owned a diary or made notes about the passage of the days.
“This Old Man: Life in the Nineties,“ in The New Yorker (Feb. 9, 2014)
Check me out. The top two knuckles of my left hand look as if I’d been worked over by the K.G.B. No, it’s more as if I’d been a catcher for the Hall of Fame pitcher Candy Cummings, the inventor of the curveball, who retired from the game in 1877. To put this another way, if I pointed that hand at you like a pistol and fired at your nose, the bullet would nail you in the left knee. Arthritis.
Angell wrote this when he was ninety-three years old, nicely demonstrating that he still possessed the writing chops of his younger years.
In the essay’s second paragraph, he continued: “Now, still facing you, if I cover my left, or better, eye with one hand, what I see is a blurry encircling version of the ceiling and floor and walls or windows to our right and left but no sign of your face or head: nothing in the middle. But cheer up: if I reverse things and cover my right eye, there you are, back again. If I take my hand away and look at you with both eyes, the empty hole disappears and you’re in 3-D, and actually looking pretty terrific today. Macular degeneration.”
Letter to My Daughter (2008)
This letter has taken an extraordinary time getting itself together. I have all along known that I wanted to tell you directly of some lessons I have learned and under what conditions I have learned them.
This is only a so-so beginning, but it clearly telegraphs what is to follow. It is what is contained in the second paragraph that makes Angelou’s opening words memorable. There, she continued with an observation that encapsulated what went on to become one of her most popular quotations (I’ve presented it in italics to make it more obvious): “My life has been long, and believing that life loves the liver of it, I have dared to try many things, sometimes trembling, but daring, still.”
Prior to the book’s publication, many Angelou fans were puzzled by the title, for it was well known that her only child was a boy that she had given birth to at age seventeen. Angelou quickly cleared the matter up by dedicating the book to the daughter she never had. She also brought her introductory words to a close by writing:
“I gave birth to one child, a son, but I have thousands of daughters. You are Black and White, Jewish and Muslim, Asian, Spanish-speaking, Native American and Aleut. You are fat and thin and pretty and plain, gay and straight, educated and unlettered, and I am speaking to you all. Here is my offering to you.”
Through the Narrow Gate: A Memoir of Spiritual Discovery (1981)
It was 14 September 1962, the most important day of my life. On the station platform my parents and my sister, Lindsey, were clustered together in a sad little knot, taking their last look at me. I was seventeen years old and was leaving them forever to become a nun.
Mary Kay Ash
Mary Kay (Rev. Ed.; 1987)
There are four kinds of people in this world:
- those who make things happen
- those who watch things happen
- those who wonder what happened
- those who don’t know that anything happened!
I knew from a very early age that I wanted to be first on that list.
The first edition of Ash’s memoir, originally published in 1981, opened in a very different way: “When I was seven years old, my daddy came home from the sanatorium. His tuberculosis had been arrested but not completely cured in his three years there, and he remained an invalid for the rest of my years at home, in need of a great deal of tender, loving care.”
In the revised edition, the paragraph about her father was retained, but placed a few paragraphs later—after she clearly took someone’s advice to open with words that would better convey her trademark wit and charm.
The Roving Mind (1983)
I have the roving mind of the title, as well as an easy touch at the typewriter (or word-processor), and editors have found that out.
I, Asimov: A Memoir (1994)
In 1977, I wrote my autobiography. Since I was dealing with my favorite subject, I wrote at length and I ended with 640,000 words.
In every one of his 500-plus books, Asimov found a way to express his wry sense of humor—and in this one, it shows up in the very first sentence.
A House of Sticks: Memoirs of a Bigamist’s Daughter (2016)
I never danced with my father but in his shed, I danced with his sawdust swirling around my bone-thin ankles. At the old age of 11, I sound morbid but Daddy is not dead, he has abandoned us as he did his other four kids. Joe never divorced his legal wife, making my siblings and me bastards, and our mother a fool. Daddy is a bigamist and my parent’s marriage is a misdemeanor—but the only crime Joe ever committed was leaving me.
And a Voice to Sing With: A Memoir (1987)
I was born gifted. I can speak of my gifts with little or no modesty, but with tremendous gratitude, precisely because they are gifts, and not things which I created, or actions about which I might be proud.
Typically, readers might be turned off by someone who starts off by saying, “I was born gifted,“ but Baez quickly forestalls such a reaction by clarifying what a gift actually means—something given to people, and, therefore, not something they can take credit for.
In her second paragraph, Baez continued: “My greatest gift, given to me by forces which confound genetics, environment, race, or ambition, is a singing voice. My second greatest gift, without which I would be an entirely different person with an entirely different story to tell, is a desire to share that voice, and the bounties it has heaped upon me, with others. From that combination of gifts has developed an immeasurable wealth—a wealth of adventures, of friendships, and of plain joys.“
Growing Up (1982)
At the age of eighty my mother had her last bad fall, and after that her mind wandered free through time. Some days she went to weddings and funerals that had taken place half a century earlier. On others she presided over family dinners cooked on Sunday afternoon for children who were now gray with age. Through all this she lay in bed but moved across time, traveling among the dead decades with a speed and ease beyond the gift of physical science.
In “In the Beginning: Creating Dynamic, Meaningful & Compelling Openings,” an October 2012 article in The Writer’s Chronicle, University of New Orleans professor Richard Goodman offered a beautifully phrased assessment of Baker’s opening paragraph: “Sometimes an opening gives you a kind of fair warning, a little bit like those road signs we are so familiar with: ‘Winding Road Ahead.’”
Goodman went on to add: “This book centers on Baker’s mother—with strong appearances from his aunts and uncles and, in the end, from his future wife. So the promise he’s making here, with the spotlight entirely on his mother, is more than fulfilled later. The book is at its core about women much more than it is about men. It is his mother, his aunts, his future wife, and, to a certain degree, his sister who are at the artistic core of this book. Baker is also doing something else, though. He is addressing the issue of time directly. He is saying to us, through his mother’s dementia, that I, the writer, will travel freely through time, too. For one thing, I have to follow my mother. For another, it’s the best way for me to tell my story. By facing this issue directly, Baker prepares us for shifts and abrupt changes in time where they’re needed.”
My Animals and Other Family (2013)
The first face I can remember seeing was Candy’s. She was my protector and my companion, my nanny and my friend. A strong, snuffling, steady presence.
Describing that first meeting with her mother’s pet boxer a few days after her own birth, Balding continued: “I looked into her big brown eyes, pushed my pudgy fingers into her cavernous wrinkles and smelled her stale breath. It was an all-in sensory experience. I was home.” Balding’s heartwarming memoir went on to win the 2012 British Book Awards Autobiography of the Year.
“Autobiographical Notes,“ in Notes of a Native Son (1955)
I was born in Harlem thirty-one years ago. I began plotting novels at about the time I learned to read.
Baldwin had published his first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, two years earlier, but he was still working hard to establish a reputation as an important American thinker. The remainder of the book consisted of ten essays he had written for such publications as Harper’s Magazine, Partisan Review, and The New Leader.
Baldwin continued: “The story of my childhood is the usual bleak fantasy, and we can dismiss it with the restrained observation that I certainly would not consider living it again. In those days my mother was given to the exasperating and mysterious habit of having babies.“
We Barrymores: As Told to Cameron Shiff (1951)
In the watches of the night when old thoughts come to roost, some of them slapping their thighs and roaring, others hiding their faces, two particularly baffling notions often appear to beleaguer me. The first, common to most men, involves vast regrets and dilemmas about what I might have been or should have been.
Barrymore’s opening words make it immediately clear that his autobiography is going to shun the kind of self-puffery found in most celebrity memoirs. Barrymore continued with this candid self-assessment: “This leads always to the conclusion that I have managed to get along all these years through a series of undeserved promotions and by fraud. As an actor, I resemble an amateur fireman who got thrown in with the professionals early, failed to find his métier anywhere else, and had to keep running to various theatrical conflagrations because he couldn’t get out of the way.”
W. Kamau Bell
“On Being a Black Male, Six Feet Four Inches Tall, in America in 2014,” in Vanity Fair (Nov. 26, 2014)
I am afraid of the cops. Absolutely petrified of the cops. Now understand, I’ve never been arrested or held for questioning. I’ve never been told that I “fit the description.” But that doesn’t change a thing. I am afraid of cops the way that spiders are afraid of boots. You’re walking along, minding your own business, and SQUISH! You are dead.
This is an arresting—no pun intended—opening paragraph, and it’s hard to imagine readers not feeling a desire to read on. And when they do, Bell’s compelling narrative will most certainly keep them reading:
“Simply put, I am afraid of the cops because I am black. To raise the stakes even further, I am male. And to go all in on this pot of fear, I am six foot four, and weigh 250 pounds. Michael Brown, the unarmed Missouri 18-year-old shot dead by police this summer, was also six foot four. Depending on your perspective, I could be described as a ‘gentle giant,’ the way that teachers described Brown. Or I could be described as a ‘demon,’ the way that Officer Darren Wilson described Michael Brown in his grand-jury testimony.
The entire article is as relevant today as when it was first written in 2014, and I’m fairly certain Bell would describe himself the same way today as he did back then: “I’ve been endowed with the triple crown of being killed for no good reason: big, black, and male.”
Saul Bellow’s Heart: A Son’s Memoir (2013)
On a visit to Chicago when I was eight, I witnessed a terrible argument, in Yiddish, between my father and grandfather. Driving away from his father’s house, Saul started to cry so bitterly he had to pull off the road. After a few minutes, he excused his lapse of self-control by saying, “It’s okay for grown-ups to cry.“ I knew his heart was breaking. I knew because of the bond between my father’s tender heart and mine.
Bellow, who had recently retired from a four-decade career as a psychotherapist, continued: “As Saul’s firstborn, I believed our relationship to be sacrosanct until his funeral, an event filled with tributes to his literary accomplishments and anecdotes about his personal influence on those in attendance that set in motion my reconsideration of that long-held but unexamined belief.“
I’ll Be Seeing You: A Memoir (2020)
I am seventy years old. I am astonished to be writing this, as doubtful of the truth of it as if I had written, “I am a peacock.“
Berg’s opening words capture the experience of so many people—a sense of disbelief that such a large number as seventy (or more) could be applied to themselves. She continued: “I remind myself of the two old ladies (as I thought of them) I saw in the grocery store one day, their carts angled companionably next to each other. They were enjoying a nice chat, and as I passed them, I heard one say to the other, ’I still feel like a girl inside.’“
A Fine Romance (2015)
It was midway through October 1985, as I waddled in a huge plaid tent dress through the ground floor of Bergdorf’s. I’d put on almost fifty pounds since becoming pregnant. A woman kept peering at me, looking away, looking back. Finally she approached. “You know, you have Candice Bergen’s face.“
“But not her body,“ I said.
Promises to Keep: On Life and Politics (2007)
Joe Impedimenta, my classmates hung that nickname on me our first semester of high school when we were doing two periods of Latin a day. It was one of the first big words we learned. Impedimenta—the baggage that impedes one’s progress.
It is extremely rare for political memoirs to begin with such candor, or with such an impressive literary flourish. And, of course, it immediately brings to the fore the impediment that would become the struggle of young Joe Biden’s life.
Biden continued: “So I was Joe Impedimenta. Or Dash. A lot of people thought they called me Dash because of football. I was fast, and I scored my share of touchdowns. But the guys at an all-boys Catholic school usually don’t give you nicknames to make you feel better about yourself. They didn’t call me Dash because of what I could do on the football field; they called me Dash because of what I could not do in the classroom. I talked like Morse code. Dot-dot-dot-dot-dash-dash-dash-dash. “You gu-gu-gu-gu-guys sh-sh-sh-sh-shut up!“ My impedimenta was a stutter.“
The Crime of Our Lives (2015)
It was in the eleventh grade that I knew I would be a writer. The conviction grew out of two awarenesses that dawned at about the same time. I became aware of the world of realistic adult fiction, with all its power to inform and enchant and absorb one utterly. I became aware, too, of my own talent with words. I seemed to be capable of doing with them what I had been unable to do with a baseball bat or a hammer or a monkey wrench or a slide rule.
Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own (2015)
Whom to marry, and when it will happen—these two questions define every woman’s existence, regardless of where she was raised or what religion she does or doesn’t practice. She may grow up to love women instead of men, or to decide she simply doesn’t believe in marriage. No matter. These dual contingencies govern her until they’re answered, even if the answers are nobody and never.
Bolick continued with a one-sentence second paragraph: “Men have their own problems; this isn’t one of them.“
Charles M. Blow
Fire Shut Up in My Bones: A Memoir (2014)
Tears flowed out of me from a walled-off place, from another time, from a little boy who couldn’t cry.
I had held on to the hurt and shame and doubt for so long, balling it up in the pit of me, that I never thought it would come out, or that it could. I certainly didn’t think it would come out like this. Not in a flash. But there it was.
Some of my tears streamed over the arc of my cheeks and off the rim of my jaw. Others rounded the corners of my nose and puddled in the crease of my lips. I didn’t wipe them. I wore them.
I looked over at the rusting pistol on the passenger seat. It was a .22 with a long black barrel and a wooden grip.
This is a powerful opening, and the intensity increases as Blow continued: “It was the gun my mother had insisted I take with me to college, ‘just in case.’ I had grabbed it from beneath my seat when I jumped into the car. I cast glances at it is I drove. I had to convince myself that I was indeed about to use it.“
“The ridges of the gas pedal pressed into the flesh of my foot as I raced down Interstate 20 toward my mother’s house, just twenty-five miles away. I had driven this lonely stretch of North Louisiana road from college to home a hundred times. It had never gone so slowly; I had never driven so fast.“
“I began to scream as a fresh round of tears erupted. ‘Motherfucker!’ I slammed my fists down on the steering wheel over and over. ’No! No!…Ah! Ah!’ In part I was letting it out. In part I was pumping myself up. I had never thought myself capable of killing. I was a twenty-year-old college student. But I was about to kill a man. My own cousin. Chester.”
What stimulated this volcano of emotion and anguish and deadly rage? In a phone call with his mother only a few minutes earlier, she said a family visitor wanted to say hello. When his older cousin Chester got on the line and said “What’s going on, boy?” Blow was immediately transported back in time to age seven, and overcome with a torrent of long-repressed memories of Chester—a teenager at the time—sexually abusing him. It’s a longer-than-typical opening to a memoir, but few can rival it in drama and power. About the book, writer Michaela Angela Davis said it was “A modern memoir that reads like a great classic novel.”
Ball Four (1970)
I’m 30 years old and I have these dreams.
Ball Four is one of the most influential “sports bios” ever written, and a true classic of sports literature. David Halberstam sensed the book’s greatness almost immediately after it was published, writing in a 1970 Harper’s magazine article: “He has written the best sports book in years, a book deep in the American vein, so deep it is by no means a sports book.”
In the second paragraph of the book, Bouton continued: “I dream my knuckleball is jumping around like a Ping-Pong ball in the wind and I pitch a two-hit shutout against my old team, the New York Yankees, single home the winning run in the ninth inning and, when the game is over, take a big bow on the mound in Yankee stadium with 60,000 people cheering wildly. After the game reporters crowd around my locker room asking me to explain how I did it. I don’t mind telling them.”
All About Me! My Remarkable Life in Show Business (2021)
The writing of this book serves as a kind of confession.
You, the readers will be my confidants. I’m going to tell you all my secrets. Things I’ve never told anybody. Things I don’t want anybody to know! I don’t want you to breathe a word of what you find out in this book. Keep everything under your hat!
Wait a minute, wait a minute…that might not work.
I’m not in a confessional booth, and a lot of you are probably not priests.
This is a book! And this book needs to sell!
One could call this a “Just kidding” type of opening. Brooks continued:
“So let me revise what I just told you: Don’t keep it under your hat. Spill the beans! Spread the word. Let the secrets out! Tell all! Tell everybody! Let everybody you know hear all the terrible things I’ve done. Everything I didn’t want the world to know—shout it from the rooftops! (Because I think I’m gonna need a couple of million confidants to make any money on this book.)“
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.”
Losing Mum and Pup: A Memoir (2009)
I’m not sure how this book will turn out. I mostly write novels, and I’ve found, having written half a dozen, that if you’re lucky, the ending turns out a surprise and you wind up with something you hadn’t anticipated in the outline. I suppose it’s a process of outsmarting yourself (not especially hard in my case).
Buckley, the only child of William F. Buckley, Jr. and Patricia Taylor Buckley, continued: “Perhaps I’m outsmarting myself by writing this book at all. I’d pretty much resolved not to write a book about my famous parents. But I’m a writer, for better or worse, and when the universe hands you material like this, not writing about it seems either a waste or a conscious act of evasion.”
William F. Buckley, Jr.
Nearer, My God: An Autobiography of Faith (1997)
It was during the summer of 1938 that we were given the dreadful news.
The book opens with a dramatic statement, but the dreadful news, as it turned out, was only dreadful from the perspective of an adolescent boy. At age thirteen, Buckley had just been informed by his parents that the enjoyable life he knew—in an affluent, and even somewhat aristocratic home in Connecticut—was about to end, and he would soon be enrolled in a boarding school near London.
A Pirate Looks at Fifty (1998)
When I was growing up in Alabama, the beginning of the new school year was a bad time. It meant the end of summer, which is my season. I packed away my shorts and t-shirts, put on socks, shoes, and my parochial-school uniform, and dragged my ass to class.
Buffett continued: "To make matters worse, the first thing the nuns would make us all do on the first day back was to write about what we had done that summer. Having to recall it all while sitting in the antiseptic atmosphere of a classroom was like staring at the goodies in a bakery window with no money in your pocket."
Gracie: A Love Story (1988)
For forty years my act consisted of one joke. And then she died.
Few memoirs in history have opened more poignantly. Burns continued: “Her real name was Grace Ethel Cecile Rosalie Allen. Gracie Allen. But for those forty years audiences in small-time and big-time vaudeville houses and movie theaters and at home listening to their radios or watching television knew her, and loved her, simply as Gracie. Just Gracie. She was on a first-name basis with America.
The Elephant to Hollywood (2010)
Well, it’s a long way from London’s Elephant and Castle to Hollywood. And the shortest distance between two points is not always a straight line—as my story is going to prove. But then I’ve never been known for doing things the easy way. I wouldn’t have minded easy, but things just never worked out quite like that. In fact—although I couldn’t have known it at the time—they worked out a whole lot better.
Doris Lessing once described an autobiography as “an interim report,” and that certainly applies to Caine. He continued: “Eighteen years ago I thought that my career as an actor was over, so I wrote my autobiography, What’s It All About? to round off my professional life; and that, as far as I was concerned, was that. Fortunately, and not for the first time in my life, I was wrong. Very wrong. The best was yet to come—which, when I look back at my life—the crazy 1960s, the stardom, the glitz and glamour of Hollywood—is really saying something.“
What’s It All About? (1992)
The first time I was in the United States, when I had just made Alfie, I was sitting on my own in the lobby of the Beverly Hills Hotel and heard the sound of a helicopter landing in the gardens opposite. This, the porter told me, was strictly illegal. He and I stood at the door to see who was so flagrantly flouting the law—presumably the President, of the United States or at least of the Beverly Hills Hotel. Across Sunset Boulevard, out of a swirling sun-flecked cloud of dust, six foot four and in full cowboy get-up, strode the unmistakable figure of John Wayne.
With this wonderful opening paragraph, Caine gets his memoir off to a great start— and it only gets better. He continued:
“As I stood there with my mouth open he caught my eye and altered his course to come over to me. ‘What’s your name, kid?’ he asked.
‘Michael Caine,’ I managed to croak.
‘That’s right,’ he agreed, with a tilt of his head. ‘You were in that movie Alfie.’
‘Yes,’ I said. I wasn’t really keeping up my end of the conversation.
‘You’re gonna be a star, kid,’ he drawled, draping his arm around my shoulders. ‘But if you want to stay one, remember this: talk low, talk slow, and don’t say too much.’
‘Thank you, Mr. Wayne,’ I said.
‘Call me Duke.’ He gave me a chuck on the arm, turned around and swaggered off.”
My Time To Speak: Reclaiming Ancestry and Confronting Race (2020)
All my attention was focused on his face. It’s what I remember most clearly more than two years after our encounter. That face that had raged red as soon as he saw me, and continued angry, indignant. His nostrils flared with his agitated breathing, which he unsuccessfully attempted to control. He responded quickly, hot, like a lit fuse, not letting anyone else talk. And then, suddenly, I heard it from his own lips, “We’re going to burn you out.”
Calderón, an Emmy Award–winning journalist and popular host at Univision, began her memoir with this raw—or perhaps more accurately, gut-wrenching—description of her first encounter with Chris Barker, the newly elected Imperial Wizard of the North Carolina Ku Klux Klan. In July of 2017, after weeks of negotiation, Calderón’s Unvision bosses arranged a sit-down interview with Barker at an isolated setting on his Yanceyville, North Carolina property.
A Latina woman of color, Calderón did everything she could to prepare for the interview, but when he used the N-word to describe her (as well as the word mongrel), she was chilled by such a pure display of racial hatred. In a Smerconish.com post, I selected her opening paragraph as one of the Twenty Best Opening Lines of 2020.
The Name Above the Title: An Autobiography (1971)
I hated being poor. Hated being a peasant. Hated being a scrounging newskid trapped in the sleazy Sicilian ghetto of Los Angeles. My family couldn’t read or write. I wanted out. A quick out. I looked for a device, a handle, a pole to catapult myself across the tracks from my scurvy habitat of nobodies to the affluent world of somebodies.
These are the first words of the book’s Preface, and they capture Capra’s deep desire—you could almost say, his obsession—to escape from a condition he found intolerable for as long as he could remember
Capra also began Chapter One of his book memorably, writing: “It all began with a letter. A letter from America—when I was a big-eyed child of five. It was the first letter Papa, my forty-seven-year-old peasant father, Salvatore Capra, had received from anywhere. In Papa’s old cracked house of stone and mortar, clinging by its toenails to the rocks in the village of Bisaquino, Sicily, the local priest read the letter to a houseful of gaping relatives. Papa, Mama, six ragged children; Papa’s four brothers and their families: and all of Mama’s kinfolk.”
The Meaning of Mariah Carey (2020; with Michaela Angela Davis)
My intention was to keep her safe, but perhaps I have only succeeded in keeping her prisoner.
In her dramatic opening sentence, Carey is referring to the “little Mariah” of her early years, and readers will shortly learn that “much of this will be her story.”
Carey continued in the second paragraph: “For many years, she’s been locked away inside of me—always alone, hidden in plain sight before masses of people.”
The Sixteenth Round: From Number 1 Contender to 45472 (1974)
RUBIN, my Christian name, comes from the Book of Genesis, Chapter 29, verse 32 of the Holy Scriptures. Other than both of us being black, that’s about the only thing the Bible and I ever had in common.
This is a wonderful opening paragraph, and things only got better as Carter continued in the next three paragraphs:
“HURRICANE is the professional name that I acquired later on in life. It provides an accurate description of the destructive forces that rage within my soul.
“CARTER is the slave name that was given to my forefathers who worked in the cotton fields of Alabama and Georgia, and was passed on to me. The name is like any other—worthless—but it’s the one that appears on my birth certificate.
“The kindest thing that I can say about my childhood is that I survived it.”
Carter was an outstanding middleweight boxer who was wrongfully convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison in 1967. These are the opening words of his autobiography, written while he was in prison and published in 1974. The story inspired Bob Dylan to write the song “Hurricane” in 1975, and that song, in turn, helped mobilize a “Free Rubin” movement all around the country.
After serving eighteen years in prison, Carter’s sentence was overturned by a federal judge in 1985. Carter’s story was brought to the big screen in the 1999 film Hurricane, with Denzel Washington playing Carter. The opening words above are so exceptional that, in the film, Washington repeated them exactly as you see them here.
At Random: The Reminiscences of Bennett Cerf (1977)
I am a rather unusual specimen in that not only I but all four of my grandparents and both of my parents were born on the island of Manhattan.
Cerf continued: “My father’s family were of Alsatian extraction and my mother’s family were Germans named Wise. My father’s father, Marcel Cerf, was a jeweler. The Cerf family was loaded with charm but little money, while the Wise family had very little charm but a lot of money.”
Charlie Chaplin’s Own Story (1916)
Life itself is a comedy—a slap-stick comedy at that. It is always hitting you over the head with the unexpected.
This is the first of Chaplin’s autobiographies, published when he was 27-years-old, and shortly after he had signed a $670,000 film contract—an astronomical sum at the time—with the Mutual Film Corporation. While the book was almost certainly a promotional tool that was written with the aid of ghostwriters, it was “accurate in spirit if not in detail,” according to Chaplin biographer John McCabe.
In the book, Chaplin continued: “You reach to get the thing you want—slap! bang! It’s gone. You strike at your enemy and hit a friend. You walk confidently and fall. Whether it is tragedy or comedy depends on how you look at it. There is not a hair’s breadth between them.”
Manic: A Memoir (2008)
If you come with me on this journey, I think a word of warning is in order: manic depression is not a safe ride.
Cheney, a successful Beverly Hills entertainment lawyer, continued: “It doesn’t go from Point A to Point B in a familiar, friendly pattern. It’s chaotic, unpredictable. You never know where you’re headed next. I wanted this book to mirror the disease, to give the reader a visceral experience.”
Modern Madness: An Owner’s Manual (2020)
I was sitting next to Michael Jackson, admiring his feet.
In this sequel to Manic, a 2008 bestselling memoir detailing her lifelong struggle with bipolar disorder, Cheney’s first paragraph goes on to offer a few more details about the superstar athlete’s physical appearance and persona. It is in the second paragraph where the book really begins to take off:
“Looking back, there was indeed something extraordinary in that room, only it had nothing to do with Michael Jackson’s feet. It was the mere fact that I was sitting there as one of his attorneys, representing him in a big, messy lawsuit involving one of the most successful albums of all time. That was me, all right—counselor to the stars. The voice of reason and restraint, in a gray Armani suit and a gorgeous white silk shirt I’d bought especially for the deposition, because it had these long, elegant French cuffs that would just about hide the virulent red slashes across my wrists I’d acquired from a recent suicide attempt.”
G. K. Chesterton
The Autobiography of G. K. Chesterton (1936)
Bowing down in blind credulity, as is my custom, before mere authority and the tradition of the elders, superstitiously swallowing a story I could not test at the time by experiment or private judgment, I am firmly of the opinion that I was born on the 29th of May, 1874, on Campden Hill, Kensington.
Unbought and Unbossed (1970)
There are 435 members of the House of Representatives and 417 are white males. Ten of the others are women and nine are black. I belong to both of these minorities, which makes it add up right.
Chisholm, the first black woman elected to Congress, represented New York’s 12th congressional district from 1969 to 1983. She continued: “That makes me a celebrity, a kind of side show attraction. I was the first American citizen to be elected to Congress in spite of the double drawbacks of being female and having skin darkened by melanin.”
Agatha Christie: An Autobiography (1977)
One of the luckiest things that can happen to you in life is, I think, to have a happy childhood. I had a very happy childhood.
Christie continued: “I had a home and a garden that I loved; a wise and patient nanny; as father and mother two people who loved each other dearly and made a success of their marriage and of parenthood.” The book was published posthumously, a little over a year after Christie’s death at age 85 in 1976. It also won the 1978 Edgar Award for Best Critical/Biographical Work.
Hillary Rodham Clinton
What Happened (2017)
Deep breath. Feel the air in my lungs. This is the right thing to do. The country needs to see that our democracy still works, no matter how painful this is. Breathe out. Scream later.
In her opening words, Clinton was describing what was going through her mind just before she and husband Bill joined other dignitaries at the inauguration of Donald J. Trump as 45th President of the United States on January 20, 2017. She continued: “I’m standing just inside the door at the top of the steps leading down to the inaugural platform, waiting for the announcer to call Bill and me to our seats. I’m imagining I’m anywhere but here. Bali maybe. Bali would be good.”
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....“
Sweet Judy Blue Eyes: My Life in Music (2011)
It’s a Sunday night, and I am traveling from Hartford to New York City, heading in from a show. Rain pours down, and the driver of my sedan is battling the storm like a captain of a schooner in white waves. Thoughts of my life flow like the water around us: years of life, love and anger, rage and hope; the songs I have sung; the men and women I have loved.
Collins continued: “‘Suite: Judy Blue Eyes’ is playing on the radio, softly, but I hear it through the steady sound of rain and the hiss of the tires on the road. Unmistakable, Stephen Stills’ voice floats above the harmonies of David Crosby and Graham Nash. Stephen’s guitar cuts into my heart like an emotional arrow. Whenever I hear the song—in a grocery store, in an airport, on my own CD player—it resounds like a call from mystic lakes. It pierces the heart of this girl and all the other grown-up girls who think it tells their story. All great songs make you feel that way, as though they were written especially for you.”
My Losing Season: A Memoir (2002)
I was born to be a point guard, but not a very good one.
“Barbara Warley Was Loved by Everyone,” in A Lowcountry Heart: Reflections on a Writing Life (2016)
March 26, 2014
I’ve come to that point in my life when my memories seem as important as the life I’m now leading.
Conroy was sixty-eight when he wrote these words, the opening sentence of a eulogy he was delivering for the wife of one of his best friends from college. When I first read the opening sentence, I was immediately reminded of something May Sarton wrote in her 1984 memoir At Seventy: “I suppose real old age begins when one looks backward rather than forward.“
Over the years, I’ve noticed that eulogies penned by writers are often as much about the people writing the eulogy as those they are eulogizing—and that is certainly the case here. In reflecting back to when he first met Warley, for example, Conroy wrote: “Instinctively, we identified ourselves as members of the unhappy tribe who come from troubled and deeply flawed families.”
Two years after Warley’s death, Conroy himself died, at age 70, of a fast-spreading pancreatic cancer.
The Middle Place (2008)
The thing you need to know about me is that I am George Corrigan’s daughter, his only daughter. You may have met him, in which case just skip this part. If you haven’t, I’ll do what I can to describe him, but really, you should try to meet him.
Glitter and Glue: A Memoir (2013)
When I was growing up, my mom was guided by the strong belief that to befriend me was to deny me the one thing a kid really needed to survive childhood: a mother.
Corrigan continued: “Consequently, we were never one of those Mommy & Me pairs who sat close or giggled. She didn’t wink at me or gush about how pretty I looked or rub my back to help me fall asleep. She was not a big fan of deep conversation, and she still doesn’t go for a lot of physical contact. She looked at motherhood as less a joy to be relished than as a job to be done, serious work with serious repercussions, and I left childhood assuming our way of being with each other, adversarial but functional, was as it would be.”
Leave Me Alone, I’m Reading: Finding and Losing Myself in Books (2005)
It’s not that I don’t like people. It’s just that when I’m in the company of others—even my nearest and dearest—there always comes a moment when I’d rather be reading a book.
I love this opening paragraph for a bunch of reasons, but principally because I might have written the same thing about myself (and, dear reader, there’s a good chance that, if you’re reading these words right now, you might be thinking the same thing).
In her book’s second paragraph, Corrigan continued: “And, for many hours of almost every day, that’s what I’m doing. I have a great job—or, to be accurate, cluster of jobs—for a bookworm. I read for a living.”
In addition to her professorship at Georgetown University, Corrigan is also the longtime book critic for NPR’s Fresh Air, the author of a regular “Mysteries” column for The Washington Post, and a freelance book reviewer for many other publications.
Anatomy of an Illness: As Perceived by the Patient (1979)
This book is about a serious illness that occurred in 1964. I was reluctant to write about it for many years because I was fearful of creating false hopes in others who were similarly afflicted. Moreover, I knew that a single case has small standing in the annals of medical research, having little more than “anecdotal” or “testimonial” value.
In many non-fiction works, the best beginnings are often simple and straightforward—and that is certainly true with Cousins’s account of his famous attempt to treat a serious connective tissue disease with massive amounts of Vitamin C and systematic viewing of episodes of the TV-show Candid Camera (a method he called “laugh therapy”).
Cousins continued: “However, references to the illness surfaced from time to time in the general and medical press. People wrote to ask whether it was true that I ‘laughed’ my way out of a crippling disease that doctors believed to be irreversible.
Present Indicative (1937)
I was photographed naked on a cushion very early in life, an insane, toothless smile slitting my face and pleats of fat overlapping me like an ill-fitting overcoat.
A Childhood: The Biography of a Place (1978; re-isssued 2022)
My first memory is of a time ten years before I was born, and the memory takes place where I have never been and involves my daddy whom I never knew.
These are the intriguing opening words of a memoir that was described by The New Yorker’s Casey Cep as “One of the finest memoirs ever written.” About the meaning that the opening line had for Crews, Cep wrote: “He knew that history, even our own personal history, can take the form of myth if we let it, and he hints at this in the memoir’s opening…. What he then recounts is something he was once told.” Cep then helpfully added:
“Much of what we know about the world is secondhand, as is everything we know about the past, and we demonize or mythologize it at our peril. Find a way to cherish it, sure, but Crews knew better than to reject the world that made him or to romanticize what he barely survived.”
Still Foolin’ ‘Em: Where I’ve Been, Where I’m Going, and Where the Hell Are My Keys? (2013)
March 14, 2013, my sixty-fifth birthday. I got up that morning, padded over to the bathroom, threw some water on my face, looked in the mirror, and my uncle Al was staring back at me. My scream brought Janice, my wife of forty-two years, running in. I kept yelling, “HOLY SHIT! What the fuck happened to me?” Somehow, overnight, it seemed I had turned from a hip, cool baby boomer into a Diane Arbus photograph.
Crystal continued: “I looked at Janice for an encouraging word, for a hug, for an ‘It’s okay, Billy, you look great. It’s an old mirror.’ All she did was glance down at my robe, which had opened up, and ask: ‘When did your pubic hair turn gray?’”
The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí (1942)
At the age of six I wanted to be a cook. At seven I wanted to be Napoleon. And my ambition has been growing steadily ever since.
Dalí was one of history’s most flamboyant artists, and it was only fitting that the Prologue to his first memoir began with a statement fitting the persona he so carefully cultivated.
Diary of a Genius (1966)
Ever since the French Revolution there has been growing up a vicious, cretinizing tendency to consider a genius as a human being more or less the same in every respect (apart from his work) as ordinary mortals. This is false.
Few memoirs in history have been more provocatively titled, and those who knew Dalí well would expect him to quickly make his first words all about him. And so he did, continuing in the opening paragraph: “And if it is false when applied to me, the genius of the greatest spiritual order of our day, a true modern genius, it is even more false when applied to those who, like the almost divine Raphael, embodied the very genius of the Renaissance.”
In the second paragraph, Dalí succinctly stated his memoir’s thesis: “This book will prove that the daily life of a genius, his sleep, his digestion, his ecstasies, his nails, his colds, his blood, his life and death are essentially different from those of the rest of mankind.“
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.“
Sammy Davis, Jr.
Yes I Can (1965; with Jane and Burt Boyar)
They liked me.
The audience was leaning in to me, nodding, approving, catching every move I was making, and as I finished with “Birth of the Blues” their applause was like a kiss on the lips.
The Prologue to Davis’s autobiography opens with a fond memory—and he found an unforgettable way to capture the experience. It was at Las Vegas’s Frontier Hotel in 1954, and Davis was the 29-year-old “kid in the middle” of The Will Mastin Trio. Davis had been performing with the singing-dancing troupe since he was three years old (the other members were his father and Will Mastin).
Davis was harkening back to an era when black entertainers were not allowed to lodge in the hotels that booked them, and he sensed something important about his future in that special moment. When he acknowledged the audience’s enthusiastic response, he said he was thanking them not so much for the applause as “For making it possible for me to walk through the world through the front door.” Yes I Can starts off at a high level and doesn’t let up. A review in The New York Times called it “One of the most candid, engrossing, and important autobiographies of our time.”
Unweaving the Rainbow (1998)
We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones.
I love all great opening lines, but paradoxical openers have a special place in my heart (or, perhaps I should say, in my mind). This one is a doozie, ingeniously bringing together two highly incongruous elements in a single statement.
In The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century (2014 ), Steven Pinker wrote: “Good writing starts strong. Not with a cliché…not with a banality…but with a contentful observation that provokes curiosity.” He went on to write about Dawkins’s first sentence:
“The reader of Unweaving the Rainbow opens the book and is walloped with a reminder of the most dreadful fact we know, and on its heels a paradoxical elaboration. We’re lucky because we’ll die? Who wouldn’t want to know how this mystery will be solved? The starkness of the paradox is reinforced by the diction and meter: short, simple words, a stressed monosyllable followed by six iambic feet.”
In the remainder of what becomes an enlightening opening paragraph, Dawkins continued:
“Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include poets greater than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here.”
Given these additional thoughts, how can we best explain the paradox laid out in the first sentence? I’d say it this way. We’re lucky to die because it means we were fortunate enough to have beaten the odds by simply been born.
In his Sense of Style book, Pinker went on to do a sentence-by-sentence analysis of the entire first paragraph seen above. I won’t go into the details here, but it’s worth a look if you get the chance. And the concluding tribute Pinker paid to Dawkins’s opening words was truly special:
“Good writing can flip the way the world is perceived, like the silhouette in psychology textbooks which oscillates between a goblet and two faces. In six sentences Dawkins has flipped the way we think of death, and has stated a rationalist’s case for an appreciation of life in words so stirring that many humanists I know have asked that it be read at their funerals.”
Simone de Beauvoir
The Autobiography of Simone de Beauvoir: Hard Times: Force of Circumstance (1963)
Young women have an acute sense of what should and should not be done when one is no longer young. “I don’t understand,” they say, “how a woman over forty can bleach her hair; how she can make an exhibition of herself in a bikini; how she can flirt with men. The day I’m her age…” [ellipsis in original]
When those same young women arrive at forty, de Beauvoir went on to explain, they end up doing what they said they’d never do—bleaching their hair, wearing bikinis, and flirting with men. She ended her first paragraph by confessing that she was no exception to the rule, writing about her older self: “When the opportunity arose of coming back to life, I seized it gladly.”
Belle de Jour
The Further Adventures of a London Call Girl (2006)
“What I want, what I really want…this probably sounds silly…is to please you.“
The client was fiftyish, dressed office-casual. Oh great, I thought, another half-hour of earnest licking from a man whose wife no doubt thinks her body stops at the waist.
“That’s a gorgeous idea,” I purred.
Belle de Jour
The Intimate Adventures of a London Call Girl (2005)
The first thing you should know is that I’m a whore.
In early 2003, Dr. Brooke Magnanti, an American-born British medical professional (Ph.D. in forensic pathology) began writing a blog detailing her secret life as a sex worker. Writing under the name Belle de Jour, she won the Guardian’s Best Blog Award at the end of the year.
In choosing her nom de plume (which translates into “Beauty of the Day”), Magnanti was inspired by the title of Luis Buñuel’s 1967 film starring Catherine Deneuve as a French housewife who secretly worked in a high-class brothel while her husband was at work (Buñuel’s film, in turn, was an adaptation of Joseph Kessel’s 1928 novel by the same title).
The Guardian award dramatically increased interest in the blog and soon resulted in this 2005 book—with the jarring, but almost perfect, opening sentence you see above. An immediate bestseller in England, the book was soon adapted by ITV into the British television series “Secret Diary of a Call Girl,” starring Billie Piper. After an enormously successful airing in England, the series was picked up by Showtime for an American audience. Not surprisingly, de Jour went on to write a number of sequels, some of which also had memorable openings (you’ll see them below).
Take Me Home: An Autobiography (1994; with Arthur Robier)
They met in Tulsa. Dad was a ploughboy from western Oklahoma; Mom was a hometown girl. He was in the Army Air Corps, studying the mechanics of flight at the Spartan School of Aeronautics, and she had been first-prize winner in a jitterbug contest the year before. It was 1942: She was just turning eighteen, a high-school senior; and he was twenty-one.
Denver continued: “Her folks, Peter and Mattie Swope, had a nightclub out near the airport, where Dad’s barracks were, and he came in one night for a sandwich and a beer. She and her sister worked there as waitresses, and danced with the boys who came by.”
A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, and the Things That Really Matter (2011)
I was twenty-six, and about as dumb, in all human things, as any twenty-six-year-old has a right to be, when I met the woman who would change my life. That she’d been dead for a couple of hundred years made not the slightest difference whatsoever.
In a 2011 review in The New York Times, writer Miranda Seymour described these opening words as “endearingly self-effacing,” and I would concur. After such a delightful opening paragraph, it’s almost impossible to imagine any reader who wouldn’t be eager to read on. Deresiewicz, a former Yale University English professor and respected book critic, continued in the first paragraph: “Her name was Jane Austen, and she would teach me everything I know about everything that matters.”
The Price of My Soul (1969)
The Price of My Soul is not a work of art, an autobiography, or a political manifesto. Readers who expect one or other of these things will no doubt class it as a failure. Let them. I’m not basically concerned with its success, financial or literary.
These are the opening words of the Foreword to the book, and they clearly express Devlin’s desire to tell the world about what she regarded as the civil rights movement of her lifetime: removing “the bonds of economic slavery” from the people of Northern Ireland. About the title, she went on to explain: “The Price of My Soul refers not to the price for which I would be prepared to sell out, but rather to the price we all must pay in life to preserve our own integrity.”
Devlin’s Foreword is significant for two other reasons. First, she reveals that her mother had always dreamed of writing an autobiography titled The Price of My Soul, but never got around to it. And the second is that it concludes with her most widely quoted observation: “To gain that which is worth having, it may be necessary to lose everything else.”
The Year of Magical Thinking (2006)
Life changes fast.
Life changes in the instant.
You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.
The question of self-pity.
Those were the first words I wrote after it happened.
The “it” here was the 2003 death of Didion’s husband John Gregory Dunn—from a sudden heart attack while the couple were seated at the dinner table in their home. The remainder of the book chronicled Didion’s attempts over the next year to live and function without a man she’d been married to for nearly forty years. The book went on to win the 2005 National Book Award for Nonfiction.
Didion’s coping efforts were severely affected by the illness of her adult daughter, who was lying unconscious—from a serious case of pneumonia—in a New York hospital at the time of her father’s death (she died of pancreatitis in 2005). Didion wrote about the loss of her daughter in yet another book of mourning and grieving, Blue Nights, published in 2011.
“White Album,” title essay from The White Album (1979)
We tell ourselves stories in order to live.
These words—which have become something of a signature line for Didion—begin an acclaimed autobiographical essay about her life in San Francisco in the 1960s. In a 2012 Publisher’s Weekly article, Robert Atwan included it in “The Top Ten Essays Since 1950.”
The Writing Life (1989)
When you write, you lay out a line of words. The line of words is a miner’s pick, a woodcarver’s gouge, a surgeon’s probe. You wield it, and it digs a path you follow.
This is a lovely metaphor, and an almost perfect way to begin a book on The Writing Life. Dillard continued: “Soon you find yourself deep in new territory. Is it a dead end, or have you located the real subject? You will know tomorrow, or this time next year.”
Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory (2014)
A girl always remembers the first corpse she shaves.
Doughty is a California mortician, a YouTube celebrity (“Ask a Mortician”), and a passionate advocate for funeral industry reform. In 2006, at age 23, she began working in a San Francisco mortuary, and her description of an experience from her very first day on the job ultimately ended up as a spectacular opening line (in truth, it’s hard to imagine a better way for a female mortician to begin a book about her work). Doughty continued: “It is the only event in her life more awkward than her first kiss or the loss of her virginity. The hands of time will never move quite so slowly as when you are standing over the dead body of an elderly man with a pink plastic razor in your hand.”
In a 2015 PsychologyToday.com article (“The Truth About Cremation”), psychologist Susan K. Perry wrote, “If you delight in a one-of-a-kind writer’s voice…I doubt that you have ever read a first sentence like this one.”
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).
Peter F. Drucker
Adventures of a Bystander (1978)
Bystanders have no history of their own. They are on the stage but are not part of the action. They are not even audience. The fortunes of the play and of every actor in it depend on the audience whereas the reaction of the bystander has no effect except on himself.
Drucker continued: “But standing in the wings—much like the fireman in the theater—the bystander sees things neither actor nor audience notices. Above all, he sees differently from the way actors or audience see.”
Meghan, Duchess of Sessex (formerly Meghan Markle)
“The Losses We Share,” in The New York Times (Nov. 25, 2020)
It was a July morning that began as ordinarily as any other day: Make breakfast. Feed the dogs. Take vitamins. Find that missing sock. Pick up the rogue crayon that rolled under the table. Throw my hair in a ponytail before getting my son from his crib.
After changing his diaper, I felt a sharp cramp. I dropped to the floor with him in my arms, humming a lullaby to keep us both calm, the cheerful tune a stark contrast to my sense that something was not right.
I knew, as I clutched my firstborn child, that I was losing my second.
This is a deeply personal—and a remarkably effective—way to begin an Op-Ed column. The opening was so impressive, in fact, that I selected it as one of “Twenty of the Best Opening Lines of 2020” in a Smerconish.com post at the end of the year.
Life Itself: A Memoir (2011)
I was born inside the movie of my life.
This is an intriguing opening line—and perfectly suited for one of history’s most celebrated film critics. In the opening paragraph, Ebert continued: “The visuals were before me, the audio surrounded me, the plot unfolded inevitably but not necessarily. I don’t remember how I got into the movie, but it continues to entertain me.”
“Notes for an Autobiography,” in Saturday Review of Literature (Nov. 26, 1949)
Here I sit in order to write, at the age of sixty-seven, something like my own obituary. I am doing this because I believe it is a good thing to show those who are striving alongside us how one’s own striving and searching appear to one in retrospect.
Shortly after the end of WWII, Einstein was invited by the Library of Living Philosophers to write an autobiographical essay about the development of his ideas. The result was short on personal revelations, and a bit technical for the average reader, but it was the closest to an autobiography Einstein ever wrote. A slightly revised version of the “Notes” essay went on to appear in a Library of Living Philosophers volume titled Albert Einstein: Philosopher-Scientist (1949).
Move On: Adventures in the Real World (1991)
I packed up his comic books, sold off the bunk beds, gave away the last Star Wars sheet and threw out the beanbag chair that had bled to death in 1975. I tore down the six MASH posters super-glued to the wall between his room and mine.
Ellerbee continued: “Next I tore down the wall. After that, I ripped up the floor, raised high the roof beam, put up a skylight big enough to bring the moon home, put down a Jacuzzi big enough to do the backstroke across, planted flowers so fragile they faint if you frown twice, painted everything else a lovely shade of Childless White and watched my son go nuts.“
“And So It Goes”: Adventures in Television (1986)
I wouldn’t mind writing one of those books about the good old days—how I went out into the land and committed journalism, covering the important stories, every one of them, everywhere, better than anyone—but the thing about lying is that unless you’re a political candidate or a network vice president, you’ve got to set yourself some limits and hold fast.
Ellerbee continued: “Anyway, the only people in my business worth a damn are those who haven’t written a book about television news. I would prefer to be counted with that group, so let me say right now that this isn’t a book about television news.“
Take Big Bites: Adventures Around the World and Across the Table (2005)
I’m not crazy about Florence except for the pig museum. If precisely speaking, it’s not a museum, that’s only because some fool in the Italian government doesn’t recognize a national treasure when he sees one.
Any opening paragraph that contains the words “pig museum” is certainly tantalizing, but when it goes on to describe the museum as “a national treasure,” it become a bona fide hook.
Then There Was Larry: A Memoir (2021)
We all have secrets. In our lives, we’ve done or heard or thought things that we’ve chosen not to share with our friends, family, community, and colleagues.
Estorge’s memoir had me in the first four words. I immediately thought, “Who doesn’t?” And then I put down the book for a moment, reflected on a few of my secrets, and wondered how many other readers might do the same thing.
In her first paragraph, Estorge continued: “Some secrets are as endearing as a caterpillar tickling its way across your toes. Like telling your friend that her baby is adorable despite the newborn’s resemblance to E.T. Some secrets are as harmless as a personal pet peeve. Like when your coworker says, ‘I seen that movie,’ and you want to grip her by the shoulders and say, ‘It’s I have seen that movie.’ Some secrets, however, are as poisonous as the Cone Snail with their harpoon-like teeth and paralysis-causing venom—a creature you don’t want to brush up against accidentally.”
The Outsider: My Life in Intrigue (2015)
We all make mistakes, but starting the Third World War would have been a rather large one.
This is a tantalizing opening sentence with a delightful dash of understatement. Forsyth straight-off confesses to making a blunder that might have started a world conflagration, and then adds: “To this day, I still maintain it was not entirely my fault. But I’m getting ahead of myself.” It’s hard to imagine a reader not wanting to read on.
Forsyth is best known as a bestselling action writer, but he also lived an action-filled life. He was once described in the Washington Post as “A writer of thrillers whose life is one, too.”
Kirkus Reviews wrote about the memoir: “Acclaimed thriller writer Forsyth delivers a charming autobiography about his real-life adventures around the globe. His tales of derring-do are a pleasure to read, especially when coupled with his self-deprecating humor, but his most endearing quality is his ravenous curiosity, which pulled him from one exotic location to another. Forsyth has seen it all. After living such an exciting life, he has earned his bragging rights.”
Skyline: A Reporter’s Reminiscence of the 1960s (1961)
The building of castles in the air made architects of us all.
Given the voluminous output of most newspaper reporters, it’s hard to imagine a better opening line for a journalist’s autobiography. Fowler wrote thousands of newspaper articles and columns in his career, nearly twenty books (including his biographies of John Barrymore, Jimmy Durante, and New York City mayor Jimmy Walker) and screenplays for more than twenty films (including Call of the Wild, A Message to Garcia, and White Fang).
In the opening paragraph of Skyline, Fowler continued: “It would seem harder now to shape the towers of reverie than in the gone time when a man dared send the children of his mind outdoors, and expect them to come home unmarked by the blows of cynics and immune to the contagions of despair.”
The Life and Legend of Gene Fowler (1977), a biography by H. Allen Smith, also begins with some memorable opening words. See the Smith entry in the BIOGRAPHIES page.
Michael J. Fox
Lucky Man: A Memoir (2003)
Gainesville, Florida—November 1990
I woke up to find the message in my left hand. It had me trembling. It wasn’t a fax, telegram, memo, or the usual sort of missive bringing disturbing news. In fact, my hand held nothing at all. The trembling was the message.
In the opening words of his memoir, Fox finds a creative as well as a memorable way to describe the appearance of his very first Parkinson’s Disease symptom—a twitching of the pinkie finger on his left hand. It occurred just after waking up that morning, and his first thought was that he had slept on it wrong. After trying to shake it out, however, he couldn’t make it stop, and the twitching intensified as the day progressed.
It would be almost another year before Fox was formally diagnosed, but he found what he described as a “serviceable metaphor” to describe that day: “That morning—November 13, 1990—my brain was serving notice; it had initiated a divorce from my mind. Efforts to contest or reconcile would be futile; eighty percent of the process, I would later learn, was already complete.”
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.
“Foreword” to Willie Nelson’s Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die (2012)
In April 1933, Willie’s mother, Myrle, gave birth to him in a manger somewhere along the old highway between Waco and Dallas.
Doing Battle: The Making of a Skeptic (1996)
Late in the afternoon of March 15, 1945, in a small woods in southeastern, France, Boy Fussell, aged twenty, was ill treated by members of the German Wehrmacht. His attackers have never been identified and brought to justice. How a young person was damaged this way and what happened as a result is the subject of this book.
Fussell offered these masterfully understated opening words in an advance note “To The Reader” at the very beginning of the book.
Mohandas K Gandhi
An Autobiography: Or The Story of My Experiments with Truth (1927)
Four or five years ago, at the insistence of some of my nearest co-workers, I agreed to write my autobiography. I made the start, but scarcely had I turned over the first sheet when riots broke out in Bombay and the work remained at a standstill. Then followed a series of events which culminated in my imprisonment….
Gandhi explained at the outset that autobiographies were a Western tradition, not an Eastern one, and he was deeply uncomfortable about writing something that focused on himself as an individual. He explained: “It is not my purpose to attempt a real autobiography. I simply want to tell the story of my numerous experiments with truth, and as my life consists of nothing but those experiments, it is true that the story will take the shape of an autobiography.”
Worlds of Wonder: How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy (2018)
The very best writing instructor I ever had was an incompetent.
A terminal alcoholic who could barely find the classroom each day, he was a bleary-eyed, red-nosed, overstuffed, walking elbow-wrinkle of a human being. Whatever writing ability he’d ever had, he’d long since drowned it, and the corpse was a layer of dried sediment at the bottom of a bottle.
He didn’t like me either.
“The Muse of the Coyote Ugly Saloon,” in Esquire magazine (March 1997)
I was not the prettiest bartender at the Coyote Ugly Saloon. In my opinion, that would have been Caroline. I was partial to Caroline, though, because she had been so nice to me when I began working here. She was very pretty and also very funny. When I asked Caroline how she’d gotten her first bartender job, she cupped her breasts and said simply, “These.”
These are the opening words of the original Esquire article that turned an East Village bar into a New York City cultural landmark. Early in Gilbert’s career, while attempting to make a living as a working journalist, she supplemented her income with waitressing and bartending jobs, including a stint at the Coyote Ugly Saloon. Her article inspired the 2000 film “Coyote Ugly.“
By the way, if you don’t know the meaning of the slang term “coyote ugly,“ a Wikipedia entry says it “refers to the feeling of waking up after a one-night stand, and discovering that one’s arm is underneath someone who is so physically repulsive that one would gladly chew it off without waking the person just so one can get away without being discovered. Coyotes are known to gnaw off limbs if they are stuck in a trap, to facilitate escape.”
Eat, Pray, Love (2006)
I wish Giovanni would kiss me.
Gilbert continued: “Oh, but there are so many reasons why this would be a terrible idea. To begin with, Giovanni is ten years younger than I am, and—like most Italian guys in their twenties—he still lives with his mother. These facts alone make him an unlikely romantic partner for me, given that I am a professional American woman in my mid-thirties, who has just come through a failed marriage and a devastating, interminable divorce, followed immediately by a passionate love affair that ended in sickening heartbreak. This loss upon loss has left me feeling sad and brittle and about seven thousand years old. Purely as a matter of principle I wouldn’t inflict my sorry, busted-up old self on the lovely, unsullied Giovanni.”
Which Lie Did I Tell: More Adventures in the Skin Trade (2000)
I don’t think I was aware of it, but when I started work on Adventures in the Skin Trade, in 1980, I had become a leper in Hollywood.
Let me explain what that means: The phone stopped ringing.
French Dirt: The Story of a Garden in the South of France (1991; rev. ed. 2002)
This is a love story. Like most love stories. it has its share of joy and passion, of loss and pain. Like most love stories, it also has its moments of melodrama, of emotions run amok, of suspicions, worries, anxieties, of pride and panic—of jealousy even. And, like many familiar love stories, it has times of great pleasure and bliss, only to end, because fate or the gods willed it, cataclysmically.
In this case, the object of my love was not a woman. It was a small, rectangular piece of land in the south of France.
This is the story of my garden.
These beautiful opening words come from the book’s Prologue, and one would have to be insensate not to want to read on about how gardening may be likened to a great love story. Shortly after Goodman’s book was published, a review in The Midwest Book magazine paid the author—a writer and university professor, not a professional gardener—the supreme compliment, writing: “Goodman is to gardening what M. F. K. Fisher is to food.”
If that amazing analogical tribute didn’t make Goodman’s day, imagine how he felt when the legendary M. F. K. Fisher herself wrote to him about the book: “I possess a deep prejudice against anything written by Anglo-Saxons about their lives in or near French villages. So, Richard, I thank you for breaking the spell. I like very much what you wrote.”
Rubber Balls and Liquor (2011)
If I knew one day I’d write a book, I would have tried to live a more interesting life.
Gretzky: An Autobiography (1990; with Rick Reilly)
I have to admit, my childhood was a little different.
This is the full opening paragraph, and it quickly seems like a huge understatement as Gretzky continued: “I could skate at two. I was nationally known at six. I was signing autographs at ten. I had a national magazine article written about me at eleven and a thirty-minute national television show done on me at fifteen. I turned pro and kept going to high school!”
As Gretzky goes on like this for a few more moments, many readers might be thinking, “What a great beginning to a great life! No wonder they called him The Great Gretzky.” Others, however, might be thinking, “I hope this self-puffery doesn’t continue for the rest of the book.” And then Gretzky drops the hammer by writing in the next paragraph: “I just felt like I was the happiest kid in Canada. Until I was about twelve. That’s when I realized I was the unhappiest.”
How unexpected! And how cool to see such disarming honesty. How could a reader not continue reading?
I Killed Scheherazade: Confessions of an Angry Arab Woman (2010)
Allow me to warn you right from the start: I am not known for making lives any easier. So if you are looking here for truths you think you already know, and for proofs you believe you already have; if you are longing to be comforted in your Orientalist views, or reassured in your anti-Arab prejudices; if you are expecting to hear the lullaby of the clash of civilizations, you better not go any further.
From the outset, it’s clear who the author is addressing—and the confident, modern, “voice” she will be using to communicate her message. Haddad, an influential Lebanese writer, reporter, and human rights activist, continued: “For in this book, I will try to do everything that I can to ‘disappoint’ you. I will attempt to disenchant you, and deprive you of your chimera and ready-to-wear opinions.”
The Last Black Unicorn (2017)
School was hard for me, for lots of reasons. One was I couldn’t read until, like, ninth grade. Also I was a foster kid for most of high school, and when my mom went nuts, I had to live with my grandma. That all sucked.
In a blog post, writer and Scribe Media co-founder Tucker Max wrote: “From the first line of her book, Tiffany reveals that you’re going to learn things about her that you don’t know—personal things. I mean, really personal. The book’s opening story concludes with her trying to cut a wart off her face because she was teased so much about it (that’s where the “unicorn” nickname came from).“
Reasons to Stay Alive (2015)
I can remember the day the old me died.
It started with a thought. Something was going wrong. That was the start. Before I realized what it was.
With these opening words of Chapter One, Haig begins his memoir—and the story of his longtime struggle with depression and anxiety disorder. They are not the first words the reader sees, however. In a note to the reader at the very beginning of the memoir (titled “This Book is Impossible”), Haig wrote:
“Thirteen years ago I knew this couldn’t happen.
“I was going to die, you see. Or go mad.
“There was no way I would still be here. Sometimes I doubted I would even make the next ten minutes. And the idea that I would be well enough and confident enough to write about it in this way would have been just far too much to believe.
“One of the key symptoms of depression is to see no hope. No future.”
The Drinking Life: A Memoir (1995)
This is a book about my time in the drinking life. It tells the story of the way one human being became aware of alcohol, embraced it, struggled with it, was hurt by it, and finally left it behind. The tale has no hero.
A Victorian in Orbit: The Irreverent Memoirs of Sir Cedric Hardwicke as Told to James Brough (1961)
I have always preferred limelight to sunlight.
This striking opener is so wonderfully phrased it has become the personal motto of countless actors and aspiring actors. And, as good as the first sentence is, the first paragraph only gets better as Hardwicke—one of the great English actors in the first half of the twentieth century—continued with a witty and wonderful metaphorical observation:
“In my childhood, when people on the whole showed better sense on the subject, the sun was regarded as something to be avoided under parasol or Panama hat. It was understood then that the human brain, like other cuts of meat, requires refrigeration for its well-being.”
Rex: An Autobiography (1975)
I felt my first romantic urge when I was about six.
This is a very interesting way to begin any book, but especially an autobiography. In the work, Harrison continued: “We were living then in the village of Huyton, near Liverpool; the nursery in our house was on the top floor, and from the window I could see the far larger house of a family called Brunner, in grounds which amounted to a small estate. Sheila Brunner was a year or two older than I, with lovely long hair which, to my mind, compensated for an undeniably skinny figure—I decided philosophically that one couldn’t have everything.“
In his lifetime, Harrison was married six times, so it’s not surprising to see the topic of romance show up early in his life story. As for a romance at age six, I also recall being smitten at that age, but I don’t recall being so philosophical at the time.
On Reflection: An Autobiography (1968; with Sandford Dody)
Actors cannot choose the manner in which they are born. Consequently, it is the one gesture in their lives completely devoid of self-consciousness.
My Life in Three Acts (1991; with Katherine Hatch)
It seems only natural to me to see my life, a life in the theatre, in theatrical terms. I visualize it as a protracted three-act play.
Hayes continued: “The first act covers the time when I was guided and strongly influenced first by my mother and then by my husband, the playwright Charles MacArthur. The second opens after Charlie’s death, when I realized that I was now on my own and solely responsible for what became of me. Act three concerns the years after I left the stage in a not-too-successful attempt to stay out of the limelight and live quietly at my homes in Nyack, New York, and in Mexico.“
The Time of My Life (1989)
No comet blazed when I was born. But there was a storm all over England.
Healey was a longstanding British politician who was best known for his bushy eyebrows and ability to turn a phrase. He was born on August 30, 1917, three years into what was commonly called "The Great War" or "the war to end all wars." He continued by quoting one of England's most famous writers: "Virginia Woolf records in her diary that it was 'not actually raining, though dark. Trees turned brown, shriveled on their exposed sides, as if dried up by a hot sun.'"
A Child of the Century (1954)
For a number of years I have thought of writing a book about myself. I deferred the project, believing that I might become brighter and better informed about my subject as I grew older. Waiting, I stayed silent.
In his opening words, Hecht beautifully captured the dilemma of almost all autobiographers. He continued to do so—both cleverly and eloquently—in the next two paragraphs:
“This vanity of expecting too much of myself has often thrown me into long silences as a writer. I was, in my dreams of self, never quite finished with becoming what I hoped to be and, thus, inclined to hold my tongue as unworthy of my future wonders.
“I have decided to put away such convenient humility and accept myself as completed—wonders and all. Perhaps I am even a trifle overdone, for I have less anger in me and less love than I had a few years ago, and my sentences have grown a little longer. Obviously, if I keep postponing the task, no book at all will come to pass and the empire I call myself will vanish without its ideal historian to chronicle it. So I set myself to work.“
“Home: Survival and the Land,” in Reimagining Equality: Stories of Gender, Race, and Finding Home (2011)
In August 1973, three weeks past my seventeenth birthday, I packed my clothes in three hand-me-down Samsonite suitcases and left the only place I had ever called home. Even at that age, I wanted a “better place,” just as my grandparents had more than a hundred years earlier. College was my first stop on the road to that better place—wherever it was.
These words open the first chapter of the closest thing to an autobiography that Hill has written. She continued: “Situated in Stillwater, Oklahoma State University was only three hours by car from the farming community of Lone Tree, where I’d grown up, but it was a world away from what I was leaving.”
Bettyville: A Memoir (2015)
Missouri is a state of stolen names, bestowed to bring the world a little closer: Versailles, Rome, Cairo, New London, Athens, Carthage, Alexandria, Lebanon, Cuba, Japan, Santa Fe, Cleveland, Canton, California, Caledonia, New Caledonia, Mexico, Louisiana. Paris, our home.
The opening paragraph has little to do with the central thrust of the book—a gay, New York man returning to his childhood home to take care of his ailing mother—but they set an inviting tone for a book that writer Jeannette Walls (of The Glass Castle and other works) described as “An exquisitely written memoir.“ The book went on to with the 2015 Nautilus Book Gold Award.
Hodgman continued in the same vein in the book’s second paragraph, this time adding an urban-rural tease he’s clearly used before with cosmopolitan friends: “Then there are the funny-named places. Licking is a favorite, along with Fair Play, Strain, Elmo, Peculiar, Shook, Lone Jack, Butts, Lupus, Moody, Clover, Polo, Shake Rag, and the T towns that always end my list—Turtle, Tightwad, Tulip, and Tea.“
Harold: The Boy Who Became Mark Twain (2011)
I’m trying to remember being held by my mother. Those memories are all so dreamy now, as if none of them ever really happened. I could have dreamed my memories and they would be as real to me.
Holbrook was a toddler when his parents abandoned him and his two older sisters, leaving them in the care of paternal grandparents. He continued about his mother: “I’m told she was just a young girl and that she left when I was two. I have a picture of her, a little brown-tinted photograph in a gold frame, and she is, indeed, a young girl with a shy smile. But there is some other message in her eyes. Something tired, the eyes of a girl who has had enough and wants it to be over.“
Lady Sings the Blues (1956)
Mom and Pop were just a couple of kids when they got married. He was eighteen, she was sixteen, and I was three.
This is one of the truly classic opening lines in publishing history. Not long after the book came out, the editors of London’s New Statesman magazine were so taken with the intriguing first sentence that they announced a competition in which readers were invited to submit “similarly explosive first or last sentences from a real or imagined biography.“ None of the hundred-plus entries came close to the quality of Holiday’s original words, though, and they were all awarded only consolation prizes—along with an admission on the part of the editors that they had greatly underestimated the difficulty of the challenge.
The editors of the magazine went on to provide Holiday with a most memorable compliment: “In 23 superbly chosen words, she has established her background, recorded at least five relevant facts, illustrated (by her method of doing so) one facet of her own character and made firm friends with the reader by a breathtaking and naughty dénouement.“ And about the submissions they received from contestants, they wrote: “Too many of her imitators felt that vulgarity or sheer improbability were satisfactory substitutes for the artfully conjured impudence and shock which characterized the original.“
Despite the legendary status of the book’s opening words, they are not factually true. In Billie Holiday: The Musician and the Myth (2015), biographer John Szwed described the book as “a form of autobiographical fiction.“ He went on to write: “When Billie was born, her mother was nineteen, her father seventeen. They never married and had never lived together in a little house with a picket fence on Durham Street in Baltimore. She was not born in Baltimore but in Philadelphia.“
From Under My Hat (1952)
Once upon a time there was a six-toed cousin. Mine.
Hopper continued: “When I first saw him, I knew I was in show business. Kids in the neighborhood couldn’t afford pennies, but I made them pay five pins every time they got a look at him.“
Fever Pitch: A Fan’s Life (1992)
I fell in love with football as I was later to fall in love with women: suddenly, inexplicably, uncritically, giving no thought to the pain or disruption it would bring with it.
Being an Englishman, the football Hornby is describing is what Americans call soccer.
Society’s Child: My Autobiography (2008)
I was born into the crack that split America.
This was the book’s entire first paragraph. In the second, Ian continued: “On one side of the chasm was the America my parents lived in. There, the country was still congratulating itself on winning the war after the War to End All Wars. Men wore suits and ties to work, or laborer’s uniforms. Women wore stiletto heels, and kept themselves pure for marriage. Females did the housework, males did the heavy lifting. Blacks knew their place, whites knew theirs, and there wasn’t much room between.“
In the third paragraph, Ian, who was born in 1951, continued: “On the other side of the crack was the America I grew up in, bounded by anarchy and a passion for truth. In that America, all wars were meaningless, born out of governmental greed and disregard. Vietnam was just the latest in a series of events to help the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. People on my side of the crack wore colorful clothing and water buffalo sandals, made love not war, and believed in the family of man, unbounded by race, religion, or nationality. We lived through an adolescence tinged by the assassinations of those we held dear. We didn’t know our place.“
P. D. James
Time to Be in Earnest: A Fragment of an Autobiography (1999)
A diary, if intended for publication (and how many written by a novelist are not?), is the most egotistical form of writing. The assumption is inevitably that what the writer, thinks, does, sees, eats and drinks on a daily basis is as interesting to others as it is to himself or herself.
James’s book—part diary, part memoir—focused on the twelve months of her life from her 77th to her 78th birthday. The title was inspired by a Samuel Johnson observation: “At seventy-seven it is time to be in earnest.”
Unreliable Memoirs (1980)
I was born in 1939. The other big event of the year was the outbreak of the Second World War, but for the moment that did not affect me.
These are the wry opening words to Chapter One of James’s memoir, but he also began the Preface to the book in an engaging way:
“Most first novels are disguised autobiographies. This autobiography is a disguised novel. On the periphery, names and attributes of real people have been changed and shuffled so as to render identification impossible. Nearer the center, important characters have been run through the scrambler or else left out completely. So really the whole affair is a figment got up to sound like truth.”
Negroland: A Memoir (2015)
I was taught to avoid showing off.
I was taught to distinguish myself through presentation, not declaration, to excel through deeds and manners, not showing off.
But isn’t all memoir a form of showing off?
Wandering in Strange Lands: A Daughter of the Great Migration Reclaims Her Roots (2020)
I was seven years old when I learned that I wasn’t my father’s only daughter.
Jerkins continued: “He pulled me to his side and said he had something to show me. I assumed that is was a gift. He would regularly visit me at my mother’s home, bringing niceties along with his charisma and swagger. Instead, he pulled out his wallet and showed me photos of three girls before saying, ‘These are your sisters.’”
It was my mum who introduced me to Elvis Presley.
Opening lines in every literary genre have long fascinated me, but I’ve been especially intrigued by the choices people make when they write the first sentence of their memoirs. John went on to explain his choice by writing:
“Every Friday, after work, she would pick up her wages, stop off on the way home at Siever’s, an electrical store that also sold records, and buy a new 78. It was my favorite time of the week, waiting at home to see what she would bring back. She loved going out dancing, so she liked big band music—Billy May and His Orchestra, Ted Heath—and she loved American vocalists: Johnnie Ray, Frankie Laine, Nat King Cole, Guy Mitchell singing “She wears red feathers and a huly-huly skirt.” But one Friday she came home with something else. She told me she’d never heard anything like it before, but it was so fantastic she had to buy it.”
The song she played for her son that day was Presley’s “Heartbreak Hotel,“ and his life would never be the same. About the recording, he wrote: “You could barely understand a word he was saying [but] you could literally feel this strange energy he was giving off, like it was contagious, like it was coming out of the radiogram speaker straight into your body.“
Carl G. Jung
Memories, Dreams, Reflections (1961)
My life is a story of the self-realization of the unconscious.
This opening sentence is from the book’s Prologue, and it captures in a nutshell Jung’s view of the powerful role the unconscious plays in human affairs. He continued:
“Everything in the unconscious seeks outward manifestation, and the personality too desires to evolve out of its unconscious conditions and to experience itself as a whole. I cannot employ the language of science to trace this process of growth in myself, for I cannot experience myself as a scientific problem.”
Cherry: A Memoir (2000)
No road offers more mystery than that first one you mount from the town you were born to, the first time you mount it of your own volition, on a trip funded by your own coffee tin of wrinkled up dollars--bills you’ve saved and scrounged for, worked the all-night switchboard for, missed the Rolling Stones for, sold fragrant pot with smashed flowers going brown inside twist-tie plastic baggies for. In fact, to disembark from your origins, you’ve done everything you can think to scrounge money save selling your spanking young pussy.
Lit: A Memoir (2009)
Any way I tell this story is a lie, so I ask you to disconnect the device in your head that repeats at intervals how ancient and addled I am.
Karr begins Book Three of her memoirs with a Prologue titled “Open Letter to My Son.“ She continued: “It’s true that—at fifty to your twenty—my brain is dimmer. Your engine of recall is way superior, as you’ve often pointed out.
The Liar’s Club: A Memoir (1995)
Not long before my mother died, the tile guy redoing her kitchen pried from the wall a tile with an unlikely round hole in it. He sat back on his knees and held the tile up so the sun through aged yellow curtains seemed to pierce the hole like a laser. He winked at my sister Lecia and me before turning to my gray-haired mother, now bent over her copy of Marcus Aurelius and a bowl of sinus-opening chili, and he quipped, “Now Miss Karr, this looks like a bullet hole.“
Lecia didn’t miss a beat, saying, “Mother, isn’t that where you shot at daddy?“
And Mother squinted up, slid her glasses down her patrician-looking nose and said, very blas?, “No, that’s where I shot at Larry.“ She wheeled to point at another wall, adding, “Over there’s where I shot at your daddy.“
These three paragraphs open the Introduction to Karr’s memoir, and they should be required reading for anyone who believes a short, pithy hook is the best way to begin a book. Karr went on to add in the next paragraph: “Which tells you first off why I chose to write The Liar’s Club as memoir instead of fiction: when fortune hands you such characters, why bother to make stuff up?“
In some cases, it’s difficult to determine what actually constitutes a book’s “opening words.“ After the several-page Introduction, the actual first sentence of Chapter One (“My sharpest memory is of a single instant surrounded by dark”) is followed by a memory from age seven when Karr was being examined by a doctor who “had a long needle hidden behind his back.“ It’s an interesting and well-written beginning, but it doesn’t hold a candle to the opening paragraphs of the Introduction.
Girl, Interrupted (1993)
People ask, How did you get in there? What they really want to know is if they are likely to end up there as well. I can't answer the real question. All I can tell them is, It's easy.
In her best-selling memoir, Kaysen chronicled her eighteen-month experience as a patient at McLean Hospital, a psychiatric hospital in Massachusetts (the book was adapted into an award-winning 1999 film, starring Angelina Jolie in an Oscar-winning performance and Winona Ryder in the role the author).
Kaysen continued in the next paragraph: "And it is easy to slip into a parallel universe. There are so many of them: worlds of the insane, the criminal, the crippled, the dying, perhaps of the dead as well. These worlds exist alongside this world and resemble it, but are not in it."
My Wonderful World of Slapstick (1960; with Charles Samuels)
Down through the years my face has been called a sour puss, a dead pan, a frozen face, The Great Stone Face, and, believe it or not, "a tragic mask." On the other hand that kindly critic, the late James Agee, described my face as ranking "almost with Lincoln's as an early American archetype, it was haunting, handsome, almost beautiful."
Keaton continued in the opening paragraph, "I can't imagine what the great rail splitter's reaction would have been to this, though I sure was pleased."
The Story of My Life (1902)
It is with a kind of fear that I begin to write the history of my life. I have, as it were, a superstitious hesitation in lifting the veil that clings about my childhood like a golden mist.
Keller opens her autobiography with a somewhat unusual admission—but one that piques our interest. From the outset, it is clear that one of her biggest concerns was separating what actually happened from one’s fallible and faulty memory of what happened. She continued: “The task of writing an autobiography is a difficult one. When I try to classify my earliest impressions, I find that fact and fancy look alike across the years that link the past with the present. The woman paints the child’s experiences in her own fantasy.“
Orange is the New Black: My Year In a Federal Prison (2010)
International baggage claim in the Brussels airport was large and airy, with multiple carousels circling endlessly. I scurried from one to another, desperately trying to find my black suitcase. Because it was stuffed with drug money, I was more concerned than one might normally be about lost luggage.
From the outset, it’s clear that this is not going to be your typical prison memoir.
More Myself: A Journey (2020; with Michelle Burford)
I am seven. My mom and I are side by side in the back seat of a yellow taxi, making our way up Eleventh Avenue in Manhattan on a dead-cold day in December. We hardly ever take cabs. They’re a luxury for a single parent and part-time actress. But on this afternoon, maybe because Mom has just finished an audition near my school, PS 116 on East Thirty-third Street, or maybe because it’s so freezing we can see our breath, she picks me up.
This is a lovely, but soft beginning to a high-impact introduction. As the cab drives mother and daughter through the then-seedy 42nd Street neighborhood, seven-year-old Alicia is confused by the sight of scantily-clad women in tight dresses and fishnet stockings standing in the cold, rubbing their hands together to stay warm.
When Alicia asks why these women are standing out in the cold, her mother replies, “When people go through hard times, they often have to do things they don’t want to. Those women are just trying to survive.“ If her mother’s answer had involved information about sex, or pimps, or drugs, it would’ve been too much for a young girl’s mind to grasp—and, it turns out, such words were not necessary.
Keyes concluded her introductory words by writing: “What she does somehow convey is a truth I still carry with me: the women I’ve spotted aren’t on that corner by choice, but by circumstance. Without another word, I slide down into the cracked leather seat and make a silent agreement with myself. I will never be in a situation like that. Vulnerable. Powerless. Exposed.“
On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft (2000)
My earliest memory is of imagining I was someone else—imagining that I was, in fact, the Ringling Brothers Circus Strongboy. This was at my Aunt Ethelyn and Uncle Oren’s house in Durham, Maine. My aunt remembers this quite clearly, and say I was two and a half or maybe three years old.
Martin Luther King, Jr.
Strength to Love (1963)
A French philosopher said, “No man is strong unless he bears within his character antitheses strongly marked.” The strong man holds in a living blend strongly marked opposites.
These are the opening words of the book’s first chapter, titled “A Tough Mind and a Tender Heart.” The French philosopher in question is Blaise Pascal (1623-1662), and the observation comes from his 1669 defense of Christian thought, Pensées (literally, “Thoughts”).
In the book, Dr. King continued: “Not ordinarily do men achieve this balance of opposites. The idealists are not usually realistic, and the realists are not usually idealistic. The militant are not generally known to be passive, nor the passive to be militant. Seldom are the humble self-assertive, or the self-assertive humble. But life at its best is a creative synthesis of opposites in fruitful harmony.”
Men: Notes From an Ongoing Investigation (2014)
Men have fascinated me, maybe too much. They’ve troubled me. They’re large and take up a lot of space—space in the imagination, I mean. They force you to think about them.
Kipnis continued: “A daddy’s girl who grew into a wayward woman, I wasn’t that surprised to find, when I started rummaging around in the essays and criticism I’d written over the last fifteen or so years, that it wasn’t the random, unsystematic tangle I’d recalled; instead a lot of it seemed to cluster around the subject of…men.” [ellipsis in original]
Drinking: A Love Story (1996)
It happened this way: I fell in love and then, because the love was ruining everything I cared about, I had to fall out. This didn’t happen easily, or simply, but if I had to pinpoint it, I’d say the relationship started to fall apart the night I nearly killed my oldest friends two daughters.
This is a powerful introduction to a powerful and, if you will excuse the word, sobering memoir. Three months after the incident with her friend’s daughters, Knapp quit drinking—for good.
The two sentences above come from the Prologue to the book, and they are so captivating that I’m featuring them instead of the opening words of Chapter One, which begins simply: “I drank.“
In the second paragraph of Chapter One, Knapp continued: “I drank Fumé Blanc at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, and I drank double-shots of Johnnie Walker Black on the rocks at a dingy Chinese restaurant across the street from my office, and I drank at home. For a long time I drank expensive red wine, and I learned to appreciate the subtle differences between a silky Merlot and a tart Cabernet Sauvignon and a soft, earthy Beaucastel from the south of France, but I never really cared about those nuances because, honestly, they were beside the point.“
Road Song (1990)
Our first months in Alaska, that one long summertime before I was hurt, were hard—in the way, I think, that all immigrants’ lives must be hard—but they were also very grand, full of wood fires and campgrounds, full of people and the stories they told at night when we ate all together, full of clean dust that we washed from our bodies with water carried home from cold springs.
About this opening, Thomas Larson wrote in The Memoir and the Memoirist (2007): “Who among us doesn’t want to be confided to by this writer’s voice? That the bad stuff is coming doesn’t seem to matter as much once we know the family is self-reliant, perhaps as ours once was.“
The Passenger: How a Travel Writer Learned to Love Cruises & Other Lies from a Sinking Ship (2021)
As the cruise ship almost tips over, the horizon that once bisected my lovely balcony door rises like a theater curtain and disappears. Now the sea is the stage. I tumble off my bed onto the floor and roll like a stuntman.
Kwak was a passenger on the Viking Sky when, in 2019, it suffered a complete engine failure, had difficulty remaining upright, and began to drift dangerously close to a jagged shoreline. Kwak continued: “For now the ship has yet to fully flop, though it feels like we’re getting pretty close. Lucky us, the modern ocean liner is an engineering marvel equipped with technologies ensuring that it always stays upright. We’ve been rolling dangerously during a nasty storm but recover and list upright after each pounding wave threatens to capsize us.”
An American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History (2012; with Scott McEwen & Jim DeFelice)
Every story has a beginning.
Mine starts in north-central Texas. I grew up in small towns where I learned the importance of family and traditional values, like patriotism, self-reliance, and watching out for your family and neighbors.
In the third paragraph of the book, Kyle continued: “I’m proud to say that I still try to live my life according to those values. I have a strong sense of justice. It’s pretty much black-and-white. I don’t see too much gray. I think it’s important to protect others. I don’t mind hard work. At the same time, I like to have fun; life’s too short not to.“
Almost immediately after it was published, the book broke into The New York Times Best-Seller list, where it remained for 37 weeks (it was later adapted into an acclaimed 2014 film, directed by Clint Eastwood and staring Bradley Cooper).
Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts of Faith (1999)
My coming to faith did not start with a leap but rather a series of staggers from what seemed like one safe place to another.
Lamott continued: “Like lily pads, round and green, these places summoned and then held me up while I grew. Each prepared me for the next leaf on which I would land. And in this way I moved across the swamp of doubt and fear.”
The Memoir and the Memoirist (2007)
Memoir is the speaking “I” of a trusting author, walking hand in hand with the reader down a path both know well.
Larson continued: “It mirrors the open-faced trait of Americans and their speech. It remains open to the nostalgic and the sentimental. It personalizes horror. It belongs equally to a professional writer and a dockworker, a home health-care nurse and your Uncle Donny.”
Let’s Pretend This Never Happened: (A Mostly True Memoir) (2012)
This book is totally true, except for the parts that aren’t. It’s basically like Little House on the Prairie but with more cursing.
Amazing Words: An Alphabetical Anthology of Alluring, Astonishing, Beguiling, Bewitching, Enchanting, Enthralling, Mesmerizing, Miraculous, Tantalizing, Tempting, and Transfixing Words. (2012)
At seventy-four years of youth, I consider myself to be one of the luckiest men on the face of the earth. Looking back on my life, I can honestly say that I have pretty much closed the distance between who I am and what I do.
An opening paragraph with an endearing personal touch is almost always warmly welcomed by readers—and that is especially true in this case, where the self-disclosure is combined with a thoughtful observation about blurring the distinction between who people are and what they do. Lederer continued: “When you love what you do, you never work a day in your life, and writing forty books has never felt like work. Especially this one.”
When I was asked by Lederer’s publisher to write a blurb for the book, I happily agreed to do so, and offered this assessment: “This is not simply a book about Amazing Words, it is also an amazing book about words—and one that could have only been written by the inimitable Richard Lederer. Enjoy, word lovers, enjoy!”
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.
In One Era and Out the Other (1973)
It was on my fifth birthday that Papa put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Remember, my son, if you ever need a helping hand, you’ll find one at the end of your arm.“
Levenson continued: “So I took my arm by the hand and off we went to seek my fortune. Show business was the last place in the world I expected to find it.“
If This Is a Man (1947)
It was my good fortune to be deported to Auschwitz...
These are the first ten words of the “Author’s Preface.“ Levi quickly provides a fuller explanation of what he means, but it’s hard to imagine a more arresting opening. It also seems clear that he wanted to begin in the most dramatic way possible.
Here’s the complete first paragraph: “It was my good fortune to be deported to Auschwitz only in 1944, that is, after the German government had decided, owing to the growing scarcity of labor, to lengthen the average life-span of the prisoners destined for elimination; it conceded noticeable improvements in the camp routine and temporarily suspended killings at the whim of individuals.“
“Game of Crones,” in Longreads.com (May 2019)
My daughter was 10 days old the first time I was asked if I were her grandmother.
Lippmann, fifty years old when she and her husband adopted a baby girl, found an intriguing way to introduce her essay on the topic of older mothers. She was invited to write the piece for the Longreads.com “Fine Lines” series.
Priestdaddy: A Memoir (2017)
“Before they allowed your father to be a priest,” my mother tells me, “they made me take the Psychopath Test. You know, a priest can’t have a psychopath wife, it would bring disgrace.”
Priestdaddy was one of the most acclaimed memoirs of 2017, an extraordinary recounting of Lockwood’s experiences as the daughter of a Lutheran minister who became a highly unconventional Catholic priest. It also had what I regard as the best opening line of the year in the world of non-fiction—a perfect signal to readers that this would be a memoir with both wit and edge.
In a New York Times review, Dwight Garner was clearly thinking about Lockwood’s opening salvo when he wrote that the book “roars from the start.” Priestdaddy went on to win the 2018 Thurber Prize for American Humor. And in 2019, The New York Times included it on its list of “The 50 Best Memoirs of the Past 50 Years.“
“My Early Years at School,” in Getting Personal: Selected Essays (2003)
In the first grade I was in a bit of a fog.
The opening line above comes from the very first chapter, and Lopate followed it by writing: “All I remember is running outside at three o’clock with the others to fill the safety zone in front of the school building, where we whirled around with our book bags, hitting as many proximate bodies as possible. The whirling dervishes of Kabul could not have been more ecstatic than we with our thwacking book satchels.”
In the Introduction to the book, Lopate—who is seventy-seven as I write this in 2021, and still very much alive—plays around with readers by suggesting that this book of heavily autobiographical essays is being published posthumously. The Introduction even includes a note from Lopate’s friend and running partner, Dr. Horst Shovel (yes, that’s his real name), who writes that this collection of essays will have to serve as “the informal version of the autobiography he never got around to writing” during his lifetime. I’m not sure why Lopate decided to employ this deceased author conceit, but I’m hoping to one day find out the answer. I’ll let you know when I do.
“Willy,” in Getting Personal: Selected Essays (2003)
My mother was seeing another man. His name was Willy.
We’re used to seeing the phrase, “My wife was seeing another man,” but to see it applied to mothers is fresh and unexpected. It’s also a helpful reminder than an affair does not merely involve a husband and a wife, but sometimes an entire family.
In the opening paragraph, Lopate continued: “It may have been childish confusion—I was eight years old at the time—or a trick memory plays on us, but I seem to remember the Jeep he drove was also a Willys. This car has disappeared from modern life. I am unable even to picture it. But at the time it colored all my thinking about the affair.”
“Samson and Delilah and the Kids,” in Getting Personal: Selected Essays (2003)
I grew up in the era of the great Jewish Lovers.
If you’re anything like me, your first reaction to this opening line is probably something along the lines of: “The era of the great Jewish lovers? When was that?”
Lopate clearly anticipated that reaction, and continued: “Samson and Delilah, David and Bathsheba, Solomon and Sheba were burning up screens across the land. I never managed to see David and Bathsheba (though I know the coming attractions by heart), because the movie industry in its wisdom decreed that I was too young for this adulterous tale. Inconsistently, they let me into Samson and Delilah when I was seven.”
To Show and To Tell: The Craft of Literary Nonfiction (2013)
I should explain straight-out that I consider myself to be as much a teacher as writer. It’s not simply that a good deal of my annual income derives from teaching; it’s also that I find it a fascinating challenge, one that nourishes my psyche—and my own writing.
More than any other contemporary writer, Phillip Lopate’s name is virtually synonymous with the form of writing known as the personal essay. In the book’s opening paragraph, he continued: “Many of my fellow writers treat teaching as a lower calling; they only do it to pay the rent, or until such time as they can support themselves entirely from royalties and advances. For my part, I think I would continue to teach even if I were to win the lottery.”
Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela (1994)
Apart from life, a strong constitution, and an abiding connection to the Thembu royal house, the only thing my father bestowed upon me at birth was a name, Rolihlahla. In Xhosa, Rolihlahla literally means “pulling the branch of a tree,” but its colloquial meaning more accurately would be “trouble maker.”
Mandela, whose full name was Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, deftly opened his autobiography with a preview of events to come. He continued: “I do not believe that names are destiny or that my father somehow divined my future, but in later years, friends and relatives would ascribe to my birth name the many storms I have both caused and weathered.”
Groucho and Me (1959)
The trouble with writing a book about yourself is that you can’t fool around. If you write about someone else, you can stretch the truth from here to Finland. If you write about yourself, the slightest deviation makes you realize instantly that there may be honor among thieves, but you are just a dirty liar.
Marx continued in the book’s second paragraph: “Although it is generally known, I think it’s about time to announce that I was born at a very early age. Before I had time to regret it, I was four and a half years old. Now that we are on the subject of age, let’s skip it. It isn’t important how old I am. What is important, however, is whether enough people will buy this book to justify my spending the remnants of my rapidly waning vitality in writing it.”
W. Somerset Maugham
Strictly Personal (1941)
I have a notion that it is well to tell the reader at the beginning of a narrative what he is in for, and so I shall start by telling you that this is not an account of great events, but of the small things that happened to me during the first fifteen months of the war.
Maugham continued: “For more than two years now the great powers of Europe have been engaged in a fearful struggle, a dozen small nations have been invaded, and France has been vanquished: these are matters that the newspapers have reported and that history will deal with.”
The Summing Up and Strictly Personal are Maugham’s only semi-autobiographical works, published when he was sixty-four and sixty-seven years of age; he would live to be ninety-one.
W. Somerset Maugham
The Summing Up (1938)
This is not an autobiography nor is it a book of recollections. In one way and another I have used in my writings whatever has happened to me in the course of my life.
In this book, often described as a “literary memoir,” Maugham continued: “Sometimes an experience I have had has served as a theme and I have invented a series of incidents to illustrate it; more often I have taken persons with whom I have been slightly or intimately acquainted and used them as the foundation for characters of my invention. Fact and fiction are so intermingled in my work that now, looking back on it, I can hardly distinguish one from the other.”
One of my favorite passages in the book could easily be applied to me, a seventy-nine-year-old lifelong learner when I launched this website. Maughan wrote: “When I was young I was amazed at Plutarch’s statement that the elder Cato began at the age of eighty to learn Greek. I am amazed no longer. Old age is ready to undertake tasks that youth shirked because they would take too long.“
“My Confession,” in Partisan Review (Fall, 1953)
Every age has a keyhole to which its eye is pasted.
Tori Murden McClure
A Pearl in the Storm: How I Found My Heart in the Middle of the Ocean (2009)
In the end, I know I rowed across the Atlantic to find my heart, but in the beginning, I wasn’t aware that it was missing.
When a memoir—especially one centered around a personal or athletic achievement—begins with an opening line that rivals those of the great novelists, it’s yet another accomplishment, and I’m delighted to be honoring it here.
In 1999, McClure became the first woman in history to row across the Atlantic ocean, and the first person to do it solo. She had attempted the crossing a year earlier, but was thwarted by a hurricane. In Book Lust to Go (2010), American librarian Nancy Pearl wrote “I love the first line,” and offered the fascinating tidbit that Muhammad Ali was instrumental in getting McClure to make a second attempt. According to Pearl, Ali told her that she probably didn’t want to go down in history as the first woman who “almost rowed across the Atlantic.”
For her incredible feat, McClure received numerous awards, including the Ocean Rowing Society International’s Peter Bird Trophy for Tenacity and Perseverance, and the Victor Award, given annually by the National Academy of Sports Editors to outstanding athletes. The Atlantic crossing, as it turns out, was only one of McClure’s outstanding personal efforts. She is also the first woman to ski to the South Pole and the first woman to climb the Lewis Nunatak in the Thiel Mountains of Antarctica. As I write this in early 2022, she has graduated to new feats of daring, serving as president of Spalding University in Louisville, Kentucky.
Teacher Man: A Memoir (2005)
Here they come.
And I’m not ready.
How could I be?
I’m a new teacher and learning on the job.
McCourt continued: “On the first day of my teaching career, I was almost fired for eating the sandwich of a high school boy. On the second day I was almost fired for mentioning the possibility of friendship with a sheep. Otherwise, there was nothing remarkable about my thirty years in the high school classrooms of New York City. I often doubted if I should be there at all. At the end I wondered how I lasted that long.”
Angela’s Ashes: A Memoir (1996)
My father and mother should have stayed in New York where they met and married and where I was born. Instead, they returned to Ireland when I was four, my brother, Malachy, three, the twins, Oliver and Eugene, barely one, and my sister, Margaret, dead and gone.
In his memoir, McCourt continued: “When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I survived at all. It was, of course, a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly worth your while. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.”
McCourt’s memoir was one of the most acclaimed books of the year, winning the 1996 National Book Critics Circle Award for Biography and the 1997 Pulitzer Prize for Autobiography.
Every Third Thought: On Life, Death and the End Game (2017)
No one will ever know exactly what happened inside my head on the night of 28 July 1995, but probably it went something like this. First, for reasons that remain mysterious, a surreptitious clot began to form in one of my cerebral arteries, cutting off the blood supply to the one organ in the body that, after the heart, is most greedy for blood.
This is a dramatic opening, and that haunting phrase about being most greedy for blood kept returning to my mind. McCrum continued: “Eventually, perhaps some hours later, like a breaking dam, the clot burst into the right side of my brain, causing an uncontrolled ‘bleed’ that would achieve irreversible destruction of cerebral tissue deep inside my head, in the part of the cortex known as the basal ganglia.”
You might also be interested in knowing that McCrum borrowed the title of his memoir from a Prospero line in Shakespeare’s The Tempest: “Every third thought shall be my grave.”
“Me and My Bike and Why,” in An Outside Chance: Essays of Sport (1980)
Like many who buy a motorcycle, there had been for me the problem of getting over the rather harrowing insurance statistics as to just what it is that is likely to happen to you.
“Molly,” in An Outside Chance: Essays of Sport (1980)
I have been bird hunting since I was ten years old. I was not much good at it when I was ten, and many years of experience have not made me any better. Sometimes, when asked about the results of my shooting, I am ashamed. Sometimes so ashamed that I lie about it vividly and recklessly.
“Wading the Hazards,” in An Outside Chance: Essays of Sport (1980)
Lately I’ve been having trouble with golf. Which of us has not?
McGuane continued: “Traced upon the minds of many of our countrymen are the perimeters of a golf course, a last frontier, a wonderful great lawn whose spacious nocturnal gloom always served the fantasies of young trespassers when nothing else in the republic did.”
Out of Their League (1970)
You may not know it, but you’ve probably seen me on television a few times during the last seven years or so—that is if you’re one of the 25 million Americans who zeroes in on pro football for several hours every fall weekend. I wasn’t a glamour player, and the St. Louis Cardinals, where I played linebacker, wasn’t a glamour team; but I was out there, along with a thousand or so other guys, most of them as anonymous as me.
But you won’t see me out there again.
This is a wonderful beginning to one of the most interesting and influential sports memoirs ever written (in 2002, Sports Illustrated ranked it Number 63 on its list of The Top 100 Sports Books of All Time). Meggyesy was only 29 when the book was published, and at the top of his game, but he believed the sport he had loved his entire life was in desperate need of reform. Look magazine’s Leonard Schecter called it “the roughest sport book ever written.” And seventeen years after it was published, David Remnick wrote in a 1987 Sports Illustrated article that it had “changed the way we think about the most popular sport in the country.”
In his article, Remnick also memorably described the book: “A polemical book that made Jim Bouton’s Ball Four seem as tame as The Red Grange Story. Meggyesy wrote about alumni boosters contributing money under the table to college athletes, team doctors shooting up players with painkillers, coaches pushing athletes to play despite serious injuries, players cheating on their wives and organizing orgies, sadistic coaches treating players like dray horses, teams divided along racial lines.”
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.
The World Is My Home: A Memoir (1992)
This will be a strange kind of autobiography because I shall offer the first seven chapters as if I had never written a book, the last seven as if that were all I had done.
Michener continued: “I segregate the material in this way for two reasons: I want the reader to see in careful detail the kind of ordinary human being who becomes a writer and then to see the complex and contradictory motivations that enable him to remain one.”
A View from A Broad (1980)
I will never forget it! Only moments before I found out that a world tour was being planned for me, I was exactly where I most like to be—flat on my back on my lovely redwood deck, overlooking the glorious, ever-changing moods of the Santa Ana Freeway.
In her cleverly titled memoir, Midler demonstrates that one of the best ways to begin a book is with an unexpected twist—the sight of a nearby freeway is not generally regarded as an exceptional view. She continued: “I was truly at peace. And I was truly a mess, having just forged my way through the potentially crippling round of severe calisthenics I dutifully perform every evening of the year.”
Clark E. Moustakas
I have experienced loneliness many times in my life but until recently I lived my loneliness without being aware of it.
Moustakas continued: “In the past I tried to overcome my sense of isolation by plunging into work projects and entering into social activities. By keeping busy and by committing myself to interesting and challenging work, I never had to face, in any direct or open way, the nature of my own existence as an isolated and solitary individual.”
Clark E. Moustakas
Loneliness and Love (1972)
Every once in a while I awaken to the reality that I’m all I got.
Moustakas continued: “This awareness is usually thrust upon me when the spirit of my life is broken, when the person who I am is clearly not being received, when I am being judged, examined, questioned.”
Wiving: A Memoir of Loving Then Leaving the Patriarchy (2020)
I am fifty years old and have just moved to a seaside town in Portugal. I’m reading in a quiet bar when a man asks why a beautiful woman like me is alone.
What he means is, What is happening between your legs?
What he means is, You are breaking the rules of the story, but I can set you straight.
What he means is, I can fill that terrible gap between your legs.
This was one of my choices for The 20 Best Opening Lines of 2021. I had expected Myers’s memoir to be a relatively straightforward tale of self-discovery, but her opening words quickly set me straight. In addition to being a moving tale about her personal journey from young, devout Mormon girl to strong, independent woman, it is also a stirring polemic about life for women in a male-dominated world.
Myer continued: “In the story, a woman who is—according to an occult and capricious geometry of features and culture and a man’s particular taste—’beautiful’ must be attached to a man. To be unattached at my age is a violation of the story. This man wants an explanation. If my answer isn’t plausible, if there is no man waiting around the corner or recently dead or banging a college student, I should be grateful he is offering me a happy ending.
“His desire lands on my shoulders like a bird of prey.
“What he means is, I need you to fill the gap in me.“
All the Way: My Life in Four Quarters (2019)
Something isn’t right. My chest is tight, and I’m just distracted, man, distracted. I’m drinking my daily eight-ounce Cheribundi at the kitchen table as an afternoon storm starts rolling in. Nothing out of the ordinary for August in south Florida, but I’m sure outta my element.
These opening words immediately raise the question: what is causing a man known for his brashness and confidence to feel distracted and out of his element? Turns out, it’s the challenge of sitting down to write his own autobiography. Yes, Namath had published a first memoir in 1969 (I Can’t Wait for Tomorrow…’Cause I Get Better Looking Every Day), but that book was essentially written by Dick Schaap, who posed a multitude of questions to the New York Jets’ quarterback, recorded his answers, and then reconstructed his words into a celebrity autobiography.
In All the Way, clearly written by himself this time, the seventy-something Namath continued his opening paragraph by writing: “I decide to pull up the definition of ‘memoir’ on my iPad: ‘A record of events written by a person having intimate knowledge of them and based on personal observation.’ Boy, that just isn’t me. I don’t have a lot of practice talking about myself unless I’m answering questions. Growing up with three older brothers, somebody else was always talking, louder than I ever could. It just feels negative, man. Negative.”
Jawaharlal Nehru: An Autobiography (1936)
This book was written entirely in prison.
This is the first sentence of the Preface to the book, and it gets things off to a dramatic start. A few pages later, Chapter One begins with an intriguing and unexpected revelation from a child of privilege: “An only son of prosperous parents is apt to be spoilt, especially so in India. And when that son happens to have been an only child for the first eleven years of his existence there is little hope for him to escape this spoiling.”
It’s a Long Story: My Life (2015; with David Ritz)
A song is a short story.
Beginning a book with a pithy, quotable line is always a good idea, as Nelson demonstrates here. In the second sentence, he continued by attempting to clarify the authorship of a legendary country music observation that is usually attributed to Author Unknown: “It might have been my buddy Harlan Howard, a writer I met in Nashville in the sixties, who first said a song ain’t nothing but three chords and the truth.”
Nelson continued in the book’s second paragraph: “Well, songs come easy to me. I’ve written hundreds of them. I see them as little stories that fall out of our lives and imaginations. If I have to struggle to write a song, I stop before I start. I figure if it don’t flow easy, it’s not meant to be.”
Craig Nettles and Peter Golenbock
Some kids dream of joining the circus, others of becoming a major league baseball player. I have been doubly blessed. As a member of the New York Yankees, I have gotten to do both.
Bring on the Empty Horses (1975)
When Gertrude Stein returned to New York after a short sojourn to Hollywood somebody asked her…“What is it like—out there?”
To which, with little delay and the minimum of careful thought the sage replied…“There is no ‘there’—there.”
Quotation lovers now know that Stein was referring to Oakland, not Hollywood, but Niven took a few liberties with her observation in order to craft a nifty opening to his book about life in Hollywood in the years between 1935 and 1960.
The Moon’s a Balloon (1971)
Nessie, when I first saw her, was seventeen years old, honey-blond, pretty rather than beautiful, the owner of a voluptuous but somehow innocent body and a pair of legs that went on for ever. She was a Picadilly whore. I was a fourteen-year-old heterosexual schoolboy and I met her thanks to my stepfather. (If you would like to skip on and meet Nessie more fully, she reappears on page 41.)
When the English publisher Hamish Hamilton published Niven’s memoir in Great Britain in 1971, this was the spectacular opening. However, if you went on to read Dell Publishing’s American version of the book, published a year later, you saw a different opening. Clearly, American publishers felt great discomfort about broaching the idea of sex with a minor girl, so they persuaded Niven to modify his opening paragraph. He made a few other tweaks as well, as you will see below:
“Nessie, when I first saw her, was nineteen, honey-blond, pretty rather than beautiful, a figure like a two-armed Venus de Milo who had been on a sensible diet, had a pair of legs that went on forever, and a glorious sense of the ridiculous. She was a Picadilly whore. I was a fourteen-year-old heterosexual schoolboy, and I met her thanks to my stepfather. (If you would like to skip on and meet Nessie more fully, she reappears on page 42.)”
RN: The Memoirs of Richard Nixon (1978)
I was born in a house my father built.
In Melvin Small’s A Companion to Richard M. Nixon (2011), Melvin Small quoted Iwan W. Morgan's wonderful assessment of Nixon’s memoir: “It begins with the most eye-catching opening line of any presidential autobiography, intended to make him the embodiment of the American Dream…but the rest of the book does not live up to this great start.”
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
I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death (2017)
On the path ahead, stepping out from behind a boulder, a man appears.
We are, he and I, on the far side of a dark tarn that lies hidden in the bowl-curved summit of this mountain. The sky is a milky blue above us; no vegetation grows this far up so it is just me and him, the stones and the still black water. He straddles the narrow track with both booted feet and he smiles.
I realize several things. That I passed him earlier, farther down the glen. We greeted each other, in the amiable yet brief manner of those on a country walk. That, on this remote stretch of path, there is no one near enough to hear me call. That he has been waiting for me: he has planned this whole thing, carefully, meticulously, and I have walked into his trap.
I see all this, in an instant
Suspenseful beginnings are a staple of Great Opening Lines, and this one is extraordinary. After the first four paragraphs, I was eager—and even a little anxious, I must admit—to read on. I suspect any reader with a pulse would feel similarly.
In her memoir, O’Farrell, one of England’s most popular contemporary novelists, went on to describe the first of seventeen “brushes with death” that she has experienced at different stages of her relatively young life (she was in her early forties when the book was published).
A book about so many near-death experiences might seem a little gloomy, but Ann Patchett described the memoir as “a gripping and glorious investigation of death that leaves the reader feeling breathless, grateful and fully alive.” London’s The Sunday Times called it “a mesmerizing read,” adding that “O’Farrell writes so convincingly about peril that each episode just serves as another detailed, technicolor reminder that we and, more terrifyingly, our loved ones are only ever one bad decision, faulty choice, or sliver or ill-fortune away from catastrophe.”
A Promised Land (2020)
Of all the rooms and halls and landmarks that make up the White House and its grounds, it was the West Colonnade that I loved best.
Many great opening lines don’t bowl readers over, they simply get them to ask, “Why?” Or in this case, “Why select what is essentially a walkway—no matter how beautiful—over the many more historic choices?” Obama went on to offer a most interesting answer, and one providing a glimpse into the mind of the man:
“For eight years that walkway would frame my day, a minute-long, open-air commute from home to office and back again. It was where each morning I felt the first slap of winter wind or pulse of summer heat; the place where I’d gather my thoughts, ticking through the meetings that lay ahead, preparing arguments for skeptical members of Congress or anxious constituents, girding myself for this decision or that slow-rolling crisis.”
I spent much of my childhood listening to the sound of striving.
The former First Lady continued: “It came in the form of bad music, or at least amateur music, coming up through the floorboards of my bedroom—the plink plink plink of students sitting downstairs at my great-aunt Robbie’s piano, slowly and imperfectly learning their scales.”
Janusian Days: Memoirs of an Almost-Old Psychiatrist (2019)
My passion for medicine dawns in the realm of childhood idealism and spiritual innocence. I am ten years old and picture myself as a medical missionary like Albert Schweitzer or Tom Dooley.
Olsson continued: “Mom reads me books about these famous missionary doctors. I pledge to selflessly help African natives with cures of bodies, minds, and souls. I go with Mom to weekly Bible study and missionary prayer meetings at our Baptist church. I pray for missionaries in Africa, China, and India. I help box up clothes, canned goods, bandages, and medicines for shipment to them. My church community embraces such efforts to help others. Mom smiles. I feel love and importance.“
"Why I Write," in Gangrel (Summer 1946)
From a very early age, perhaps the age of five or six, I knew that when I grew up I should be a writer.
Orwell continued: "Between the ages of about seventeen and twenty-four I tried to abandon this idea, but I did so with the consciousness that I was outraging my true nature and that sooner or later I should have to settle down and write books."
Defending Baltimore Against Enemy Attack: A Boyhood Year During World War II (2004)
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.
Charles Dickens didn’t write those words about the year that I was nine in Baltimore, but they happen to fit. That year, 1942, was the best of times for a Baltimore boy who always seemed to be feeling good and the worst of times for a nation reeling from the first blows of World War II.
Dolly: My Life and Other Unfinished Business (1994)
Once upon a time and far, far away, back in the hollers at the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains of East Tennessee there lived a little girl with yellow hair, blue-green eyes, fair skin, and freckles. She loved to read almost as much as she loved to dream.
Parton continued: “She read everything she could get her little hands on, the Bible, The Farmer’s Almanac, The Funeral Home Directory, the directions and descriptions on the garden and flower seed packets, all medicine bottles, catalogues, any and all kinds of mail, school books…but mostly she loved fairy tales. So I grew up to be a fairy princess of a sort, more of a Cinderella story, the rags-to-riches kind.” [ellipsis in original]
Dolly Parton, Storyteller: My Life in Lyrics (2020)
Ever since I was a small child, I’ve always had the gift to rhyme. So I was making up songs before I could even write. I would rhyme everything, whether it was whatever was on the table, what was on the floor, what the kids were doing.
This is how Parton opened Chapter One, but she also began the Introduction to the book quite nicely: “My name is Dolly Parton, and I am a songwriter. That is how I express myself. In a song, I can go anywhere and do anything.” This is Parton’s second autobiography, and somewhat unique in that she tells her life story by highlighting the lyrics and backstories of 175 songs she wrote over more than six decades.
The Last Lecture (2008; with Jeffrey Zaslow)
I have an engineering problem.
While for the most part I’m in terrific physical shape, I have ten tumors in my liver and I have only a few months to live.
I am a father of three young children, and married to the woman of my dreams. While I could easily feel sorry for myself, that wouldn’t do them, or me, any good.
So, how to spend my very limited time.
Few people would describe imminent death from cancer as an “engineering problem,” but Randy Pausch was hardly a typical person. The Last Lecture was an expanded version of a literal “last lecture” that Pausch delivered to students at Carnegie Mellon University on Sep. 18, 2007 (the lecture’s formal title was “Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams”).
Earlier in the year, Pausch had been invited to deliver a hypothetical “final talk,” a lecture in which professors were asked to imagine what they would say to students if they could deliver only one more lecture. In 2006, Pausch had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and he and his doctors were aggressively fighting it. A month before the lecture, though, he learned that he had only several more months to live.
On the night of the lecture, over 400 students and faculty members—fully aware of Pausch’s medical situation—gave him a prolonged standing ovation before the lecture. When Pausch finally said, “Make me earn it,” and motioned for the audience to sit down, a voice from the crowd shouted out, “You did!” His inspirational lecture that evening became an immediate YouTube sensation, and Hyperion Books soon offered him a 6.7 million dollar book advance. Pausch was 47-years-old when be died on July 25, 2008, but he lived long enough to see his book make The New York Times bestseller list. It remained on the list for 85 consecutive weeks, ultimately selling over five million copies.
The Measure of a Man: A Spiritual Autobiography (2000)
Many years ago I wrote a book about my life, which was, necessarily, in large part a book about my life in Hollywood. More recently I decided that I wanted to write a book about life. Just life itself. What I’ve learned by living more than seventy years of it.
Unprotected: A Memoir (2021)
This is not a coming-out-story. It’s not a down-low story either. I never could have passed for straight, even if I’d wanted to, and so I never had the dubious luxury of living a lie.
Porter, one of Broadway’s most gifted performers, continued in his memoir’s second paragraph: “By the time I was five, it was all too clear that something was wrong with me. Everyone knew it, and I knew it too. It was why grown-ups shook their heads and spoke in lowered tones whenever I was in the room. It was why I had to talk to a Nice White Man once a week, in his office in the big building up the street. The man and I played games, and he asked me a lot of questions. Sometimes I knew the answers and sometimes I was confused.”
As a young boy, Porter said, “I was drawn to all the wrong pastimes,” and he ticked off a host of examples: Double Dutch jump rope, Easy-Bake Ovens, taffeta and lace fabrics, the hats worn by church ladies, and his Aunt Sharon’s shoes, especially her “candy-apple red pumps,” which ultimately got him banished from her bedroom.
Reflecting back on those weekly office visits, Porter wrote: “I wasn’t confused about why I was there. The Nice White Man was a doctor. He was working to help fix me. I didn’t know the name of the mysterious affliction, but I did know that it had already manifested itself in many unacceptable ways.”
Porter’s memoir opened so impressively that I selected it for a Smerconish.com post on “Twenty-One of the Best Opening Lines of 2021.“
My American Journey (2010; with Joseph E. Persico)
I usually trust my instincts. This time I did not, which almost proved fatal.
In stark contrast to the boring opening lines of so many autobiographies, Powell engages the reader from the very outset. He went on to describe how he and his wife almost died in a 1992 helicopter crash after accepting an invitation from Jamaican Prime Minister Michael Manley to visit his childhood home. At one point in their journey, Powell’s hosts suggested they use an aging UH-1 helicopter from the Jamaican government instead of his usual American Blackhawk. Powell wrote, “I could not easily reject their gesture of pride, though my antennae quivered.” Sadly, and as he feared, the helicopter crashed, but happily, the couple and the Jamaican pilots all survived.
An American Life (1990)
If I’d gotten the job I wanted at Montgomery Ward, I suppose I never would have left Illinois.
We’ve all played the “What if?” game at one time or another in our lives, and it’s interesting to see the 40th President doing it to open his autobiography. He continued:
“I’ve often wondered at how lives are shaped by what seem like small and inconsequential events, how an apparently random turn in the road can lead you a long way from where you intended to go—and a long way from wherever you expected to go.”
Still Me (1998)
A few months after the accident I had an idea for a short film about a quadriplegic who lives in a dream. During the day, lying in his hospital bed, he can’t move, of course. But at night he dreams that he’s whole again, and is able to do anything and go everywhere.
I Remember Me (2013)
I Remember Me offers fifty-five chapters of varying lengths, containing remembrances of things past. It is my theory that these memories are stored in a part of one’s brain that does not allow your mind to access them until you are at least ninety years old. Three months ago, I became eligible, and the following is what my mind had stored in my brain.
This single paragraph is the entirety of the book’s Preface, and I can’t think of a better way for a man who recently turned ninety years old to begin his autobiography.
Deadline: A Memoir (1991)
I started to write this book as a political memoir of my fifty years as a reporter, columnist, Washington correspondent, and executive editor of The New York Times, but it got away from me and turned into a personal memoir of love and hope.
Straight from the Heart: My Life in Politics & Other Places (1989; with Peter Knobler)
My Daddy used to say, “She looks like she was rode hard and put up wet,” and that is about the way I feel on finishing this book. Telling the story of your life is not an easy task.
These are the opening words to the Preface of the book. Richards continued: “Reliving the tough times is painful, but the recollection of good times with my friends and family warmed me like a blanket.”
Ginger Rogers: My Story (1991)
My mother told me I was dancing before I was born. She could feel my toes tapping wildly inside her for months.
James Haywood Rolling, Jr.
Growing Up Ugly: Memoirs of a Black Boy Daydreaming (2020)
I used to think I was born ugly. I wasn’t sure why in the beginning. I couldn’t pin down the source of my ill-fittedness and out-of-placeness until I finally stared myself down in a mirror one afternoon after being ridiculed by a little girl whose name I don’t remember.
Rolling, an acclaimed American artist and art educator, continued: “My ugliness wasn’t some self-harming assumption or the result of anyone else’s intentional misleading. Nor was it just because I had been born butt-first rather than head-first--otherwise known as being a breech baby. My ugliness was the built-up scar tissue of a childhood spent tending to injuries I’d accumulated through a series of unexpected pitfalls and penalties. The injury that lingered the longest was the revelation that my face was broken.“
Simple Dreams: A Musical Memoir (2015)
On her way to the hospital the day I was born, my mother wanted to stop and eat a hamburger. She was hungry, and maybe wanted to fortify herself against the brutally hard work of pushing out a baby, a task that lay immediately and ominously before her.
Ronstadt continued: “It was raining hard, and the streets were badly flooded. My father, a prudent man, wanted to be sure I was born in the hospital and not in his car. He loved my mother tenderly and was unlikely to deny her anything within reason, but he denied her this, and so I was safely delivered from the watery world of her interior to the watery exterior world of the Arizona desert in a cloudburst.”
This is My Story (1937)
My mother was one of the most beautiful women I have ever seen. The Halls were noted for their beauty and charm in the days when New York City was small enough to have a society spelled with a capital S! She had been largely brought up by her father, who died when she was seventeen. It must have been a curious household, for my Grandfather Hall never engaged in business. He lived on what his father and mother gave him.
This is My Story went on to set the mold for future memoirs from America’s First Ladies. In her formal Autobiography of Eleanor Roosevelt (1984), published nearly a half-century later, Mrs. Roosevelt began with a similar—but significantly compressed—opening: “My mother was one of the most beautiful women I have ever seen. Her father, my grandfather Hall, never engaged in business. He lived on what his father and mother gave him.”
Take Back Your Life! Regaining Your Footing After Life Throws You a Curve (2003)
It was Saturday, June 13, 1998, a glorious day for many reasons. My husband Mark and I were celebrating our third wedding anniversary, and the weather was beautiful—warm and windless.
We decided to go for a bicycle ride on a trail in Granville, Ohio, and arrived about 5:00 p.m. We were happily riding for about ten minutes when Mark heard a loud noise that sounded like a gunshot. He slowed down to investigate, then called ahead to me, “Look over there, something’s falling!” I glanced to my right and saw a few leaves floating to the ground. Then Mark yelled, “Stop!”
Rossetti, who went on to become an acclaimed inspirational speaker and Universal Design advocate, continued: “It was too late. An 80-foot tree was falling on our path. In an instant, I was crushed by a 3 1/2 ton tree and surrounded by live electric power lines.” In three simple, cleanly written paragraphs, Rossetti perfectly captures the circumstances of a freak accident that forever changed her life. Who wouldn’t want to read further?
The Social Contract (1762)
Man was born free, and everywhere he is in chains.
When most people think about the topic of Great Opening Lines, they tend to focus only on works of fiction. But spectacular opening sentences also come from the world of non-fiction, as you see here.
It’s rare for philosophers and other serious intellectuals to begin their works with a literary flourish, but that is exactly what Rousseau does in The Social Contract, penning one of the most widely quoted opening lines in the history of political philosophy. In Rousseau’s case, it is not so surprising, since he was also a first-rate novelist, the author of Julie, or, The New Heloise (1761) and Emile, on On Education (1762).
My Philosophical Development (1959)
My philosophical development may be divided into various stages according to the problems with which I have been concerned and the men whose work has influenced me. There is only one constant preoccupation: I have throughout been anxious to discover how much we can be said to know and with what degree of certainty or doubtfulness.
The Autobiography of Bertrand Russell, 1872-1914 (1961)
Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind.
Russell continued: "These passions, like great winds, have blown me hither and thither, in a wayward course, over a deep ocean of anguish, reaching to the very verge of despair."
Victory in My Hands (1949; with Victor Rosen)
When I woke up I found I had no hands.
Russell, who lost both hands in a training accident during WWII, continued in the second paragraph: "It took me a while before I realized what that meant. At first the pain was too great. The wounds in my chest and belly hurt. A burning, twisting pain, not sharp, but steady, unyielding. And the ether made me feel terribly sick to my stomach."
After the war--and equipped with two prosthetic hooks to replace his missing hands--Russell was attending Boston University when the U.S. Army featured him in "Diary of a Sergeant," a documentary film about rehabilitating veterans. After viewing the documentary, Hollywood director William Wyler decided to cast Russell in The Best Years of Our Lives, a movie he was making about American soldiers returning from war. The film went on to become a Hollywood classic, winning seven Academy Awards, including the Best Supporting Actor award for Russell (earlier in the evening, he had received an honorary award for his role in the film, so, technically, he received two Oscars that evening).
Memoirs of a Professional Cad (1960)
On July 3, 1906, the world was at peace. Nothing of any consequence seemed to be happening in the capital cities of any of its countries. Nothing disturbed the summer lethargy of its population. Everywhere people dozed contentedly, unaware that an event of major importance was taking place in St. Petersburg, Russia. At number 6 Petroffski Ostroff, to Margaret and Henry Sanders, a son of dazzling beauty and infinite charm was being born. It was I.
Robert M. Sapolsky
A Primate’s Memoir: A Neuroscientist’s Unconventional Life Among the Baboons (2001)
I joined the baboon troop during my twenty-first year. I had never planned to become a savanna baboon when I grew up; instead I had always assumed I would become a mountain gorilla.
In Book Lust to Go (2010), American librarian Nancy Pearl wrote: “From its inviting (and very funny) first paragraph to its last heart-breaking chapter, A Primate’s Memoir by neuroscientist (and winner of a McArthur ‘genius grant’) Robert Sapolsky could hardly be better reading.”
For more than two decades, Sapolsky was associated with a national park in Kenya, where he continued the tradition of Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey by attempting to fit into a troop of Savannah baboons. It was something he dreamed of doing since childhood, as he went on to explain in his opening words: “As a child in New York, I endlessly begged and cajoled my mother into taking me to the Museum of Natural History, where I would spend hours looking at the African dioramas, wishing to live in one.”
“The Art of Dying,” in The New Yorker (Dec. 16, 2019)
Lung cancer, rampant. No surprise. I’ve smoked since I was sixteen, behind the high-school football bleachers in Northfield, Minnesota. I used to fear the embarrassment of dying youngish, letting people natter sagely, “He smoked, you know.” But at seventy-seven I’m into the actuarial zone.
Four months earlier, Schjeldahl was driving to his country home in the Catskills when he received a phone call from his oncologist. The lung cancer was indeed rampant, and he would soon learn that his Memorial Sloan Kettering team was giving him six months to live.
Charles M. Schulz
My Life with Charlie Brown (2010; with M. Thomas Inge)
And so, 25 years have gone by. At one strip per day, that comes to almost 10,000 comic strips. Actually, this is not so much when you consider the longevity of many other comic features. Employees receive wristwatches if they have put in this much time with a company, but a comic-strip artist just keeps on drawing. (Somehow a comic-strip artist is never regarded as an employee.)
Schulz went on to reveal that his enormously successful career began as a childhood dream: “I have been asked many times if I ever dreamed that Peanuts would become as successful as it is, and I think I always surprise people when I say, ‘Well, frankly, I guess I did expect it, because, after all, it was something I had planned for since I was six years old.’”
As the opening paragraph continued, Schulz ticked off several specific items that went into his ultimate achievement of the American Dream: “Obviously I did not know that Snoopy was going to go to the moon, and I did not know that the phrase ‘happiness is a warm puppy’ would prompt hundreds of other such definitions, and I did not know that the term ‘security blanket’ would become part of the American language; but I did have the hope that I would be able to contribute something to a profession that I can say now I have loved all my life.”
In the tunnel where I was raped, a tunnel that was once an underground entry to an amphitheater, a place where actors burst forth from underneath the seats of a crowd, a girl had been murdered and dismembered. I was told this story by the police. In comparison, they said I was lucky.
These words appear in an Author’s Note at the beginning of the book, and few memoirs have begun more dramatically and powerfully. Sebold continued in the second paragraph: “But at the time, I felt I had more in common with the dead girl than I did with the large, beefy police officers or my stunned freshman-year girlfriends. The dead girl and I had been in the same low place. We had lain among the dead leaves and broken beer bottles.”
Already stunned by the contents of the Author’s Note, we read the first words of Chapter One with heightened interest: “This is what I remember. My lips were cut. I bit down on them when he grabbed me from behind and covered my mouth. He said these words: ‘I’ll kill you if you scream.’”
Is This Anything? (2020)
“Is this anything?” is what every new comedian says to every other comedian about any new bit.
Ideas that come from nowhere and mean nothing.
But in the world of stand-up comedy, literal bars of gold.
Confessions of a Left-Handed Man: An Artist’s Memoir (2011)
In kindergarten, when I presented her with crayon drawings of the Queen Mary and of the Empire State Building lit up like a Christmas tree at night, Mrs. Decker kissed my cheek, my first taste of artistic glory.
The Inventors: A Memoir (2016)
This book is about two men who were very important to me. The first was there at my conception, the second came along thirteen years later. Each had a profound influence on me. You could say they invented me, such was their influence.
This opening paragraph comes from the memoir’s Prologue, and nicely helped to explain why Selgin titled the memoir as he did. He continued in an equally intriguing manner in the second paragraph: “They invented themselves, too. The first man did so through an act of omission, by denying his past. The second did so through a series of fabrications, by lying about his. The first man was Paul Joseph Selgin, my father—who, it so happens, was an inventor. The second was my eighth-grade English teacher.”
And just to make sure we grasped the central theme of his book, Selgin continued in the third paragraph: I’ve had other inventors, too: a mother, my twin brother, the places I’ve lived, the people I’ve known. They all helped invent me.”
Black Beauty (1877)
The first place that I can well remember was a pleasant meadow with a pond of clear water in it. Some shady trees leaned over it, and rushes and water lilies grew at the deep end. Over the hedge on one side we looked into a plowed field, and on the other we looked over a gate at our master’s house, which stood by the roadside. At the top of the meadow was a grove of fir trees, and at the bottom a running brook, overhung by a steep bank.
The opening paragraph reads like the beginning of almost any autobiography you’ve ever read. As readers begin the second paragraph, however, it quickly becomes apparent that this is not the autobiography of a human being:
“While I was young I lived upon my mother’s milk, as I could not eat grass. In the daytime I ran by her side, and at night I lay down close by her. When it was hot, we used to stand by the pond in the shade of the trees, and when it was cold, we had a warm shed near the grove.”
The Other Side of Me: A Memoir 2005
At the age of seventeen, working as a delivery boy at Afremov’s drugstore in Chicago was the perfect job, because it made it possible for me to steal enough sleeping pills to commit suicide.
Sheldon spent a career attempting to craft great opening lines for his eighteen novels—which collectively sold more than 300 million copies—and it seems only appropriate that he began his autobiography with one of his best (the memoir’s title, by the way, plays off the title of his 1973 novel The Other Side of Midnight).
Born in Chicago in 1917, Sheldon entered adolescence in the early years of the Great Depression. In 1934, at age 17, the grinding poverty was wearing on him, and his dreams of going to college seemed increasingly unlikely. To make matters worse, he was an aspiring writer who had submitted dozens of short stories to magazines like Collier’s and The Saturday Evening Post, only to have all of them rejected. He finally decided to bring an end to “this suffocating misery.”
In the opening paragraph, Sheldon continued: “I was not certain exactly how many pills I would need, so I arbitrarily decided on twenty, and I was careful to pocket only a few at a time so as not to arouse the suspicion of our pharmacist. I had read that whiskey and sleeping pills were a deadly combination, and I intended to mix them, to make sure I would die.”
At home alone on the day he’d chosen to die, he gulped down a first swig of whiskey and was about to toss the sleeping pills into his mouth when his father unexpectedly opened the door to their apartment. What happened then was as interesting as anything found in a Sheldon novel, but you’ll have to read it for yourself. Trust me, it will be worth it.
A Gift of Laughter: The Autobiography of Allan Sherman (1965)
My life has been a wild ride, up-and-down, up-and-down. I have always been a yo-yo on a roller coaster, and if I never quite fell off—if I’ve been able to hang on and enjoy the ride this far—it is because God gave me one shining thing, a gift of laughter.
This Laugh Is On Me: The Phil Silvers Story (1973; with Robert Saffron)
When I was eight I sang at a stag coming-out-of-jail party for a local hoodlum named Little Doggie. In the middle of my number, a man was shot dead at my feet.
It’s hard to imagine a better opening to a memoir from a famous funny man. In the book’s second paragraph, Silvers continued: “The Brownsville section of Brooklyn was a tough neighborhood in the 1920’s, so I didn’t think it was too strange. My first reaction was, is the program going to pay me my $3?
I Put a Spell on You: The Autobiography of Nina Simone (1991; with Stephen Cleary)
When I used to get blue years ago James Baldwin would say the same thing to me each time, “This is the world you have made for yourself Nina, now you have to live in it.“ Jimmy was always a man to see things as they really are and his gaze would never flinch no matter how unpleasant the things he saw were.
This is the opening paragraph of the Prologue to the book. Simone continued in the next paragraph: “When you sit down to think about your life, as I have had to for this book, you have to look back over some things you’ve kept out of the daylight of your mind for years, and they can catch you. It might be a photograph of an old boyfriend found at the back of a drawer: you look at it and then feel a bundle of different reactions tumbling inside you, and you say to yourself, “My God, I never knew he affected me so deeply!“
I always enjoy a memoir in which the author describes an important life lesson they’ve learned, identify the person who imparted that lesson, and then provide another delicious detail or two. Rarely though, does this happen in the book’s opening words—and rarely does the writer mention a person who was also highly influential in my own personal development. Simone does both here, and I think you will agree she does it very, very nicely.
The Autobiography of Upton Sinclair (1962)
My first recollection of life is one that my mother insisted I could not possibly have, because I was only eighteen months old at the time.
Sinclair continued: “Yet there it is in my mind: a room where I have been left in the care of a relative while my parents are taking a trip. I see a little old lady, black-clad, in a curtained room; I know where the bed is located, and the oil-stove on which the cooking is done, and the thrills of exploring a new place. Be sure that children know far more than we give them credit for; I hear fond parents praising their precious darlings, and I wince, noting how the darlings are drinking in every word. Always in my childhood I would think: ‘How silly these grownups are! And how easy to outwit!’”
Left Hand, Right Hand! Noble Essences, or Courteous Reflections, Vol. Five (1950)
A robust old country-neighbor, one of the last of the squires, was heard during a severe thunderstorm thus to address his faithful and aging servant: “Alec, you damn fool, don’t stand about there, doing nothing! Climb up the lightning-conductor, can’t you, and see if it’s working!”
In this fifth and final volume of his Autobiography, one can only wonder where Sitwell is going with this somewhat unusual—but definitely intriguing—opening. He continued: “The man who climbs such an instrument naturally leads a more exciting life than does he who watches the hurricane and writes about it: in short, as I have argued before, a writer’s life is duller than that of a man of action. Yet I would rather read an account of the storm by one who watched it than by one who climbed the lighting-conductor; and further, I would rather read a book which concerned Leonardo, let us say, and Baudelaire or a lesser artist, than the most circumstantial and detailed volume devoted to the Battle of Waterloo, or a prize-fight.”
H. Allen Smith
Lost in the Horse Latitudes (1944)
This is the last chapter.
Smith was one of the most popular humorous writers of his era, and this was how he began Chapter One, titled “Concerning the Sex Life of Chickens.” He continued: “I have yanked it out of its proper place and installed it here at the beginning because it was written before any of the others; because the book is so disorganized that nobody would ever notice the difference; but chiefly because a great many people always read the last chapter of a book first, even in mystery series.”
Just Kids (2010)
I was asleep when he died. I had called the hospital to say one more good night, but he had gone under, beneath layers of morphine. I held the receiver and listened to his labored breathing through the phone, knowing I would never hear him again.
In these moving opening words in the book’s Foreword, Smith was referring to her longtime friend Robert Mapplethorpe. The woman often described as “the punk poet laureate” continued: “Later I quietly straightened my things, my notebook and fountain pen. The cobalt inkwell that had been his. My Persian cup, my purple heart, a tray of baby teeth. I slowly ascended the stairs, counting them, fourteen of them, one after another. I drew the blanket over the baby in her crib, kissed my son as he slept, then lay down beside my husband and said my prayers. He is still alive, I remember whispering. Then I slept.”
In a 2014 article in Classic Rock, a British magazine dedicated to rock music, Smith revealed that she wrote the book because, just before he died of AIDS in 1989, Mapplethorpe asked her to write a book about their decades-long friendship. “I didn’t write it to be cathartic; I wrote it because Robert asked me to,” she said, adding, “Our relationship was such that I knew what he would want and the quality of what he deserved. So that was my agenda for writing that book. I wrote it to fulfill my vow to him, which was on his deathbed. In finishing, I did feel that I’d fulfilled my promise.” The book, hailed by critics from the beginning, went on to win many awards, including the 2010 National Book Award for Nonfiction.
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.”
My Beloved World (2013)
I was barely awake, but my mother was already screaming. I knew Papi would start screaming in a second. That much was routine, but the substance of their argument was new, and it etched that morning into my memory.
These words come from the Prologue to the book, and they raise questions that cry out to be answered: What was it like to grow up with parents whose screaming arguments were so frequent they were described as routine? What was new about the substance of this latest argument? And why did it become so indelible etched in Justice Sotomayor’s memory?
Born to Run (2016)
I come from a boardwalk town where almost everything is tinged with a bit of fraud. So am I.
Springsteen continued: “By twenty, no race-car-driving rebel, I was a guitar player on the streets of Asbury Park and already a member in good standing amongst those who ‘lie’ in service of the truth…artists, with a small ‘a.’ But I held four clean aces. I had youth, almost a decade of hard-core bar band experience, a good group of homegrown musicians who were attuned to my performance style and a story to tell.”
With a stark admission at the very beginning and, in the next sentence, a seamless allusion to a legendary Picasso observation (“Art is a lie that makes us realize truth”), it’s clear from the outset that this will not be a standard celebrity autobiography. Almost all critics agreed that Springsteen had written a modern classic, including Caryn Rose, who wrote in Salon magazine: “There are passages that echo the likes of Steinbeck and Faulkner in the beauty of his prose, sections where you’ll need to put the book down for a few minutes and soak it all in.”
Springsteen ended the Foreword by suggesting that a book, like a good magic trick, begins with a setup, and here’s how he began the first chapter, titled “Growin’ Up”: “I am ten years old and I know every crack, bone and crevice in the crumbling sidewalk running up and down Randolph Street, my street. Here, on passing afternoons I am Hannibal crossing the Alps, GIs locked in vicious mountain combat and countless cowboy heroes traversing the rocky trails of the Sierra Nevada. With my belly to the stone, alongside the tiny anthills that pop up volcanically where dirt and concrete meet, my world sprawls on into infinity, or at least to Peter McDermott’s house on the corner of Lincoln and Randolph, one block up.”
The Child That Books Built: A Life in Reading (2002)
“I can always tell when you’re reading somewhere in the house,“ my mother used to say. “There’s a special silence, a reading silence.“
Spufford, the noted English author of fiction as well as non-fiction works, continued: “I never heard it, this extra degree of hush that somehow travelled through walls and ceiling to announce that my seven-year-old self had become about as absent as a present person could be. The silence went both ways. As my concentration on the story in my hands took hold, all sounds faded away. My ears closed.“
Travels with Charley: In Search of America (1962)
When I was very young and the urge to be someplace else was on me, I was assured by mature people that maturity would cure this itch. When years described me as mature, the remedy prescribed was middle age. In middle age I was assured that greater age would calm my fever and now that I am fifty-eight perhaps senility will do the job. Nothing has worked.
Travels with Charley is Steinbeck’s report of a 10,000-mile road trip around the United States accompanied by his pet poodle Charley. The trip occurred in 1960, when the author was fifty-eight and already diagnosed with the cancer that would result in his death in 1968. The book is generally described as a travelogue, but to my mind it has always read more like a personal narrative or memoir.
Steinbeck’s opening words continued with this further description of his lifelong wanderlust: “Four hoarse blasts of a ship’s whistle still raise the hair on my neck and set my feet to tapping. The sound of a jet, an engine warming up, even the clopping of shod hooves on pavement brings on the ancient shudder, the dry mouth and vacant eye, the hot palms and the churn of stomach high up under the rib cage. In other words, I don’t improve; in further words, once a bum, always a bum. I fear the disease is incurable. I set this matter down not to instruct others but to inform myself.”
Inside Comedy: The Soul, Wit, and Bite of Comedy and Comedians of the Last Five Decades (2021)
Insecurity combined with arrogance is good DNA for a comedian. So is anger, aggression, and sadness.
This is the first sentence of Chapter One, nicely titled: “Disguised as a Normal Person.” Steinberg continued, “If you’ve had a great life and a wonderful bar mitzvah and you’ve been given a lot of money, you’d make a lousy comedian. You’re better off being the comedian’s lawyer.”
Steinberg opens his book with an assertion that is widely believed in the world of show business—comedians may make people laugh, but it is not laughter that produces comedians, but rather a constellation of qualities on the other end of the spectrum from laughter.
The Beauty of Living Twice (2021)
I opened my eyes, and there he was standing over me, just inches from my face. A stranger looking at me with so much kindness that I was sure I was going to die. He was stroking my head, my hair; God, he was handsome. I wished he were someone who loved me instead of someone whose next words were “You’re bleeding into your brain.”
In the opening paragraph of her best-selling memoir, Stone found a tantalizing way of describing a 2001 medical emergency that, at age forty-three, threatened her career and almost took her life. She continued: “He stood there gently touching my head and I just lay there knowing that no one in the room loved me. Knowing it in my guts—not needing my bleeding brain to be aware of the ridiculous slap-down of my now-immobilized life. It was late September 2001. I was in the ER at the California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco. I asked Dr. Handsome, ‘Will I lose my ability to speak?’ He said it’s possible.”
Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness (1990)
In Paris on a chilly evening late in October of 1985, I first became aware that the struggle with the disorder in my mind—a struggle which had engaged me for several months—might have a fatal outcome.
Where the Money Was: The Memoirs of a Bank Robber (1976; with Edward Linn)
What am I doing, I ask myself, standing on a corner at six o’clock in the morning freezing my ass off? Hell, I am almost forty-nine years old. I have been a fugitive for three full years now. I am number one on the FBI Wanted List. If I am caught I will go back to prison for life. They don’t even have to catch me for another bank robbery, all they have to do is get their hands on me.
This is a magnificent opening paragraph to a captivating memoir that might’ve been subtitled, “I Simply Couldn’t Help Myself.” Sutton continued in the second paragraph: “Even to me it makes no sense. I have a safe harbor in Staten Island. I have fifty thousand dollars or so stashed around that I could get my hands on with a couple of phone calls. And still, I am out here on a cold winter morning putting it all on the line in order to rob a bank for money that I neither want nor need.”
The title of Sutton’s memoir comes from a legendary story that he once said “That’s where the money is” to a reporter who asked, “Why do you rob banks?” The clever reply was so deeply embedded in American culture that Sutton decided to capitalize on it for the book’s title—even though he confessed in the memoir that he never said anything of the sort. About it, he wrote: “I never said it. The credit belongs to some enterprising reporter who apparently felt a need to fill out his copy. I can’t even remember when I first read it. It just seemed to appear one day, and then it was everywhere.”
Auto Biography: A Classic Car, an Outlaw Motorhead, and 57 Years of the American Dream (2014)
Behold Tommy Arney: six-one, two-forty, biceps big as most men’s thighs and displayed to maximum effect in the black wifebeater that is his warm-weather fashion essential.
If you’re going to begin a book with a description of a person, it had better be a good one. This one starts off beautifully—and continues at the same high level for an entire 147-word first paragraph:
“Thick neck. Goatee. Hair trimmed tight on the sides and to a broomlike inch on top, having grown too thin to facilitate the lush mullet he favored for the better part of two decades. Big, calloused mitts roughened by wrench turning and car towing and several hundred applications of blunt-force trauma, of which dozens resulted in his arrest. Self-applied four-dot tattoo on his left wrist, signifying his years as a guest of the state. A belly nourished by beer, whiskey, Rumple Minze, and buckets of both haute cuisine and Buffalo chicken wings—of the latter, seventy-two at one sitting—but ameliorated by excellent posture. He leads with this chest, shoulders thrown rearward, daring the world to take a swing at him.”
Swift’s tour de force of a first paragraph is followed by a few more of the same high quality, and they ultimately lead to a spectacular conclusion. You’ll have to check it out on your own, though. Trust me, it’ll be worth your while.
Barbara Brown Taylor
Holy Envy: Finding God in the Faith of Others (2019)
The book in your hands is a small window on a large subject. Set at a private liberal arts college in the foothills of the Appalachians, it is the story of a Christian minister who lost her way in the church and found a new home in the classroom.
Taylor went on to write that the college course she taught most frequently was “Religions of the World,” and the impact it had on her was as unexpected as it was profound. Here’s how she expressed it as she continued in the book’s first paragraph: “As soon as she recovered from the shock of meeting God in so many new hats, she fell for every religion she taught. When she taught Judaism, she wanted to be a rabbi. When she taught Buddhism, she wanted to be a monk. It was only when she taught Christianity that the fire sputtered, because her religion looked so different once she lined it up with the others.”
“My Inventions,” in Electrical Experimenter Magazine (February 1919)
The progressive development of man is vitally dependent on invention. It is the most important product of his creative brain. Its ultimate purpose is the complete mastery of mind over the material world, the harnessing of the forces of nature to human needs.
In the opening paragraph, Tesla continued: “This is the difficult task of the inventor who is often misunderstood and unrewarded. But he finds ample compensation in the pleasing exercises of his powers and in the knowledge of being one of that exceptionally privileged class without whom the race would have long ago perished in the bitter struggle against pitiless elements.”
Henry David Thoreau
Walden: or, Life in the Woods (1854)
When I wrote the following pages, or rather the bulk of them, I lived alone, in the woods, a mile from any neighbor, in a house which I had built myself, on the shore of Walden Pond, in Concord, Massachusetts, and earned my living by the labor of my hands only. I lived there two years and two months. At present I am a sojourner in civilized life again.
Memorial Drive: A Daughter’s Memoir (2020)
The last image of my mother, but for the photographs taken of her body at the crime scene, is the formal portrait made only a few months before her death.
The winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry and the former U. S. Poet Laureate (2012-13), Trethewey brings her exceptional talent to the world of memoir in a moving work that begins with a haunting, understated reference to a crime—the brutal murder of her mother by her former stepfather.
In a Washington Post review, Lisa Page wrote: “We know from the first page of this riveting memoir that poet Natasha Tretewey’s mother is dead.” A few moments later, she went on to write: “Trethewey excavates her mother’s life, transforming her from tragic victim to luminous human being.”
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.
Mary L. Trump
Too Much and Never Enough (2020)
I’d always liked my name. As a kid at sailing camp in the 1970s, everybody called me Trump. It was a source of pride not because the name was associated with power and real estate (back then my family was unknown outside of Brooklyn and Queens) but because something about the sound of it suited me, a tough six-year-old, afraid of nothing.
Trump, a licensed psychologist who subtitled her book How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man, continued: “In the 1980s, when I was in college and my uncles Donald had started all of his buildings in Manhattan, my feelings about my name became more complicated.”
Self-Consciousness: A Memoir (1989)
Had not my twenty-five-year-old daughter undertipped the airline porter in Boston, our luggage might have shown upon the carrousel [sic] in Allentown that April afternoon in 1980, and I would not have spent an evening walking the sidewalks of Shillington, Pennsylvania, searching for the meaning for my existence, as once I had scanned those same sidewalks for lost pennies.
Regarding the word carrousel above, Updike chose to use the original French spelling for a word that is typically spelled carousel in English.
Stevie Van Zandt
Unrequited Infatuations: A Memoir (2021)
My first epiphany came at the age of ten, in 1961, in my room at 263 Wilson Avenue, New Monmouth, Middleton, New Jersey, during my fifty-fifth consecutive time listening to “Pretty Little Angel Eyes” by Curtis Lee.
That’s what we did in those days.
We don’t normally associate epiphanies with 10-year-old children or with incessant exposure to a rock-and-roll song, so Van Zandt’s opening sentence immediately pulls us in. The popular front man for Bruce Springsteen—and a musical legend in his own right—Van Zandt continued in the second paragraph: “A song on the radio would stop your life and start it up again. Think about the perfect relationship completing you? When you were a kid in the ’60’s, the right song completed you. It made your day.”
Between Breaths: A Memoir of Panic and Addiction (2016)
I don’t know if I was born an alcoholic, but I was definitely born anxious. The alcoholism came to me later in life, after years of drinking to ease stress and worry, and to fend off panic.
In a first chapter that Vargas titled “Chasing the Glow,” the popular television news personality continued: “But the anxiety? It was there from the start. My earliest memories are infused with it. It was a steady theme throughout my childhood, and it is the background music of my adult life.”
Michael J. Wagner
Stumbling Forward: A Life (2017)
Rochester, New York had one more resident on Wednesday, the 9th of November 1938. Exactly ten days earlier, my parents had the proverbial shit scared out of them after listening to H. G. Wells’ “War of the Worlds” broadcast on the radio; a national Halloween deception orchestrated by Orson Wells, and now folk history.
Many people begin their autobiographies with an attempt to relate their birthdates to important historical events, but few have done it better than Wagner does here.
The Big Hustle (2020)
I’d been in fights all my life. I’d been pummeled by the toughest guys you’d ever not want to meet. I’d been beaten up, knocked unconscious, whacked in the head with a crowbar, and thrashed by a prison guard. But far and away the worst gut punch I ever took was when I discovered that my son was on drugs.
Wahlberg, the fifth child in a Dorchester, Mass. family of nine children that included Donnie (8th) and Mark (9th), was an ex-con and former addict who finally got his life together and dedicated his life to the recovery movement. After a successful marriage that produced three wonderful children, he wasn’t prepared for the next crisis in his life. He continued: “Daniel was sixteen years old. His behavior had been off, his energy seemed low, but we attributed that to recently losing his best friend to cancer.”
“Returning to Church,” in The New York Times Magazine (Dec. 22, 1985)
Just before Christmas of 1980, I was sitting in the Sevens, a neighborhood bar on Beacon Hill (don’t all these stories of revelation begin in bars?), when a housepainter named Tony remarked out of the blue that he wanted to find a place to go to mass on Christmas Eve. I didn’t say anything, but a thought came into my mind, as swift and unexpected as it was unfamiliar: I’d like to do that, too.
Wakefield wrote that he had left his “boyhood Protestant faith as a rebellious Columbia College intellectual more than a quarter-century before” and hadn’t set foot in a church since. So, what explained his newfound motivation to attend a Christmas church service? Despite his enormous success as a journalist, novelist, and screenwriter, Wakefield confessed that his life took a dark turn in the late 1970s, and it was continuing to downslide throughout 1980.
About his life at the time, he wrote: “I felt I was headed for the edge of a cliff. I could have scored at the top of those magazine tests that list the greatest stresses of life, for that year saw the dissolution of a seven-year relationship with the woman I had fully expected to live with the rest of my life, I ran out of money, left the work I was doing, the house I owned, and the city I was living in, and attended the funeral of my father in May and my mother in November.”
Returning: A Spiritual Journey (1988)
One balmy spring morning in Hollywood, a month or so before my forty-eighth birthday, I woke up screaming. I got out of bed, went into the next room, sat down on a couch, and screamed again.
These are the moving opening words of a book Bill Moyers hailed as “one of the most important memoirs of the spirit I have ever read.” Wakefield continued: “This was not, in other words, one of those waking nightmares left over from sleep that is dispelled by the comforting light of day. It was, rather, a response to the reality that another morning had broken in a life I could only deal with sedated by wine, loud noise, moving images, and wired to electronic games that further distracted my fragmented attention from a growing sense of blank, nameless pain in the pit of my very being, my most essential self.”
In an “Author’s Preface” at the beginning of the book, Wakefield revealed that the book originated several years earlier in a course on “religious autobiography” that he and nine other people had taken at King’s Chapel Unitarian Church in Boston. “It was there,” he wrote, “that for the first time I began to understand how my life could be viewed as a spiritual journey as well as a series of secular adventures of accomplishment and disappointment, personal and professional triumph and defeat.” Wakefield’s memoir had been long anticipated by those familiar with the first published words of his mid-life spiritual awakening, “Returning to Church,” written three years earlier (and described in the previous entry).
The Glass Castle (2005)
I was sitting in a taxi, wondering if I had overdressed for the evening, when I looked out the window and saw Mom rooting through a Dumpster.
This is an extraordinary opening line, all the more impressive because it is coming from a work of non-fiction. Walls, a successful journalist and gossip columnist, continued: “It was just after dark. A blustery March wind whipped the steam coming out of the manholes, and people hurried along the sidewalks with their collars turned up. I was stuck in traffic two blocks from the party where I was heading.”
The book went on to win the 2006 American Library Association’s Alex Award, an honor for books written for adults but which have special appeal to young adults.
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).
A Little Learning: The First Volume of an Autobiography (1964)
Only when one has lost all curiosity about the future has one reached the age to write an autobiography.
Goodness Had Nothing to Do With It (1959)
A book about one’s life necessarily demands a tremendous amount of recollection and research, and I have never kept a diary. I once told an interviewer that if I ever kept a diary it would have to be written in invisible ink.
Great openers typically come from a book’s first chapter, and occasionally from a Preface or Foreword. In this book, however, these are the first words of the “Acknowledgments” section, and in my mind and they qualify as a great opener.
The title of the book comes from West’s 1932 film Night After Night. After a woman says about the jewelry West is wearing, “Goodness, what beautiful diamonds!” she famously replied, “Goodness had nothing to do with it, dearie.”
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 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 Noble Hustle: Poker, Beef Jerky, and Death (2014)
I have a good poker face because I am half dead inside.
When novelists write non-fiction works, they often bring a certain flair that is both refreshing and enjoyable—and we clearly see that in this brilliant opening line. In 2011, Whitehead was given what many writers would consider the assignment of a lifetime—a $10,000 stake from the sports website Grantland.com to play in the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas. Even though Whitehead viewed himself as “one of the most unqualified players in the history of the big game,” he eagerly accepted. After all, he was a MacArthur Foundation “genius” recipient, and all he had to do was write about the experience.
The result was The Noble Hustle (2014), a hugely entertaining book that critics couldn’t stop raving about. In a review in The Philadelphia Inquirer, Rathe Miller said he was completely hooked by the first sentence. “He had me at ‘half dead’,” wrote Rathe, adding: “From the first sentence to the last, Colson Whitehead never stops being clever—and never stops kvetching.” He went on to add, “If Whitehead played poker as well as he writes, he would have made the final table.”
In his opening paragraph, Whitehead continued: “My particular combo of slack features, negligible affect, and soulless gaze has helped my game ever since I started playing twenty years ago, when I was ignorant of pot odds and M-theory and four-betting, and it gave me a boost as I collected my trove of lore, game by game, hand by hand. It has not helped me human relationships–wise over the years, but surely I’m not alone here. Anyone whose peculiar mix of genetic material and formative experiences has resulted in a near-expressionless mask can relate. Nature giveth, taketh, etc. You make the best of the hand you’re dealt.”
Caroline Randall Williams
“You Want a Confederate Monument? My Body is a Confederate Monument,” in The New York Times (June 26, 2020)
I have rape-colored skin.
Over the years, it’s been common to describe some opening lines as “arresting,” and this one clearly deserves that designation. It was The Best Opening Line of The Year, in my opinion, heading my list of “Twenty of the Best Opening Lines of 2020” in a post I did on Smerconish.com. Williams continued: “My light-brown-blackness is a living testament to the rules, the practices, the causes of the Old South. If there are those who want to remember the legacy of the Confederacy, if they want monuments, well, then, my body is a monument. My skin is a monument.”
A poet, author, and Writer-in-Residence at Vanderbilt University, Williams was directly addressing those who were calling for the preservation of Confederate statues in public places. Few people in America were more qualified to write on the subject. Williams’s great-grandmother was Arna Bontemps, one of the leading female voices of the Harlem Renaissance; her grandmother was Avon Williams, an influential civil-rights lawyer in the 1960s; and her mother is Alice Randall, a popular songwriter and author of The Wind Done Gone, a brilliant parody of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind.
That is only part of the story, though. Williams’s great-great-grandfather was Edmund Pettus—yes, the man the Selma, Alabama bridge was named after—a Confederate Army officer, a Grand Dragon of the KKK, and, in his later years, a U.S. Senator from Alabama. About her family legacy, Williams wrote: “The black people I came from were owned and raped by the white people I came from.”
The Watergate Girl (2020)
I didn’t think I was nervous, but I could hardly breathe.
This candid opening sentence captures an important truth about the human experience—sometimes we don’t really know how we feel until we’re thrust into the middle of a high-stakes situation. In this case, the event in question was the moment Wine-Banks approached the bench to interrogate the personal secretary of the President of the United States. It was 1973, and the 30-year-old lawyer was the only female on the Watergate Special Prosecutor’s team of attorneys. The first sentence of her memoir was one of my selections for The Top Twenty Opening Lines of 2020.
A stylish and attractive figure, Wine-Banks quickly became an object of media sensationalism, dubbed “The Watergate Girl” and “The Mini-Skirted Lawyer” by the press. About the moment described in her memoir’s opening line, Wine-Banks continued: “President Richard Nixon’s secretary Rose Mary Woods was on the stand in US District Court demonstrating how she accidentally erased eighteen and a half minutes from a key White House tape in the Watergate case—wiping out a conversation between the embattled president and one of his top aides held just three days after the suspicious break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters.”
My Personal Best: Life Lessons from an All-American Journey (2004; with Steve Jamison)
I was raised on oatmeal.
When authors begin an autobiography with a line like this, we’re pretty sure they will soon be using it to make an important point—and by the time we get to the end of Wooden’s first paragraph we know exactly what that point is. He continued:
“My brothers—Maurice, Daniel, and Billy—and I had oatmeal for breakfast nearly every morning on our farm back in Denterton Indiana. I raised my own children on oatmeal. Some things don’t change; some lessons remain the same. Those my father taught many years ago may seem old-fashioned now, but like oatmeal they still work.“
“The Ethics of Living Jim Crow,” in Uncle Tom’s Children (1938)
My first lesson in how to live as a Negro came when I was quite small.
These are the understated—yet highly dramatic—first words of “An Autobiographical Sketch” that appeared at the beginning of Wright’s debut book, collection of four short novellas. From our modern-day perspective, the “Jim Crow education” story he went on to tell is powerful and sickening—and definitely worth your while to read if you get the chance (I’d recommend using the Internet Archive, my favorite resource for out-of-print books). The title of the book was inspired by Harriett Beecher Stowe’s 1852 classic, Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
The publication of Wright’s first book represented the emergence of an important new voice in African-American literature. About it, the critic Alain Locke wrote: “With this, our Negro fiction of social interpretation comes of age.”
Black Boy: A Record of Childhood and Youth (1945)
One winter morning in the long-ago, four-year-old days of my life I found myself standing before a fireplace, warming my hands over a mound of glowing coals, listening to the wind whistle past the house outside.
Wright continued: “All morning my mother had been scolding me, telling me to keep still, warning me that I must make no noise. And I was angry, fretful, and impatient. In the next room Granny lay ill and under the day and night care of a doctor and I knew that I would be punished if I did not obey.”
The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1964; with Alex Haley)
When my mother was pregnant with me, she told me later, a party of hooded Ku Klux Klan riders galloped up to our home in Omaha, Nebraska, one night. Surrounding the house, brandishing their shotguns and rifles, they shouted for my father to come out. My mother went to the front door and opened it.
These are the dramatic opening words of a creative collaboration in which the noted journalist Alex Haley conducted a series of in-depth interviews with Malcolm and then later put them into an autobiographical narrative. The book was published posthumously, eight months after the 39-year-old civil rights leader was assassinated by Nation of Islam followers on February 21, 1965. Now regarded as an American classic, the book’s significance was recognized by many from the outset. In a New York Times review, Eliot Fremont-Smith described it as a “brilliant, painful, important book,“ adding, “as a document for our time, its insights may be crucial; its relevance cannot be doubted.“
In the book’s opening paragraph, Malcolm continued: “Standing where they could see her pregnant condition, she told them that she was alone with her three small children, and that my father was away, preaching in Milwaukee. The Klansmen shouted threats and warnings at her that we had better get out of town because ‘the good Christian white people’ were not going to stand for my father’s ’spreading trouble’ among the ‘good’ Negroes of Omaha with the ‘back to Africa’ preachings of Marcus Garvey.”
To Write As If Already Dead (2021)
There comes a moment when you are finally given some space and quiet, maybe an hour, possibly two, the occasional birdsong by an open window, and you must go to that other room and return to the problem you’ve been attempting to unravel.
In this genre-bending work (part-biography, part memoir, part novel), Zambreno begins by describing an experience all people—especially writers—are familiar with. I was so impressed I selected it for a Smerconish.com post on “Twenty-One of the Best Opening Lines of 2021.“
For me, that final phrase—the problem you’ve been attempting to unravel—has a haunting, unforgettable quality, causing me to reflect, “Yes, I’m familiar with that kind of problem.”
Writing Places: The Life Journey of a Writer and Teacher (2009)
Of all the places where I’ve done my writing, none was more unusual than the office that had a fire pole.
Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir (Rev. ed. 1998)
This is the age of the memoir. Never have personal narratives gushed so profusely from the American soil as in the closing decade of the twentieth century. Everyone has a story to tell, and everyone is telling it.