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.“
Murder & Madness: The Secret Life of Jack the Ripper (1992)
The murders and mutilations of five prostitutes in Whitechapel, in the East End of London, began on the morning of Friday, August 31, 1888.
Abrahamsen continued: “Mary Anne Nichols was found dead, lying in a back street named Buck’s Row. Murders connected to theft or rape were common occurrences, and under ordinary circumstances the death of a prostitute would cause no more than a momentary ripple in the dark pool that was the East End. But these circumstances were not ordinary.”
Dan Abrams and David Fisher
Lincoln’s Last Trial: The Murder Case That Propelled Him to the Presidency (2018)
Mister Robert Roberts Hitt, the well-known steno man, arrived in Springfield late on the sweltering afternoon of August 28, 1859. As he stepped down onto the platform of the new station, he paused briefly and nattily patted the beads of sweat from his forehead, then vainly attempted to tug the wrinkles out of his jacket.
Abrams and Fisher continued in the first paragraph: “The Alton Express had covered the two hundred miles from Chicago in a quite acceptable nine hours. Hitt had tried with limited success to practice his shorthand on the ever-shaking rails. It had not surprised young Hitt that the carriage was far more crowded than he had previously experienced: the Peachy Quinn Harrison murder trial had attracted considerably more attention than might otherwise have been expected once it became known that Abe Lincoln was going to defend the accused killer.”
“After the Laughs,” in The New Yorker (Aug. 16, 1993)
Of the many rapid-burnout cases in American letters, one of the saddest is that of Dorothy Parker.
“The Hunger Artist,” in The New Yorker (Feb. 27, 2000)
Susan Sontag did two big things last year. She finished a novel, In America, and underwent treatment for cancer.
“How Martin Luther Changed the World,” in The New Yorker (Oct. 23, 2017)
Clang! Clang! Down the corridors of religious history we hear this sound: Martin Luther, an energetic thirty-three-year-old Augustinian friar, hammering his Ninety-five Theses to the doors of the Castle Church of Wittenburg, in Saxony, and thus, eventually, splitting the thousand-year-old Catholic Church into two churches—one loyal to the Pope in Rome, the other protesting against the Pope’s rule and soon, in fact, calling itself Protestant.
Acocella demonstrates here that a great opening line does not have to be short and punchy, it simply has to be well written. Her article was written to celebrate the five-hundredth anniversary of “Luther’s famous action,” which she quickly—and happily, I think—reminded us never actually happened.
Douglas Adams and Mark Carwardine
“Heartbeats in the Night,” in Last Chance to See (1990)
If you took the whole of Norway, scrunched it up a bit, shook out all the moose and reindeer, hurled it ten thousand miles around the world, and filled it with birds, then you’d be wasting your time, because it looks very much as if someone has already done it.
This is the spectacular opening paragraph of one of the best travel essays I’ve ever read—Adam’s account of his visit to the Fiordland region of New Zealand in the late 1980s. This is writing at the level of virtuosity, and an extremely satisfying experience for any reader, and especially connoisseurs of travel writing.
Just when you think an essay’s opening words couldn’t get much better, Adams continues in the second paragraph: “Fiordland, a vast tract of mountainous terrain that occupies the southwest corner of South Island, New Zealand, is one of the most astounding pieces of land anywhere on God’s earth, and one’s first impulse, standing on a clifftop surveying it all, is simply to burst into spontaneous applause.”
And, remarkably, it gets even better as we move into the essay’s third paragraph: “It is magnificent. It is awe-inspiring. The land is folded and twisted and broken on such a scale that it makes your brain quiver and sing in your skull just trying to comprehend what it is looking at.”
Last Chance to See is a book of travel essays written by Adams as he and zoologist Mark Carwardine traveled the world in search of such exotic, endangered species as kakapos in New Zealand, komodo dragons in Indonesia, and white rhinos in Zaire. If you’re a fan of travel books and have not yet seen this one, make every effort to rectify the unfortunate situation as soon as you can. Adams’ writing skills are on dazzling display on almost every page, and you will never again look at some of the animals in the same way (about the kakapo, for example, Adams wrote: “You want to hug it and tell it everything will be all right, although you know that it probably won’t be”).
Douglas Adams and Mark Carwardine
“Blind Panic,” in Last Chance to See (1990)
Assumptions are the things you don’t know you’re making, which is why it is so disorienting the first time you take the plug out of a wash-basin in Australia and see the water spiraling down the hole the other way around. The very laws of physics are telling you how far you are from home.
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.
Mortimer J. Adler
“How to Mark a Book,” in The Saturday Review of Literature (July 6, 1940)
You know you have to read “between the lines” to get the most out of anything. I want to persuade you to do something equally important in the course of your reading. I want to persuade you to “write between the lines.” Unless you do, you are not likely to do the most efficient kind of reading.
Prior to 1940, books were considered prize possessions, and it was uncommon for people to underline passages or scribble notes in the margins. Many, indeed, considered such actions to be a defacing of books. Adler, who was thrilled by the appearance of new, inexpensive reprint editions of classic books, directly challenged this viewpoint by writing in the second paragraph: “I contend, quite bluntly, that marking up a book is not an act of mutilation but of love.”
Mortimer J. Adler
The Angels and Us (1982)
Bodies without minds—nothing unusual about that...it would not occur to anyone to think things might be otherwise. The spectacle of bodies without minds does not have the fascination of the odd or abnormal.
Equally familiar and calling as little for special notice are minds associated with bodies in various forms of animal life, including the human. But minds without bodies—that is, indeed, an extraordinary prospect. Therein lies the fascination with angels.
Mortimer J. Adler
How to Speak, How to Listen (1983)
How do you make contact with the mind of another person?
I've got to be honest, I can't think of a better opening sentence for a book on the twin subjects of how to speak and how to listen.
Mortimer J. Adler
Ten Philosophical Mistakes (1985)
"The least initial deviation from the truth is multiplied later a thousandfold." So wrote Aristotle in the fourth century B.C.
There are the opening words of the Prologue to the book. Adler continued in the second paragraph: "Sixteen centuries later Thomas Aquinas echoed this observation. Paraphrasing it, he said in effect that little errors in the beginning lead to serious consequences in the end."
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.”
“The Beckham of the Barre,” in London’s Telegraph (Jan. 4, 2003)
Beautiful, gifted and irresistible to both men and women, Rudolf Nureyev was ballet’s first pin-up—the Beckham of the barre. He danced, lived and made love with an appetite and abandon that was both thrilling and terrifying.
It’s rare for a newspaper’s book review to contain a world-class opening paragraph, but that’s exactly what happened in Allardice’s review of Colum McCann’s 2003 biographical novel, Dancer. For those not in-the-know, the catchy Beckham of the barre phrase was an allusion to David Beckham, one of the greatest professional soccer players of all time, and a true cultural icon in Britain.
As a Man Thinketh (1903)
The aphorism, “As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he,” not only embraces the whole of a man’s being, but is so comprehensive as to reach out to every condition and circumstance of his life.
Opening a book—especially a non-fiction work—with a great quotation is a time-honored practice, and it is especially effective when the quotation updates a legendary biblical passage (Proverbs 23:7). In the opening paragraph, Allen continued with one of his most widely quoted thoughts: “ A man is literally what he thinks, his character being the complete sum of all his thoughts.“
It is not a stretch to regard Allen’s book as the father of modern self-help books, and one can see key elements of it in later works by Dale Carnegie, Napoleon Hill, Og Mandino, and other giants of the genre. It is also a small irony that the great American self-help book publishing empire all began with a small book by an English philosophical writer.
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."
“Merle Haggard: A Good ’Ol Boy Lets his Hair Hang Down,“ in Esquire (Sep. 1, 1981)
It all began rather innocently one languid afternoon in 1969. Merle Haggard and the Bakersfield bubbahs in his road band, the Strangers, were riding in their tour bus through the drab, dusty east Oklahoma flatlands when suddenly a road sign for Muskogee came into view. It was one of the band members who actually set the whole thing off when he yawned and mumbled, “Bet they don’t smoke no marijuana in Muskogee.“
Allen continued, “That one innocent line sparked a mysterious alchemy that instantly shook Haggard—whose own parents had migrated from East Oklahoma to California in 1934—and the boys out of their road-weary doldrums. Hooting, howling, they just kept coming up with line after line. And thus was born what would ultimately become Haggard’s signature song, ’Okie from Muskogee.’“
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.
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.
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.“
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.”
Stephen E. Ambrose
Crazy Horse and Custer: The Parallel Lives of Two American Warriors (2014)
This is the story of two men who died as they lived—violently.
Books about the parallel lives of famous figures have been around since the Greeks (the first was Plutarch’s Parallel Lives in the 1st c. A.D.), but few have begun with a better opening sentence. Ambrose continued in the first paragraph:
“They were both war lovers, men of aggression with a deeply rooted instinct to charge the enemy, rout him, kill him. Men of supreme courage, they were natural-born leaders in a combat crisis, the type to whom others instinctively looked for guidance and inspiration. They were always the first to charge the enemy, and the last to retreat.”
Getting What You Want (1993)
When trying to reach agreement, we always find a shorter path when we seek the truth beneath the apparent truth. Several people have helped teach me that, often not in any way they intended
These are legitimate words of wisdom—expressed eloquently, I might add—and I was delighted to discover them at the beginning of the Preface to Anderson’s book. These two sentences illustrate something I’ve often said about Great Opening Lines in non-fiction books: the best way to begin is to say something important, and to say it well.
A few pages later, in the opening sentence of Chapter One, Anderson also began nicely by employing the time-honored practice of posing a question that attempts to “frame” the matter under discussion: “Do you ever avoid saying what you want or how you feel for fear of how someone will react?”
Moving From Me to We (2012)
Writing of her secret life as a prostitute, a blogger with the pseudonym Belle de Jour had a backstory worthy of a movie script.
This is an unusual—and intriguing—way to begin a self-help book, and it turns out to be 100% true. Anderson continued: “In fact what she did was turned into a Showtime TV series. She wanted to step into a dramatically different adventure for the next chapter of her life story. She was moved to express another side of herself, and then write about it. You see, in her other life, she’s ‘a respected specialist in developmental neurotoxicology and cancer epidemiology.’”
The woman’s real name was Dr. Brooke Magnanti, a highly trained English medical professional. In 2003, under the nom de plume Belle de Jour, she began writing a blog about her secret life as a sex worker. After receiving the Guardian’s Best Blog Award, de Jour’s profile increased dramatically, and she went on to write a number of bestselling books, some with terrific opening lines (see them here).
Mutuality Matters (2018)
After winning several music awards one year, Carlos Santana was asked by an eager young entertainment reporter how he felt about “this belated recognition after so many years as a professional musician.” In an apparent non sequitur, Santana smiled warmly and replied, “I am becoming the people I love,” to which the reporter responded, “But what does that have to do with these awards?”
After piquing our curiosity in her opening words, Anderson continued: “Santana explained, ‘To a greater degree over time, these friends, musical or not, seem to infuse my music and my life. And my friends say the same has happened to them.’ Then looking gently at the reporter, Santana asked, ‘Have you had that gratifying feeling of mutuality?’”
“Box Scores,“ in The Summer Game (1972)
Today the Times reported the arrival of the first pitchers and catchers at the spring training camps, and the morning was abruptly brightened, as if by the delivery of a seed catalogue.
Angell, often called “The poet laureate of sportswriters” (although he does not like the designation), continued: “The view from my city window still yields only frozen tundras of trash, but now spring is guaranteed and one of my favorite urban flowers, the baseball box score, will burgeon and flourish through the warm, languid, information-packed weeks and months just ahead.“
“Swingtime,“ in The New Yorker (Aug. 2, 1993)
Coming up out of the dugout before his next at-bat in a big game, Reggie Jackson was always accompanied by an invisible entourage: he was the heavyweight champion headed down the aisle for another title defense.
Angell continued: “The batter’s box was his prize ring, and once he’d dug in there—with those gauntleted arms, the squashed-down helmet, the shades and the shoulders—all hearts beat faster.“
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.”
"Men, Women, Sex and Darwin," in The New York Times Magazine (Feb. 21, 1999)
Life is short but jingles are forever: none more so, it seems, than the familiar ditty, variously attributed to William James, Ogden Nash and Dorothy Parker: "Hoggamus, higgamus,/Men are polygamous,/Higgamus, hoggamus,/Women monogamous."
"Why We're So Nice: We're Wired to Cooperate," in The New York Times (July 23, 2002)
What feels as good as chocolate on the tongue or money in the bank but won't make you fat or risk a subpoena from the Securities and Exchange Commission?
Angier continued: "Hard as it may be to believe in these days of infectious greed and sabers unsheathed, scientists have discovered that the small brave act of cooperating with another person, of choosing trust over cynicism, generosity over selfishness, makes the brain light up with quiet joy."
Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine (2017)
The warning signs were ample. By the early spring of 1932, the peasants of Ukraine were beginning to starve.
Applebaum continued: “Secret police reports and letters from the grain-growing districts all across the Soviet Union—The North Caucases, the Volga region, western Siberia—spoke of children swollen with hunger; of families eating grass and acorns; of peasants fleeing their homes in search of food. In March a medical commission found corpses lying on the street in a village near Odessa. No one was strong enough to bury them.“
Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956 (2012)
Among many other things, the year 1945 marked one of the most extraordinary population movements in European history.
Applebaum continued: "All across the continent, hundreds of thousands of people were returning from Soviet exile, from forced labor in Germany, from concentration camps and prisoner-of-war camps, from hiding places and refuges of all kinds. The roads, footpaths, tracks, and trains were crammed full of ragged, hungry, dirty people."
Some Buddhists might say that to write a biography of Siddhatta Gotama [sic] is a very un-Buddhist thing to do.
Armstrong continued: “In their view, no authority should be revered, however august; Buddhists must motivate themselves and rely on their own efforts, not on a charismatic leader. One ninth-century master even went so far as to command his disciples, ’If you meet the Buddha, kill the Buddha!’ to emphasize the importance of maintaining this independence from authority figures. Gotama might not have approved of the violence of this sentiment, but throughout his life he fought against the cult of personality, and endlessly deflected the attention of his disciples from himself.“
The Bible: A Biography (2006)
Human beings are meaning-seeking creatures. Unless we find some pattern or significance in our lives, we fall very easily into despair.
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.
A History of God (1993)
In the beginning, human beings created a God who was the First Cause of all things and Ruler of heaven and earth.
Armstrong begins by memorably reversing the conventional “In the beginning” narrative of the Old Testament—and then goes on to suggest that a primitive monotheism actually preceded the well-known polytheism of the ancient Egyptians and Greeks. She continued: “He was not represented by images and had no temple or priests in his service. He was too exalted for an inadequate human cult. Gradually he faded from the consciousness of his people. He had become so remote that they decided that they did not want him anymore. Eventually he was said to have disappeared.”
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.
“Stranger Than Fiction,“ in The New York Times (June 23, 1991)
“The moment one begins to investigate the truth of the simplest facts which one has accepted as true,“ wrote Leonard Woolf in his autobiography, “it is as though one had stepped off a firm narrow path into a bog or quicksand—every step one takes one sinks deeper into the bog of uncertainty.“
Atlas begins his powerful essay on the elusive nature of truth by doing what many writers in history have done: offering a quotable quotation from a familiar or famous figure. Atlas continued in the first paragraph: “Trying to establish the age of Hogarth House, where he and Virginia Woolf once lived, Woolf unearthed such a tangle of contradictory evidence that he was left marveling at ’the impossibility of telling the truth, the extraordinary difficulty of unearthing facts.’“
W. H. Auden
"Shakespeare's Sonnets" (1964), in Forewords and Afterwards (1973)
Probably, more nonsense has been talked and written, more intellectual and emotional energy expended in vain, on the sonnets of Shakespeare than on any other literary work in the world.
W. H. Auden
"Werther and Novella" (1971), in Forewords and Afterwards (1973)
So far as I know, Goethe was the first writer or artist to become a Public Celebrity.
W. H. Auden
Introduction to Edgar Allan Poe: Selected Prose, Poetry, and Eureka (1950)
What every author hopes to receive from posterity—a hope usually disappointed—is justice.
Auden continued: “Next to oblivion, the two fates which he most fears are becoming the name attached to two or three famous pieces while the rest of his work is unread and becoming the idol of a small circle which reads every word he wrote with the same uncritical reverence.“
W. H. Auden
"A Marriage of True Minds" (1961)," in Forewords and Afterwards (1973)
The mating of minds is, surely, quite as fascinating a relationship as the mating of the sexes, yet how little attention novelists have paid to it.
W. H. Auden
“One of the Family,“ in The New Yorker (Oct. 23, 1965)
I never enjoy having to find fault with a book, and when the author is someone I have met and like, I hate it.
Auden was referring to David Cecil’s 1964 biography of Max Beerbohm.
Burning Boy: The Life and Work of Stephen Crane (2021)
Born on the Day of the Dead and dead five months before his twenty-ninth birthday, Stephen Crane lived five months and five days into the twentieth century, undone by tuberculosis before he had a chance to drive an automobile or see an airplane, to watch a film projected on a large screen or listen to a radio, a figure from the horse-and-buggy world who missed out on the future that was awaiting his peers, not just the construction of those miraculous machines and inventions but the horrors of the age as well, including the destruction of tens of millions of lives in two wars.
When one brilliant writer chooses to write a biography of another brilliant writer, readers can legitimately expect an extraordinary work, and Burning Boy is just that. The book also begins with a tour de force of an opening sentence—all 104 words of it. For reasons I’m sure you will understand, this was one of my choices for a Smerconish.com post on “Twenty-One of the Best Opening Lines of 2021.“
A bit later in the book, Auster also captured Crane’s pivotal role in American letters: “Crane’s work, which shunned the traditions of nearly everything that had come before him, was so radical for its time that he can be regarded now as the first American modernist, the man most responsible for changing the way we see the world through the lens of the written word.”
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.
Language, Truth, and Logic (1936)
The traditional disputes of philosophers are, for the most part, as unwarranted as they are unfruitful.
In a 2014 Independent article, writer John Rentoul revealed that the legendary artist Man Ray had nominated this opening line for consideration as one of history’s best first sentences from non-fiction works.
“Of Revenge,” in Essays (1625)
Revenge is a kind of wild justice, which the more man’s nature runs to, the more ought law to weed it out.
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.“
What’s It All About? Philosophy and the Meaning of Life (2005)
“You’re T. S. Eliot,” said a taxi driver to the famous poet as he stepped into his cab. Eliot asked him how he knew. “Ah, I’ve got an eye for a celebrity,” he replied. “Only the other evening I picked up Bertrand Russell, and I said to him, ‘Well, Lord Russell, what’s it all about?’ And do you know he couldn’t tell me.’”
The Edge of Reason: A Rational Skeptic in an Irrational World (2016)
We have lost our reason, and our loss is no accident.
Baggini, a professor of philosophy at the University of Kent and author of more than twenty books of philosophy aimed at a general audience, continued: “Gradually, the contemporary West has become more and more dismissive of the power of reason. Caring for it less, we often find we have carelessly left it behind. When we do try to use it, we’re not quite sure how to do so. We have become suspicious of its claims, unwilling to believe that it can lead us to anything worthy of the name ’truth.’“
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.“
Dave Barry Talks Back (1991) (1991)
I am always getting letters from people who want my job.
“Dave,” they start out. They always call me Dave.
“Dave,” they say, “I want your job, because my current job requires me to be a responsible person doing productive work, whereas your job requires you mainly to think up booger jokes.
In a 2005 Slate article (titled “Elegy for the Humorist”), Bryan Curtis wrote: “Barry writes some of the jazziest opening lines in the business.” He certainly demonstrates that in these opening words, and he continued the riff this way: “This kind of thoughtless remark really gets my dander up. Because although the reading public sees only the end product of my work, the truth is that I often spend many hours researching a particular topic before I make booger jokes about it.”
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.”
**A Condition of Doubt: The Meanings of Hypochondria (2012)
Hypochondriacs have two significant beliefs; that their bodies contain something that will kill them, and that, if they could only read their bodies closely enough, they should be able to find that lurking threat before it is too late.
Belling continued: “If a doctor examines such a patient and announces that no evidence of disease can be found, the patient (who would love to be able to believe the doctor) is not finally convinced. The patient concludes that this particular doctor is just not good enough to have found the horror that must—surely?—be hidden somewhere within.”
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.“
Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present (2020)
On November 4, 2008, when many world leaders waited to hear the results of the American presidential election, Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi was in his Roman residence preparing to have sex.
This is a highly unusual way for a serious scholar to begin a serious book about modern autocratic leaders, but I think you will agree that it is also highly effective in achieving two of the goals of all Great Opening Lines: (1) to “frame” the story about to be told, and (2) to get the reader to continue reading.
The book continues with a brief discussion between Berlusconi and one of his many mistresses, Patrizia D’Addario, about which bed they will be using that night. He replies that it will be a bed he received as a gift from his strongman pal, Vladimir Putin. Ben-Ghiat, a history professor at New York University, went on to explain: “Berlusconi’s ‘Putin bed’ symbolized the intimacy of a friendship sustained by the leaders’ common drive to exercise as much personal power as their political systems allowed and to appear to the world—and each other—as virile.”
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.
The Rose’s Kiss: A Natural History of Flowers (1999)
Fresh flowers accompany us through some of the most emotional moments of our lives.
Bernhardt, a trained botanist and popular science writer, continued in the first paragraph: “High school students give and receive corsages before the prom. Courtships, weddings, and anniversaries must have their bouquets. Mourners hope that floral tributes and wreaths will lend grace to a funeral and help ease the immediate burden of grief.”
Michael R. Beschloss
Presidents of War: The Epic Story, from 1807 to Modern Times (2018)
And so it had come to this. Horrified as he stood on a height above the Potomac, James Madison, the fourth President of the United States—and now, some wondered, the last?—watched his beloved Washington City as it seemed to vanish into a crimson-orange swirl of fire.
Beschloss continued: “It was after midnight on Wednesday, August 24, 1814, and Madison was a fugitive, escaping the Capital—first by ferry, then by galloping horse—for the dark wilderness of Virginia.“
In the book’s second paragraph, Beschloss continued the gripping narrative: “Still wearing formal knee breeches and buckled shoes, the sixty-three-year-old Madison knew that the invader-incendiaries from Great Britain were out for his capture and arrest, which might force him to be hanged. But he kept dismounting his horse to stare, with those intelligent blue eyes that ‘sprinkled like stars,’ at the inferno across the Potomac. He could not help himself.”
T. H. Huxley: Scientist, Humanist and Educator (1959)
On the 4th of May 1825, when Thomas Henry Huxley was born in the sleepy old village of Ealing, English society still had its roots deep in the eighteenth century. By the 29th June 1895, when he died at the newly developing seaside resort of Eastbourne, it was already feeling its way into the twentieth.
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.“
Write It Right: A Little Blacklist of Literary Faults (1909)
The author’s main purpose in this book is to teach precision in writing; and of good writing (which, essentially, is clear thinking made visible) precision is the point of capital concern.
I believe this is the first appearance in print of the idea that clear writing is clear thinking. Bierce continued on the subject of precision: “It is attained by choice of the word that accurately and adequately expresses what the writer has in mind, and by exclusion of that which either denotes or connotes something else.”
“Getting to the ‘Click’: Teaching the MFA at Bennington,” in Los Angeles Review of Books (Oct. 12, 2021)
Teaching writing, unlike most other kinds of teaching, is an intervention, closer to therapy than to any transmissible instruction.
The Heroine’s Bookshelf: Life Lessons, from Jane Austen to Laura Ingalls Wilder (2010)
In times of struggle, there are as many reasons not to read as there are to breathe. Don’t you have better things to do? Reading, let alone rereading, is the terrain of milquetoasts and mopey spinsters. At life’s ugliest junctures, the very act of opening a book can smack of cowardly escapism. Who chooses to read when there’s work to be done?
In the Introduction to her debut book, Blakemore begins by advancing an argument that she goes on to completely demolish: “Call me a coward if you will, but when the line between duty and sanity blurs, you can usually find me curled up with a battered book, reading as if my mental health depended on it. And it does, for inside the books I love I find good, respite, escape and perspective. I find something else, too: heroines and authors, hundreds of them, women whose real and fictitious lives have covered the terrain I too must tread.”
Continuing on the theme of Great Opening Lines, you will also enjoy the first sentence of Chapter One of Blakemore’s book—a magnificent tweak of Jane Austen’s classic opening: “It is a truth universally acknowledged that going back on a proposal of marriage isn’t the best way to start the day.”
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.“
Roy Blount, Jr.
“Another Round?“ in Garden & Gun (Feb./March 2017)
“Whereya from?“ asks an intense-looking complete stranger sitting next to me in O’Hare airport as we experience quite possibly the only thing we will ever have in common: a weather delay.
Blount continued: “I dread being asked this question by a complete stranger, because my response, if truthful and factual, will be complex, and complete strangers who are quick to ask this question, cold, do not have time for complexity.“
Roy Blount, Jr.
“Yea, Mr. Mays,” in Sports Illustrated (July 27, 1970)
In 1951 Marilyn Monroe was a starlet, Bobby Orr a baby, Hubert Humphrey a comer—and Willie Mays very nearly the same phenomenon he was last week.
Mays, in his 20th baseball season, was approaching a record reached by only sixteen previous players. Blount continued: “In harsh heat and foggy chill, and under the intense scrutiny such a situation demanded, he chased after his 3,000th hit—and seemed to blossom rather than wilt under the pressure.”
Roy Blount, Jr.
”Reading and Nothingness: Of Proust in the Summer Sun,” in The New York Times (June 2, 1985)
A feeling seems to have arisen that summer is the time for light reading. I don’t know where anyone got that idea.
Blount continued: “The truth about summer is this. There are an enormous number of hours in it—slow hours—and yet, before you know it, somehow it is over. So all you have to do is to start reading Heidegger, say, on the first day of summer. One day you look up and both summer and Heidegger are done.“
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.”
Warren A. Boyd, Jr.
“The Army Mule is Back,” in Supthai Sentinel (August 23, 1968)
The nickel phone call and basketball’s two-hand set shot may never make a comeback, but the Army mule has returned.
Boyd’s clever nostalgic lead began a story about how the U.S. Army and Royal Thai Army joined forces to train 140 mules to provide support to troops in remote areas of Thailand during the Vietnam conflict.
Utopia for Realists (2016)
Let’s start with a little history lesson: In the past everything was worse.
I have a weakness for books that begin with a Grand Declaration, whether simply stated, like this one, or eloquently phrased, like the opening line of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, or axiomatically expressed, like the first sentence of C. Northcote Parkinson’s Parkinson’s Law.
In Bregman’s second paragraph, he continued: “For roughly 99% of the world’s history, 99% of humanity was poor, hungry, dirty, afraid, stupid, sick and ugly.”
Humankind: A Hopeful History (2019)
This is a book about a radical idea.
An idea that’s long been known to make rulers nervous. An idea denied by religions and ideologies, ignored by the news media and erased from the annals of world history.
At the same time, it’s an idea that’s legitimized by virtually every branch of science. One that’s corroborated by evolution and confirmed by everyday life. An ideal so intrinsic to human nature that it goes unnoticed and gets overlooked.
If only we had the courage to take it more seriously, it’s an idea that might just start a revolution. Turn society on its head. Because once you grasp what it really means, it’s nothing less than a mind-bending drug that ensures you’ll never look at the world the same again.
So what is this radical idea?
That most people, deep down, are pretty decent.
Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin
The Physiology of Taste (1825)
The universe would be nothing were it not for life, and all that lives must be fed.
Brillat-Savarin—one of the most influential figures in culinary history—began his classic work with a series of twenty aphorisms, and this is the first one. Some of the sayings went on to achieve legendary status, most notably “Tell me what kind of food you eat, and I will tell you what kind of man you are.”
Brillat-Savarin’s observations have been translated in various ways, but these come from the first English language version of the book, translated by Fayette Robinson and published in 1854.
“The Real Life of a Sugar Daddy,” in Gentleman’s Quarterly (August 27, 2015)
Thurston Von Moneybags (not his real name) was scammed once by a girl in Houston.
When Jacob Feldman, editor of The Sunday Long Read, was asked by editors of The Electric Typewriter to select “10 of his all-time favorite articles,” he included this one, adding about the piece: “To put it simply, this was the best written story of 2015, starting with the first line.”
In the opening paragraph of her article, Brodesser-Akner continued: “He had arranged to meet her so that he might size her up and determine whether he wanted to give her a monthly stipend in exchange for regular sex and sometimes maybe dinner. In other words: Was there chemistry? Was she blonde and blue-eyed, the way he liked them? Was she thin “but not anorexic, a shapely body, you know?” Could he talk to her? That was very important. It was a little important. It wasn’t that important. Anyway, she asked for money up front, and he sent her $800. She didn’t show to the meet, and that’s the last time Thurston Von Moneybags ever got hustled again. Now he meets the girls for lunch before he offers them an ahem arrangement, and he is very clear. He doesn’t give them money until their second date, when they’re in the bedroom.”
Feldman went on to add about the article: “It only gets better from [the first line]. In investigating the love-for-money economy budding on sites like SeekingArrangement, Taffy Brodesser-Akner not only entertained us, she made us think about what it means to ‘get what you want in this world.’”
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.)“
The Road to Character (2015)
Recently I’ve been thinking about the difference between the resume virtues and the eulogy virtues.
Brooks continued: “The resume virtues are the ones you list on your resume, the skills that you bring to the job market and that contribute to external success. The eulogy virtues are deeper. They’re the virtues that get talked about at your funeral, the ones that exist at the core of your being—whether you are kind, brave, honest or faithful; what kind of relationships you formed.“
Rita Mae Brown
Starting From Scratch: A Different Kind of Writer’s Manual (1988)
Writers will happen in the best of families. No one is quite sure why.
Brown’s helpful—and entertaining—guide for writers begins with a clever tweak of an old English proverb: “Accidents will happen in the best regulated families” (Charles Dickens put a version of the saying into the mouth of Mrs. Micawber in David Copperfield). The American humorist Oliver Herford also piggybacked on the saying, writing in The Entirely New Cynic’s Calendar (1905): “Actresses will happen in the best regulated families.”
"Miss Lachrymose," in London Review of Books (Sep., 2008)
In her very first stage appearance Doris Day wet herself.
This was the first line of Brown's review of David Kaufman's 2008 biography, Doris Day: The Untold Story of the Girl Next Door. Brown went on: "It was in her hometown of Cincinnati in 1927. She was five years old and not yet Doris Day. She was still Doris Kappelhoff and the red satin pants that her mother, Alma, had sewn for the kindergarten pageant were quick to betray her. It's tempting to see this as a primal scene for Doris Day, the moment from which her longheld stage fright sprang."
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.”
The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America (1989)
I come from Des Moines. Somebody had to.
Bryson begins his collection of travel essays with a snappy one-liner that would make a stand-up comic proud. In a 2022 ShortList.com post, writer Marc Chacksfield ranked this Number Three on his list of thirty of “The Funniest-Ever Opening Lines.”
In the essay, Bryson continued: “When you come from Des Moines you either accept the fact without question and settle down with a local girl named Bobbi and get a job at the Firestone factory and live there forever and ever, or you spend your adolescence moaning at length about what a dump it is and how you can’t wait to get out, and then you settle down with a local girl named Bobbi and get a job at the Firestone factory and live there forever and ever.”
The Mother Tongue: English and How it Got that Way (1990)
More than 300 million people in the world speak English and the rest, it sometimes seems, try to. It would be charitable to say the results are sometimes mixed.
Bryson continued in the book’s second paragraph: “Consider this hearty announcement in a Yugoslavian hotel: ‘The flattening of underwear with pleasure is the job of the chambermaid. Turn to her straightaway.’ Or this warning to motorists in Tokyo: ‘When a passenger of the foot heave in sight, tootle the horn. Trumpet at him melodiously at first, but if he still obstacles your passage, then tootle him with vigor.’”
When many foreigners attempt to write in English, Bryson wrote that they often aren’t hampered in the least by their ignorance of the language—and he expressed his opinion in a most delightful way: “It would appear that one of the beauties of the English language is that with even the most tenuous grasp you can speak volumes if you show enough enthusiasm—a willingness to tootle with vigor, as it were.”
A Short History of Nearly Everything (2003)
Welcome. And congratulations. I am delighted you could make it. Getting here wasn’t easy, I know. In fact, I suspect it was a little tougher than you think.
Bryson continued in the second paragraph: “To begin with, for you to be here now trillions of drifting atoms had somehow to assemble in an intricate and intriguingly obliging manner to create you. It’s an arrangement so specialized and particular that it has never been tried before and will only exist this once. For the next many years (we hope) these tiny particles will uncomplainingly engage in all the billions of deft, cooperative efforts necessary to keep you intact and let you experience the supremely agreeable but generally underappreciated state known as existence.”
The Body: A Guide for Occupants (2019)
Long ago, when I was a junior high school student in Iowa, I remember being taught by a biology teacher that all the chemicals that make up a human body could be bought in a hardware store for $5.00 or something like that.
In his opening paragraph, Bryson continued: “I don’t recall the actual sum. It might have been $2.97 or $13.50, but it was certainly very little even in 1960s money, and I remember being astounded at the thought that you could make a slouched and pimply thing such as me for practically nothing.”
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."
Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders (1974, with Curt Gentry)
Saturday, August 9, 1969
It was so quiet, one of the killers would later say, you could almost hear the sound of ice rattling in cocktail shakers in the homes way down the canyon.
These are the dramatic opening words to the bestselling true-crime book of all time, with over seven million copies sold. In the second paragraph, Bugliosi—who was the Los Angeles Deputy District Attorney who successfully prosecuted Mason and his “family” members—continued:
“The canyons above Hollywood and Beverly Hills play tricks with sounds. A noise clearly audible a mile away may be indistinguishable at a few hundred feet.”
A book’s opening words can have multiple purposes, but one of the most common is to “establish an atmosphere”—and few non-fiction books can rival Helter Skelter when it comes to opening atmospherics. After describing the three-day heat wave that preceded the murders of seven people, including actress Sharon Tate, who was eight-months pregnant with husband Roman Polanski’s child. Bugliosi capped off his opening remarks with three simple but haunting sentences:
“All things considered, it’s surprising that more people didn’t hear something.
“But then it was late, just after midnight, and 10050 Cielo Drive was secluded.
“Being secluded, it was also vulnerable.”
Helter Skelter was an immediate success, jumping to the top of The New York Times Best Seller list and winning the 1975 Edgar Award for the best true-crime book of the year.
Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals (2021)
The average human lifespan is absurdly, terrifyingly, insultingly short.
Some opening lines are like a whack on the side of the head, and Burkeman does his best here to grab—or better, to arrest—the reader’s attention.
In the opening paragraph, he continued: “Here’s one way of putting things in perspective: the first modern humans appeared on the plains of Africa at least 200,000 years ago, and scientists estimate that life, in some form, will persist for another 1.5 billion years or more, until the intensifying heat of the sun condemns the last organism to death. But you? Assuming you live to be eighty, you’ll have had about four thousand weeks.”
The idea about whacking readers with an opening sentence was first advanced by H. G. Wells in an 1898 essay on the subject of writing essays (see the Wells entry in the NON-FICTION page).
An American Marriage: The Untold Story of Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd (2021)
Abraham Lincoln was apparently one of those men who regard “connubial bliss” as an oxymoron.
In the book’s opening paragraph, Burlingame—described by Time magazine as “a towering figure in Lincoln scholarship”—continued with this revealing anecdote: “During the Civil War, he pardoned a Union soldier who had deserted to return home and wed his sweetheart, who reportedly had been flirting with another swain in his absence. As the president signed the necessary document sparing the miscreant’s life, he said: ‘I want to punish the young man—probably in less than a year he will wish I had withheld the pardon.’” This was one of my choices for a Smerconish.com post on “Twenty-One of the Best Opening Lines of 2021.“
In his book, Burlingame attempted to set the historical record straight by telling the unvarnished truth about Lincoln’s notoriously unhappy marriage. On top of the countless monumental problems the 16th U.S. President wrestled with, Burlingame wrote that “he had to cohabit the White House with a psychologically unbalanced woman whose indiscrete and abusive behavior taxed his legendary patience and forbearance to the limit.”
Lincoln and the Civil War (2011)
If the legendary oddsmaker Jimmy the Greek had been alive when the Civil War began, he would probably have given the South a better-than-even chance of winning.
In the opening paragraph, Burlingame continued: “As historian William Hanchett has cogently argued, ‘Contrary to the conventional assumption, the North, not the South, was the underdog in the Civil War.’”
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 Gifts of the Jews (1998)
The Jews started it all—and by “it” I mean so many of the things we care about, the underlying values that make us all, Jew and gentile, believer and atheist, tick.
Cahill, whose book was subtitled How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels, continued: “Without the Jews, we would see the world through different eyes, hear with different ears, even feel with different feelings.“
How the Irish Saved Civilization (1995)
The word Irish is seldom coupled with the word civilization.
Cahill continued: “When we think of peoples as civilized or civilizing, the Egyptians and the Greeks, the Italians and the French, The Chinese and the Jews may all come to mind. The Irish are wild, feckless, and charming, or morose, repressed, and corrupt, but not especially civilized.“
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.”
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.“
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 Myth of Sisyphus” (1942), in The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays (1955)
The gods had condemned Sisyphus to ceaselessly rolling a rock up to the top of a mountain, whence the stone would fall back of its own weight. They had thought with some reason that there is no more dreadful punishment than this futile and hopeless labor.
“An Absurd Reasoning,“ in The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays (1955)
There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.
These are the powerful opening words of the first essay in the collection. Camus continued: “Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest—whether or not the world has three dimensions, whether the mind has nine or twelve categories—comes afterwards.“
The 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.”
Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff…and It’s All Small Stuff (1997)
Whenever we’re dealing with bad news, a difficult person, or a disappointment of some kind, most of us get into certain habits, ways of reacting to life—particularly adversity—that don’t serve us very well.
Carlson’s opening salvo couldn’t be much simpler—when things go bad, people often do things to make matters worse—and as soon as book was published, the words struck a major chord with readers. The book remained on The New York Times Best Seller list for 101 weeks, spawned a host of similarly-tiled spinoffs (for moms, dads, teens, and others), and made Carlson one of the era’s most popular self-help writers.
In 2006, after the 45-year-old Carlson died unexpectedly of a heart attack, his former literary agent Patti Breitman said of him: “He preached what the Buddha preached, but without the preaching.”
Robert A. Caro
Master of the Senate [Book 3 of The Years of Lyndon Johnson] (2002)
The room on the first floor of the Barbour County Courthouse in the little town of Eufaula, Alabama, was normally the County Clerk’s Office, but after it had closed for the day on August 2, 1957, it was being used by the county’s Board of Registrars, the body that registered citizens so they could vote in elections—not that the Board was going to register any of the three persons who were applying that day, for the skin of these applicants was black.
GUEST COMMENTARY from Jeff Jacoby, American journalist and Boston Globe Op-Ed columnist: “I nominate this opening line from Caro’s Master of the Senate (2002), the third volume in his biography of Lyndon Johnson, and to my mind the best of them so far. The very first sentence establishes a tone of moral seriousness and gripping narrative power. Eufaula, Alabama is far removed from LBJ’s native Texas, and even farther from the U.S. Senate chamber where he became such an influential national figure. But Caro’s first line aptly foreshadows the immense struggle over black civil rights that would be the backdrop to Johnson’s rise to power. With four volumes in his “Years of Lyndon Johnson” series now published, Caro is only up to 1964—and his legions of fans are hoping that he lives long enough to get through Volume 5.”
The Sea Around Us (1951)
Beginnings are apt to be shadowy, and so it is with the beginnings of that great mother of life, the sea.
A relatively unknown marine biologist at the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries, Carson became a major voice for conservation as a result of The Sea Around Us. The book, which remained on The New York Times Best Seller list for 86 weeks, also won the 1952 National Book Award for Nonfiction.
Carson continued: “Many people have debated how and when the earth got its ocean, and it is not surprising that their explanations do not always agree. For the plain and inescapable truth is that no one was there to see, and in the absence of eyewitness accounts there is bound to be a certain amount of disagreement.“
“Introduction,” to Expletives Deleted: Selected Writing (1992)
I am known in my circle as notoriously foul-mouthed. It’s a familiar paradox—the soft-spoken, middle-aged English gentlewoman who swears like a trooper when roused.
A candid bit of self-disclosure is always a good way to begin a work of non-fiction—and Carter does it very nicely in the Introduction to a collection of her book reviews. She continued:
“I blame my father, who was neither English nor a gentleman but Scottish and a journalist, who bequeathed me bad language and a taste for the print, so that his daughter, for the last fifteen-odd years, has been writing book reviews and then conscientiously blue-pencilling out her first guy reactions—‘bloody awful’, ‘fuckingdire’—in order to give a more balanced and objective overview.”
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.
Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee (2019)
Enough water, like enough time, can make anything disappear.
This is an elegant opening line for one of the best non-fiction books of 2020. In a review in Southern Living, Caroline Rogers wrote: “Furious Hours is a compelling hybrid of a novel, at once a true-crime thriller, courtroom drama, and miniature biography of Harper Lee.” Cep continued: “A hundred years ago, in the place presently occupied by the largest lake in Alabama, there was a region of hills and hollers and hardscrabble communities with a pretty little river running through it.”
“Edward Gorey’s Toys,” in The New Yorker (July 12, 2021)
Killing children is generally frowned upon, but Edward Gorey did it all the time.
It’s rare for a short piece about an upcoming art exhibition to have a great opening line, but New Yorker staff writer Cep convincingly demonstrates it can be done. In her brief article about two exhibitions at the Edward Gorey House in Yarmouth Port, Massachusetts, Cep continued: “He squashed them with trains, fed them to bears, poisoned them with lye, forced them to swallow tacks, watched them waste away, and burned them in fires; on his watch, they died of everything from fits to flying into bits.”
“Kindred Spirits,” in The New Yorker (May 31, 2021)
It’s a good time to be dead—at least, if you want to keep in touch with the living.
Cep continued: “Almost a third of Americans say they have communicated with someone who has died, and they collectively spend more than two billion dollars a year for psychic services on platforms old and new. Facebook, Tik Tok, television: whatever the medium, there’s a medium.“ This was one of my choices for a Smerconish.com post on “Twenty-One of the Best Opening Lines of 2021.“
Try and Stop Me (1944)
I have always had a hitherto useless knack for remembering hundreds of unrelated anecdotes about unrelated people. In the minds of some this has constituted me a “raconteur.”
Cerf continued: “In the mind of my wife, who has had to listen to the same yarns a hundred times, it has inspired justifiable thoughts of mayhem.”
The Laugh’s on Me (1959)
There now are more than 175 million people, census takers tell us, in this blessed land of ours, and as I write this probably fifty million of them are telling a story. Just how well they are telling it is another matter.
Cerf continued: “Nobody is a ‘born’ storyteller. The art of squeezing the ultimate drop of laughter from a droll tale must—and can—be learned.”
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.”
Charles Chaplin, Jr.
My Father, Charlie Chaplin (1960; with N. And M. Rau)
There was always the scream I heard, the scream that seemed to be coming from someone else, the scream at something whose face I could never see but whose malignant presence I could feel—scream after scream in the dark, the utter loneliness.
This powerful opening line reads more like an autobiography of a son than a biography of the father—and that simple fact makes us want to read on. The author continued: “And then suddenly there was the light. There were people caressing me, putting cold compresses on my head, for I was almost rigid in my terror.”
Chaplain goes on to list the people who were around to comfort him during his night terrors: “My grandmother, my great-grandmother, my mother, and sometimes even my great-grandfather.” Notably missing from the list—it is quite apparent—is his father.
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.”
The Warburgs: The Twentieth-Century Odyssey of a Remarkable German Family (1993)
The German Jews were a people shipwrecked by history.
This is a compelling opening line in its own right, and the beginning of an equally compelling first paragraph. Describing German Jews just prior to the Nazis, Chernow continued: “Arguably the most productive group of Jews in history, they were also, in many ways, the least typical. Few groups have been so admired for their achievements or so maligned for their attitudes. Persecuted by other Germans as too Jewish, they were often scorned by other Jews as too German. Their existence rested on a tenuous illusion of acceptance until the Nazis came along and tore the dream to tatters. People still puzzle over why these bright, industrious people were so blind to a mortal threat to their existence. In frustration, some Jews deny them the dignity of their tragedy.”
About this oft-mentioned blindness to an existential threat, Chernow wrote that a major purpose of the book was his attempt to “clarify the mystery” through an examination of one of history’s most illustrious Jewish families, the Warburgs.
Washington: A Life (2010)
In March 1793 Gilbert Stuart crossed the North Atlantic for the express purpose of painting President George Washington, the supreme prize of the age for any ambitious portrait artist.
It’s unusual for a biography begin by focusing on a person other than the subject of the work, but Chernow’s selection of Stuart—the painter whose legendary Washington portrait has been immortalized on American one-dollar bills—turns out to be inspired.
By describing Stuart’s view of Washington as a portrait subject—as well as how Washington interacted with his portraitist—Chernow found a way of shining a new light on a U.S. President he described as “the most famously elusive figure in American history, a remote, enigmatic personage more revered than truly loved.” Chernow’s book went on to win the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Biography.
Even as other Civil War generals rushed to publish their memoirs, flaunting their conquests and cashing in on their celebrity, Ulysses S. Grant refused to trumpet his accomplishments in print.
When Chernow was asked by Brian Lamb in a C-Span interview why he chose to start his book with these words, the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian replied: “When I started working on the book...I ran into a friend who said to me, ‘Ron, how can you write a great biography of someone who wrote a great autobiography?’ And that really kind of stopped me dead in my tracks. I thought about that comment for many days. And then I realized that it actually helped to define the direction of my book because I realized that what my job was as a biographer was to zero in on the silences and the evasions in Grant’s memoirs.” And, a moment later, he added, “I ended up…zeroing in on those things that Grant did not want to talk about, particularly his lifelong struggle with alcoholism and his repeated business failures.”
In the opening paragraph, Chernow followed up on his opening words this way: “The son of an incorrigible small-town braggart, the unassuming general and two-time president harbored a lifelong aversion to boasting. He was content to march to his grave in dignified silence, letting his extraordinary wartime record speak for itself.
In a 2017 New York Times interview, Chernow was asked which of his books was his favorite. He replied that he’d always avoided the question in the past, but no more: “Grant is my favorite book,“ he announced, “and not just because it’s wall-to-wall drama. Some quality of pathos in this story of a defeated man, ground down by failure, who then soars into the firmament got under my skin and haunted me all the way through the telling.“
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.
E. M. Cioran
“Some Blind Alleys: A Letter,” in Phillip Lopate, ed., The Art of the Personal Essay (1994)
Every form of talent involves a certain shamelessness.
Arthur C. Clarke
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Behind every man now alive stand thirty ghosts, for that is the ratio by which the dead outnumber the living. Since the dawn of time, roughly a hundred billion human beings have walked the planet Earth.
These are the opening words to the book’s Foreword. Clarke, who wrote the novel as a companion volume to Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film by the same title, continued: “Now this is an interesting number, for by a curious coincidence there are approximately a hundred billion stars in our local universe. So for every man who has ever lived, in this universe there shines a star.”
Chapter One of the novel actually begins this way: “The drought had lasted now for ten million years, and the reign of the terrible lizards had long since ended. Here on the Equator, in the continent which would one day be known as Africa, the battle for existence had reached a new climax of ferocity, and the victor was not yet in sight.”
“A Personal Tribute to Mothers and Role Models,” in OpEdNews.com (May 7, 2022)
It was a house of love and a safe haven where laughter was frequent, anxiety had no place, affection reigned. It was a Cape Cod bungalow with a white picket fence that made me feel warm and happy. In short, it was 1950s perfect and I wished it were mine.
In this marvelous opening paragraph, Clift leads readers down an idyllic path until, at the end, she ingeniously departs from it. Later this year, when I compile my annual list of “Twenty-Two of the Best Opening Lines of 2022,” this one will certainly be in contention.
Clift’s tribute to explored a painful theme in human life—many mothers are painfully deficient in meeting the needs of their children, and when our own falls short, we look for great mother-figures in other families. In the article, Clift, a New England journalist, writer, and political activist, continued:
“I lived across the street in a house that became a place of illness, loneliness, and ‘quiet despair.’ My mother’s chronic depression began there as my father’s tense nature worsened when business failures mounted. So I began to virtually reside in the perfect Cape Cod cottage and to make of myself a part of that Dick-and-Jane family, to internalize their traditions, to survive my childhood pain.”
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....“
I Am America (And So Can You) (2007)
I am no fan of books. And chances are, if you’re reading this, you and I share a healthy skepticism about the printed word. Well, I want you to know that this is the first book I’ve ever written, and I hope it’s the first book you’ve ever read. Don’t make a habit of it.
America Again: Re-becoming the Greatness We Never Weren’t (2012)
I wrote another book. I hope you’re happy. Because this book is your fault.
Colbert continued: “You see, everywhere I go I hear bellyaching about how we as a nation have lost it. Now sure, we’ve taken some shots lately. We’re feeling beat up, and why shouldn’t we? It’s like after 235 years as King of the Monkey Bars, the other kids have held us down and made us eat a bug.”
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.”
God Knows: It’s Not About Us (2005)
From what source, one might wonder, would anyone gain the energy to write a book? Or the narcissism to think anyone would want to read it?
It beats therapy.
Barnaby Conrad III
“Martini Madness,” in Cigar Aficionado (Spring 1996)
The Martini is a cocktail distilled from the wink of a platinum blonde, the sweat of a polo horse, the blast of an ocean liner’s horn, the Chrysler building at sunset, a lost Cole Porter tune, and the aftershave of quipping detectives in natty double-breasted suits.
This was the brilliant opening line of Conrad’s article about “The Great Martini Revival” of the mid-1990s. He continued: “It’s a nostalgic passport to another era—when automobiles had curves like Mae West, when women were either ladies or dames, when men were gentlemen or cads, and when a ‘relationship’ was true romance or a steamy affair.”
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.
“Robert Frost,” in Talk About America (1973)
It was a splendid day in Vermont when they buried Robert Frost, the sky without a cloud, the light from the white landscape making every elm and barn as sharp as a blade, and the people crunching quietly through the deep snow and squinting in the enormous sun.
“Frank Lloyd Wright,” in America Observed (1989)
I met him first on a winter’s afternoon in what I almost slipped into calling the vestry of his suite at the Plaza Hotel in New York.
Wright had such a hallowed reputation when Cooke first met him that the British visitor to America resorted to liturgical imagery to describe him: “I pressed the electric button at first timorously, then boldly, then incessantly, and was about to turn away when the door was opened by a pretty young woman, a secretary, or granddaughter, or vestal virgin perhaps, who beckoned me into the hushed gloom behind her through which I expected to see sacramental tapers.”
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.
The Pathology of Power (1987)
This book is about power—how it is perceived; how it is used; its illusions and realities; its benefits and dangers. What confronts the American people as they approach the twenty-first century is the truth of one of the best-known axioms on human behavior: “Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
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.”
“Cadaver,” in Travels (1988)
It is not easy to cut through a human head with a hacksaw.
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.”
The Selfish Gene (1976)
Intelligent life on a planet comes of age when it first works out the reason for its own existence.
Highly quotable opening lines are relatively rare in non-fiction writing, and this is especially true in science writing. In a refreshing exception to the rule, Dawkins begins his classic 1976 book with an observation we want to linger over—even savor—for a few moments before reading on. In the rest of the opening paragraph, Dawkins continued:
“If superior creatures from space ever visit earth, the first question they will ask, in order to assess the level of our civilization, is: ‘Have they discovered evolution yet?’ Living organisms had existed on earth, without ever knowing why, for over three thousand million years before the truth finally dawned on one of them. His name was Charles Darwin.”
Near the end of The Selfish Gene, Dawkins coined the word meme, a cultural analog to the concept of a gene in biology. The coinage quickly became a meme in itself, and life in The Internet Age would never be the same. Twenty-three years later, in 1999, Dawkins returned to the subject of memes in a Time magazine essay—and he introduced the subject in an interesting and effective way. See the entry below.
“The Selfish Meme,” in Time magazine (April 11, 1999)
Years ago, in an Oxford tutorial, I taught a young woman who affected an unusual habit. When asked a question that required deep thought, she would screw her eyes tight shut, jerk her head down to her chest and then freeze for up to half a minute before looking up, opening her eyes and answering the question with fluency and intelligence.
In the essay’s opening paragraph, Dawkins continued: “I was amused by this and did an imitation of it to divert my colleagues after dinner. Among them was a distinguished Oxford philosopher. As soon as he saw my imitation, he immediately said, ‘That’s Wittgenstein! Is her surname ____ by any chance?’ Taken aback, I said that it was. ‘I thought so,’ said my colleague. ‘Both her parents are professional philosophers and devoted followers of Wittgenstein.’ The gesture had passed from the great philosopher, via one or both of her parents, to my pupil.”
Here, Dawkins nicely demonstrates how a well-chosen anecdote can achieve two important goals at the same time—engaging the reader and illustrating the topic under discussion. He continued in the second paragraph:
“Our cultural life is full of things that seem to propagate virus-like from one mind to another: tunes, ideas, catchphrases, fashions, ways of making pots or building arches. In 1976 I coined the word meme (rhymes with cream) for these self-replicating units of culture that have a life of their own.”
Simone de Beauvoir
The Second Sex, Vol. 2 (1949)
One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.
Epigrammatic opening lines have always been popular with readers, and this one has become de Beauvoir’s most famous observation (one could almost argue that it is her signature line). In nine simple words, she encapsulated her groundbreaking thesis that being female is a cultural rather than a biological construct. It’s a perfect opening line, in my opinion, and I only wish she had used it to begin the first volume of her classic work, not the second. Volume I opened memorably, but I think you will agree that it isn’t in the same league:
“Woman? Very simple, say the fanciers of simple formulas: she is a womb, an ovary; she is a female—this word is sufficient to define her. In the mouth of a man the epithet female has the sound of an insult….”
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.”
Gavin de Becker
The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals That Protect Us from Violence (1997)
He had probably been watching her for a while. We aren’t sure—but what we do know is that she was not his first victim.
These opening words look a lot like the beginning of a suspense thriller, but they actually opened a non-fiction book that has become a classic in the literature on violence against women.
In his book, de Becker went well beyond the cliche of learning to trust one’s “gut instincts” by pinpointing a number of key warning signs—he called them pre-incident indicators, or PINS—that were precursors to violence.
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).
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
Belle de Jour’s Guide to Men (2009)
You might be wondering what, exactly, a prostitute might have to say about men and relationships… [ellipsis in original]
Let’s put it this way: I have met men. Loads of men. Men of every conceivable shape, size, and type. In my work as a call girl, I have seen them at their most cocksure and at their most vulnerable. And if this experience has taught me anything at all, it is that this odd and inscrutable species we call Man is often libelously misrepresented in the female press.
With the “teaser” comment at the end, we wonder where, exactly, de Jour is going—but we’re damn sure going to continue reading to find out.
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.”
Adrian Desmond & James Moore
Darwin’s Sacred Cause Race, Slavery, and the Quest for Human Origins (2009)
Global brands don’t come much bigger than Charles Darwin.
In their biography, Desmond and Moore continued: “He is the grizzled grandfather peering from book jackets and billboards, from textbooks and TV—the sage on greeting cards, postage stamps, and commemorative coins. Darwin’s head on ₤10 notes radiates imperturbability, mocking those who would doubt his science. Hallow him or hoot at him, Darwin cannot be ignored.”
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 Women’s Movement,” in The New York Times (July 30, 1972)
To make an omelette you need not only those broken eggs but someone “oppressed” to break them.
“White Album,” title essay from The White Album (1979)
We tell ourselves stories in order to live.
These words—which have become something of a signature line for Didion—begin an acclaimed autobiographical essay about her life in San Francisco in the 1960s. In a 2012 Publisher’s Weekly article, Robert Atwan included it in “The Top Ten Essays Since 1950.”
The 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.
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.”
Classics for Pleasure (2007)
Classics for pleasure? To some readers this may seem an oxymoron. Aren’t classics supposed to be difficult, esoteric, and a little boring? Yes, teachers and critics claim they’re good for you, but so are milk of magnesia and cod-liver oil. Really, after a hard day’s work, who wants to settle down for more…work? A fast-moving thriller or a steamy romance—those sound more like it.
Dirda, the Washington Post book critic described by writer Michael Kinsley as “the best-read person in America,” continued in the book’s second paragraph: “I sympathize with this common view, even if it is quite wrong. Classics are classics not because they are educational, but because people have found them worth reading, generation after generation, century after century. More than anything else, great books speak to us of our own very real feelings and failings, of our all-too-human daydreams and confusions.”
“The Hard Choices of Elizabeth Hardwick,” in The New Yorker (Nov. 15, 2021)
Elizabeth Hardwick was a master of the opening sentence. Few writers have the guts to begin so boldly—or with so many adjectives.
A moment later, after ticking off several examples of great opening lines from Hardwick, Doherty wrote: “Her friend Susan Sontag said that she wrote ‘the most beautiful sentences, more beautiful sentences than any living American writer.’”
The Extraordinary Healing Power of Ordinary Things: Fourteen Natural Steps to Health and Happiness (2007)
There is an old saying: If you want to hide the treasure, put it in plain sight. Then no one will see it.
We’ve seen many times in these pages how effective it is to open a book—especially a non-fiction book—with a powerful quotation, biblical passage, or proverbial saying, and Dossey demonstrates that very nicely here. He continued in the second paragraph: “In the pages that follow, we will explore things that are in plain sight, but whose healing power and ability to add to life’s fulfillment have been overlooked or forgotten.”
The Power of Premonitions (2009)
Sometimes things grab hold and just won’t let go.
Dossey continued in the first paragraph: “That’s what it’s been like with premonitions for me. I’ve been wrestling with them for a long time, unable to detach, rather like Jacob’s struggle with the angel in the Old Testament. The main difference is that Jacob’s brawl lasted only one night. My tussle with premonitions has persisted for more than three decades and shows no signs of ending.“
Reinventing Medicine: Beyond Mind-Body to a New Era of Healing (2009)
During my first year of medical practice, I had a dream that shook my world.
Go ahead, with the book in your hand, read this opening sentence—and try not to read on.
“Spirituality, Healing and Science,” in Ervin Laszlo and Kingsley L. Dennis, The New Science and Spirituality Reader (2012)
What is spirituality? I consider it a felt sense of connectedness with something higher, a presence that transcends the individual sense of self.
Dossey continued: “I distinguish spirituality from religion, which is a codified system of beliefs, practices, and behaviors that usually take place in a community of like-minded believers. Religion may or may not include a sense of the spiritual, and spiritual individuals may or may not be religious.”
“Insatiable,“ in Granta magazine (Autumn 2011)
Only a sentence, casually placed as a footnote in the back of Justin Kaplan’s thick 2003 biography of Walt Whitman, but it goes off like a little explosion: “Bram Stoker based the character of Dracula on Walt Whitman….”
In a 2018 ThoughtCo.com article on “Eight Great Opening Lines,” literary scholar Richard Nordquist selected Doty’s first sentence as an example of an opening that illustrates H. G. Wells 1898 advice on the importance of “whacking” readers at the beginning of an essay.
Wells’s complete advice went as follows: “So long as you do not begin with a definition you may begin anyhow. An abrupt beginning is much admired, after the fashion of the clown’s entry through the chemist’s window. Then whack at your reader at once, hit him over the head with the sausages, brisk him up with the poker, bundle him into the wheelbarrow, and so carry him away with you before he knows where you are.” For more on Well’s 1898 essay, titled “The Writing of essays,“ see his entry below.
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.”
Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs: Big Questions from Tiny Mortals About Death (2019)
No, your cat won’t eat your eyeballs. Not right away, at least.
Doughty’s entire book consists of her answers to questions about death and dying posed by children. It opens with this creepy-but-adorable answer to a question that also served as the title to Chapter One: “When I Die, Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs.” About the book, reviewer Terri Schlichenmeyer (“The Bookworm Sez”) wrote: “There’s serious science here, but also cultural lessons in death and dying, a little history, and a touch of gruesomeness wrapped in that shroud of sharp, witty humor.“
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave (1845)
I was born in Tuckahoe, near Hillsborough, and about twelve miles from Easton, in Talbot County, Maryland. I have no accurate knowledge of my age, never having seen any authentic record containing it.
This a soft beginning, but it’s about to take a dramatic turn. Douglas continued: “By far the larger part of the slaves know as little of their ages as horses know of theirs, and it is the wish of most masters within my knowledge to keep their slaves thus ignorant. I do not remember to have ever met a slave who could tell of his birthday.”
As I began to think about the immense psychological significance of not knowing one’s own birth date, I was eager to learn more, and Douglass didn’t disappoint. He continued: “They seldom come nearer to it than planting-time, harvest-time, cherry-time, spring-time, or fall-time. A want of information concerning my own was a source of unhappiness to me even during childhood. The white children could tell their ages. I could not tell why I ought to be deprived of the same privilege. I was not allowed to make any inquiries of my master concerning it. He deemed all such inquiries on the part of a slave improper and impertinent, and evidence of a restless spirit.”
In mid-February of 1817, Frederick Douglass was born into slavery in Tuckahoe (near Easton) Maryland. As indicated in the dramatic opening line above, the exact date of his birth was not known, and he later chose February 14th as the day to celebrate his birthday. He escaped from his servitude in 1838, quickly changing his name to avoid capture as a “fugitive slave,“ and ultimately settled in Massachusetts. He went on to become a popular spokesman for the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society, traveling throughout the U. S. and the British Isles. He also became a successful businessman (the first Black man to own a publishing house), a diplomat (ambassador to Haiti), and the author of three autobiographies (considered among the best “slave narratives” ever written).
You might also find it interesting that Booker T. Washington was almost certainly inspired by Douglass’s opening words when he wrote Up From Slavery (1901).
“We Are Trapped in the Madness of Powerful Individuals,” in The New York Times (Feb. 27, 2022)
What has surprised me most about the history I have lived through is how often we get dragged on demented, destructive rides by leaders who put their personal psychodramas over the public’s well-being.
In the article, published just after Vladimir’s Putin’s infamous invasion of Ukraine in February, 2022, Dowd was reminded of a number of previous “demented, destructive rides” she’d been forced to take in her lifetime. She continued: “And it always feels as though we are powerless to stop the madness of these individuals, that we are trapped in their ego or libido or id or delusion.”
Are Men Necessary? When Sexes Collide (2005)
I don’t understand men.
I don’t even understand what I don’t understand about men.
They’re a most inscrutable bunch, really.
Dowd, a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The New York Times, is best known for her political commentary, but she also wrote extensively about gender dynamics. She previewed her views on the subject when she continued: “I had a moment of dazzling clarity when I was twenty-seven, a rush of confidence that I had cracked the code. But it was, alas, an illusion. I think I overcomplicated their simplicity. Or oversimplified their simplicity. Are they as complicated as a pile of wood? Or as simple as a squid?”
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.”
Peter F. Drucker
“Managing Oneself,“ in Harvard Business Review (January 2005)
History’s great achievers—a Napoleon, a da Vinci, a Mozart—have always managed themselves. That, in large measure, is what makes them great achievers.
W. E. B. Du Bois
The Souls of Black Folk (1903)
Herein lie buried many things which if read with patience may show the strange meaning of being black here at the dawning of the Twentieth Century. This meaning is not without interest to you, Gentle Reader; for the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line.
Du Bois offered these words in the book’s “Forethought,“ and the final portion (“The problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line”) went on to become one of the most important quotations of the twentieth century. He continued: “I pray you, then, receive my little book in all charity, studying my words with me, forgiving mistake and foible for sake of the faith and passion that is in me, and seeking the grain of truth hidden there.“
Du Bois was one of the most influential figures in black history. A co-founder of the NAACP in 1909, he was the first African-American person to be awarded a Ph.D. (from Harvard, in 1895). In Living Black History (2011), historian Manning Marable wrote: “Few books make history and fewer still become foundational texts for the movements and struggles of an entire people. The Souls of Black Folk occupies this rare position.“
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.
Surviving the Toxic Workplace (2010)
Do you dread getting out of work each day and dealing with bosses and co-workers who drive you crazy? Are you surrounded by people who are incompetent, negative, verbally abusive, and impossible to deal with? Have you asked the human resources department for help, yet nothing changes?
Beginning a book with a series of pointed questions is a classic way to begin a self-help book—and that approach is enhanced when a little wordplay is added, as we see with the clever tweak of the medical term staph infections in the very next sentence: “These are all signs of Staff Infections—the difficulties you experience in dealing with toxic people and workplace conditions.
Wayne W. Dyer
Your Erroneous Zones (1976)
Look over your shoulder. You will notice a constant companion. For want of a better name, call him Your-Own-Death. You can fear this visitor or use him for your personal gain. The choice is up to you.
In the early 1970s, while a professor at St. John’s University (New York), Dyer’s lectures were so popular with students that a Manhattan literary agent convinced him to put his ideas together in a book. The result was the cleverly-titled and eminently readable self-help book Your Erroneous Zones.
After the book was published, initial sales were so sluggish that Dyer decided to take matters into his own hands. He quit his job, loaded the back of his station wagon with books, and embarked on a national promotional tour in which he tenaciously pursued radio stations for interviews and bookstores for book signings. His efforts paid off—handsomely. The book gradually became a word-of-mouth bestseller. It ultimately sold over 30 million copies, and built a foundation upon which Dyer forged one of the most successful writing careers in history, with well over forty books published before his death at age 75 in 2015.
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).
How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking (2014)
Right now, in a classroom somewhere in the world, a student is mouthing off to her math teacher.
Ellenberg, the Vilas Distinguished Achievement Professor of Mathematics at the University of Wisconsin and a worthy heir to Martin Gardner as a distinguished writer about math & science, finds a perfect way to introduce his book on the importance of math literacy—fully realizing that the seeds of math illiteracy are sown early in life, and mainly in the classroom. He continued in the first paragraph: “The teacher has just asked her to spend a substantial portion of her weekend computing a list of thirty definite integrals.”
In the book’s second paragraph, Ellenberg continued: “There are other things the student would rather do. There is, in fact, hardly anything she would rather not do. She knows this quite clearly…. [ellipsis mine] She doesn’t see the point, and she tells her teacher so, And at some point in this conversation, the student is going to ask the question the teacher fears most: “When am I going to use this?”
“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.
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.“
“On Never Having Been a Prom Queen,” in Crazy Salad (1975)
The other night a friend of mine sat down at the table and informed me that If I was going to write a column about women, I ought to deal straight off with the subject most important to women in all the world. “What is that?” I asked. “Beauty,” she said.
“Reunion,” in Crazy Salad (1975)
A boy and a girl are taking a shower together in the bathroom.
Ephron continued: “How to explain the significance of it? It is a Friday night in June, the first night of the tenth reunion of the Class of 1962 of Wellesley College, and a member of my class has just returned from the bathroom with the news. A boy and girl are taking a shower together. No one can believe it.”
“Vaginal Politics,” in Crazy Salad (1975)
We have lived through the era when happiness was a warm puppy, and the era when happiness was a dry martini, and now we have come to the era when happiness is “knowing what your uterus looks like.”
“Crazy Ladies,” in Crazy Salad (1975)
Washington is a city of important men and the women they married before they grew up.
“Moving On,” in I Feel Bad About My Neck (2006)
In February 1980, two months after the birth of my second child and the simultaneous end of my marriage, I fell in love.
“Who Are You?” in I Remember Nothing (2010)
I know you. I know you well. It’s true I always have a little trouble with your name, but I do know your name. I just don’t know it at this moment.
Ephron continued: “We’re at a big party. We’ve kissed hello. We’ve had a delightful conversation about how we are the last two people on the face of the earth who don’t kiss on both cheeks. Now we’re having a conversation about how phony all the people are who do kiss on both cheeks. Ha ha ha ha ha ha. You’re so charming. If only I could remember your name.”
“The D Word,” in I Remember Nothing (2010)
The most important thing about me, for quite a long chunk of my life, was that I was divorced. Even after I was no longer divorced but remarried, this was true.
Ephron continued: “I have now been married to my third husband for more than twenty years. But when you’ve had children with someone you’re divorced from, divorce defines everything; it’s the lurking fact, a slice of anger in the pie of your brain.”
“The O Word,” in I Remember Nothing (2010)
I am sixty-nine years old.
Really old is eighty.
But if you are young, you would definitely think I’m old.
No one actually likes to admit that they’re old.
The most they will cop to is that they’re older. Or oldish
Greg M. Epstein
Good without God (2009)
This is a book about Humanism. If you’re not familiar with the word Humanism, it is, in short, goodness without God.
Ambition: The Secret Passion (1980)
Ambition is one of those Rorschach words: define it and you instantly reveal a great deal about yourself.
“Funny, But I Do Look Jewish,” in The Weekly Standard (Dec. 15, 2003)
Funny, but I do look Jewish, at least to myself, and more and more so as the years go by.
Epstein continued: “I’m fairly sure I didn’t always look Jewish, not when I was a boy, or possibly even when a young man, though I have always carried around my undeniably Jewish name, which was certainly clue enough. But today, gazing at my face in the mirror, I say to myself, yes, no question about it, this is a very Jewish-looking gent.”
“Duh, Bor-ing,” in Commentary magazine (June 2011)
Unrequited love, as Lorenz Hart instructed us, is a bore, but then so are a great many other things: old friends gone somewhat dotty from whom it is too late to disengage, the important social-science-based book of the month, 95 percent of the items on the evening news, discussions about the Internet, arguments against the existence of God, people who overestimate their charm, all talk about wine, New York Times editorials, lengthy lists (like this one), and, not least, oneself….
Lawrence J. Epstein
George Burns: An American Life (2011)
George Burns was always willing to sacrifice truth for a good line.
Epstein continued: “He liked, for instance, to tell the story of the stage manager who heard him singing and fired him on the spot. But Burns could never tell it the way it really happened. He retold it with comic exaggeration to hide the pain.”
Clarissa Pinkola Estés
Women Who Run with the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype (1992)
Wildlife and the Wild Woman are both endangered species.
This is the entire first paragraph of a book that is now regarded as a classic in feminist thought. The book, written by a Jungian psychoanalyst, drew heavily from folk tales, fairy tales, and worldwide mythology. It remained on The New York Times bestseller list for nearly three years—145 weeks in all (Estés was the first Latina to make the coveted list).
In the second paragraph, Estés continued: “Over time, we have seen the feminine instinctive nature looted, driven back, and overbuilt. For long periods it has been mismanaged like the wildlife and the wildlands. For several thousand years, as soon and as often as we turn our backs, it is relegated to the poorest land in the psyche. The spiritual lands of Wild Woman have, throughout history, been plundered or burnt, dens bulldozed, and natural cycles forced into unnatural rhythms to please others.”
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.”
“Civilization: Evolution of a Word and a Group of Ideas” (1930); reprinted in A New Kind of History (1973; P. Burke, ed.)
It is never a waste of time to study the history of a word. Such journeys, whether short or long, monotonous or varied, are always instructive.
A Peculiar Treasure (1938)
When I was a small girl living in Appleton, Wisconsin, I often was sent with a quart tin pail to the creamery which was three blocks away on the wrong side of the railroad tracks. The Ferber family, I hastily and grandly add, lived on the right side of the tracks. Any native Middle West American will get the social significance (and the revolting snobbery) of that statement.
Ferber’s opening paragraph is only sixty-eight words in length, but it contains a wealth of information not merely about her own childhood, but also about life in the American Midwest in the final decades of the nineteenth century. She continued: “I didn’t much relish the errand because the creamery had a curdled smell like that of a baby who has just had a digestive surprise.”
Congratulations on your purchase of this American-made genuine book. Each component of this book was selected to provide you with maximum book performance, whatever your reading needs may be.
In a review in London’s Sunday Telegraph, Viv Groskop hailed Bossypants as “A masterpiece in comedy writing,” adding “I was hooked from the first word.”
“How I Wound Up with a Wound from Heteronyms,” in The Washington Post (May 20, 2021)
The English language has something to confuse or annoy just about anyone—the mysteries of who and whom usage, the e.g. vs. i.e. standoff, the polarizing Oxford comma. I have a long-standing, personal problem with heteronyms—words that are spelled the same but don’t sound alike. Allow me to explain with a little story.
M. F. K. Fisher
Consider the Oyster (1941)
An oyster leads a dreadful but exciting life.
Indeed, his chance to live at all is slim, and if he should survive the arrows of his own outrageous fortune and in the two weeks of his carefree youth find a clean smooth place to fix on, the years afterwards are full of stress, passion, and danger.
Fisher was one of history’s most popular and influential food writers, but she had great fans in the writing world as well, with W. H. Auden once saying of her: “I do not know of anyone in the United States who writes better prose.“ While I can’t be sure, I’ve got to believe Auden was thinking about these opening words when he made his remark.
In a 1941 New York Times review, Edward Larocque Tinker described Consider the Oyster as a “A gay, pleasant, and instructive book.” Tinker went on to add: “This contribution to gastronomic lore completes the picture of a new type of cookery book that has captured popular favor.”
The Invention of Murder (2011)
“Pleasant it is, no doubt, to drink tea with your sweetheart, but most disagreeable to find her bubbling in the tea-urn.“ So wrote Thomas de Quincy in 1826, and indeed, it is hard to argue with him.
It’s relatively uncommon for writers to use a quotation as an opening line, but Flanders chose a perfect one for her delightful book on a grim subject. Subtitled How the Victorians Revelled in Death and Detection and Created Modern Crime, Flanders continued in the opening paragraph: “But even more pleasant, he thought, was to read about someone else’s sweetheart bubbling in the tea-urn, and that, too, is hard to argue with, for crime, especially murder, is very pleasant to think about in the abstract: it is like hearing blustery rain on the windowpane when sitting indoors. It reinforces a sense of safety, even of pleasure....“
The 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.”
The Elements of Eloquence (2013)
Shakespeare was not a genius. He was, without the distant shadow of a doubt, the most wonderful writer who ever breathed. But not a genius. No angels handed him his lines, no fairies proofread for him. Instead, he learnt techniques, he learnt tricks, and he learnt them well.
From the outset, we clearly recognize the central thesis of Forsyth’s book: eloquence is not a gift possessed only by the lucky few, but a skill—and one capable of being taught and learned by many.
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.
Leonard Cohen: The Mystical Roots of Genius (2021)
Leonard Cohen never planned to be a rock star. He had ambitions to be a novelist or, better still, to be recognized for his greatest love, poetry.
In the bio’s opening paragraph, Freedman continued: “In his youth the idea of setting his words to music rarely crossed his mind. And even when it did, and he started writing songs for others, the thought of performing them himself positively terrified him. So much so that the first time he was asked to perform his music in public he got stage fright and darted off midway through his act.” This was one of my choices for a Smerconish.com post on “Twenty-One of the Best Opening Lines of 2021.“
The Feminine Mystique (1963)
The problem lay buried, unspoken, for many years in the minds of American women. It was a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning that women suffered in the middle of the twentieth century in the United States. Each suburban wife struggled with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night—she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question—“Is this all?“
This is the opening paragraph of the first chapter (titled “The Problem That Has No Name“ ) of one of the most influential books of the twentieth century. In 1957, as her 15th Smith College reunion approached, Friedan—a married woman with three growing children—was asked to do a survey of her classmates, almost all of whom were leading what looked like idyllic lives as suburban mothers and homemakers. Just below the comfortable-looking surface, though, Friedan discovered a deep strain of frustration, discontent, and lack of fulfillment. Nobody had written about this phenomenon, and she began to think about it as a problem without a name. A few years later, she gave it an unforgettable name—The Feminine Mystique—and explored it in detail in a book that launched the modern women’s movement.
In a 50th anniversary edition of the book in 2013, writer Gail Collins described the three-word concluding question (Is this all?) as “an earthshaking query.“ Three years after publication of the book, in 1966, the National Organization for Women (NOW) was founded, and Friedan was one of the cofounders.
“A Salty Piece of Land: Wise Old Jimmy Buffett,” in The New York Times (Nov. 28, 2004)
There is a fine line between fiction and nonfiction, and I believe Jimmy Buffett and I snorted it in 1976.
It’s uncommon to find a killer opening line in a book review, but Friedman is not exactly your typical book reviewer. He continued: “The two of us are among the few musicians in the Western world who make a regular habit of writing prose, which may also explain why this newspaper decided upon me to review this book rather than, say, Philip Roth.”
In an Oct. 21, 2007 New York Times article, Dwight Garner wrote about the opening words of Friedman’s review: “The Book Review editors, like editors everywhere, value a memorable first sentence.”
Garner went on to write: “Reviewing Robbins’s novel ’The Carpetbaggers’ in 1961, Murray Schumach, writing in The Book Review, began his assessment with these two sentences: ’It was not quite proper to have printed ‘The Carpetbaggers’ between covers of a book. It should have been inscribed on the walls of a public lavatory.’ Not quite as fun as Kinky’s opener, but it does get its point across.”
“Outlaws,” in ’Scuse Me While I Whip This Out (2004)
The life of a country singer can at times be very tedious. You have to pretend that your life is a financial pleasure even when your autographs are bouncing.
“Ode to Billy Joe,” in ’Scuse Me While I Whip This Out (2004)
If Carl Sandburg had come from Waco, his name would have been Billy Joe Shaver.
What Would Kinky Do?: How to Unscrew a Screwed-Up World (2008)
Let us begin this ordeal with a fairly safe assumption: No human being who has ever lived in this world has ever taken good advice.
Friedman continued: “Millions upon millions of people, however, have gladly and gratefully taken bad advice, foolish advice, pop advice, and glib advice. Why is this? No doubt it’s partly because of the perversity of human nature. This notwithstanding, the other part, I believe, is because of the sanctimonious, constipated, pompous, smug, and self-righteous way that good advice is usually given.”
“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.
The Art of Loving (1956)
Is love an art?
Opening a book with a rhetorical question is a time-honored way to immediately engage the reader, and Fromm—one of the great popularizers of psychological concepts to a lay audience—does that very nicely here.
In the opening paragraph, he continued: “Then it requires knowledge and effort. Or is love a pleasant sensation, which to experience is a matter of chance, something one ‘falls into’ if one is lucky? This little book is based on the former premise, while undoubtedly the majority of people today believe in the latter.”
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.
Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War (1989)
Watching a newsreel or flipping through an illustrated magazine at the beginning of the American war, you were likely to encounter a memorable image: the newly invented jeep, an elegant, slim-barreled 37-mm gun in tow, leaping over a hillock.
Fussell continued: “Going very fast and looking as cute as Bambi, it flies into the air, and behind, the little gun bounces high off the ground on its springy tires. This graceful duo conveyed the firm impression of purposeful, resourceful intelligence going somewhere significant, and going there with speed, agility, and delicacy—almost wit.”
The Last Traverse: Tragedy and Resilience in the Winter Whites (2020)
James Osborne is on the precipice, barely holding on to the frayed rope of advanced life support. The hospital’s technology and medications are working to protect him from falling into the abyss, but just how long the fragile anchor system can keep him aloft is uncertain.
GUEST COMMENTARY from David J. Hartson, Ph.D. a retired North Dakota psychologist who lived and practiced for many years in Littleton, New Hampshire. Dr. Hartson writes:
“These dramatic first lines capture a medical team’s tense struggle to save the life of James Osborne, an outdoorsman who hours earlier was rescued half-alive and more than half-frozen while on a winter hike in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. One of the world’s most beautiful places in the summer, it is one of the most treacherous in the winter, with routine low temperatures of -20 F, wind velocity of 75-95 mph, wind chill at -53 F, and visibility of zero. Gagne’s book is a moving tribute to the medical team’s efforts to save Osborne’s life, and to the First Responders who brought him out alive.”
The exceptionally high quality of Gagne’s writing continued in the remainder of the first paragraph: “As the life struggle rages on, he swings helplessly back and forth through a spectrum of amorphous dreams and disruptive stimuli. His primitive brain is on alert, working behind the scenes in support of the intervention it senses being undertaken by forces unknown. This is because his analytic brain, the cortex, did an emergency bailout over a day ago and hasn’t been heard from since.”
John Kenneth Galbraith
The Affluent Society (1958)
Wealth is not without its advantages and the case to the contrary, although it has often been made, has never proved wildly persuasive.
Galbraith continued: “But, beyond doubt, wealth is the relentless enemy of understanding. The poor man has always a precise view of his problem and its remedy: he hasn’t enough and he needs more. The rich man can assume or imagine a much greater variety of ills and he will be correspondingly less certain of their remedy. Also, until he learns to live with his wealth, he will have a well-observed tendency to put it to the wrong purposes or otherwise to make himself foolish.“
John Kenneth Galbraith
“Promises to Keep,” in The New York Times (April 25, 1971)
Truth, not unconvincing humility, is the grandest virtue and accordingly I may observe that I am better qualified than any man alive to review a book on the public life of Chester Bowles.
A man must be in possession of quite an ego to begin a review of someone else’s memoir with a grandiose statement about himself, but nobody ever accused Galbraith of being a Shrinking Violet. In point of fact, though, Galbraith began his review of Chester Bowles’s 1971 memoir (My Years in Public Life, 1941-1969) by simply suggesting that the careers of the two men paralleled each other in so many ways that he was the perfect person to review his memoir. Galbraith went on to write: “He is a friend, which is a disadvantage only if the book in question is bad. Only then do you have to consider whether the author should get the truth from you or someone else. This, fortunately, is an extremely good book.”
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.”
John W. Gardner
Excellence: Can We Be Equal and Excellent Too? (1984. rev. ed.)
If we accept the common usage of words, nothing can be more readily disproved than the old saw, You can’t keep a good man down.
Gardner continued: “Most human societies of which we have any historical record have been beautifully organized to keep good men and women down. The reasons are many, but the most obvious is that throughout most of recorded history societies of hereditary privilege have predominated.”
“Adventures Of a Mathematician: The Man Who Invented the H-Bomb,” in The New York Times (May 9, 1976)
Biographical history, as taught in our public schools, is still largely a history of boneheads: ridiculous kings and queens, paranoid political leaders, compulsive voyagers, ignorant generals—the flotsam and jetsam of historical currents. The men who radically altered history, the great creative scientists and mathematicians, are seldom mentioned if at all.
This is the opening paragraph of Gardner’s review of S. M. Ulam’s 1976 book, Adventures of a Mathematician. In the review, he described Ulam, a Polish mathematician, as the man who, modifying a previously failed plan of Edward Teller’s, deserves credit for inventing the H-Bomb.
In the review’s second paragraph, Gardner wrote: “Imagine Aristotle revivified and visiting Manhattan. Nothing in our social, political, economic, artistic, sexual or religious life would mystify him, but he would be staggered by our technology. Its products—skyscrapers, cars, airplanes, television, pocket calculators—would have been impossible without calculus. Who invented calculus?”
“Metaphysics Laced with Magic,” in The New York Times (February 8, 2022)
Sheila Heti’s new novel, Pure Colour, is about a young woman who turns into a leaf. “Unrequited love’s a bore,” Billie Holiday sang. So, it turns out, is photosynthesis.
GUEST COMMENTARY from veteran poet, playwright, and author Louis Phillips, who writes: “Although I may not fully agree with Dwight Garner’s assessment of Heti’s new novel, I’m impressed with how he’s able to deliver his entire review in three simple, eye-opening sentences. Each one elicits a specific reaction. The first startles with a great improbability. The second is a clever allusion about the novel. And the third delivers the witty knock-out punch.” See some of Phillips’ great opening lines on the Short Stories page.
“In ‘Yours in Haste and Adoration,’ Terry Southern’s Thoughts Spill Out,” in The New York Times (Dec. 15, 2015)
It must have been a gas, to borrow one of his favorite terms, to get a letter from Terry Southern. Each was its own little acid trip, streaked with innuendo and poached in a satirical kind of intellectual flop sweat. He used thin, expensive paper and sealed some of his letters with wax. People were said to read them aloud to whoever was in the room.
In the article’s second paragraph, Garner continued: “It must further have been a groove, to use another of his favorite terms, to get a letter from Southern (1924-95) because he seemed to know everyone, from George Plimpton and Lenny Bruce to Ringo Starr and Dennis Hopper and had stories to tell.”
Mozart: A Life (1999)
The life of Mozart is the triumph of genius over precociousness.
A perfectly crafted opening sentence can compress a wealth of information into a handful of words, as Gay so ably demonstrates here. His writing continued to impress as he continued:
“A few five- or six-year-olds of his time could produce pretty variations on a theme or lure coherent tunes from a harpsichord with its keyboard covered so that they could not see their hands. But unlike other mid-eighteenth-century Wunderkinder, Mozart refined his inventions and his performances into breathtaking beauty and never showed the slightest sign of fading into ordinary adolescence, a fate that has always bedeviled prodigies.”
The World in a Phrase: A Brief History of the Aphorism (2005)
If not for an aphorism by W. H. Auden, I might never have met my wife.
From the very first sentence, we become aware of the important role that short, pithy sayings—better known as aphorisms—have played in Geary’s life.
Geary’s Guide to the World’s Great Aphorists (2007)
When I lost my job, an aphorism by Vilhelm Ekelund was the first thing that popped into my mind.
Why is this an effective opening line? When most people lose their jobs, an aphorism is likely one of the last things to pop into their minds.
I is an Other: The Secret Life of Metaphor (2011)
In later life, Arthur Rimbaud was an anarchist, businessman, arms dealer, financier, and explorer. But as a teenager, all he wanted to be was a poet.
This may seem like an unusual way to begin a book on metaphor—and the role metaphorical language plays in our lives—but it certainly piques the reader’s interest, thereby achieving the objective of all opening lines.
Black Wave (2020)
“What happened to us?“ The question haunts us in the Arab and Muslim world. We repeat it like a mantra.
Ghattas, a Lebanese scholar and journalist, provides a glimpse of his thesis in the book’s subtitle: Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the Forty-Year Rivalry That Unraveled Culture, Religion, and Collective Memory in the Middle East.
In the first paragraph of the book, Ghattas continued: “You will hear it from Iran to Syria, from Saudi Arabia to Pakistan, and in my own country of Lebanon. For us, the past is a different country, one that is not mired in the horrors of sectarian killings; a more vibrant place, without the crushing intolerance of religious zealots and seemingly endless, amorphous wars. Though the past had coups and wars too, they were contained in time and space, and the future still held much promise.“
In writing “the past is a different country” above, Ghattas was almost certainly inspired by one of the most famous opening lines in literary history, from L. P. Hartley’s The Go-Between (1953): “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there. See the Hartley entry here.
The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776) (1776)
In the second century of the Christian era, the empire of Rome comprehended the fairest part of the earth, and the most civilized portion of mankind.
When we read an opening line like this, we can understand why historian J. B. Bury would write, “Edward Gibbon is one of those few who hold as high a place in the history of literature as in the roll of great historians.“
In the first paragraph of his classic work, Gibbon continued: “The frontiers of that extensive monarchy were guarded by ancient renown and disciplined valor. The gentle, but powerful influence of laws and manners had gradually cemented the union of the provinces. The peaceful inhabitants enjoyed and abused the advantages of wealth and luxury.“
“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.”
First Friends: The Powerful, Unsung (and Unelected) People Who Shaped Our Presidents (2021)
I was in the third grade when I saw Abraham Lincoln assassinated.
The opening words come from the book’s Preface, and, after reading them, it is virtually impossible not to read on. Ginsberg continued: “It was during the sixth-grade play at Windermere Elementary School, outside of Buffalo, New York, and I was jarred and transfixed. Until then I didn’t know anything about politics let alone Lincoln, but from that moment on I was obsessed with the American presidency.”
The opening paragraph has nothing to do with the precise subject of the book—the best friends of American presidents, and their almost-always-overlooked impact on American history—but they send an important subliminal message to readers: the author has been fixated on the U.S. presidency since childhood, and anything he chooses to write about it should be seen from that perspective.
The Tipping Point: How Little things Can Make a Big Difference (2006)
For Hush Puppies—the classic American brushed suede shoes with the lightweight crepe sole—the Tipping Point came somewhere between late 1994 and early 1995.
In a 2008 article in The Guardian (“A Thriller in Ten Chapters”), Robert McCrum wrote: “The Tipping Point was almost a flop. It was published to mixed reviews in the US, did no serious business in the UK and was saved by—yes—word of mouth. After a dismal launch, and as a desperate last resort, Gladwell persuaded his American publisher to sponsor a US-wide lecture tour. Only then did the book ‘tip.’ Eventually, it would become a literary success of its time, turn its author into a pop cultural guru and spend seven years on The New York Times bestseller list.”
The Bomber Mafia: A Dream, a Temptation, and the Longest Night of the Second World War (2021)
There was a time when the world’s largest airport sat in the middle of the western Pacific, around 1,500 miles from the coast of Japan, on one of a cluster of small tropical islands known as the Marianas. Guam. Saipan. Tinian.
To open a book with a little known historical fact is a time-honored tradition among non-fiction authors, and for reasons I’m not sure I can easily articulate, I found something especially appealing about this opening sentence. Gladwell continued: “The Marianas are the southern end of a largely submerged mountain range—the tips of volcanoes poking up through the deep ocean waters. For most of their history, the Marianas were too small to be of much interest or use to anyone in the wider world. Until the age of airpower, when all of a sudden they took on enormous importance.”
During WWII, the Japanese controlled the entire area until the summer of 1944, when a brutal and costly series of victories by American forces brought them under Allied control. Almost immediately, U.S. Navy Seabees commenced one of the most ambitious construction projects in military history. With a few months, American commanders had at their disposal four of the largest airports the world had ever seen, all equipped with the 8,500-foot runways that were needed to accommodate massive B-29 “Superfortress” bombers—and ultimately bring the war to an end.
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.
“From Its Myriad Tips,” in London Review of Books (May 20, 2021)
Try to imagine what it is like to be a fungus.
This was the opening line of Gooding’s review of Merlin Sheldrake’s 2020 book, Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds, and Shape our Futures. The idea is not as far-fetched as it might originally seem, for that is exactly what Sheldrake—a respected English biologist—attempted to do when he sought the assistance of LSD and psilocybin in an attempt to expand his thinking about how fungi reproduce and spread.
“In the Beginning: Creating Dynamic, Meaningful & Compelling Openings,“ in The Writer’s Chronicle (October 2012)
The beginning of your story, essay, or novel carries more weight than any other part of your work. This is simply because it is the beginning.
Goodman, a professor of English at the University of New Orleans, continued: “The reason for its prominence is similar to seeing anything for the first time. Your senses are attuned. Your expectations are high. You’re looking intently at what’s there. It’s analogous to seeing a person for the first time.”
About a first sentence (or first paragraph), Goodman also wrote: “There is one thing it must do: compel the reader to continue reading. Or, to put it another way, to make the reader unable not to read on. If the reader stops cold after the first line, it doesn’t matter what else that line does, or what follows.”
And a little later in the article, Goodman offered this information-packed paragraph on the subject: “What can, and should, an opening do, besides being irresistible? It can provide information. Not necessarily by providing facts—although it can do that—because information can be emotional or tonal. It can, speaking of tone, set the tone. It can create a sense of drama, mystery or tension. It can introduce a character. It can hint at a problem. It can engage the reader by the voice of the narrator. It can foretell the ending. (“In my beginning is my end,” T. S. Eliot wrote.) It can do all of these things, or some of them, at the same time. It’s a unique opportunity. You’ll have only one first opened door with your story. Only one, ‘Ladies and Gentlemen, may I have your attention, please?’”
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.”
David L. Goodstein
States of Matter (1975)
Ludwig Boltzmann, who spent much of his life studying statistical mechanics, died in 1906, by his own hand. Paul Ehrenfest, carrying on the work, died similarly in 1933. Now it is our turn to study statistical mechanics.
Perhaps it will be wise to approach the subject cautiously.
It’s exceedingly rare for textbooks in any field to have a spectacular opening line—and especially one with such understated wit—but professor Goodstein manages to achieve it in a graduate-level physics text! For another opening gem from a physics text, see the Paesler and Moyer entry.
Doris Kearns Goodwin
Leadership in Turbulent Times (2018)
Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson—the lives and times of these four men have occupied me for half a century. I have awakened with them in the morning and thought about them when I went to bed at night.
Angels and Ages: A Short Book about Darwin, Lincoln, and Modern Life (2009)
We are all pebbles dropped in the sea of history, where the splash strikes one way and the big tides run another, and though what we feel is the splash, the splash takes place only within those tides. In almost every case, the incoming current drowns the splash; once in a while the drop of the pebble changes the way the ocean runs.
After opening with an impressive metaphorical flourish, Gopnik nicely sets up the thesis of the book—that a spectacular coincidence can change the course of world history. He continued: “On February 12, 1809, two baby boys were born within a few hours of each other on either side of the Atlantic. One entered life in a comfortable family home, nicely called the Mount, that still stands in the leafy English countryside of Shrewsbury, Shropshire; the other opened his eyes for the first time in a nameless long-lost cabin in the Kentucky woods.”
“Why Don’t the French Celebrate Lafayette?” in The New Yorker (Aug. 16, 2021)
Lafayette, like Betsy Ross and Johnny Appleseed, is so neatly fixed in the American imagination that it is hard to see him as a human being. Betsy sews stars, Johnny plants trees, Lafayette brings French élan to the American Revolution.
Gopnik continued: “He is, in the collective imagination, little more than a wooden soldier with a white plume on his cocked hat. In the original production of ‘Hamilton,’ Daveed Diggs portrayed him affectionately, with a comically heavy French accent and an amorous manner—a hero, yes, but of the cartoon kind, a near relation of Pepé le Pew.”
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.
Stephen Jay Gould
“The Flamingo’s Smile,” title essay from The Flamingo’s Smile: Reflections in Natural History (1985)
Buffalo Bill played his designated role in reducing the American bison from an estimated population of 60 million to near extinction.
Gould continued: “In 1867, under a contract to provide food for railroad crews, he and his men killed 4,280 animals in just eight months.”
Stephen Jay Gould
“A Most Ingenious Paradox,” in The Flamingo’s Smile: Reflections in Natural History (1985)
Abstinence has its virtuous side, but enough is enough.
Stephen Jay Gould
“The Rule of Five,” in The Flamingo’s Smile: Reflections in Natural History (1985)
The human mind delights in finding pattern—so much so that we often mistake coincidence or forced analogy for profound meaning.
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?
Havelock Ellis: A Biography (1980)
Havelock Ellis was a revolutionary, one of the seminal figures responsible for the creation of a modern sensibility, although, like most revolutionaries, he would not have been happy with the world he helped to create.
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).“
Elvis Forever: Looking Back on the Legacy of the King (2021)
Elvis was the survivor of twin boys, a fact that strongly influenced his life
A popular technique among biographers when introducing the people they’re writing about is to open by revealing important—and sometimes little-known—early details that later evolved into major life themes . Hadleigh does that very nicely here, and he continues to do so in the book’s first paragraph:
“Mother Gladys, fearful of losing her only child, kept him close. The mother-son bond intensified when father Vernon was away working, seeking work or in jail. Growing up and in school, Elvis was a loner, often shunned by classmates due to poverty, the way he dressed and his longer hair. As his parents’ marriage deteriorated, Gladys’s sole focus became her son, whose fondness for singing she encouraged. She steered him away from his interest in guns, which would later prevail, and helped Elvis pay for his first guitar.”
By the end of the first paragraph, the reader has been given a capsule summary that beautifully captures the essence of Elvis’s early years. This is no small feat. You should know, however, that Hadleigh’s book is not a true biography, but rather an extensive collection of quotations about Presley. Hadleigh is a talented quotation anthologist, but the first paragraph of this book suggests he might also want to try his hand at formal biographies.
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.
The Greek Way (1930)
Five hundred years before Christ in a little town on the far western border of the settled and civilized world, a strange new power was at work.
Hamilton continued: “Something had awakened in the minds and spirits of the men there which was so to influence the world that the slow passage of long time, of century upon century and the shattering of changes they brought, would be powerless to wear away that deep impress.”
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.”
Among the many paradoxes of human life, this is perhaps the most peculiar and consequential: We often behave in ways that are guaranteed to make us unhappy.
In crafting the first sentence of a non-fiction work, it’s hard to beat an emphatic assertion that is single-mindedly designed to get the reader’s attention. When I read this opener for the first time, it stopped me in my tracks—and I felt compelled to set the book down for a moment to reflect on the significance of Harris’s grand declaration.
In the remainder of his opening paragraph, Harris elaborated on his thesis by identifying one culprit in particular: “Many of us spend our lives marching with open eyes toward remorse, guilt, and disappointment. And nowhere do our injuries seem more casually self-inflicted, or the suffering we create more disproportionate to the needs of the moment, than in the lies we tell to other human beings. Lying is the royal road to chaos.”
Mike Nichols: A Life (2021)
In the origin story that Mike Nichols liked to tell, he was born at the age of seven.
Harris continued: “The first image of himself he chose to conjure for people was that of a boy on a boat, holding his younger brother’s hand, traveling from Germany to America. They were unaccompanied on that six-day crossing in 1939, their ailing mother still bed bound in Berlin. Their father was already in New York. His two small sons had not seen him for almost a year.”
Harris’s opening paragraph raises an interesting question we all might give some thought to. When we tell our own origin stories, where exactly do we begin, and what is the psychological significance of that precise moment we’ve selected as our starting point?
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.
Cruel and Unusual Puns (1991)
Have you heard about the inner-city video game called Super Barrio Mothers? The musical version of The Ten Commandments, to be titled Runelight and Moses? Or that new self-help book on postpartum depression, The Blues of the Birth?
In the opening words to his book on transpositional humor, Hauptman wisely provided a sampling of what was in store for readers. His book was aimed at punsters and fans of wordplay, including one of the great masters, Richard Lederer, whose blurb for the book couldn't have been more apt: "This definitive treasury of transposition puns is truly a re-wording experience."
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.“
“Zounds! What the Fork Are Minced Oaths?” in TheConversation.com (July 16, 2020)
What in tarnation is “tarnation?” Why do people in old books exclaim “zounds!” in moments of surprise? And what could a professor of linguistics possibly have against “duck-loving crickets?”
So begins a fascinating article on the subject of “minced oaths,” which Hazen, a professor of linguistics at West Virginia University, described this way: “They are a kind of euphemism: an indirect expression substituted to soften the harsher blow of the profane.”
In the article’s second paragraph, Jazen continued: “I’ll get to the crickets later. But what unites all these expressions is a desire to find acceptable versions of profane or blasphemous words. ‘God’ becomes ‘gosh,’ ‘hell’ becomes ‘heck,’ and ‘damnation’ becomes ‘tarnation.’ In a similar vein, the rather antiquated phrase ‘God’s wounds’ turns into ‘zounds.’”
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.“
“Hiroshima,“ in The New Yorker (Aug. 31, 1946)
At exactly fifteen minutes past eight in the morning, on August 6, 1945, Japanese time, at the moment when the atomic bomb flashed on Hiroshima, Miss Toshiko Sasaki, a clerk in the personnel department of the East Asia Tin Works, had just sat down at her place in the patent office and was turning her head to speak to the girl at the next desk.
In a 2020 NPR interview, Lesley Blume, author of Fallout: The Hiroshima Cover-Up and the Reporter Who Revealed It to the World (2020), described this as “one of the most famous introductions in journalistic history.”
After the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings brought WWII to an end, the U.S. government released plenty of pictures of mushroom clouds and landscape devastation, but nothing about the horrifying human toll. The government’s reluctance to be transparent was captured in a remark by Henry Stimson, then U. S. Secretary of War: “I did not want to have the United States get the reputation for outdoing Hitler in atrocities”
Hersey, a respected war correspondent at the time, chose to tell his story through the experiences of six Japanese survivors of the atomic blast. His 30,000-word article took up nearly the entire August 31, 1946 issue of The New Yorker magazine. For the first time, the American public was learning about such ghastly details as melting eyeballs and people being vaporized.
The issue sold out within hours of publication, and the article was soon reprinted in newspapers around the country, unheard of at the time for a piece of such enormous length. Two months later, the article was published as a full-length book. A main selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club, it was sent free to members (the first and only time this has happened). The book is now regarded as a classic in journalism history.
“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.”
Think and Grow Rich (1937)
Truly, “thoughts are things,” and powerful things at that, when they are mixed with definiteness of purpose, persistence, and a burning desire for their translation into riches, or other material objects.
These are the opening words of the book’s Introduction, but in an earlier “Author’s Preface,” Hill already tantalized readers with these two paragraphs:
“In every chapter of this book, mention has been made of the money-making secret which has made fortunes for more than five hundred exceedingly wealthy men whom I have carefully analyzed over a long period of years.
“The secret was brought to my attention by Andrew Carnegie more than a quarter of a century ago. The canny, lovable old Scotsman carelessly tossed it into my mind when I was a young boy. Then he sat back in his chair, with a merry twinkle in his eyes, and watched carefully to see if I had brains enough to understand the full significance of what he had said to me.”
Seabiscuit: An American Legend (2001)
In 1938, near the end of a decade of monumental turmoil, the year’s number-one newsmaker was not Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Hitler, or Mussolini. It wasn’t Pope Pius XI, nor was it Lou Gehrig, Howard Hughes, or Clark Gable. The subject of the most newspaper column inches in 1938 wasn’t even a person. It was an undersized, crooked-legged racehorse named Seabiscuit.
I love great opening lines, true, and that love also occasionally extends to the things written about them. If I spent a month crafting my own thoughts about Hillenbrand’s remarkable opening paragraph, it wouldn’t hold a candle to an amazing assessment made by professor Richard Goodman of the University of New Orleans. In an October 2012 article in The Writer’s Chronicle (titled “In the Beginning: Creating Dynamic, Meaningful & Compelling Openings”), he offered a Masterclass in literary criticism in these three paragraphs:
“How do writers take advantage of the opening of their story and use it skillfully to accomplish what they need to do? We can begin with the simple act of dispensing of information. There’s no better example of how that’s done well than the Preface of Laura Hillenbrand’s nonfiction book Seabiscuit: An American Legend. Remember that when this book was published in 2001, very few people had ever heard of Seabiscuit, much less had known anything about the horse’s remarkable, unlikely drama. That seems incredible now, after the hugely successful book and the equally successful movie, but it’s true. Not only that, Hillenbrand knew very well that no book about a horse had ever done remotely well in the history of American literature. (I’m excluding books for children and young adults, because this book is not in that category.) She had her work cut out for her….
“What she does here, foremost, in this brief paragraph, is to get the reader to understand how big, culturally speaking, Seabiscuit was. First, we notice the famous—and infamous—company she puts Seabiscuit in: Roosevelt, Pope Pius XI, Clark Gable. Mussolini and Hitler. But it’s how she puts Seabiscuit in that company that makes this so convincing. The names are intricately balanced. If you were to diagram them, poetically speaking, it would be AAA—all the political figures—; B—the Pope—; and CCC—all the well-known cultural icons. Look closely, and you’ll see this paragraph is even more fully balanced. The year 1938 is at the start of the paragraph, and it’s also near the end. The word ‘newspaper’ is placed before the litany of names, as well as after. Hillenbrand further provides a sense of balance with the litany itself: ‘was not’; ‘wasn’t’; ‘nor was’; ‘wasn’t even’, setting up the dramatic ‘It was.’ Having been set to expect a person, we are, instead, given the name of a horse. That horse—the one who was more famous that Roosevelt, Clark Gable or the Pope—was named Seabiscuit.
“No good artist ever does anything without a reason. So you can be certain that every single thing in this paragraph was done deliberately. The effect is to get you to look at this horse in a way you’ve never looked at another horse and to believe this is going to be a story worth reading. Of course we know the denouement to this paragraph is going to be Seabiscuit. That’s the name on the cover of the book. So how can we still be surprised? We’re surprised by the facts that we didn’t know, and by how they’re presented to us. This writing is the result of patient crafting, but it’s also the result of research and of marshaling facts. These facts didn’t just fall from the sky, though; Hillenbrand rooted them out—obsessively, as she herself describes it. To find those facts she began, ‘prowling Internet search engines, memorabilia auctions, and obscure bookstores, writing letters and placing information wanted ads, and making hundreds of calls to strangers.’ She didn’t stop until she found what she was looking for. This, with her craft, produced a gem of an opening paragraph.”
Very well said, professor Goodman, very well said, indeed. Thank you for granting me permission to quote you.
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.“
The Paranoid Style in American Politics (1964)
The most difficult and delicate task that faces the author of a book of essays is that of writing an Introduction that makes his various pieces seem considerably more unified, in theme and argument, than they were in fact when they were written.
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.
Adolph Sutro: King of the Comstock Lode and Mayor of San Francisco (2020)
I hate biographies; they always end badly.
When reading biographies, it’s rare to find an opening line that might work perfectly in a standup-comedy routine, but that’s what happened when I opened the pages of Huber’s book about one of the most fascinating personalities in San Francisco’s colorful history. This great line came at the beginning of Chapter One. A page earlier, in the book’s Introduction, Huber also began memorably, writing: “A biography of one born in 1830 is sure to end with the death of the subject, and the opening chapter describes that inevitable outcome.”
“From Harlem to Paris,” in The New York Times (Feb. 26, 1956)
I think that one definition of the great artist might be the creator who projects the biggest dream in terms of the least person.
This is the first sentence of Hughes’s review of James Baldwin’s book of essays—Notes of a Native Son—published several months earlier. Hughes continued: “There is something in Cervantes or Shakespeare, Beethoven or Rembrandt, or Louis Armstrong that millions can understand.”
While acknowledging that the 31-year-old Baldwin was not yet “a great artist,” Hughes certainly recognized his great potential, writing: “Few American writers handle words more effectively in the essay form than James Baldwin. To my way of thinking, he is much better at provoking thought in the essay than he is in arousing emotion in fiction…. In his essays, words and material suit each other. The thought becomes poetry, and the poetry illuminates the thought.”
“Of the First Principles of Government,“ in Essays: Moral, Political, & Literary (1741-42)
Nothing appears more surprising to those who consider human affairs with a philosophical eye than the easiness with which the many are governed by the few; and the implicit submission with which men resign their own sentiments and passions to those of their rulers.
“Of the Independency of Parliament,“ in Essays: Moral, Political, & Literary (1741-42)
Political writers have established it as a maxim that, in contriving any system of government…every man ought to be supposed a knave, and to have no other end in all his actions than private interest.
"The Platonist", in Essays: Moral, Political, & Literary (1741-42)
To some philosophers it appears [a] matter of surprise that all mankind, possessing the same nature and being endowed with the same faculties, should yet differ so widely in their pursuits and inclinations, and that one should utterly condemn what is fondly sought after by the other.
An Enquiry Concerning The Principles of Morals (1751)
Disputes with men, pertinaciously obstinate in their principles, are, of all others, the most irksome; except perhaps, those with persons, entirely disingenuous, who really do not believe the opinions they defend, but engage in the controversy, from affectation, from a spirit of opposition, or from a desire of showing wit and ingenuity, superior to the rest of mankind.
The language may be a little dated and high-flown, but few philosophical works have opened with a better combination of elegant phrasing and forceful expression. As Hume brought the first paragraph to a close, he offered an important generalization about the human experience: “And as reasoning is not the source, whence either disputant derives his tenets; it is in vain to expect, that any logic, which speaks not to the affections, will ever engage him to embrace sounder principles.”
This is one of intellectual history’s best opening paragraphs—and as relevant today as when it was written 270 years ago. In The Great Guide: What David Hume Can Teach Us About Being Human and Living Well (2021), Julian Baggini summarized the essence of the paragraph this way: “When reason has nothing to do with why people hold their beliefs, reason is powerless to change them.”
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.“
Island of the Aunts (originally published in England under the title Monster Mission) (1999)
Kidnapping children is never a good idea. All the same, sometimes it has to be done.
This is yet another example of a novel for children treating a serious crime in a sensible or almost commendable way. In the novel, the narrator continued: “Aunt Etta and Aunt Coral and Aunt Myrtle were not natural kidnappers. For one thing, they were getting old, and kidnapping is hard work; for another, though they looked a little odd, they were very caring people.” The novel was named a School Library Journal Best Book of 2000.
Kissinger: A Biography (1992)
As his parents finished packing the few personal belongings that they were permitted to take out of Germany, the bespectacled fifteen-year-old boy stood in the corner of the apartment and memorized the details of the scene.
Isaacson continued: “He was a bookish and reflective child, with that odd mixture of ego and insecurity that can come from growing up smart yet persecuted. ’I’ll be back someday,’ he said to the customs inspector who was surveying the boxes.“
Benjamin Franklin: An American Life (2003)
His arrival in Philadelphia is one of the most famous scenes in autobiographical literature: the bedraggled 17-year-old runaway, cheeky yet with a pretense of humility, straggling off the boat and buying three puffy rolls as he wanders up Market Street. But wait a minute. There’s something more.
Isaacson begins his biography with a reference to the beginning of Franklin’s Autobiography, where Franklin had talked about arriving in Philadelphia after hastily leaving Boston. The “something more” is what Franklin’s original description had revealed about him. “Benjamin Franklin is the founding father who winks at us,“ Isaacson concluded. And a moment later, he described Franklin this way:
“Ben Franklin, that ambitious urban entrepreneur, seems made of flesh rather than marble, addressable by nickname, and he turns to us from history’s stage with eyes that twinkle from behind those newfangled spectacles. He speaks to us, through his letters and hoaxes and autobiography, not with orotund rhetoric but with a chattiness and clever irony that is very contemporary, sometimes unnervingly so.“
American Sketches (2009)
I was once asked to contribute an essay to the Washington Post for a page called “The Writing Life”. This caused me some consternation.
Isaacson continued: “A little secret of many nonfiction writers like myself—especially those of us who spring from journalism—is that we don’t quite think of ourselves as true writers, at least not of the sort who get called to reflect upon “the writing life.“
“Franklin and the Art of Leadership,” in American Sketches (2009)
Benjamin Franklin would, I think, have been pleased, even tickled by the election of Barack Obama as president.
Steve Jobs (2011)
When Paul Jobs was mustered out of the Coast Guard after World War II, he made a wager with his crewmates. They had arrived in San Francisco, where their ship was decommissioned, and Paul bet that he would find himself a wife within two weeks.
Isaacson began his acclaimed biography with a tantalizing tidbit about his subject’s adoptive father; and—while I won’t go into the details here—it all makes eminent sense in the grand scheme of Jobs’s remarkable life.
Leonardo da Vinci (2017)
Leonardo da Vinci had the good luck to be born out of wedlock.
This is a superb opening line—a classic example of oxymoronic phrasing—and easily the best of any of Isaacson’s fine biographies. I also regard it as one of the all-time best first sentences in the biography genre that Isaacson has come to dominate.
In his first paragraph, the affable Tulane University professor continued: “Otherwise, he would have been expected to become a notary, like the firstborn legitimate sons in his family stretching back at least five generations.”
“Soap Opera,” in The Progressive (October 1967)
You could probably prove, by judicious use of logarithms and congruent triangles, that real life is a lot more like soap opera than most people will admit.
“Magnolias and Moonshine,” in Mother Jones (June 1988)
Watching the candidates metamorphose into Southerners was sort of like watching The Fly.
In a column on the ingratiating quality of presidential candidates early in the election season, Ivins continued: “Bob Dole claimed to be a Southerner-in-law. Paul Simon noted he is from southern Illinois. Albert Gore, Jr., fondly reminisced about shoveling pig manure, and Pat Robertson ate grits in public. George Bush, who only the week before had been in New Hampshire claiming to be the full-blooded Yankee—Drink Syrup or Die—turned up in Houston wearing boots, cowboy hat, and neckerchief.”
“Good Morning, Fort Worth! Glad to Be Here,“ in Fort Worth Star-Telegram (1992)
I dearly love the state of Texas, but I consider that a harmless perversion on my part, and discuss it only with consenting adults. If Texas were a sane place, it wouldn’t be nearly as much fun.
“Texas Woman: True Grit and All the Rest,” in Cosmopolitan magazine (Vol. 212, 1992)
They used to say that Texas was hell on women and horses—I don’t know why they stopped.
“My, Oh, My, It’s the Ninth Wonder of the World,” in Fort-Worth Star-Telegram (May 15, 1994)
Great Caesar’s armpit! Sweet suffering catfish! Holey Gamoley! I have been to the Pyramids of America. I have seen the cathedral of commerce, our Coliseum, our Chartres. I have been to the Mall of America, the world’s largest shopping mall.
“Say So,” in Rosie magazine (2001, Vol. 128)
I like politicians, which is sort of like confessing that you are into interspecies dating. I consider this a harmless perversion on my part, and besides, I discuss it only with consenting adults.
Time magazine (Feb. 18, 2002)
Having breast cancer is massive amounts of no fun. First they mutilate you; then they poison you; then they burn you. I have been on blind dates better than that.
Ivins retained her irreverent sense of humor even while struggling with the cancer that would take her life—at age 62—in 2007. She continued: “One of the first things you notice is that people treat you differently when they know you have it. The hushed tone in which they inquire, ‘How are you?’ is unnerving. If I had answered honestly during 90% of the nine months I spent in treatment, I would have said, ’If it weren’t for being constipated, I’d be fine.’ In fact, even chemotherapy is not nearly as hard as it once was, although it still made all my hair fall out.”
“Why We Travel,” in Salon.com (March 18, 2000)
We travel, initially to lose ourselves; and we travel, next, to find ourselves.
On its own, this is a spectacular aphorism, well deserving of inclusion in any of the major anthologies of great quotations. in the article, Iyer continued:
“We travel to open our hearts and eyes and learn more about the world than our newspapers will accommodate. We travel to bring what little we can, in our ignorance and knowledge, to those parts of the globe whose riches are differently dispersed. And we travel, in essence, to become young fools again—to slow time down and get taken in, and fall in love once more.”
“Making Kindness Stand to Reason,” in Sun After Dark (2004)
Though the Dalai Lama is increasingly famous as a speaker, his real gift, you see as soon as you begin talking to him, is for listening.
Iyer is best known for his travel writings, but his profiles about people are also beautifully written—and this particular opener is outstanding. He continued: “And though he is most celebrated around the world these days for his ability to talk to halls large enough to stage a Bon Jovi concert, his special strength is to address twenty thousand people—Buddhists and grandmothers and kids alike—as if he were talking to each one alone, in the language she can best understand.”
“Love Match,” in Video Night in Kathmandu (1988)
Rambo had conquered Asia.
Iyer continued: “In China, a million people raced to see First Blood within ten days of its Beijing opening, and black marketeers were hawking tickets at seven times the official price. In India, five separate remakes of the American hit went instantly into production, one of them recasting the macho superman as a sari-clad woman.”
“The Quest Becomes a Trek,” in Video Night in Kathmandu (1988)
Within minutes of landing in Kathmandu, I found myself in Eden.
This is the piece’s entire first paragraph. In the second, Iyer continued: “The Hotel Eden, that is, not to be confused with the Paradise Restaurant around the corner or the Hotel Shangri-La. The Eden was on the intersection of Freak Street and the Dharmapath, which was, I thought, the perfect location: at the intersection of hippiedom and Hinduism, where Haight-Ashbury meets the Himalayas.”
“Welcome to the Much-Maligned World of the Conservative,” in The Boston Globe (Feb. 24, 1994)
So what’s a nice conservative like me doing in a newspaper like this?
In his very first column for the liberal-leaning Boston Globe, the conservative Jacoby couldn’t have written a better opening line.
“My Father’s Shoes,” in The Boston Globe (April 15, 1999)
They were nice to my father the second time he went to Auschwitz.
The best way to describe this dramatic opener is “arresting.” As soon as its read, it not only gets the reader’s attention, it holds it for some time after.
Jacoby went on to write: “It was in September 1997, during a trip he’d always insisted he wouldn’t take. He never wanted to go back to his native Czechoslovakia, he’d said; never wanted to revisit Auschwitz, where his parents, his brothers, and his two younger sisters were murdered by the Germans in 1944.”
“The House of Tudor Didn’t Get the Last Word,” in The Boston Globe (March 26, 2015)
It’s remarkable what five centuries can do for a man’s reputation.
This clear and confident assertion formed the article’s entire first paragraph. In the second, Jacoby continued: “When Richard III, the last Plantaganet king of England, was killed at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485, his corpse was stripped and hauled in disgrace through the streets of Leicester… stuffed into a crude grave, naked and coffinless….”
In 2012, after King Richard’s bones were found under a London parking lot (yes, a parking lot!), the discovery prompted an historic reappraisal of an English monarch who’d been denigrated by Shakespeare as “That bottled spider, that foul bunch-back’d toad.” In 2015, three years after his body was discovered, the remains were reburied—with full honors—in Leicester Cathedral. Jacoby believed there was much to learn from this unusual turn of events, writing: “It may have taken 530 years, but history’s verdict on Richard III turned out to be very different from the malignant reputation ascribed to him by the Tudor loyalists of his era. There is a lesson in that, and not only for medievalists.”
“Arafat the Monster,” in The Boston Globe (Nov. 11, 2004)
Yasser Arafat died at the old age of 75, lying in bed and surrounded by familiar faces. He left this world peacefully, unlike the thousands of victims he sent to early graves.
Jacoby went on to add: “In a better world, the PLO chief would have met his end on a gallows, hanged for mass murder much as the Nazi chiefs were hanged at Nuremberg. In a better world, the French president would not have paid a visit to the bedside of such a monster. In a better world, well-wishers would not be flocking to the hospital grounds to create a makeshift shrine of flowers, candles, and admiring messages. In a better world, George Bush would not have said, on hearing the first reports that Arafat had died, ‘God bless his soul.’”
“Romney’s Secret ‘R,’” in The Boston Globe (Oct. 6, 2002)
It’s the deep, dark secret of the Mitt Romney campaign, the one he and his handlers are desperately hoping no one will find out.
He’s a Republican.
Jacoby was referring to Romney’s presidential campaign in the traditionally liberal state of Massachusetts. He continued: “Shh—keep it to yourself. Nobody’s supposed to know. That’s why on the campaign trail, Romney never mentions his party affiliation. That’s why the word ‘Republican’ can barely be found on his lavish web site, romney2002.com. That’s why it doesn’t cross his lips during debates, and why his press releases routinely avoid it. (They identify him not as the GOP gubernatorial nominee but as “Former Winter Olympic Chief Mitt Romney.“)
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.”
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.”
“Who Poisoned Joe Gilliam…Twice?” in Willamette Week (Nov. 3, 2021)
Joe Gilliam, one of the most influential voices in Oregon politics, has been silenced.
For more than two decades, Gilliam, 59, served as president of the Northwest Grocery Association, which counts Fred Meyer, Safeway and Costco among its members. He represented their interests in Salem, battled competitors and earned a reputation as a punishing opponent and loyal friend.
But for the past nine months, WW recently learned, Gilliam has been lying in a vegetative state at an undisclosed care facility in Clark County, Wash. Vigorous and athletic as recently as May 2020, he can now neither move nor speak.
It wasn’t COVID-19 that laid him low.
Nor was it heart disease or a car crash.
It was poison.
It’s rare for a newspaper article—especially one from a small community newspaper—to begin like a first-rate crime thriller, but Jaquiss accomplishes that feat here.
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.“
Ford Madox Ford (1990)
There are also the rich in spirit. It overflows and is seen in everything they do. They are never mean, not even with money.
Judd continued: “In the 1930s, when Ford was hard up in Paris, a Georgian prince—every Georgian in Paris was a prince in those days—came to him and asked for some. Ford had never met the man before but let him have a check. The prince was outraged by the smallness of the sum and never visited Ford again, though he kept the check. It was for one half of the money Ford owned.”
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.”
“An Answer to the Question: ’What is Enlightenment?“’ in Berlin Monthly (Dec. 1784)
Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity.
Kant continued: “Immaturity is the inability to use one’s own understanding without the guidance of another. This immaturity is self-incurred if its cause is not lack of understanding, but lack of resolution and courage to use it without the guidance of another. The motto of enlightenment is therefore: Sapere aude! Have courage to use your own understanding.”
Sapere aude! is a Latin proverb generally translated as “Dare to know!” or “Dare to be wise!” In modern usage, it has also come to mean something close to: “Dare to think for yourself!”
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.
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.
Love, etc. (1979)
And they lived happily ever after. Well, not exactly. Actually, not at all. As a matter of fact, miserably. To tell the truth, their life together was sheer hell, and their struggles to free themselves from each other were disastrous.
After this nifty oxymoronic opening—with the captivating idea of a happily miserable couple whose marriage is not unlike a Chinese finger puzzle—only the nearly comatose would fail to read on.
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."
You Might as Well Live: The Life and Times of Dorothy Parker (1970)
Once upon a time, the world was bright and new, and Dorothy Parker was one of the brightest and newest people in it.
Keats continued: “She was an elfin woman who had two kinds of magic about her. Her first magical quality was that no one could consider her even dispassionately, and the other was that no one could precisely define her.“
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.“
John F. Kennedy
Profiles in Courage (1956)
This is a book about that most admirable of human virtues—courage. “Grace under pressure,” Ernest Hemingway defined it.
Kennedy’s book went on to win the 1957 Pulitzer Prize in Biography and nicely positioned him for a presidential run a few years later. At the time, many believed Theodore Sorenson, a noted historian and close friend of the Kennedy family, had actually ghostwritten the work.
JFK didn’t say much about the matter, but in 1957 his father famously threatened to sue political commentator Drew Pearson for asserting that Sorenson was the real author. The controversy even resulted in a popular apocryphal story that one of Kennedy’s colleagues in the Senate had said to him, “Jack, I wish you had a little less profile and a lot more courage.” The whole matter remained murky until 2008, when Sorenson revealed in his memoir (Counselor: A Life at the Edge of History) that he had, in fact, written “a first draft of most of the chapters” and “helped choose the words of many sentences.”
In the opening words to the book, Kennedy continued: “And these are the stories of the pressures experienced by eight United States Senators and the grace with which they endured them—the risks to their careers, the unpopularity of their courses, the defamation of their characters, and sometimes, but sadly only sometimes, the vindication of their reputations and their principles.”
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.
She Comes First: The Thinking Man’s Guide to Pleasuring a Woman (2004)
The premise of this book is simple: when it comes to pleasuring women and conversing in the language of love, cunnilingus should be every man’s native tongue.
It’s hard to imagine a better—or more clever—way to begin a sex manual. This opening sentence may shock the sensibilities of some, but those who are offended are almost certainly not members of the target audience.
In the book, Kerner continued in the first paragraph: “As bestselling author Lou Paget has written, ‘Ask most women, and if they’re being honest, they will admit that what makes them hottest and come hardest is when a man can use his tongue well.’”
I also admired the lovely metaphorical way Kerner began the book’s second paragraph: “But as with any language, in order to express yourself fluently, in order to make your subject sing and soar, you must be thoroughly acquainted with the rules of grammar and style.”
Please Don't Eat the Daisies (1957)
I had the feeling all along that this book should have an Introduction, because it doesn’t have an Index and it ought to have something.
The Snake Has All the Lines (1960)
I make mistakes; I’ll be the second to admit it.
A Most Dangerous Method (1993)
Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung met for the first time on 3 March 1907. They talked for thirteen hours straight.
Kerr continued: “The last time the two men were together in the same room was at the Fourth International Psychoanalytic Congress, held in Munich on 7-8 September 1913. On that occasion, so far as is known, they said not a single word to each other. So it was in silence that one of the most vexed partnership in the history of ideas ended.”
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.“
Night Shift (1978)
Let’s talk, you and I. Let’s talk about fear.
These are the opening words of the Foreword to Night Shift, King’s first collection of short stories. A little more than two decades later, writer Peter Straub wrote about this beginning: “With its deliberate repetition of the first two words, its gliding but insistent rhythm, and its movement from the colloquial contraction of ‘let’s’ to the abrupt shock of the final noun, this flourish is literary to the core.“ They do not come across as literary, though, says Straub, “because they represent that friendliest of all communications, the invitation.“
In the second paragraph, King, ever the skillful host, escorts the reader into his house: “The house is empty as I write this; a cold February rain is falling outside. It’s night. Sometimes when the wind blows this way, we lose the power. But for now it’s on, and so lets talk very honestly about fear. Let’s talk very rationally about moving to the rim of madness...and perhaps over the edge.“ [ellipsis in original]
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.
“Great Hookers I Have Known,“ in Secret Windows: Essays and Fiction on the Craft of Writing (2000)
When I finally understand what my thirteen-year-old son was talking about, I told him no problem, I could find him a couple of good hookers easy—maybe even a couple of great ones.
Writers have been referring to Great Opening Lines as hooks for many generations, but I’d never heard them described as hookers until I read this essay by King. He went on to explain: “He’d asked about opening lines, and pulp-magazine editors used the slang term “hookers” to describe such lines. The editors knew pretty well who the audience was. Truckers. Short-order cooks. Steelworkers. Farmhands. Working guys, in other words, who wanted to get away from the gray lives they lived and experience more exciting ones—lives that were bright with color and adventure. If you were good enough to cut it, that readership would support you and the magazines would continue to publish you. But if what you wrote started off flat, the readers would quickly flip past you to the next story.“
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).
Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (1994)
The very first thing I tell my new students on the first day of a workshop is that good writing is about telling the truth.
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 Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America (2003)
In Chicago at the end of the nineteenth century amid the smoke of industry and the clatter of trains there lived two men, both handsome, both blue-eyed, and both unusually adept at their chosen skills. Each embodied an element of the great dynamic that characterized the rush of America toward the twentieth century.
In this compelling work—named “Best Book of the Year” by the San Francisco Chronicle—Larson brought a novelist’s sensibility to a history book. Larson continued: “One was an architect, the builder of many of America’s most important structures, among them the Flatiron Building in New York and Union Station in Washington, D.C.; the other was a murderer, one of the most prolific in history and harbinger of an American archetype, the urban serial killer. Although the two never met, at least not formally, their fates were linked by a single, magical event.”
That single, magical event was, of course, Chicago’s 1893 World’s Fair (officially named “The 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition”). Larson’s book reintroduced modern readers to the legendary American architect Daniel Burnham and interwove his story with that of H. H. Holmes, a Chicago man who is often described as America’s first serial killer.
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.
“My Day: An Introduction of Sorts,“ in Metropolitan Life (1978)
12:35 P.M.—The phone rings. I am not amused. This is not my favorite way to wake up.
Writer and critic Edmund White once called Fran Lebowitz “The funniest woman in America,“ and these opening words are a perfect example of her wry wit. What makes the opener so witty, of course, is that the phone call awakening Lebowitz has come just after noontime.
In the opening essay of her now-classic 1978 collection of essays, Lebowitz continued: “My favorite way to wake up is to have a certain French movie star whisper to me softly at two-thirty in the afternoon that if I want to get to Sweden in time to pick up my Nobel Prize for Literature I had better ring for breakfast. This occurs rather less often than one might wish.”
“Modern Sports,“ in Metropolitan Life (1978)
When it comes to sports I am not particularly interested. Generally speaking, I look upon them as dangerous and tiring activities performed by people with whom I share nothing except the right to trial by jury.
Lebowitz continued: “It is not that I am totally indifferent to the joys of athletic effort—it is simply that my idea of what constitutes sport does not coincide with popularly held notions on the subject.”
“Sleep,“ in Metropolitan Life (1978)
I love sleep because it is both pleasant and safe to use.
“Writing: A Life Sentence,“ in Metropolitan Life (1978)
Contrary to what many of you might imagine, a career in letters is not without its drawbacks—chief among them the unpleasant fact that one is frequently called upon to actually sit down and write.
“Taking a Letter,“ in Metropolitan Life (1978)
As one with a distinct aversion to newspapers I rely heavily for information on the random remarks of others. Therefore my sources are far from impeccable.
“A Few Words on a Few Words,“ in Metropolitan Life (1978)
Democracy is an interesting, even laudable, notion and there is no question but that when compared to Communism, which is too dull, or Fascism, which is too exciting, it emerges as the most palatable form of government.
Lebowitz continued: “This is not to say that it is without its drawbacks—chief among them being its regrettable tendency to encourage people in the belief that all men are created equal.”
Richard Lederer’s Ultimate Book of Literary Trivia (2021)
Literature lives. Literature endures. Literature prevails. That’s because readers bestow a special kind of life upon people who have existed only in books.
Reading these opening words, our minds are almost immediately filled with thoughts of people who’ve never actually existed but who seem very real indeed—Sherlock Holmes, Little Nell, Mickey Spillane, Holden Caulfield, Jane Eyre, Atticus Finch, Walter Mitty, Scarlett O’Hara, Harry Potter, Hannibal Lector, Don Quixote, and on and on.
Lederer continued: “Figments though they may be, literary characters can assume a vitality and longevity that pulse more powerfully than flesh and blood.”
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!”
The Miracle of Language (1991)
“Language is the Rubicon that divides man from beast,” declared the philologist Max Müller. The boundary between human and animal—between the most primitive savage and the highest ape—is the language line.
Anguished English (1989)
Mark Twain once wrote, “Man is the only animal that blushes. Or needs to.” He could have added, “The human being is the only animal that truly laughs. Or needs to.”
Tweaking a famous quotation is a time-honored way of beginning a book—especially a non-fiction work—and Lederer does that very nicely here and in his The Miracle of Language entry.
For more than a quarter of a century, Lederer taught English at St. Paul’s School, a prestigious prep school in Concord, New Hampshire. From early in his teaching career, Lederer began recording “bloopers” and “blunders” from his students (like “Noah’s wife was Joan of Ark” and “A man with more than one wife is a pigamist”). Over time, he began soliciting additional examples from teachers around the world, and the result was Anguished English, which he delightfully subtitled: “An Anthology of Accidental Assaults Upon Our Language.“
The book was hugely successful, allowing Lederer to quit his New Hampshire teaching job, move to San Diego, and pursue his passion for words on a full-time basis. In a full and vibrant career, the ageless Lederer—who turns eighty-four in 2022—has written more than fifty books that have sold well over a million copies. Count me among the many verbivores—a word coined by Lederer, by the way—as a national treasure.
The Cunning Linguist Ribald Riddles, Lascivious Limericks, Carnal Corn, and Other Good, Clean Dirty Fun (2003)
In a junior high-school biology class the teacher asks a student, “Mary please name the part of the human body that expands to six times its normal size and explain under what conditions.”
Blushing bright red, Mary simpers, “Teacher that is not a proper question to ask me, and I can’t answer it in front of the class.”
The teacher turns to another student and asks, “All right, Johnny, do you have the answer”
“The pupil of the eye, and in dim light.”
Lederer continued by having the teacher say: “Correct. Now Mary, I want to tell you three things. First, you didn’t do your homework last night. Second, you have a dirty mind. And third, when you grow up, you’re going to be dreadfully disappointed.”
If we were to apply the Motion Picture Association of America’s film ratings system to Lederer’s more than fifty books, all but this one would probably be G-Rated. The Cunning Linguist probably deserves a PG Rating—not just for the occasionally raunchy content, but also for the punning title (if you can’t figure it out on your own, ask a more worldly friend).
“Sweet Smell of Success” (1950), title story of Sweet Smell of Success: And Other Stories (1957)
I just let her go on talking.
The narrator, a sleazy Manhattan press agent named Sidney Falco, continued in the first paragraph: “I sat there at my desk with the phone propped between my head and shoulder and allowed the insistent monotone of her voice to jab at my brain, while I mopped my forehead with my left hand and tapped a cigarette with my right.”
Lehman’s story originally appeared under the title “Tell Me About It Tomorrow” in an April, 1950 issue of Cosmopolitan magazine (the publication’s editors insisted on a title change because they didn’t want the word “smell” to appear in the pages of the magazine).
Lehman’s novelette was adapted into a first-rate 1957 film starring Tony Curtis as Falco and Burt Lancaster as the powerful and unprincipled newspaper columnist J. J. Hunseker (Lehman co-wrote the screenplay with Clifford Odets). The film got off to a disappointing start, in large part because Tony Curtis fans had trouble accepting him in a role that clashed with his “nice-guy” image. By the end of the year, however, the film was on numerous “Ten-Best” lists, and is now regarded as a film noir classic.
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.
Education and Ecstasy (1968)
Teachers are overworked and underpaid. True. It is an exacting and exhausting business, this damming up the flood of human potentialities.
It is generally inadvisable to begin a book with a sarcasm-laced observation, but Leonard--a leader of the human potential movement and critic of the educational establishment—was clearly trying to get people’s attention. In the first paragraph, he continued: “What energy it takes to make a torrent into a trickle, to train that trickle along narrow, well-marked channels!“
The Ultimate Athlete (1974)
In every fat man, the saying goes, there is a thin man struggling to get out. If this is so, then every skinny man must at times find himself surrounded by the ghostly outlines of muscles and heft. And there must somehow exist an ideal physique for every one of us—man, woman, and child.
Leonard continued: “Every body that moves about on this planet, if you look at it that way, may well be inhabited by a strong and graceful athlete, capable of Olympian feats.“
These Truths: A History of the United States (2018)
The course of history is unpredictable, as irregular as the weather, as errant as affection, nations rising and falling by whim and chance, battered by violence, corrupted by greed, seized by tyrants, raided by rogues, addled by demagogues.
It takes a touch of audacity to attempt a one-volume history of the United States, and Lepore—a Harvard University history professor as well as a New Yorker staff writer—opens with a bang. Bruce Watson, a noted writer/historian in his own right, alerted me to Lepore’s opening words, writing: “It’s not easy to sum up history in a sentence, nor is it easy to do a full U.S. history in a single book, but Lepore rises to both tasks. Introducing her monumental single-volume history, she makes many profound statements about history as an inexact science and America as a work in progress. She had me from the start.”
Lepore’s book was widely hailed, but my favorite critical comment came from Casey Cep, also a New Yorker staff writer, in a Harvard Magazine review. After describing the work as “Astounding,” Cep went on to write that Lepore “has assembled evidence of an America that was better than some thought, worse than almost anyone imagined, and weirder than most serious history books ever convey.”
The title of Lepore’s book, of course, comes from the second line of the Declaration of Independence, which begins, “We hold these truths to be self-evident….“
The Dance of Anger (1985)
Anger is a signal, and one worth listening to.
This is a brilliant opening line, succinctly capturing in nine simple words the essence of an entire book. They also begin a full paragraph that is one of psychology history’s clearest and most lucid descriptions of a complex emotion:
“Anger is a signal, and one worth listening to. Our anger may be a message that we are being hurt, that our rights are being violated, that our needs or wants are not being adequately met, or simply that something is not right. Our anger may tell us that we are not addressing an important emotional issue in our lives, or that too much of our self—our beliefs, values, desires, or ambitions—is being compromised in a relationship. Our anger may be a signal that we are doing more and giving more than we can comfortably do or give. Or our anger may warn us that others are doing too much for us, at the expense of our own competence and growth. Just as physical pain tells us to take our hand off the hot stove, the pain of our anger preserves the very integrity of our self. Our anger can motivate us to say ‘no’ to the ways in which we are defined by others and ‘yes’ to the dictates of our inner self.”
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.“
Daniel J. Levitin
Successful Aging (2020)
The poet Dylan Thomas wrote that one should not go gently into that good night, that old age should burn and rage at close of day. As a younger man reading that poem, I saw futility in those words. I saw aging only as a failing: a failing of the body, of the mind, and even of the spirit.
Levitin, a neuroscientist who authored four previous New York Times bestsellers, turned his attention to aging in this latest book, also a bestseller. He continued: “I saw my grandfather suffer aches and pains. Once agile and proudly self-sufficient, by his sixties he struggled to swing a hammer and was unable to read the label on a box of Triscuit crackers without his glasses. I listened as my grandmother forgot words, and I cried when eventually she forgot what year it was.”
Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game (2003)
The first thing they always did was run you.
In this landmark sports book, Lewis began by introducing the idea of experts focusing on the wrong things. He continued: “When big league scouts road-tested a group of elite amateur prospects, foot speed was the first item they checked off their lists. The scouts actually carried around checklists. ‘Tools’ is what they called the talents they were checking for in a kid. There were five tools: the abilities to run, throw, field, hit, and hit with power. A guy who could run had ‘wheels’; a guy with a strong arm had a ‘hose.’ Scouts spoke the language of auto mechanics. You could be forgiven, if you listened to them, for thinking they were discussing sports cars and not young men.”
A. J. Liebling
The Telephone Booth Indian (1942)
There was once a French-Canadian whose name I cannot at present recall but who had a window in his stomach. It was due to this fortunate circumstance, however unlikely, that a prying fellow of a doctor was able to study the man’s inner workings, and that is how we came to know all about the gastric juices, as I suppose we do.
These are the first words of the Preface to the book. Liebling continued: “The details are not too clear in my mind, as I read the story in a hygiene reader which formed part of the curriculum of my fourth year in elementary school, but I have no doubt it is essentially correct.”
The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, and the Unlikely Ascent of Hallelujah (2012)
Allen Ginzberg once said, “Dylan blew everybody’s mind except Leonard’s.”
For a writer, it’s got to be a major challenge to craft an exemplary opening for a biography about the legendary Leonard Cohen and his equally legendary song, “Hallelujah.” But Light finds a way to do it with style—bringing together three iconic historical figures in one intriguing observation about two of them.
“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.
A Preface to Morals (1929)
Among those who no longer believe in the religion of their fathers, some are proudly defiant, and many are indifferent. But there are also a few, perhaps an increasing number, who feel that there is a vacancy in their lives. This inquiry deals with their problem.
Lippmann continued: “It is not intended to disturb the serenity of those who are unshaken in the faith they hold, and it is not concerned with those who are still exhilarated by their escape from some stale orthodoxy. It is concerned with those who are perplexed by the consequences of their own irreligion.”
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.“
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.”
“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.”
M. G. Lord
The Accidental Feminist: How Elizabeth Taylor Raised Our Consciousness and We Were Too Distracted by Her Beauty to Notice (2012)
You could say it began in 1944 with National Velvet, when Elizabeth Taylor, age twelve, dressed as a boy and stole America’s collective heart. By “it,” I mean the subversive drumbeats of feminism, which swelled in the star’s important movies over decades from a delicate pitty-pat to a resounding roar.
Few people would regard Elizabeth Taylor as an influential figure in the early history of feminism, but Lord’s mission is to set the record straight. In the second paragraph, she continued: “Feminism may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the name Elizabeth Taylor. But it might if you share your definition with writer Rebecca West: ‘I myself have never been able to find out precisely what feminism is. I only know that people call me a feminist when I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat.”
“‘Max’ in Danger” (1922), in Essays on Life and Literature (1951)
Max is in danger of being canonized.
Since canonization is typically regarded as a good thing, Lynd immediately gets our attention by suggesting that, at least in this case, the very opposite is true. At the time the article was written, all literate readers would have known that the “Max” in question was Max Beerbohm, one of the truly great wits in the early decades of the twentieth century. In his opening paragraph, Lynd continued: “Critics may quarrel about him, but it is only because the wreaths get in the way of one another, and every critic thinks that his should be on top.”
After this engaging introduction to the subject of the essay, Lynd continued to write with great flair as he went on to say: “In order to avert this unseemly canonization—or, at least, to keep it within the bounds of reason—one would like to adopt the ungracious part of advocatus diaboli and state the case against ‘Max’ in the strongest possible terms. But, alas! one finds that there is nothing to say against him, except that he is not Shakespeare or Dr. Johnson.”
Adventures in Staying Young (1955)
In attempting to help someone else, it often turns out that actually you are helping yourself.
The Magic Power of Self-Image Psychology (1964)
Imagine that you are seated in a theatre, looking at the curtain which hides behind the blank screen, as you wait for the feature picture to begin.
What will this picture do for you? How will it affect you? What impact will it have on your life?
Will you feel moved—perhaps even to tears? Will you laugh at a comedy, or feel terrified at the crises faced by the hero or heroine? Will you feel wonderful waves of love and compassion—or surges of resentment?
Maltz continued: “All these feelings will pulse through you—and more. For the picture you will see is about the most fascinating person in the world—yourself. In this theatre, which is in the mind and heart of each of us, you are the producer, director, writer, actor or actress, hero and the villain. You are the film technician up in the booth—and the audience which reacts to this thrilling drama.”
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.”
The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life (2016)
Charles Bukowski was an alcoholic, a womanizer, a chronic gambler, a lout, a cheapskate, a deadbeat, and on his worst days, a poet. He’s probably the last person on earth you would ever look to for life advice or expect to see in any sort of self-help book.
Which is why he’s the perfect place to start.
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.”
Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels
The Communist Manifesto (1848)
A specter is haunting Europe, the specter of Communism.
This is the first sentence of the Preamble to the book—originally written more than a decade before the American Civil War!—and it went on to become one of the most famous opening lines in history.
The first line of the book’s first chapter went on to rival the Preamble opener in fame: “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.”
The Communist Manifesto is a political treatise—and one of the most influential in world history—but these two opening lines reveal one other thing: the book was written by two men who also had some serious writing skills.
A. H. Maslow
Toward a Psychology of Being (1962)
There is now emerging over the horizon a new conception of human sickness and of human health, a psychology that I find so thrilling and so full of wonderful possibilities that I yield to the temptation to present it publicly even before it is checked and confirmed, and before it can be called reliable scientific knowledge.
These are the hopeful opening words of a book that helped launch the humanistic psychology movement in America. The introductory chapter was based on a 1954 lecture Maslow originally delivered at the Cooper Union in New York City.
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.“
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.
Man’s Search for Himself (1953)
One of the few blessings of living in an age of anxiety is that we are forced to become aware of ourselves.
These are the opening words of the Preface to the book. May continued: “When our society, in its time of upheaval in standards and values, can give us no clear picture of ‘what we are and what we ought to be,’ as Matthew Arnold puts it, we are thrown back on the search for ourselves. The painful insecurity on all sides gives us new incentive to ask, Is there perhaps some important source of guidance and strength we have overlooked?”
Love and Will (1989)
The striking thing about love and will in our day is that, whereas in the past they were always held up to us as the answer to life’s predicaments, they have now themselves become the problem.
“Artists in Uniform,” in Harper’s Magazine (March, 1953); reprinted in On the Contrary (1961)
“Pour it on, Colonel,” cried the young man in the Dacron suit excitedly, making his first sortie into the club-car conversation. His face was white as Roquefort and of a glistening, cheeselike texture; he had a shock of tow-colored hair, badly cut and greasy, and a snub nose with large gray pores. Under his darting eyes were two black craters.
We typically expect luxuriant character descriptions in works of fiction, but McCarthy demonstrates here that they can work equally well in non-fiction articles. She continued: “He appeared to be under some intense nervous strain and had sat the night before in the club car drinking bourbon with beer chaser and leafing through magazines which he frowningly tossed aside, like cards into a discard heap.”
“My Confession,” in Partisan Review (Fall, 1953)
Every age has a keyhole to which its eye is pasted.
“The Vita Activa,” in The New Yorker (October 18, 1958)
Teaching for the wisest of the ancients, was only a form of prompting. Socrates’ pupils, who sought to know what was love, what was justice, what was beauty, and so on, were shown by the philosopher that they already knew the answers to these questions, though they did not know they knew them….
“The Vassar Girl,” in Holiday magazine (May, 1951)
Like Athena, goddess of wisdom, Vassar College sprang in full battle dress from the head of a man.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
“Twilight on the Buffalo Paddock,” in An Outside Chance: Essays of Sport (1980)
Dawn: a curious mixture of noises. Birds, ocean trees soughing in a breeze off the Pacific; then, in the foreground, the steady cropping of buffaloes.
McGuane continued: “They are massing peacefully, feeding and nuzzling and ignoring the traffic. They are fat, happy, numerous beasts; and all around them are the gentle, primordial hills of Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, U.S.A. It is dawn on the buffalo paddock; the frontier is nowhere in sight.”
“Me and My Bike and Why,” in An Outside Chance: Essays of Sport (1980)
Like many who buy a motorcycle, there had been for me the problem of getting over the rather harrowing insurance statistics as to just what it is that is likely to happen to you.
“A World-Record Dinner,” in An Outside Chance: Essays of Sport (1980)
I concede that “mutton snapper” is hardly a prepossessing title. The sheep, from which the name derives, is not much of an animal. No civilized person deals with him except in chops and stews. To bleat is not to sing out in a commanding baritone; to be sheepish is scarcely to possess a virtue for which civilization rolls out its more impressive carpets.
The title of the essay is nothing to write home about, but the opening paragraph is exceptional, and the writing only gets better as McGuane moves into the second paragraph:
“And it is true that the fish, as you may have suspected, is not at all handsome, with its large and vacant-looking head, crazy red eye, and haphazard black spot just shy of its tail. Yet its brick-orange flanks and red tail are rather tropical and fine, and for a number of reasons it deserves consideration as major light-tackle game. When you have been incessantly outwitted by the mutton snapper, you cease to emphasize his vaguely doltish exterior.”
“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.”
“Motocross,” in An Outside Chance: Essays of Sport (1980)
The fastest way to go from point to point on the face of the earth, assuming that you do not prepare the ground in front of you but take it rough and unimproved, is on a motorcycle.
McGuane continued: “The right bike in the right hands can travel full tilt in bumps, slides, and vaults over ground that would gunnysack Land Rovers and Power Wagons. In the hands of the cyclists who dominate motocross racing, the progress is made with a power and alacrity that makes your hair stand on end.”
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.
No Man is an Island (1955)
A happiness that is sought for ourselves alone can never be found; for a happiness that is diminished by being shared is not big enough to make us happy.
These are the opening words of Chapter I, which is memorably titled “Love Can Be Kept Only By Being Given Away.“ This single observation went on to become one of Merton’s most popular quotations.
In the second paragraph, Merton continued: “There is a false and momentary happiness in self-satisfaction, but it always leads to sorrow because it narrows and deadens our spirit. True happiness is found in unselfish love, a love which increases in proportion as it is shared,”
Of Merton’s many spiritual and philosophical works, No Man is an Island is my favorite, and one I have returned to again and again over the years (technically, it is a collection of essays rather than a single non-fiction work). The title, of course, comes from a famous line in John Donne’s classic prose work, Devotions upon Emergent Occasions (1624)
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.”
On Trails: An Exploration (2016)
It is impossible to fully appreciate the value of a trail until you have been forced to walk through the wilderness without one.
Moor also began the book’s Prologue with a memorable line: “Once, years ago, I left home looking for a grand adventure and spent five months staring at mud.”
The Naked Ape: A Zoologist’s Study of the Human Animal (1967)
There are one hundred and ninety-three living species of monkeys and apes. One hundred and ninety-two of them are covered with hair. The exception is a naked ape self-named Homo sapiens.
Morris, a zoologist and former curator of mammals at the London Zoo, said his purpose in writing the book was to examine human beings in the same way that members of his profession had previously studied animals. In his opening words, he continued: “This unusual and highly successful species spends a great deal of time examining his higher motives and an equal amount of time studiously ignoring his fundamental ones.”
Shortly after publication, the book became an international bestseller, translated into more than two dozen languages. Part of the book’s popularity came from Morris’s clear and often captivating prose—as seen in his opening words. But it is also clear that many readers were attracted by the book’s titillating details, including Morris’s assertion that, compared to other mammals, male human beings had the highest ratio of penis size to body mass (it was for this and a few other reasons that Morris described human beings as “the sexiest primate alive”).
The domestic cat is a contradiction. No animal has developed such an intimate relationship with mankind, while at the same time demanding and getting such independence of movement and action.
Morris continued: “The dog may be man’s best friend, but it is rarely allowed out on its own to wander from garden to garden or street to street. The obedient dog has to be taken for a walk. The headstrong cat walks alone.”
Gouvernour Morris IV
“Introduction” to Richard Harding Davis’s “The Red Cross Girl” (1912), in The Novels and Stories of Richard Harding Davis, Vol. 11 (1916)
He was almost too good to be true. In addition, the gods loved him, and so he had to die young.
One of the most delightful surprises in my research into great opening lines was discovering remarkable specimens in the most unexpected places. This spectacular tribute came at the beginning of the “Introduction” to Richard Harding Davis’s 1912 short story “The Red Cross Girl.” The writer was Davis’s good friend and fellow pulp fiction writer Gouvernour Morris IV (1876-1953), the great-great-grandson of one of America’s Founding Fathers. In the opening words, the tribute continued at an exceptionally high level:
“Some people think that a man of fifty-two is middle-aged. But if R. H. D. had lived to be a hundred, he would never have grown old. It is not generally known that the name of his other brother was Peter Pan.”
Richard Harding Davis has been almost entirely forgotten by modern readers, but he was a major American celebrity in the early 1900s. A pioneering war correspondent and bestselling writer of adventure stories, he was also Theodore Roosevelt’s good friend. There is no question that Davis’s writing about the exploits of Roosevelt and his Rough Riders was instrumental in creating the legend that continues to surround the 26th President. A handsome, dashing figure, Davis also served as the model for Charles Dana Gibson’s “Gibson Man,” created to match his famous “Gibson Girl.” Davis died unexpectedly of a heart attack at age 51 in 1916.
“The Woke Target Metaphors, Leaving No Scone Unturned,” in The Wall Street Journal (Dec. 27, 2021)
I once knew a magazine journalist who was addicted to metaphors. He was, so to speak, an alcoholic of metaphors. If he took one sip from the demon rum of analogy, he would be in the gutter by the end of the paragraph. His journalism suffered from what might be called cirrhosis of the prose.
Thus begin’s Morrow’s review of a newly published Inclusive IT Language Guide by the folks at the University of California, Irvine. The Guide contained much questionable advice, according to Morrow, himself a recognized language expert, including the suggestion that the saying “Killing two birds with one stone” be replaced by “Feeding birds with two scones.”
In the second paragraph of his essay, Morrow wrote: “My friend would sit down at his typewriter—this was a long time ago—and set out to tell a seemingly straightforward news story. But in the first or second sentence, his mind would be seized by an image (jaunty, visual, arresting), and pretty soon the seductive analogy would take over the story altogether, hijacking the news report that it was intended merely to embellish.”
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.”
“I Want U.S. History to Make My Kids Uncomfortable,” in The News & Observer (Raleigh, NC; Nov. 17, 2021)
I signed up to serve on the media review committee for my middle daughter’s public school library. Meetings are at 7:45 a.m. I am not a morning person and I do not know how I am going to manage one more thing, but as the white Christian mother of three public school students it is very important to me to have influence on what materials my daughters are exposed to in school.
Op-Ed articles aren’t usually admired for their impressive openings, but this one by the pastor of The Grove Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, NC, is an exception to the rule. In her opening paragraph, Murphy gives the impression of going in a certain direction—and then dramatically heads in the opposite way, writing: “It’s critical to me that the things my children read about American history make them uncomfortable. I want them to be troubled, deeply troubled.”
After arguing that it is our patriotic duty to recognize and confront the darker aspects of American history, Rev. Murphy concluded: “I want my girls to struggle with American history. But it’s not because I want them to hate America or themselves. I want them to struggle with the past so that they can fall in love with all that America could be. I want them to be uncomfortable with the past so they can join us to change the future.”
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.
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.)”
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.
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
How We Die: Reflections on Life’s Final Chapter (1993)
Every life is different from any that has gone before it, and so is every death. The uniqueness of each of us extends even to the way we die.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.“
“Politics and the English Language,“ in Horizon magazine (April 1946)
Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way, but it is generally assumed that we cannot by conscious action do anything about it.
Orwell continued: “Our civilization is decadent and our language—so the argument runs—must inevitably share in the general collapse. It follows that any struggle against the abuse of language is a sentimental archaism, like preferring candles to electric light or hansom cabs to aeroplanes. Underneath this lies the half-conscious belief that language is a natural growth and not an instrument which we shape for our own purposes.”
"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.
Michael A. Paesler and Patrick J. Moyer
Near-Field Optics (1996)
“Siehst du?” in German, “Do you get the picture?” in English, and “Tu vois?” in French are more often than not metaphors that ask about understanding rather than vision.
If you’re looking for great opening lines in works of non-fiction, one of the last places you might consider is a graduate-level physics textbook. But, every now and then, as we saw in the David L. Goodstein entry earlier on this page, you will be very pleasantly surprised.
In Near-Field Optics, the authors continued: “Across a broad range of human cultures, the visual sense has risen to such a position of prominence that to envision often means to understand.”
“The American Crisis” in The Pennsylvania Journal (Dec. 19, 1776)
These are the times that try men’s souls.
These are the opening words of the first of sixteen pamphlets that Paine published between 1776 and 1783. Paine was well known in colonial America for his writings in support of the Revolutionary cause, but he became enshrined in American history when, four days after these words first appeared in print, George Washington read the entire pamphlet to his battle-weary, half-frozen Continental Army troops on December 23, 1776. General Washington’s purpose was to raise the morale of his troops, and it worked. Three days later, they crossed the Delaware River and emerged victorious in the Battle of Trenton.
While Paine is often omitted from lists of America’s Founding Fathers, there are many who believe the country might not have been founded without his assistance. In an 1819 letter to Thomas Jefferson, John Adams wrote: “History is to ascribe the American Revolution to Thomas Paine” And in 1925, Thomas Edison wrote: “I consider Thomas Paine our greatest political thinker.“
C. Northcote Parkinson
Parkinson’s Law (1957)
Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.
This is the opening sentence of Parkinson’s classic book, but when he introduced his famous “law” two years earlier in a November, 19, 1955 article in The Economist, the opening words were: “It is a commonplace observation that work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”
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 Greatest Gambling Story Every Told (2020)
A girl with long red hair, perhaps eight years old, was sitting high atop her father’s shoulders, watching the horses load into the gate for the 110th running of the Kentucky Derby. They were standing in the packed grandstand at the stretch near the starting gate; nearly a quarter mile separated them and the finish line. She was holding a sign that read, “Beat the Boys! Althea!”
The narrator continued: “She wanted to see a female horse win the prestigious race, something that a filly had accomplished only twice since 1875.”
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. As a book, 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 a few more months to live.
On the night of the lecture, over 400 students and faculty members—fully aware of the situation—gave Pausch a prolonged standing ovation before the lecture. When he 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 a 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 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.
Book Lust: Recommended Reading for Every Mood, Moment, and Reason (2003)
I love to read. And while I might not absolutely agree with the Anglo-American man of letters Logan Pearsall Smith, who said, “People say that life is the thing, but I prefer reading,” I come awfully close to subscribing to his sentiment.
More Book Lust (2005)
If we were at a twelve-step meeting together, I would have to stand up and say, “Hi, I’m Nancy P., and I’m a readaholic.”
Pearl continued: “As I explained in the Introduction to Book Lust, my addiction to reading (and my career as a librarian) grew out of a childhood that was rescued from despair by books, libraries, and librarians. I discovered at a young age that books—paradoxically—allowed me both to find and to escape myself.”
The Road Less Travelled (1978)
Life is difficult.
This is the entire first paragraph. Peck continued in the second: “This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths. It is a great truth because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it. Once we truly know that life is difficult—once we truly understand and accept it—then life is no longer difficult. Because once it is accepted, the fact that life is difficult no longer matters.”
People of the Lie (1983)
This is a dangerous book.
A dangerous book? Peck had me in the opening line!
“Introduction” to Ayn Rand’s Philosophy: Who Needs It (1982)
Ayn Rand was not only a novelist and philosopher; she was also a salesman of philosophy—the greatest salesman philosophy has ever had.
Only the Ball Was White: A History of Legendary Black Players and All-Black Professional Teams (1970)
They were saints and sinners, college professors and illiterates, serious men and clowns, teetotalers and Saturday night drunks. They were professional baseball players, some of them the equals of the greatest major-leaguers, with one other common tie: they were all Negroes.
Robert S. Phillips
Louis L’Amour: His Life and Trails (1990)
Louis L’Amour. The name itself sounds highly improbable for the author of Western and adventure novels. As one of his early editors said, L’Amour on a paperback sounded like “a Western written in lipstick.”
In my opinion, this is one of the all-time great opening paragraphs for a biography. If more biographers began with openers like this, the entire genre would be improved a thousandfold.
Your Best Destiny: Becoming the Person You Were Created to Be (2015; with James Lund)
It is no accident that you picked up this book. You’re searching for something,
The best openers establish an immediate connection with readers, as Phipps does here in the book’s first paragraph. In the second, he continued: “Perhaps you sense that your life is off-kilter. Maybe you’ve just noticed it, or maybe you’ve lived with a feeling of frustration for years. Perhaps you’ve just closed a chapter in your life and aren’t sure where to turn next. Whatever led you to this point, though, you now realize you’re not moving. You’re not growing. You’re unsatisfied and seeking more—but more what?
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.“
The Disappearance of Childhood (1982)
Children are the living messages we send to a time we will not see.
This is not simply a Great Opening Line, it is one of the best things ever said on the topic of children (one day, I’m hoping to do a book titled The Single Best Thing Ever Said on Just About Any Topic You Can Think Of, and this is my Number One choice for observations about children).
Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985)
We were keeping our eye on 1984. When the year came and the prophecy didn’t, thoughtful Americans sang softly in praise of themselves. The roots of liberal democracy had held. Wherever else the terror had happened, we, at least, had not been visited by Orwellian nightmares.
Postman’s book, written before Facebook, Twitter, and the rise of Social Media, can only be considered prescient, as we see in his second paragraph: “But we had forgotten that alongside Orwell’s dark vision, there was another—slightly older, slightly less well known, equally chilling: Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Contrary to common belief even among the educated, Huxley did not prophesy the same thing. Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.”
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.
“The Roe Baby,” in The Atlantic (Sep. 9, 2021)
Nearly half a century ago, Roe v. Wade secured a woman’s legal right to obtain an abortion. The ruling has been contested with ever-increasing intensity, dividing and reshaping American politics. And yet for all its prominence, the person most profoundly connected to it has remained unknown: the child whose conception occasioned the lawsuit.
Like almost everybody, I assumed that Jane Roe—the pseudonymous plaintiff on the winning side of the landmark Roe v. Wade case in 1973—went on to have an abortion. The law works far too slowly for such a thing to happen, though, and the plaintiff (a Dallas waitress named Norma McCorvey) had given up the child for adoption two and one-half years before the case was settled.
Prager first learned about the existence of “The Roe Baby,” as she was called by Pro-Life activists, while doing research for his book The Family Roe: An American Story (also published in September, 2021). In the Atlantic article, Prager revealed for the first time the name—and the emotionally-riveting story—of the child at the heart of the case: fifty-one-year-old Shelley Lynn Thornton. Prager’s gripping article began with a remarkable opening paragraph that easily made my list of the 20 Best Opening Lines of 2021.
“The Horrible Waste of War,” in New York World-Telegram (June 16, 1944)
I took a walk along the historic coast of Normandy in the country of France.
It was a lovely day for strolling along the seashore. Men were sleeping on the sand, some of them sleeping forever. Men were floating in the water, but they didn’t know they were in the water, for they were dead.
These are the opening words of a D-Day dispatch filed by Pyle to his American readers. About them, writer and editor David A. Fryxell wrote in a 2008 Writer’s Digest article: “Understated? Certainly. Powerful? Even 50 years later.” Fryxell went on to add: “Pyle could have opened with a burst of exclamation-point prose; no question that his subject warranted it. He could have screamed about the casualties and the massive invasion fleet. He could have doled out comparisons to the Norman Conquest or piled adjective upon adverb. But instead he took his readers for a walk along the beach.”
In Fryxell’s article—titled “Tips for Powerful, Understated Writing”—he offered wise advice about the importance of understatement in nonfiction writing, especially when the topics being written about are large, powerful, or historic. He argued: “It’s precisely when writing about subjects that seem extreme that understatement can be most effective. If your subject is grand or overwrought or hyperbolic, if it comes already laden with innate drama (real or manufactured), you might find that speaking softly works better than a big stick.“
In the third paragraph of Pyle’s dispatch, he decided to add a dash of irony to his exceptional opening: “The water was full of squishy little jellyfish about the size of your hand. Millions of them. In the center each of them had a green design exactly like a four-leaf clover. The good-luck emblem. Sure. Hell, yes. Four-leaf clovers are supposed to be good-luck charms, but for the doughboys who perished on this blood-soaked beach of indescribable mayhem, D-Day was anything but lucky.”
“Through Your Most Grievous Fault” in The Los Angeles Times (August 19, 1962); reprinted in Rand’s The Voice of Reason (1990)
The death of Marilyn Monroe shocked people with an impact different from their reaction to the death of any other movie star or public figure. All over the world, people felt a peculiar sense of personal involvement and of protest, like a universal cry of “Oh, no!”
Rand was writing two weeks after Monroe’s death. She continued in the next paragraph: “They felt that her death had some special significance, almost like a warning which they could not decipher—and they felt a nameless apprehension, the sense that something terribly wrong was involved. They were right to feel it.”
“Faith and Force: The Destroyers of the Modern World,” lecture at Yale University (Feb. 17, 1960); reprinted in Philosophy, Who Needs It (1982)
If you want me to name in once sentence what is wrong with the modern world, I will say that never before has the world been clamoring so desperately for answers to crucial problems—and never before has the world been so frantically committed to the belief that no answers are possible.
“An Untitled Letter,” in The Ayn Rand Letter (Jan-Feb, 1973); reprinted in Philosophy, Who Needs It (1982)
The most appropriate title for this discussion would be “I told you so.” But since that would be in somewhat dubious taste, I shall leave this untitled.
In the universe of titillating openings, this is one of the very best. Who can not read on?
“The Metaphysical Versus the Man-Made,” in The Ayn Rand Letter (March 12, 1973); reprinted in Philosophy, Who Needs It (1982)
“God grant me the serenity to accept things I cannot change, courage to change things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”
This remarkable statement is attributed to a theologian with whose ideas I disagree in every fundamental respect: Reinhold Niebuhr. But—omitting the form of a prayer, i.e., the implication that one’s mental-emotional states are a gift from God—that statement is profoundly true, as a summary and a guideline: It names the mental attitude which a rational man must seek to achieve.”
This is a terrific way to begin a philosophical article—presenting a statement from a man you disagree with “in every fundamental respect,” and then not only agreeing with the statement, but praising it as “profoundly true.”
About Niebuhr’s famous maxim, Rand continued with this intriguing tease: “The statement is beautiful in its eloquent simplicity; but the achievement of that attitude involves philosophy’s deepest metaphysical-moral issues.”
It’s Not About You: A Brief Guide to a Meaningful Life (2019)
Life is not about you. It’s about what you do for others.
The faster you are able to get over yourself, the more you can do for the people who matter most.
In these opening words, we immediately sense an author who’s not going to beat around the bush. Like a demanding coach who has our best interests at heart or a tough-as-nails uncle with a caring heart, he’s going to give it to us straight.
Rath continued in the same vein in the book’s third paragraph: “Yet external forces keep pulling you toward self-centered pursuits. From books pushing ‘happiness’ to advertisements convincing you that consumption leads to adoration, these messages tempt you to focus inward. That is all a trap (and a load of crap).”
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.
In Pursuit of Laughter (1936) (1936)
No man pursues what he has at hand. No man recognizes the need of pursuit until that which he desires has escaped him.
Books that begin with a grand, sweeping generalization carry an aura of authority, and this one is no exception. In her beautifully-phrased opening observation, Repplier immediately comes across as someone who knows what she’s talking about—and there is a clear suggestion she is about to edify us on the subject. In this case, the opening words also provide a strong clue as to the thesis of the book: humans pursue laughter the most when there is little true humor in their lives.
Repplier continued in the first paragraph: “Those who listen to the Middle Ages instead of writing about them at monstrous length and with undue horror and commiseration, can hear the echo of laughter ringing from every side, from every hole and corner where human life existed. Through the welter of wars and famine and pestilence, through every conceivable disaster, through an atmosphere darkened with ignorance and cruelty and needless pain there emerges, clear and unmistakable, that will to live that man shares with the beast, and which means that, consciously or unconsciously, he finds life worth the living.”
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.
“Florence King,“ in The New Brunswick News (July 1, 2016)
On a Sunday morning, tucked into bed on the island of St. Simons, the place where I, at the age of 13, accepted the calling that had haunted me since I was four — that of becoming a writer—Tink brought me a copy of The New York Times and coffee loaded with cream.
Rich continued: “There on the front page of this revered Yankee newspaper, I discovered the obituary of perhaps the first Southern woman to write about the region’s people and draw attention to the differences between us and them—them being anyone else in the world who doesn’t possess an ounce of Southern blood or the common sense to understand we are to be celebrated, not mocked. ’Florence King died,’ I mused quietly. ’She was 80.’”
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.”
Heather Cox Richardson
West from Appomattox: The Reconstruction of America after the Civil War (2007)
A week after the 2004 presidential election, a friend sent me a map of America with the red and blue states superimposed over the Confederate and Union states of the Civil War years. The Republican red states fit almost perfectly over the southern states that supported the Confederacy…and the Democratic blue states fit closely over the states that had supported the Union.
Professor Richardson’s opening words have done their job: our interest has been aroused. And that interest only deepened as she continued: “The caption of the map suggested that today’s voters were still fighting the same issues over which they went to war in 1861. I was fascinated by the map, but not convinced by the caption. ‘This is exactly what my new book is about,’ I wrote back. ‘But it’s not the Civil War that made today’s map match the earlier one. The story is all about reconstruction.’”
Heather Cox Richardson
How the South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy, and the Continuing Fight for the Soul of America (2020)
The moment in July 1964 when Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater took the stage at Cow Palace outside San Francisco and beamed at the cheering Republicans who had just nominated him for president is iconic—but not for the reasons we remember.
This is a terrific opening salvo for any book—but especially a history book—fitting into a category of openers that might be titled: “You think you know something, but you have it wrong.” As she continues, she proceeds to (for me, at least) a startling conclusion:
“Goldwater delivered the line that became a rally cry for a rising generation of conservatives in the Republican Party…But the moment did much more than galvanize activists. It marked the resurrection of an old political movement by a modern political party. In Goldwater’s time, people claiming to be embattled holdouts defending American liberty called themselves ‘Movement Conservatives.’ A century before, their predecessors had called themselves ‘Confederates.’”
Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers (2003)
The way I see it, being dead is not terribly far off from being on a cruise ship. Most of your time is spent lying on your back. The brain has shut down. The flesh begins to soften. Nothing much new happens, and nothing is expected of you.
Science writers are not noted for a sense of humor, but in her debut book, Roach proved from the outset that it’s possible to write a serious science book that is also world-class quirky and laugh-out-loud funny. In the book’s Introduction, Roach continued by describing how cadavers have played an integral, even essential, role in human history—albeit in their own deathly quiet way.
In the remainder of the book, Roach proved herself to be an Opening Lines master, beginning almost every chapter in a way that would have garnered an A-plus from any college professor of Creative Writing. For example, in Chapter One (titled, “A Head Is a Terrible Thing to Waste”), here’s how she began a chapter on a Face-Lift Refresher Course for Plastic Surgeons:
“The human head is of the same approximate size and weight as a roaster chicken. I have never before had occasion to make the comparison, for never before today have I seen a head in a roasting pan. But here today are forty of them, one per pan, resting face-up on what looks to be a small pet-food bowl. The heads are for plastic surgeons, two per head, to practice on.”
Later chapters open in an equally impressive manner, and here are three examples. In Ch. 3 (“Life After Death”), Roach began: “Out behind the University of Tennessee Medical Center is a lovely, forested grove with squirrels leaping in the branches of hickory trees and birds calling and patches of green grass where people lie on their backs in the sun, or sometimes the shade, depending on where the researchers put them.”
In Ch. 4 (“Dead Man Driving”), Roach opened with: “By and large, the dead aren’t very talented. They can’t play water polo, or lace up their boots, or maximize market share. They can’t tell a joke, and they can’t dance for beans. There is one thing dead people excel at. They’re very good at handling pain.”
And in Ch. 8 (“How to Know If You’re Dead”), she began: “A patient on the way to surgery travels at twice the speed of a patient on the way to the morgue. Gurneys that ferry the living through hospital corridors move forward in an aura of purpose and push, flanked by caregivers with long strides and set faces, steadying IVs, pumping ambu bags, barreling into double doors. A gurney with a cadaver commands no urgency. It is wheeled by a single person, calmly and with little notice, like a shopping cart.”
Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife (2005)
I don’t recall my mood the morning I was born, but I imagine I felt a bit out of sorts. Nothing I looked at was familiar. People were staring at me and making odd sounds and wearing incomprehensible items. Everything seemed too loud, and nothing made the slightest amount of sense.
Roach’s opening paragraph may not have much to do with life after death, but it’s an intriguing way to begin any book, especially a science book.
Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex (2008)
A man sits in a room, manipulating his kneecaps. It is 1983, on the campus of the University of California, Los Angeles. The man, a study subject, has been told to do this for four minutes, stop, and then resume for a minute more. Then he can put his pants back on, collect his payment, and go home with an entertaining story to tell at suppertime.
Manipulating his kneecaps? Where on earth could this be going? It all becomes clear—and delightfully so—as Roach continues in her opening paragraph: “The study concerns human sexual response. Kneecap manipulation elicits no sexual response, on this planet anyway, and that is why the man is doing it: It’s the control activity. (Earlier, the man was told to manipulate the more usual suspect while the researchers measured whatever it was they were measuring.)”
About Bonk, writer A. J. Jacobs (The Year of Living Biblically) said: “I would read Mary Roach on the history of Quonset huts. But Mary Roach on sex? That’s a godsend!” As we saw earlier with Roach’s Stiff book, many of the opening lines of other chapters in Bonk are also inspired. Let me cite a few examples. In Ch. 2 (“Dating the Penis-Camera”), Roach began: “Let me state it simply. Women came into Masters and Johnson’s laboratory and had sex with a thrusting mechanical penis-camera that filmed—from the inside—their physical responses to it.”
Ch. 6 (“The Taiwanese Fix and the Penile Pricking Ring”), opened this way: “A man having penis surgery is the opposite of a man in a fig leaf. He is concealed face-to-feet in surgical sheets, with only his penis on view. It appears in a small, square cutout in the fabric, spotlit by surgical lamps.”
And in Ch. 12 (“Mind Over Vagina”), Roach’s opening paragraph began: “The human vagina is accustomed to visitors. Even the language of anatomy imbues the organ with an innlike hospitality, the entrance to the structure being named the ‘vaginal vestibule.’ Take off your coat and stay awhile.”
Fuzz: When Nature Breaks the Law (2021)
On June 26, 1659, a representative from five towns in a province of northern Italy initiated legal proceedings against caterpillars.
I had to read this opening sentence a second time to make sure I got it right. As it turns out, I did. In her latest popular science book, Roach turned her attention to conflicts between human beings and the natural world. And, as she has done with each of her previous eight books, she found a way to begin with a great opening line.
In the opening paragraph, Roach continued: “The local specimens, went the complaint, were trespassing and pilfering from peoples’ gardens and orchards. A summons was issued and five copies made and nailed to trees in forests adjacent to each town. The caterpillars were ordered to appear in court on the twenty-eighth of June, at a specified hour, where they would be assigned legal representation.”
“The Kiss,” in Playboy (Feb., 1990); reprinted under the title “Kissing” in Wild Ducks Flying Backward (2005)
Kissing is our greatest invention. On the list of great inventions, it ranks higher than the Thermos bottle and the Airstream trailer; higher, even, than room service, possibly because the main reason room service was created was so people could stay in bed and kiss without going hungry.
These are the opening lines of arguably the most entertaining essay ever written on the subject of kissing. Robbins went on to write: “Kissing . . . didn’t imitate nature so much as it restructured it. Kissing molded the face into a brand-new shape, the pucker shape, and then, like some renegade scientist grafting plops of sea urchin onto halves of ripe pink plums, it found a way to fuse the puckers, to meld them and animate them, so that one pucker rubbing against another generates heat, moisture, and a luminous neuro-muscular friction. Thomas Edison, switch off your dim bulb and slink away.” Robbins continued in this vein for three more pages, in a veritable tour de force on one of history’s most fascinating subjects.
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.”
On Violence and On Violence Against Women (2021)
It is a truism to say that everyone knows violence when they see it, but if one thing has become clear over the past decade it is that the most prevalent, insidious forms of violence are those that cannot be seen.
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).
Naked Beneath My Clothes (1992)
An Introduction: I Was a Teenage, Pregnant, Alcoholic, Junkie Ninja Hooker.
Rudner continued: "Actually, I wasn't. I just wanted to get your attention. You have just learned the first lesson of show business. Embellish. Make everything about you bigger. (Except your nose. Make that smaller. Immediately.)"
Rita Rudner's Guide to Men (1994)
This is a guide to men. It's not that I've had much experience, or that I've done lots of research--it's just, they're not very hard to figure out.
Rudner continued with this parenthetical clarification: "(I forgot to mention, this is a guide to heterosexual men, because these are the men who give women the most trouble.)"
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).
The Problems of Philosophy (1912)
Is there any knowledge in the world which is so certain that no reasonable man could doubt it?
Asking a thought-provoking question is a time-honored way of beginning any piece of writing—and this one seems especially suited to the topic. Russell went on to answer the question this way: “This question, which at first sight might not seem difficult, is really one of the most difficult that can be asked. When we have realized the obstacles in the way of a straightforward and confident answer, we shall be well launched on the study of philosophy.“
“Havelock Ellis: Life as an Art,“ in The Dial (November 1923)
Moralists, in the main, have been a somewhat forbidding race. Their main preoccupation has usually been to try to prevent people from doing that they wanted to do, on the ground—formerly explicit, but now seldom avowed—that the natural man is wicked.
Russell continued: “Psychoanalyzed, such moralists would be found to be moved principally by envy: being themselves too old or too sour or too stiff for the pleasures of life, they feel a discomfort, when they see others enjoying themselves, which appears in consciousness as moral reprobation.“
The Conquest of Happiness (1930)
Animals are happy so long as they have health and enough to eat. Human beings, one feels, ought to be, but in the modern world they are not, at least in a great majority of cases.
“Our Sexual Ethics“ (1936); reprinted in Why I Am Not a Christian (1957)
Sex, more than any other element in human life, is still viewed by many, perhaps by most, in an irrational way.
A simple assertion, crafted skillfully by a talented writer, can be a most effective way to begin an essay, as Russell demonstrates here. When I first read these opening words as a young man in the 1960s, my first reaction was, “How little things have changed.” And now, almost ninety years after Russell first penned the words, my reaction is exactly the same.
In his essay, Russell continued: “Homicide, pestilence, insanity, gold and precious stones—all the things, in fact, that are the objects of passionate hopes or fears—have been seen, in the past, through a mist of magic or mythology; but the sun of reason has now dispelled the mist, except here and there. The densest cloud that remains is in the territory of sex, as is perhaps natural since sex is concerned in the most passionate part of people’s lives.“
"Religion and Morals," (1952); reprinted in Why I Am Not a Christian (1957)
Many people tell us that without a belief in God a man can be neither happy nor virtuous.
Russell continued in the opening paragraph: "As to virtue, I can speak only from observation, not from personal experience. As to happiness, neither experience nor observation has led me to think that believers are either happier or unhappier, on the average, than unbelievers."
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."
Becoming Wild: How Animal Cultures Raise Families, Create Beauty, and Achieve Peace (2020)
A flock of scarlet macaws bursts from the deep rainforest like flaming comets, several dozen big, bright birds with streaming tails and hot colors. With much self-generated fanfare, they settle into high trees above a steep riverbank. They’re noisy and playful. If this is the serious business of their lives, they seem to be enjoying themselves and each other.
These words open the book’s Prologue, and the ingredients of a great opening paragraph—especially in a work of non-fiction—are all here: it is very well written, has just the right amount of style or pizzazz, provides an overall sense of direction, and has a tone that we might call inviting or welcoming.
“A Sonnet to Salad,” in The Pilot (Southern Pines, NC; April 16, 2012)
If food were poetry, subs would be limericks, sushi a haiku and salad a sonnet—14 lines of freshness and exquisite flavor. An antidote to winter sludge. A rainbow of colors and often a surprise.
This is the opening paragraph of Salomon’s delicious tribute to salads. Regarding the surprises often involved in salads, Salomon continued in the second paragraph: “Where else do sweet onions and strawberries, avocados and oranges so happily marry?” She also ended her article on a memorable note: “If dance is poetry in motion, salad is a sonnet on a plate.”
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.”
When I was five, I decided that when I grew up I’d be a “children’s detective on parents.”
After the publication of Conjoint Family Therapy (1964), a graduate school textbook, Satir became one of her era’s most respected family therapists. In the opening words to Peoplemaking, her first psychology work aimed at a popular audience, she found an intriguing way of suggesting that her interest in family dynamics started very early in her life. In the opening paragraph, she continued: “I didn’t quite know what it was I would look for, but even then I realized that there was a lot going on in families that didn’t meet the eye.”
In the book’s second paragraph, Satir offered one of her most famous observations: “Family life is something like an iceberg. Most people are aware of only about one-tenth of what is actually going on—the tenth that they can see and hear—and often think that is all there is.”
“Picasso and the Weeping Women,” in The Village Voice (July 20, 1994)
Did Pablo Picasso exist? It gets harder to believe. Think of him wielding pencil and pecker, astride a century. He rewired the world’s optic nerves and imagination.
In a long and distinguished career, Schjeldahl, longtime art critic for The New Yorker and The Village Voice became one of the most respected—and entertaining—voices in the history of criticism. He continued in the opening paragraph: “He clambered through life on a jungle-gym of female flesh. ‘I’m God! I’m God!’ he crowed occasionally to his umpteenth girlfriend Dora Maar in the late thirties. He was then still four decades short of receiving the universe’s riposte. It must have killed him to die.”
“Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec,” in The Village Voice (August 27, 1996)
At a dinner party recently, a nice young political consultant rhapsodized to me about the portent of the millennium, in which he saw the dawn of, yes, a New Age. I wasn’t having it. I remarked that scholars now date the birth of Jesus to about 6 B.C., so the millennium passed already.
Schjeldahl continued: “Round numbers mean nothing, anyway, except when, as just happened to me, your Detroit clunker’s odometer rotates majestically from 99999.9 to all zeroes: prophecy of mounting repair bills.”
“The Art of Dying,” in The New Yorker (Dec. 16, 2019)
Lung cancer, rampant. No surprise. I’ve smoked since I was sixteen, behind the high-school football bleachers in Northfield, Minnesota. I used to fear the embarrassment of dying youngish, letting people natter sagely, “He smoked, you know.” But at seventy-seven I’m into the actuarial zone.
Four months earlier, Schjeldahl 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.
“On Books and Reading,” in Parerga and Paralipomena, Vol. Two (1851)
Ignorance is degrading only when found in company with riches.
A popular technique in non-fiction writing—and especially in philosophical treatises—is to begin with a grand declaration that is subsequently explored in the rest of the piece. In this case, the provocative opening line comes from one of the great minds in the history of Western philosophy, and also one of the most quotable. His thesis is hard to disagree with: ignorance is understandable in people who have never had access to education or the grand world of ideas, but is a dark stain when it occurs among people of means.
In the opening paragraph, Schopenhauer continued: “The poor man is restrained by poverty and need: labor occupies his thoughts, and takes the place of knowledge. But rich men who are ignorant live for their lusts only…and they can also be reproached for not having used wealth and leisure for that which gives them their greatest value.”
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.”
"The Gaudy Career of Jonas Cord Jr.," in The New York Times (June 25, 1961)
It was not quite proper to have printed The Carpetbaggers between covers of a book. It should have been inscribed on the walls of a public lavatory.
These were the devastating opening words of Schumach's review of Harold Robbins's 1961 novel The Carpetbaggers. He continued: "Ostensibly Harold Robbins' long novel is about the men and women in Hollywood, aviation, high finance. Actually it is an excuse for a collection of monotonous episodes about normal and abnormal sex--and violence ranging from simple battery to gruesome varieties of murder." In an Oct. 21, 2007 New York Times article, Dwight Garner paid Schumacher the highest compliment when he cited this as one of the two most memorable opening lines in the history of the New York Times Book Review.
In his tribute, Garner wrote: "The Book Review editors, like editors everywhere, value a memorable first sentence. (Writing here a few years ago, Kinky Friedman began a review this way: 'There is a fine line between fiction and nonfiction, and I believe Jimmy Buffett and I snorted it in 1976.') This week, Tom Carson reviews a biography of the onetime best-seller page regular Harold Robbins. Reviewing Robbins's novel The Carpetbaggers in 1961, Murray Schumach, writing in the Book Review, began his assessment with these two sentences: 'It was not quite proper to have printed The Carpetbaggers between covers of a book. It should have been inscribed on the walls of a public lavatory.' Not quite as fun as Kinky's opener, but it does get its point across."
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.”
Your First Page: First Pages and What They Tell Us About the Pages That Follow Them (Rev. ed; 2019)
I once spoke with a New York City fireman whose job included talking suicidal “jumpers” down from building edges and bridges. He told me something that has stayed with me ever since. He said that in every case, without exception, when the person jumped, the look on his or her face was always the same. It said, in essence, “Wrong decision.”
In the book’s second paragraph, Selgin, a writer, playwright, editor, illustrator, and professor of English in the MFA program at Georgia College & State University, continued: “Forgive me for opening on such a grisly note. But every opening of a book or story is a fateful plunge. The choices we make in those first few sentences, paragraphs, and pages determine not only how what we’ve written gets read, but whether it will be read at all.”
And in the third paragraph, Selgin continued with this important reminder: “Readers have no obligation to read what we’ve written. If we want them to spend their precious time with our words, we owe them every courtesy. They owe us nothing,”
“It’s Your Friends Who Break Your Heart,” in The Atlantic (Feb. 9, 2022)
It is an insolent cliché, almost, to note that our culture lacks the proper script for ending friendships. We have no rituals to observe, no paperwork to do, no boilerplate dialogue to crib from.
This is a stellar opening paragraph in two different ways. First, it insightfully advances the argument that, over the centuries, no reliable coping mechanisms have ever been developed for an age-old problem—the ending of friendships. And, second, it provides lovers of language with such delicious metaphorical flourishes as an insolent cliché, a proper script for ending friendships, and boilerplate dialogue to crib from.
In the second paragraph, Senior argued that something important might be learned from the ending of one particular friendship—all painstakingly documented in The Wellness Letters, an unpublished (so far, at least) manuscript that cheerfully began as a celebration of a friendship and, eighteen months later, documented its painful dissolution. In the article’s second paragraph, Senior wrote:
“Yet when Elisa Albert and Rebecca Wolff were in the final throes of their friendship, they managed, entirely by accident, to leave behind just such a script. The problem was that it read like an Edward Albee play—tart, unsparing, fluorescent with rage.”
“Letter to the Editor,” in the Los Angeles Times (April 8, 1968)
There is a bitter sadness and special irony that attends the passing of Martin Luther King. Quickly and with ease, we offer up a chorus of posthumous praise—the ritual dirge so time-honored and comfortable and undemanding of anything but rhetoric. In death, we offer the acknowledgement of the man and his dream that we denied him in life.
When most people think about the subject of great opening lines, one of the last things to come to mind would probably be “Letters to the Editor.” However, as Serling so ably demonstrates here, even in this highly specialized sub-genre of writing, superlative openings are possible. He maintained the ironic tone by continuing in his opening paragraph: “In his grave, we praise him for his decency—but when he walked amongst us, we responded with no decency of our own.”
Dan Shaughnessy and Stan Grossfield
Fenway: A Biography in Words and Pictures (1999)
There’s no other way to explain the sentimental feelings many of us have for old, inanimate objects, like sweaters, cars, houses, and baseball parks.
With words by Shaughnessy and photographs by Grossfield—both longtime Boston Globe employees and devoted Red Sox fans—this book proves that great biographies aren’t restricted to human beings.
Shaughnessy continued: “I still have the maroon wool cardigan that my coach, John Fahey, gave me in 1969 (the year Tony C. staged his dramatic comeback) when I lettered in baseball as a sophomore at Groton High School. The sweater has a big “G” on the right side, and for more than two years I got to walk the corridors of GHS feeling cool. I haven’t worn that sweater since the early ’70’s, but I could never throw it away.”
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.
David Shields and Shane Salerno
J. D. Salinger spent ten years writing The Catcher in the Rye and the rest of his life regretting it.
This magnificent opening sentence is the book’s entire first paragraph. In the second, the authors continued: “Before the book was published, he was a World War II veteran with Post-traumatic Stress Disorder; after the war, he was perpetually in search of a spiritual cure for his damaged psyche. In the wake of the enormous success of the novel about the ’prep school boy,’ a myth emerged: Salinger, like Holden, was too sensitive to be touched, too good for this world. He would spend the rest of his life trying and failing to reconcile these completely contradictory versions of himself: the myth and the reality.
“Hipster Megachurch in Shambles Over Pastor’s Alleged Affair,” in The Daily Beast (Jan. 21, 2022)
When volunteers at Venue Church in Chattanooga, Tennessee, arrived at their pastor’s house last November, they were hoping to raise his spirits with a surprise visit. Instead they got a shock: Pastor Tavner Smith was alone with a female church employee—she in a towel, he in his boxers.
This was the “Lede of the Week” in The Sunday Long Read on Jan 30, 2022. In the article’s second paragraph, Shugerman continued: “The charismatic 41-year-old hurriedly explained that the two of them had been making chili and hot dogs and gotten food on their clothes, according to one volunteer who was present. But, as the volunteer put it, “I don’t think none of us was that dumb.”
“Anti-Vaxxers Won’t Stop Harassing Nurse They’re Convinced Is Dead,” in The Daily Beast (Feb. 1, 2021)
For weeks now, commenters have flooded Tennessee nurse Tiffany Dover’s Facebook wall with messages of tribute, praising her kindness and beauty and offering their condolences for her loss.
“Tiffany died a hero,” they wrote—and “RIP Angel.”
There are more than 22,000 comments on her last Facebook post, from people around the world—a collective grieving and outpouring of anger for the 30-year-old mother of two.
But Tiffany Dover is not dead.
This a fabulous opener to a fascinating article about the absurd lengths anti-vaxxers and Covid skeptics will go in order to prove themselves right—even when they’re completely wrong. It all started a few months earlier when Dover, a Chattanooga nurse, passed out shortly after getting her first Pfizer vaccine injection.
It turns out that Dover suffers from an overactive vagal response, which can cause her to faint from even from the mild pain of, say, stubbing her tow. Her fainting after the vaccine injection was all the anti-vaxxers needed to see. One of their numbers quickly edited the video to make it looked like she had died—and it soon went viral on sites favored by conspiracy theorists. Despite repeated assurances from hospital officials that Dover was alive and well—and even a “proof-of-life” video!—the insanity continued in the Far Right echo chamber.
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!’”
Michael A. Singer
The Untethered Soul: The Journey Beyond Yourself (2007)
In case you haven’t noticed, you have a mental dialogue going on inside your head that never stops. It just keeps going and going.
Singer continued: “Have you ever wondered why it talks in there? How does it decide what to say and when to say it? How much of what it says turned out to be true? How much of what it says is even important? And if right now you are hearing, ‘I don’t know what you are talking about. I don’t have any voice inside my head!’—that’s the voice we’re talking about.”
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.”
Warrior Statesman: The Life of Moshe Dayan (1991)
The black eyepatch dominated Moshe Dayan’s appearance, like some dark, spidery animal wrapped around his face.
A dazzling physical description is a time-honored way of beginning a book—especially a biography—and few can rival this description of one of Israel’s most colorful figures. Slater continued: “With its thin straps sliding over his bald head and upper cheek, the oval eyepatch jarred, dismayed, overwhelmed. The message conveyed was unmistakable: This man has been through hell and survived.”
Scott A. Small
Forgetting: The Benefits of Not Remembering (2021)
As a memory specialist, all I hear about is forgetting.
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.
Walter “Red” Smith
“Miracle of Coogan’s Bluff,” in New York Herald-Tribune (Oct. 4, 1951)
Now it is done. Now the story ends. And there is no way to tell it. The art of fiction is dead. Reality has strangled invention. Only the utterly impossible, the inexpressibly fantastic, can ever be plausible again.
This is one of the most famous “ledes” in the history of sports journalism, opening Smith’s now-classic story about the New York Giants winning the National League pennant over the Brooklyn Dodgers in a legendary playoff series in 1951.
The game was decided in the bottom of the ninth inning when Bobby Thomson, the Giants’ 27-year-old third baseman, hit a three-run walk-off home run (baseball fans revere it as “The Shot Heard Round the World”). The winning home run also resulted in one of the most famous “calls” in the history of sports broadcasting, with Giants’ broadcaster Russ Hodges exclaiming “The Giants win the pennant!” four separate times.
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.”
H. Allen Smith
The Life and Legend of Gene Fowler (1977)
The picturesque and comfortable little town of Nyack snuggles up to the Hudson River at the point where it widens into the Tappan Zee. Nyack is on the west shore of the Hudson. Once widely acclaimed as the most beautiful river on earth, today the Hudson is only 9.2 percent water.
The two opening sentences are pretty standard stuff, but the third—with its tongue-in-cheek claim about the percentage of water in the Hudson River—immediately suggests that this will be no ordinary biography.
Smith continued in the book’s second paragraph: “Late of a blustery night, a good many years back, one of the citizens of Nyack came traveling up from Manhattan, a former scalawag newspaperman named Charlie MacArthur. Accompanying him to his home was an amiable reprobate, himself a veteran of the newspaper shops, a tall athletic handsome fellow called Gene Fowler. The two cavaliers had been hard at the swilling of grog for something like eight hours, and they were awash with all manner liquid concoctions.”
On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century (2017)
History does not repeat, but it does instruct.
These are the opening words of the Prologue to the book. Snyder continued: “As the Founding Fathers debated our Constitution, they took instruction from the history they knew. Concerned that the democratic republic they envisioned would collapse, they contemplated the descent of ancient democracies and republics into oligarchy and empire. As they knew, Aristotle warned that inequality brought instability, while Plato believed that demagogues exploited free speech to install themselves as tyrants.”
In the remainder of the book, Snyder explored each of the twenty lessons, and many of them began with sparkling opening lines. For example, the first chapter and first lesson (“Do Not Obey in Advance”) begins: “Anticipatory obedience is a political tragedy.”
“Postscript,” in Men Explain Things to Me (2014)
One evening over dinner in March 2008, I began to joke, as I often had before, about writing an essay called “Men Explain Things to Me.” Every writer has a stable of ideas that never make it to the racetrack, and I’d been trotting this pony out recreationally once in a while.
So begins a brief article explaining the origins of “Men Explain Things to Me,” a 2008 essay originally published in TomDispatch.com. The original essay immediately struck a nerve in female readers, and when on to become enormously popular. Even though Solnit did not coin the term “mansplaining,” her essay inspired the term.
In her opening paragraph, Solnit continued: “My houseguest, the brilliant theorist and activist Marina Sitrin, insisted that I had to write it down because people like her younger sister Sam needed to read it. Young women, she said, needed to know that being belittled wasn’t the result of their own secret failings; it was the boring old gender wars, and it happened to most of us who were female at some point or other.”
“#YesAllWomen: Feminists Rewrite the Story,” in Men Explain Things to Me (2014)
It was a key match in the World Cup of Ideas. The teams vied furiously for the ball. The all-star feminist team tried repeatedly to kick it through the goalposts marked Widespread Social Problems, while the opposing team, staffed by the mainstream media and mainstream dudes, was intent on getting it into the net called Isolated Event.
Over the years, analogies have often opened books and essays, but rarely as effectively as this one. Solnit continued: “To keep the ball out of his net, the mainstream’s goalie shouted ‘mental illness’ again and again. That ‘ball,’ of course, was the meaning of the massacre of students in Isla Vista, California, by one of their peers.”
The Oak and the Calf: Sketches of Literary Life in the Soviet Union (1975)
Underground is where you expect to find revolutionaries. But not writers.
In his literary memoir, Solzhenitsyn continued: “For the writer intent on truth, life never was, never is (and never will be!) easy; his like have suffered every imaginable harassment—defamation, duels, a shattered family life, financial ruin or lifelong unrelieved poverty, the madhouse, jail.”
“Misconceptions About Russia Are a Threat to America,” in Foreign Affairs (Spring 1980)
Anyone not hopelessly blinded by his own illusions must recognize that the West today finds itself in a crisis, perhaps even in mortal danger.
GUEST COMMENTARY from business consultant and political blogger Jack Altschuler, who wrote: “The dramatic opening line of Solzhenitsyn’s classic Foreign Affairs article clearly deserves inclusion in your wonderful collection. In the article, he helpfully differentiated the country of Russia from the Russia of the communists—and took a few swipes at American foolishness along the way. Solzhenitsyn’s analysis has clear relevance to the Putin-led Russia of today, and especially to the continued inability of many in the West to view Russia accurately.”
In the opening paragraph of the article, Solzhenitsyn continued: “One could point to numerous particular causes or trace the specific stages over the last 60 years which have led to the present state of affairs. But the ultimate cause clearly lies in 60 years of obstinate blindness to the true nature of communism.“
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?
Charles Bukowski: Locked in the Arms of a Crazy Life (1998)
Charles Bukowski raised himself up from his chair and got a beer from the refrigerator behind him on stage. The audience applauded as he drank, tipping the bottle until it was upside down and he had drained the last golden drop.
“This is not a prop,” he said, speaking slowly with a lilt to his voice, like W. C. Fields. “It’s a necesssssity.”
The words come from the book’s Prologue, and they provide a fitting introduction to one of the most colorful characters in literary history.
The first chapter of the book (titled “Twisted Childhood”) also begins memorably: “Bukowski claimed the majority of what he wrote was literally what had happened in his life. Essentially that is what his books are all about—and honest representation of himself and his experiences at the bottom of American society. He even went so far as to put a figure on it: ninety-three percent of his work was autobiography, he said, and the remaining seven percent was ‘improved upon.’”
The Common Sense of Baby and Child Care (1946)
You know more than you think you do.
These are among the most famous opening words in the history of non-fiction books (from a first chapter titled “Trust Yourself”). At the time, Spock was a 43-year-old practicing pediatrician who was vigorously opposed to a then-popular “scientific parenthood” movement that urged new parents to put their faith in “experts.” Spock’s goal was to reassure young mothers that they were already up for the challenge of parenting, and his first words couldn’t have been more perfectly phrased.
The book was an immediate—and spectacular—success, selling 500,000 copies in the first six months after publication. It went on to become one of the most influential books of the twentieth century, revolutionizing child-rearing methods for a generation of women born after WWI and now looking at a whole new post-WWII world. The book was ultimately revised ten times and has sold more than 50 million copies in forty different languages.
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.
You’re Too Kind: A Brief History of Flattery (2002)
Perfect, gentle reader: I will not begin this book with a tribute to your discernment, because a person of your obvious accomplishments would certainly be immune to such blandishments. You would surely see through such transparent puffery and reject it out of hand. Someone with as much self-assurance and insight as you would not want any soft soap and sycophancy, but rather candor and direct truth.
Well, nothing personal, dear reader, but I doubt it.
Stengel continued: “We like to think that the smarter a person is, the higher she ascends up the ladder of success, the less susceptible that individual is to flattery. In fact, the opposite seems to be the case. People of high self-esteem and accomplishment generally see the praise directed at them as shrewd judgment rather than flattery.”
Robert Louis Stevenson
“The Plains of Nebraska,” in Across the Plains: With Other Memories and Essays (1892)
It had thundered on the Friday night, but the sun rose on Saturday without a cloud. We were at sea—there is no other adequate expression—on the plains of Nebraska.
This is one of my all-time favorite metaphors, and it came at the beginning of a travel vignette Stevenson wrote in 1879 while on a train from New York City to San Francisco. If you’ve ever lived in The Great Plains—or traveled through the area during the summer months—you will appreciate the similarity between the great oceans of the world and the thousands of acres of rolling fields of wheat, flax, or corn (in writing the lyrics for the patriotic song “America the Beautiful,“ Katherine Lee Bates employed a similar metaphor in the opening lines: “O beautiful for spacious skies,/For amber waves of grain”).
In his vignette, Stevenson continued: “I made my observatory on the top of a fruit-wagon, and sat by the hour upon that perch to spy about me, and to spy in vain for something new. It was a world almost without a feature; an empty sky, an empty earth; front and back, the line of railway stretched from horizon to horizon, like a cue across a billiard-board; on either hand, the green plain ran till it touched the skirts of heaven.”
Best known for his rollicking adventure tales, Stevenson was also an accomplished essayist and arguably the world’s first internationally-famous travel writer (he wrote ten separate travel memoirs from 1878 to 1905).
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.”
Human Aggression (1968)
That man is an aggressive creature will hardly be disputed.
Intellectual “hooks” in works of non-fiction are generally far less dramatic than those seen in novels and short stories, but they serve the purpose of getting a reader to read on—and therefore meet the criterion of a Great Opening Line. Storr continued: “With the exception of certain rodents, no other vertebrate habitually destroys members of his own species. No other animal takes positive pleasure in the exercise of cruelty upon another of his own kind.“ As Storr continues, he goes on to make this remarkable generalization: “There is no parallel in nature to our savage treatment of each other. The somber fact is that we are the cruelest and most ruthless species that has ever walked the earth.“
"Churchill: The Man," in Churchill Revised (1969; A. J. P. Taylor, et. al., eds.)
The psychiatrist who takes it upon himself to attempt a character study of an individual who he has never met is engaged upon a project which is full of risk.
"Why Human Beings Become Violent," in Churchill's Black Dog, Kafka's Mice, and Other Phenomena of the Human Mind (1988)
Men who commit violent crimes are not infrequently told by magistrates or judges that they have behaved like animals. This is grossly unfair to other species.
Storr continued: "Nature is red in tooth and claw when one species preys upon another in search of food; but destructive violence between members of the same species is comparatively rare, and usually only occurs under special circumstances of overcrowding or shortage of food. Man is uniquely violent and cruel."
"Isaac Newton," A Life in Reading in British Medical Journal (Dec. 21-28, 1985)
Isaac Newton is generally acknowledged to have been one of the greatest creative men of genius who ever existed. It also happened that he showed many striking abnormalities of personality, and at one time was considered mad by his contemporaries.
The Astonishing Armadillo (1993)
Slowly, slowly for the past 150 years, a small army has trundled steadily northward from Mexico. In 1854 the army crossed the Mexican border and invaded Texas. The invaders were small creatures, each with a head like a lizard’s, eyes like a pig’s, ears like a mule’s, a shout like a hog’s, claws like a bear’s, and a tail like a rat’s. These astonishing creatures were nine-banded armadillos.
This spectacular opening paragraph reads almost like the beginning of a sci-fi or horror novel—and nicely demonstrates that even science books can begin with a literary flourish. Stuart continued: “Naturalist John James Audubon described the armadillo as ‘a small pig in the shell of a turtle.’”
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.”
“Thoughts on Various Subjects, Moral and Diverting,” in Miscellanies (1711)
We have just religion enough to make us hate, but not enough to make us love one another.
“Thoughts on Various Subjects” is actually less of an essay than a compilation of Swift’s thoughts on various subjects. The opening quotation is a wonderful way to begin the collection, though, so I’ve included it here. Swift went on to offer some of his most famous observations in the piece, including “When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.” This was the line, of course, that inspired the title of John Kennedy Toole’s brilliant 1980 novel A Confederacy of Dunces (the novel also had a wonderful opening paragraph, which you will find on this site).
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.
Nicholas L. Syrett
An Open Secret: The Family Story of Robert and John Gregg Allerton (2021)
On March 4, 1960, Robert Allerton became a father. He was 86-years-old at the time and his newly adopted son, John Gregg, was 60. The pair had already been living together and calling themselves father and son for almost four decades.
In a Chicago Tribune book review (June 18, 2021), Darcel Rockett wrote: “The first lines of Nicholas Syrett’s third book…had me hooked.” In the book, Syrett chronicled a fascinating story in gay and lesbian history—how a man who was once described as the “richest bachelor in Chicago” adopted his longtime lover, a man 26 years his junior (it was the first such adoption in Illinois history). The two men had been closeted lovers for nearly forty years, and the adoption—occurring during a time of rampant homophobia—gave Allerton a socially acceptable way to leave his fortune to his lover after his death. With a legal “son” as heir, the chances of any challenges to the will were greatly reduced.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb
The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable (2007)
Before the discovery of Australia, people in the Old World were convinced that all swans were white, an unassailable belief as it seemed completely confirmed by empirical evidence. The sighting of the first black swan might have been an interesting surprise for a few ornithologists (and others extremely concerned with the coloring of birds), but that is not where the significance of the story lies.
In his widely acclaimed book, Taleb continued: “It illustrates a severe limitation to our learning from observations or experience and the fragility of our knowledge. One single observation can invalidate a general statement derived from millennia of confirmatory sightings of white swans. All you need is one single (and, I am told, quite ugly) black bird.”
“Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” in Esquire (April 1966)
Frank Sinatra, holding a glass of bourbon in one hand and a cigarette in the other, stood in a dark corner of the bar between two attractive but fading blondes who sat waiting for him to say something.
This is the impeccable opening line of a celebrity profile that helped launch the “New Journalism” movement. Now regarded as a classic in journalism history, the essay is taught in journalism classes all around the country. In 2003, the editors of Esquire magazine hailed it as “The Best Story Esquire Ever Published.” And in a 2007 Vanity Fair article, Frank DiGiacomo described it as “The greatest literary-nonfiction story of the 20th century.” Many also regard it as the best profile ever written about Sinatra.
In the opening paragraph, Talese continued: “But he said nothing; he had been silent during much of the evening, except now in this private club in Beverly Hills he seemed even more distant, staring out through the smoke and semidarkness into a large room beyond the bar where dozens of young couples sat huddled around small tables or twisted in the center of the floor to the clamorous clang of folk-rock music blaring from the stereo. The two blondes knew, as did Sinatra’s four male friends who stood nearby, that it was a bad idea to force conversation upon him when he was in this mood of sullen silence, a mood that had hardly been uncommon during this first week of November, a month before his fiftieth birthday.”
The Kingdom and the Power: Behind the Scenes at The New York Times (1969)
Most journalists are restless voyeurs who see the warts on the world, the imperfections in people and places.
In his opening paragraph, Talese continued: “The sane scene that is much of life, the great portion of the planet unmarked by madness, does not lure them like riots and raids, crumbling countries and sinking ships, bankers banished to Rio and burning Buddhist nuns—gloom is their game, the spectacle their passion, normality their nemesis.”
Atilla the Gate Agent (2007)
I once had an engagement in the town of Normal, Illinois. I was delighted to learn that a place called Normal actually existed, because I happen to live just a few miles from the town of Peculiar, Missouri. I don’t think it’s any accident of the universe that I live a lot closer to Peculiar than Normal.
When I’m asked, “Of the many different types of opening lines, is there one that is your favorite?“ I usually answer, “Yes, the ones that make me laugh.“ And when it comes to truly witty opening lines, I generally add that they are not restricted to history’s great humorous writers, like Twain, Thurber, Wodehouse, etc. When people ask for examples from less well known authors, I often mention this one from Tamblyn, a very talented contemporary fellow who describes himself as a “motivational humorist.“
Barbara Brown Taylor
An Altar in the World: Finding the Sacred Beneath Our Feet (2009)
If I had a dollar for every time I heard someone say, “I am spiritual but not religious,” then I might not be any wiser about what that means—but I would be richer. I hear the phrase on the radio. I read it in interviews. People often say it to my face when they learn that I am a religion professor who spent years as a parish priest.
In the book’s second paragraph, Taylor continued: “In that context, people are usually trying to tell me that they have a sense of the divine depth of things but they are not churchgoers. They want to grow closer to God, but not at the cost of creeds, confessions, and religious wars large and small.”
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.
Gary G. Tibbetts
How the Great Scientists Reasoned: The Scientific Method in Action (2013)
In the beginning was the book of Nature. For eon after eon, the pages of the book turned with no human to read them.
This is a beautiful way to begin a book, and it’s especially nice to see it opening a science book. In the opening paragraph, Tibbetts continued his discourse at a lofty level, writing: “No eye wondered at the ignition of the sun, the coagulation of the earth, the birth of the moon, the solidification of a terrestrial continent, or the filling of the seas. Yet when the first primitive algae evolved to float on the waters of this ocean, a promise was born—a hope that someday all the richness and variety of the phenomena of the universe would be read with appreciative eyes.”
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.”
The Last Days of Hitler (1947)
Now that the new order is past, and the thousand-year reich has crumbled in a decade, we are able at last, picking among the still smoking rubble, to discover the truth about that fantastic and tragical episode.
About this opening line, The Guardian’s Robert McCrum wrote in 2016: “From his commanding opening sentence, the author of this engrossing forensic masterpiece, a work of brilliant reportage, knows that the story he is about to unfold will be unputdownable, a scoop of historic proportions: history in the making.” It was opening lines like this that led Irish writer John Banville to describe Trevor-Roper as “The Prince of the Essay” (see the Banville entry for more, including a lovely opening paragraph in its own right).
McCrum ranked The Last Days of Hitler at No. 32 in The Guardian’s list of “The 100 Best Nonfiction Books” of all time. About the book, McCrum wrote: “Some books simply exude excitement and self-confidence, as if the writer is on fire with ideas, or intoxicated with information. This is one of those titles.”
“The Lede,” in The New Yorker (Dec. 27, 2021)
It’s said that when James Thurber, as a young newspaper reporter, was told by an editor that his story’s first paragraph, what newspaper people might refer to as his lede, suffered from wordiness, he handed in a rewrite whose opening paragraph was, in its entirety, “Dead.”
There followed a second paragraph: “That’s what the man was when they found him with a knife in his back at 4pm in front of Riley’s saloon at the corner of 52nd and 12th streets.”
In the world of journalism, the “lead” sentence in newspaper and magazine articles is often described as a “lede.” There’s some debate about the exact origins of the usage, but few people outside the world of journalism use the term. In the New Yorker article, an homage to ledes from a man who described himself as “a collector” of them, Trillin opened with a marvelous—and almost certainly apocryphal—story about James Thurber.
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.”
Barbara W. Tuchman
The Guns of August (1962)
So gorgeous was the spectacle on the May morning of 1910 when nine kings rode in the funeral of Edward VII of England that the crowd, waiting in hushed and black-clad awe, could not keep back gasps of admiration.
The book, an exhaustive examination of the first month of WWI, became an immediate hit and remained on The New York Times Best Seller list for 42 consecutive weeks. President Kennedy was so impressed with the work that he purchased copies for his entire cabinet and all of his principal military advisors, and ordered them to read it. The book went on to win the 1963 Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction (it was ineligible for the history award because Pulitzer Prizes for History must be about American History).
Barbara W. Tuchman
The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam (1984)
A phenomenon noticeable throughout history regardless of place or period is the pursuit by governments of policies contrary to their own interests. Mankind, it seems, makes a poorer performance of government than of almost any other human activity.
This is one of my all-time favorite opening lines—an elegant, if troubling, assertion, expressed with all the confidence of an overarching principle or scientific law.
Tuchman continued: “In this sphere, wisdom, which may be defined as the exercise of judgment acting on experience, common sense, and available information, is less operative and more frustrated than it should be. Why do holders of high office so often act contrary to the way reason points and enlightened self-interest suggests? Why does intelligent mental process seem so often not to function?”
“The Lost Art of Bad Drama,” in The Observer (March 1955); reprinted in Tynan on Theatre (1964)
Night-nurses at the bedside of good drama, we critics keep a holy vigil. Black circles rim our eyes as we pray for the survival of our pet patient….
Tynan was one of history’s most influential drama critics, and also one of the most articulate, as he demonstrates in this impressive opener. The idea of critics as nurse-maids is a powerful metaphor, and it reveals something important about Tynan’s view of the critic’s role—as a defender of good drama, and, like a physician, one who regards bad drama as a sickness or disease that must be eradicated for the patient to enjoy good health.
Tynan will forever be remembered as a critic, but, as he demonstrates in the opening words of this review, he also deserves to be honored as a superlative writer.
“The Quare Fellow,” a 1956 Observer review; reprinted in Tynan on Theatre (1964)
“Bloody sparklin’ dialogue,” said a pensive Irishman during the first interval of The Quare Fellow—and sparkle, by any standards, it amazingly did.
On a number of occasions, Tynan used a snippet of overheard audience conversation to open a review. In this case, it was a terrific way to begin, and it only got better as Tynan expanded on the remark: “The English hoard words like misers; the Irish spend them like sailors; and in Brendan Behan’s tremendous new play language is out on a spree, ribald, dauntless, and spoiling for a fight.”
In the opening paragraph, Tynan continued with this stinging criticism of English drama: “In itself, of course, this is scarcely amazing. It is Ireland’s sacred duty to send over, every few years, a playwright to save the English theatre from inarticulate glumness.”
“Fates and Furies,” in The Observer (July 12, 1955); reprinted as “Macbeth” in Tynan on Theatre (1964)
Nobody has ever succeeded as Macbeth, and the reason is not far to seek. Instead of growing as the play proceeds, the hero shrinks; complex and many-levelled to begin with, he ends up a cornered thug, lacking even a death scene with which to regain lost stature.
In the opening paragraph, Tynan continued: “Most Macbeths, mindful of this, let off their big guns as soon as possible, and have usually shot their bolt by the time the dagger speech is out.”
The review, begun so pessimistically, was soon transformed into adulation for Laurence Olivier’s performance in the role: “The marvel of Sir Laurence Olivier’s reading is that it reverses this procedure, turns the play inside out, and makes it (for the first time I can remember) a thing of mounting, not waning, excitement.”
Neil deGrasse Tyson
Astrophysics for People in a Hurry (2017)
In the beginning, nearly fourteen billion years ago, all the space and all the matter and all the energy of the known universe was contained in a volume less than one-trillionth the size of the period that ends this sentence.
Tyson, who has replaced his childhood hero Carl Sagan as the world’s most popular astrophysicist and popularizer of modern science, begins with an astonishing, almost mind-boggling, observation. He continued: “Conditions were so hot, the basic forces of nature that collectively describe the universe were unified. Though still unknown how it came into existence, this sub-pinpoint-size cosmos could only expand. Rapidly. In what today we call the big bang.”
Laurel Thatcher Ulrich
“Virtuous Women Found: New England Ministerial Literature, 1668-1735,” in American Quarterly (Spring 1976)
Cotton Mather called them “The hidden ones.“ They never preached or sat in a deacon’s bench. Nor did they vote or attend Harvard. Neither, because they were virtuous women, did they question God or the magistrates. They prayed secretly, read the Bible through at least once a year, and went to hear the minister preach even when it snowed. Hoping for an eternal crown, they never asked to be remembered on earth. And they haven’t been. Well-behaved women seldom make history.
This is—hands down, I might add—the best opening paragraph to ever come from an obscure academic journal. Ulrich was a 37-year-old history professor at the University of New Hampshire when these words appeared at the beginning of an article on Puritan funeral practices in New England.
In writing “Well-behaved women seldom make history,” Ulrich was arguing that humble and prayerful women should make history, but her quotation gradually began to take on a life of its own under a different, and slightly more radical, interpretation: women should be less well-behaved, and even rebellious, if they wanted to make history.
In 1995, Ulrich’s pithy saying took its first step from obscurity to quotation immortality when journalist Kay Mills used it as an epigraph for her popular account of women’s history, From Pocahantas to Power Suits (for some reason, though, Mills misquoted Ulrich as saying “Well-behaved women rarely make history”). In 1996, the altered saying appeared in Rosalie Maggio’s New Beacon Book of Quotations. From there, it was picked up by an Oregon t-shirt company and, in a few years, it had become the firm’s most popular product.
The rest, as they say is history. As we moved into the new century, the saying became a full-blown cultural meme. Not unexpectedly, Ulrich even decided to write a book using the saying as the title: Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History (2007). She began her book with these words: “Some time ago a former student e-mailed me from California: ‘You’ll be delighted to know that you are quoted frequently on bumpers in Berkeley.’ Through a strange stroke of fate I’ve gotten used to seeing my name on bumpers. And on T-shirts, tote bags, coffee mugs, magnets, buttons, greeting cards, and websites.”
“Confessions of a Wild Bore,” in Assorted Prose (1965)
Pity the poor bore. He stands among us as a creature formidable and familiar yet in essence unknowable. We can read of the ten infallible signs whereby he may be recognized and of the seven tested methods whereby he may be rebuffed.
In an essay that is now regarded as a masterpiece of parody, Updike introduced his subject with an inspired tongue-in-cheek opening paragraph. He continued with a brilliant piece of writing that embedded one of his most quotable observations (it’s at the conclusion of the paragraph, and I’ve put it into italics so you can locate it more readily):
“Valuable monographs exist upon his dress and diet; the study of his mating habits and migrational routes is well past the speculative stage; and statistical studies abound. One out of three hundred and twelve Americans is a bore, for instance, and a healthy adult male bore consumes each year one and a half times his own weight in other people’s patience.”
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.”
“The Satiric World of Evelyn Waugh,” in The New York Times (Jan 7, 1962)
A satirist is a man profoundly revolted by the society in which he lives. His rage takes the form of wit, ridicule, mockery.
Some opening sentences are so eloquently expressed they cause the reader to stop reading for just a moment to appreciate the beauty of the construction. This is one of those gems.
Necessary Losses (1986)
We begin life with a loss. We are cast from the womb without an apartment, a charge plate, a job or a car.
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 Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming (2019)
It is worse, much worse, than you think.
In his powerful polemic on the imminent danger of the climate crisis, Wallace-Wells continued: “The slowness of climate change is a fairy tale, perhaps as pernicious as the one that says it isn’t happening at all.”
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.
One Animal Among Many (1991)
According to some commentators on the Jewish Talmud, God tried creation twenty-six times before this one. All of the early attempts failed. “Let’s hope it works this time,” said the Creator, sending us on our strange, beautiful—and uncertain—journey.
Waltner-Toews, a Canadian scientist with the soul of a poet, continued: “It is a hope many of us mutter to ourselves quite often these days. But hope without action is only a cynical parody of hope; real hope carries with it the responsibility to bring that hope to fruition. Real hope is thus self-fulfilling, a positive feedback loop.”
On Pandemics (2nd ed.; 2020)
Until a few years ago, many scientists had banished words like “threat” and “danger” from our vocabulary. In an attempt to be more rigorously quantitative and less emotional, we began to write about risks. Our response to danger was called “risk management.”
Waltner-Toews continued: “A risk is a threat or a danger that you can put into a box. Then you can count boxes, and manage them. The assumption in risk management is that you can quantify danger. This is only partially true.”
The Purpose Driven Life: What on Earth Am I Here For? (2002)
It’s not about you.
Pithy and powerful is the goal for many writers attempting to craft a great opening line, and the first four words of The Purpose Driven Life perfectly illustrate the point.
In the book’s second paragraph, Warren continued: “The purpose of your life is far greater than your own personal fulfillment, your peace of mind, or even your happiness. It’s far greater than your family, your career, or even your wildest dreams and ambitions. If you want to know why you were placed on this planet, you must begin with God. You were born by his purpose and for his purpose.”
Warren’s book capitalized on a huge word-of-mouth campaign to make the New York Times bestseller list, where it remained for over 90 weeks. In 2020, Warren announced that more than 50 million copies of the book—in more than 85 languages—had been sold, making it one of the biggest selling religious books of all time.
Booker T. Washington
Up From Slavery (1901)
I was born a slave on a plantation in Franklin County, Virginia. I am not quite sure of the exact place or exact date of my birth, but at any rate I suspect I must have been born somewhere and at some time.
I’m not sure what I was expecting when I began reading this classic American autobiography, but one of the last would’ve been a wry display of humor. By beginning with a touch of levity, Washington sent a clear message to readers that, despite the many sordid details of his early life, he was going to do everything he could to make his autobiography an enjoyable read.
During his lifetime, Washington never knew anything about the circumstances of his birth. He did not know the day, month, or year of his birth; and nor did he know that has mother had been impregnated by a white man from a neighboring plantation. After his death in 1915, evidence emerged that he was born on April 5, 1856.
You might also find it interesting that, in composing his opening words, Washington was almost certainly inspired by the opening of another famous autobiography by a black man: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave (1845).
“The Gentle Wit of Robert Benchley,” in American Heritage magazine (Nov./Dec., 2021)
Comedians yammer on and on, but humorists are a somber bunch.
Watson, a noted American writer/biographer/historian and senior editor at American Heritage, continued with words almost guaranteed to get readers to stay glued to the page: “Though funny in print, their party personas tend to brooding. Their lives are often a mess. You don’t have to be Freud to see that sorrow is the soul of wit. But meet Robert Benchley.”
Freedom Summer: The Savage Season of 1964 That Made Mississippi Burn and Made America a Democracy (2010)
In the fall of 1963, America was suffused with an unbearable whiteness of being.
It’s rare for a serious work of history to begin with a dash of wordplay, but Watson’s opening sentence does exactly that—cleverly playing off the title of Milan Kundera’s 1984 novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being. If I read the meaning of the opening line correctly, I believe Watson was making a subtle, but extremely important point: when a racially diverse society gives overwhelming power and authority to only its white members, the result can be summarized in a single word: unbearable.
In his opening paragraph, Watson went on to describe America in the fall of 1963: its unprecedented prosperity, its handsome young president, its cold war tensions with the Soviet Union, its massive cars with flamboyant fins and taillights, and the fact that ninety-nine percent of homes had TVs, almost all of them black and white. About the offerings of the seven channels then available for viewing, Watson wrote: “Not a single program showed a dark face in any but the most subservient role.” He then ended the opening paragraph this way: “In the halls of Congress and in city halls across the nation, all but a few politicians were as white as the ballots that elected them. Yet, from this ivory tower, the future could be spotted.”
In a recent personal communication, Watson wrote to me: “My editor didn’t like the opening line, thinking people wouldn’t get the ‘unbearable lightness of being’ reference, but I stuck to it.” And I am glad he did.
Wallace D. Wattles
The Science of Getting Rich (1910)
Whatever may be said in praise of poverty, the fact remains that it is not possible to live a really complete or successful life unless one is rich.
Wattles, one of America’s first “self-help” authors, continued: “No man can rise to his greatest possible height in talent or soul development unless he has plenty of money; for to unfold the soul and to develop talent he must have many things to use, and he cannot have these things unless he has the money to buy them with.”
The Wisdom of Insecurity: A Message for an Age of Anxiety (1951)
By all outward appearances our life is a spark of light between one eternal darkness and another.
The Way of Zen (1957)
Zen Buddhism is a way and a view of life which does not belong to any of the formal categories of modern Western thought. It is not religion or philosophy; it is not a psychology or a type of science. It is an example of what is known in India and China as a “way of liberation.”
Later in the opening paragraph, Watts went on to explain: “A way of liberation can have no positive definition. It has to be suggested by saying what it is not, somewhat as a sculptor reveals an image by the act of removing pieces of stone from a block.”
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.
H. G. Wells
“The Writing of Essays” (1898), in Certain Personal Matters (1898)
The art of the essayist is so simple, so entirely free from canons of criticism, and withal so delightful, that one must needs wonder why all men are not essayists. Perhaps people do not know how easy it is. Or perhaps beginners are misled. Rightly taught it may be learnt in a brief ten minutes or so, what art there is in it. And all the rest is as easy as wandering among woodlands on a bright morning in the spring.
I include the opening paragraph of this essay, not because it is so deserving, but because of the essay’s final paragraph, which you will see in a moment (it includes one of the most interesting things ever written on the subject of Great Opening Lines). The best thing I can say about the opening paragraph above is that it is a little strange. I know of no other serious writer who has maintained that writing is simple or easy, or that it can be learned in a matter of minutes. I’m not sure what Wells was smoking when he wrote the essay, but it looks like it might have been some pretty strong stuff.
The most important thing about Wells’s essay is not the first paragraph, but the final one—which includes this thought about how to effectively begin an essay:
“So long as you do not begin with a definition you may begin anyhow. An abrupt beginning is much admired, after the fashion of the clown’s entry through the chemist’s window. Then whack at your reader (italics mine) at once, hit him over the head with the sausages, brisk him up with the poker, bundle him into the wheelbarrow, and so carry him away with you before he knows where you are.”
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.”
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.”
Jazz (1926, with M. M. McBride)
Jazz came to America three hundred years ago in chains.
If I were to put together a list of “The 20 Best Metaphorical Opening Lines in Literary History,” this one would most certainly be included, and it would be very close to the top spot. When I first came upon the line many decades ago, I was stunned by its brilliance.
In “The Roaring Twenties” and early 1930s, Whiteman was the leader of one of America’s most popular bands. About him, Duke Ellington wrote: “Paul Whiteman was known as the King of Jazz, and no one as yet has come near carrying that title with more certainty and dignity.”
Even though Whiteman was of Anglo-Saxon heritage, he was fully aware of the new musical genre’s African origins. He continued in the book’s first paragraph:
“The psalm-singing Dutch traders, sailing in a man-of-war across the ocean in 1619, described their cargo as ‘fourteen black African slaves for sale in his Majesty’s colonies.’ But priceless freight destined three centuries later to set a whole nation dancing went unnoted and unbilled by the stolid, revenue-hungry Dutchmen.”
Sex, Ecology, Spirituality: The Spirit of Evolution (1995)
It is flat-out strange that something—that anything—is happening. There was nothing, then a Big Bang, then here we all are. This is extremely weird.
In the book’s second paragraph, Wilber continued: “To Schelling’s burning question, ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’ there have always been two general answers. The first might be called ‘the philosophy of ‘oops.’ The universe just occurs, there is nothing behind it, it’s all ultimately accidental or random, it just is, it just happens—oops!”
A moment later, Wilber went on to write: “The other broad answer that has been tendered is that something else is going on; behind the happenstance drama is a deeper or higher or wider pattern, or order, or intelligence…. Something else is going on, something quite other than oops.”
A Theory of Everything: An Integral Vision for Business, Politics, Science, and Spirituality (2000)
We live in an extraordinary time: all of the world’s cultures, past and present, are to some degree available to us, either in historical records or as living entities. In the history of the planet Earth, this has never happened before.
George F. Will
“The Cubs and Conservatism,” in The Washington Post (March 21, 1974); reprinted in Bunts: Pete Rose, Curt Flood, Camden Yards and Other Reflections on Baseball (1997)
A reader demands to know how I contracted the infectious conservatism for which he plans to horsewhip me. So if you have tears, prepare to shed them now as I reveal how my gloomy temperament received its conservative warp from early and prolonged exposure to the Chicago Cubs.
After a first sentence almost guaranteed to get a reader’s attention, Will suggested that the roots of his political conservativism could be traced to his early love of the perennially-losing Chicago Cubs. He then went on to offer a delightful two-paragraph comparison of liberals and conservatives:
“The differences between conservatives and liberals are as much a matter of temperament as ideas. Liberals are temperamentally inclined to see the world as a harmonious carnival of sweetness and light, where goodwill prevails, good intentions are rewarded, the race is to the swift, and a benevolent Nature arranges a favorable balance of pleasure over pain. Conservatives (and Cub fans) know better.
“Conservatives know the world is a dark and forbidding place where most new knowledge is false, most improvements are for the worse, the battle is not to the strong, nor riches to men of understanding, and an unscrupulous Providence consigns innocents to suffering. I learned this early.”
Caroline Randall Williams
“You Want a Confederate Monument? My Body is a Confederate Monument,” 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.”
How to Raise Successful People: Simple Lessons for Radical Results (2019)
There are no Nobel Prizes for parenting or education, but there should be.
One of America’s most respected educators, Wojcicki was named California Teacher of the Year in 2002. In this book, she outlined her TRICK approach to raising children as well as educating them: Trust, Respect, Independence, Collaboration, and Kindness. She continued in the first paragraph: “They are the two most important things we do in our society. How we raise and educate our children determines not only the people they become but the society we create.”
The Beauty Myth (1990)
At last, after a long silence, women took to the streets.
After an opening that nods in the direction of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963), Wolf continued: “In the two decades of radical action that followed the rebirth of feminism in the early 1970s, Western women gained legal and reproductive rights, pursued higher education, entered the trades and the professions, and overturned ancient and revered beliefs about their social role. A generation on, do women feel free?”
In the second paragraph, Wolf provided a partial answer to the question (they “do not feel as free as they want to”) and hinted at the thesis of her book (it “has to do with the relationship between female liberation and female beauty”).
Vagina: A New Biography (2012)
Why write a book about the vagina?
This is an opening question readers would’ve never seen a few generations ago, but we clearly live in a new era. Wolf gives a direct answer in the second paragraph: “I have always been interested in female sexuality, and in the history of female sexuality. The way in which any given culture treats the vagina—whether with respect or disrespect, caringly or disparagingly—is a metaphor for how women in general in that place and time are treated.”
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.“
During the Top Secret President’s Daily Brief the afternoon of Tuesday, January 28, 2020, discussion in the Oval Office turned to a mysterious pneumonia-like virus outbreak in China. Public health officials and President Trump himself were telling the public the virus was low-risk for the United States.
“This will be the biggest national security threat you face in your presidency,” Robert O’Brien, the national security adviser, told Trump, expressing a jarring, contrarian view as deliberately and as strongly as possible.
Trump’s head popped up.
Rage was one of my selections for “The 20 Best Opening Lines of 2020.“
Bob Woodward and Robert Costa
Two days after the January 6, 2021, violent assault on the United States Capitol by supporters of President Donald Trump, General Mark Milley, the nation’s senior military officer and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, placed an urgent call on a top secret, back-channel line at 7:03 a.m. to his Chinese counterpart, General Li Zuocheng, chief of the Joint Staff of the People’s Liberation Army.
It’s rare for a book—as opposed to a newspaper—to be the source of breaking news, but that’s exactly what happened when the opening paragraph of Woodward & Costa’s new book revealed Gen. Milley’s previously unknown telephone call to his Chinese counterpart. The book’s next three paragraph filled out the picture nicely:
“Milley knew from extensive reports that Li and the Chinese leadership were stunned and disoriented by the televised images of the unprecedented attack on the American legislature.
“Li fired off questions to Milley. Was the American superpower unstable? Collapsing? What was going on? Was the U.S. military going to do something?
“‘Things may look ’unsteady,’ Milley said, trying to calm Li, whom he had know for five years. ‘But that’s the nature of democracy, General Li. We are 100 percent steady. Everything’s fine. But democracy can be sloppy sometimes.”
The entire phone call lasted for an hour and a half, and it seemed to calm down the rattled Chinese general. But what General Li did not know at the time—as the book would soon reveal—was that Gen. Milley had completely “misled” him. Despite Milley’s reassurances about America’s steadiness or its occasionally sloppy democratic practices, Woodward and Costa wrote that Milley believed that the events of Jan. 6th were nothing short of a treasonous attempt at a coup d’état in the world’s most powerful democracy. Peril became an immediate bestseller, and was one of my choices for “21 of the Best Opening Lines of 2021.”
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 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.”
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.”
She was supposed to fuck a god high up on his mountaintop, but she refused. She wouldn’t listen to Apollo’s reasoning. So he cursed her, a life sentence.
Reading these opening words for the first time, the reader in me immediately thinks, “This is a new kind of woman’s voice, at least one I haven’t heard before. Who is she? Who are her heroines? What can I—a man many years her senior—learn from her?“ Zambreno pulls me further into her world as she continues in the first paragraph: “He said, Sure, you can live forever, as many grains of sand in your hand, but that young lovely body will be gone, you will wrinkle up into nothingness. Who will love you now? Who will listen?“
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.”
Spring Training (1989)
This book was born, though I didn’t know it at the time, seven years ago in Winter Haven, Florida, at the spring training camp of the Boston Red Sox. I was sitting in the grandstand in a sea of codgers, codging the time away.
Zinsser continued: “The sun was warm, the grass was green, and the air was alive with the sounds of rebirth: bat meeting ball, ball meeting glove, players and coaches chattering across the diamond. They were sounds that hadn’t been heard in the land since the World Series ended in October.”
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.
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.
Rats, Lice, and History (1935)
This book, if it is ever written, and—if written—it finds a publisher, and—if published—anyone reads it, will be recognized with some difficulty as a biography.
Zinsser, a prominent American physician and bacteriologist, may have been the first person in history to write a biography about a thing rather than a person—and he directly addressed that issue in the opening words of his book on typhus (the formal subtitle was: Being a Study in Biography, Which, After Twelve Preliminary Chapters Indispensable for the Preparation of the Lay Reader, Deals with the Life History of Typhus Fever).
Biographical writing was enjoying great popularity in the early decades of the 20th century, and it seems clear that Zinsser was hoping to capitalize on the trend. A bit later in his Introduction, he wrote: “The subject of our biography is a disease,” and he went on to add: “We shall try to write it in as untechnical a manner as is consistent with accuracy. It will of necessity be incomplete, for the life our subject has been a long and turbulent one from which we can select only the high spots.“ Zinsser’s attempt to capitalize on the interest in biographical writing appears to have been successful, as his book became the 8th bestselling nonfiction book of 1935.
In the Preface to his work, Zinsser also offered some memorable opening words, and they provide a hint as to why he chose to frame the book as a biography: “These chapters—we hesitate to call so rambling a performance a book—were written at odd moments as a relaxation from studies of typhus fever in the laboratory and in the field. In following infectious diseases about the world, one ends by regarding them as biological individuals which have lived through centuries, spanning many generations of men and having existences which, in their developments and wanderings, can be treated biographically.”
“Your Land,” in The National Road: Dispatches from a Changing America (2020)
A summer afternoon in Kansas: shadows in the grass, and a diagonal slash cut into the earth.
After first reading this deliciously ambiguous opening line, the image that came into my mind upon was some a human creation, like a highway, airport landing strip, or worse, oil pipeline, desecrating the natural landscape. That first impression spurred me on to read further, and I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Zoellner continued—beautifully, I might add—in the second paragraph: “The trench in the soil had nailed me in place, as if I had just been shown the ribs of a dinosaur skeleton. Nothing here but a rut in the ground, but what a remarkable rut, because it had been carved here by hundreds of wagons traveling on the Santa Fe Trail in the mid-nineteenth century, jangling with goods headed southwest, crossing through territory of the Pawneee and Kiowa. The ground still wore a scar of their passage. I could not have been more mesmerized looking at a full-color telescope blast of the Crab Nebula, or the dark shroud of the Virgin of Guadalupe.”
A few months after he was captivated by the sight of the diagonal slash, Zoellner took a break from his work as a newspaper reporter, strapped forty pounds of gear on his back, and hiked the entire length of the trail—900 miles, from Missouri to New Mexico—keeping notes along the way.