Genre: Philosophy & Religion
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.
These 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.“
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.
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.”
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.
The Nazarene (1939)
Not the power to remember, but its very opposite, the power to forget, is a necessary condition of our existence.
The Apostle (1943)
Seven weeks had gone by since that memorable day when on the hill of Golgotha Yeshua of Nazareth had been crucified by command of Pontius Pilate.
“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.’“
City of Glass [Book 1 of The New York Trilogy] (1985)
It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not.
The narrator continued in the opening paragraph: “Much later, when he was able to think about the things that happened to him, he would conclude that nothing was real except chance. But that was much later. In the beginning, there was simply the event and its consequences. Whether it might have turned out differently, or whether it was all predetermined with the first word that came from the stranger’s mouth, is not the question. The question is the story itself, and whether or not it means something is not for the story to tell.”
In a 2017 blog post (“Superb First Paragraphs Can Teach Writers”), writer and editor John Fox wrote: “Love that this starts with a telephone ringing, and that the person calling is not asking for him. By withholding such information, Auster creates a fantastic mystery. And the rest of the paragraph emphasizes how pivotal this phone call was, and also introduces the notion about the meaning of narrative and story, which the rest of this novel will concentrate on.”
In his post, Fox continued: “Remember that the one and only true rule for the first paragraph is that it has to make the reader want to read the rest of the book. And Auster certainly accomplishes that here.”
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.
In Praise of Love (2009; with Nicholas Truong)
A philosopher must never forget the countless situations in life when he is no different from anyone else. If he does, theatrical tradition, particularly comedy, will rudely remind him of that fact.
Badio, a well-known contemporary French philosopher, continued in the opening paragraph:
“There is, after all, a stock stage character, the philosopher in love, whose Stoic wisdom and well-rehearsed distrust of passion evaporate in their entirety the moment a dazzlingly beautiful woman sweeps into the room and blows him away forever.”
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.’“
“On Angels,“ in The New Yorker (Aug. 1, 1969)
The death of God left the angels in a strange position.
The narrator continued: “They were overtaken suddenly by a fundamental question. One can attempt to imagine the moment. How did they look at the instant the question invaded them, flooding the angelic consciousness, taking hold with terrifying force? The question was, ’What are angels?’“
And why, you might ask, this was such a terrifying question? The narrator explained in the following paragraph: “New to questioning, unaccustomed to terror, unskilled in aloneness, the angels (we assume) fell into despair.“
The Man Nobody Knows (1952)
It was very late in the afternoon.
If you would like to learn the measure of a man that is the time of day to watch him. We are all half an inch taller in the morning than at night; it is fairly easy to take a large view of things when the mind is rested and the nerves are calm. But the day is a steady drain of small annoyances, and the difference in the size of men becomes hourly more apparent. The little man loses his temper; the big man takes a firmer hold.
It was very late in the afternoon in Galilee.
This lovely, philosophical beginning has the flavor of an older, wiser person—a teacher or clergyman, perhaps—passing along time-honored wisdom. As the third paragraph begins, we begin to sense that the book is a fictionalized version of a very real historical figure. Reading on, we discover that Barton—one of the era’s most successful business executives—has reframed the life of Jesus, portraying him as a brilliant adman, a superb salesman, and a role model for businesspeople everywhere.
The Second Greatest Story Ever Told (1991)
It was a tight squeeze.
This is the only novel I’ve seen that begins with a description of the birth of a baby, and the first words capture the event accurately and succinctly. The new-born is Ilona Ann Coggswater, who we will shortly learn is no ordinary baby, but the first daughter of God.
The narrator continued in the novel’s second paragraph: “And though the safety, comfort, warmth, and humidity of her mother’s womb seemed preferable to the glare and rubber gloves that now surrounded her, it was checkout time.”
Bechard is better known as an independent filmmaker and documentarian, but his debut novel demonstrated great talent at satirical writing. He also provided an intriguing epigraph to the first chapter—an updated version of John 3:17: “For God did not send His Daughter into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Her might be saved.”
The Bible (King James Version)
In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.
There are many throughout the world who consider this the most famous opening line in history, and they are probably right.
William Peter Blatty
The Exorcist (1971)
Like the brief doomed flare of exploding suns that registers dimly on blind men’s eyes, the beginning of the horror passed almost unnoticed; in the shriek of what followed, in fact, was forgotten and perhaps not connected to the horror at all.
What looked like morning was the beginning of endless night.
So begins a novel that has become a classic in horror fiction: the story of the demonic possession—and subsequent exorcism—of an eleven-year-old girl. Blatty was a student at Georgetown University in 1949 when the campus was bristling with news of recent exorcism, and the story stayed with him, untold, until he finally put it together in fictional form twenty years after he graduated.
An immediate best-seller, the novel was adapted by William Friedkin into a 1973 film by the same title. Now regarded as one of the greatest horror films ever made, it was the first in the genre to be nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award (it received ten nominations, winning two, for Best Adapted Screenplay—written by Blatty, incidentaly—and Best Sound).
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.”
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.“
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.
Telling Secrets (1991)
One November morning in 1936 when I was ten years old, my father got up early, put on a pair of gray slacks and a maroon sweater, opened the door to look in briefly on my younger brother and me, who were playing a game in our room, and then went down into the garage where he turned on the engine of the family Chevy and sat down on the running board to wait for the exhaust to kill him.
This is one of the most powerful opening paragraphs I have ever read. Rarely have I seen such a grim—or even tragic—story begun in such a straightforward, matter-of-fact way. In the opening paragraph, Buechner (whose name is pronounced BEEK-nuhr) continued:
“Except for a memorial service for his Princeton class the next spring, by which time we had moved away to another part of the world altogether, there was no funeral because on both my mother’s side and my father’s there was no church connection and funerals were simply not part of the tradition.”
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.“
“The Emergence of Mankind” (1960); reprinted in Myths to Live By (1972)
Mythology is apparently coeval with mankind.
It’s rare to find a highly unusual word in a great opening line (coeval means “having the same age or date of origin”), but Joseph Campbell was a highly unusual man—a classical scholar with one foot in antiquity and the other in the modern world. After his death at age 83 in 1987, a Newsweek obituary said he’d “become one of the rarest intellectuals in American life: a serious thinker who has been embraced by the popular culture.“ In his opening paragraph, he continued:
“As far back, that is to say, as we have been able to follow the broken, scattered, earliest evidences of the emergence of our species, signs have been found which indicate that mythological aims and concerns were already shaping the arts and world of Homo Sapiens.”
“An Absurd Reasoning,“ in The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays (1955)
There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.
These are the powerful opening words of the first essay in the collection. Camus continued: “Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest—whether or not the world has three dimensions, whether the mind has nine or twelve categories—comes afterwards.“
“The Myth of Sisyphus” (1942), in The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays (1955)
The gods had condemned Sisyphus to ceaselessly rolling a rock up to the top of a mountain, whence the stone would fall back of its own weight. They had thought with some reason that there is no more dreadful punishment than this futile and hopeless labor.
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.
Dead Reckoning (2014)
Up in my attic, sorting through a decaying box packed with forty years of personal detritus, is proving more gripping than the tedious job I anticipated. Alice, my exacting wife for most of these forty years, all but pulled out my fingernails to get me to do this.
In this heavily autobiographical novel, Colmore, a retired Episcopal priest, tells the story of Henry Simpson, a retired Episcopal priest. The narrator continued: “Old notes from seminary (good God, Henry, that paper on the sources of the Pentateuch belongs in a museum), a couple of citations commending my parish for housing the homeless. And tchotchkes my sisters and I couldn’t bring ourselves to toss out after our mother died.”
The Spy and the Priest: Which Way to Heaven? (2016)
Max Hartman shifted his considerable weight from one cheek to the other in his leather Eames chair. Sitting in that chair, sometimes with his feet on the matching footstool, sometimes flat on the floor, was the only place other than in bed be could be comfortable for more than five minutes at a stretch.
In this opening paragraph, we are introduced to Max Hartman, an aging ex-CIA operative, the spy of the book’s title, and a childhood friend of Andy Coffer, the priest. The narrator continued: “Despite five major back operations, a sixth scheduled the next month, he’d felt no relief from the sciatic and lumbar pain. Prescription OxyContin and morphine had made him feel slow and stupid without touching the pain.”
I Reserve the Right to be Terrified: A Long Life (2022)
The road was steep. But it leveled off at the bottom, so you got a nice glide before the next hill. We’d ridden that road a lot, so we let the bikes run. Last I looked at the speedometer it read between 30 and 35 miles per hour.
Conrad and his daughter Karen were much more experienced and stronger bikers than I was. I followed them down the hill. They both skillfully avoided the board in the road. I never saw it.
He told me later that he saw me launch from my bike like a rocket. “You must have gone 20 feet in the air before you landed.” When Karen saw me lying motionless on the road, she said, “Oh God, Dad, I think he’s dead.”
It’s common for memoirs to begin with a dramatic childhood memory—often a life-threatening one—and that’s exactly how I viewed this opening anecdote. Imagine my surprise, then, when I found out that this terrifying bicycle accident happened when Colmore was seventy-five!
The Divine Comedy: Inferno (1321)
Midway upon the journey of our life, I found myself within a forest dark, for the straightforward pathway had been lost.
In 1985, replying to a query about a “favorite opening passage in a work of literature.” Gloria Vanderbilt told New York Times Book Review staffers that this was her personal favorite. She explained: “This strikes into the center of the dark night of the soul. Unforgettable, haunting, mysterious—the spirit plunges into the abyss. At the same moment it gives a kind of wild hope—a surge of will, a determination to find the road back from darkness into light.”
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 having 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.”
Rameau’s Nephew (1762)
Come rain or shine, my custom is to go for a stroll in the Palais-Royal every afternoon about five. I am always to be seen there alone, sitting on a seat in the Allée d’Argenson, meditating.
The opening words—which are not exactly sizzling—come from an unnamed narrator who bears an uncanny resemblance to the real-life author. Continuing in the first paragraph, though, the narrator heats things up considerably as he continues with one of literary history’s great metaphorical passages: “I hold discussions with myself on politics, love, taste or philosophy, and let my thoughts wander in complete abandon, leaving them free to follow the first wise or foolish idea that comes along, like those young rakes in the Allée de Foy who run after a giddy-looking little piece with a laughing face, sparkling eye and tip-tilted nose, only to leave her for another, accosting them all, but sticking to none. In my case my thoughts are my wenches.”
This entire first paragraph—but especially the final portion—has such a modern, on-the-edge sensibility that it is hard to believe it was written more than a dozen years before the American Revolution (to be precise, it was written in 1761-62, but first published in a German edition by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in 1805). According to historians, Diderot did not want the piece published during his lifetime for fear of being sued or arrested for his portrayal of the rich and powerful of the time (he had been briefly imprisoned in 1749 for some other writings, so his wariness was understandable). All modern translations of the work are based on a complete manuscript—in Diderot’s own handwriting—found by a French librarian in 1890.
It was because of passages like this that book critic Michael Dirda preferred Diderot over such other French Enlightenment writers as Rousseau and Voltaire. In his Classics for Pleasure (2007), Dirda wrote that Diderot possessed “the kind of restless, original mind that throws off ideas like a Fourth of July sparkler. He is irresistible.”
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.
The Story of Civilization: The Reformation (Vol. VI; 1957)
Religion is the last subject that the intellect begins to understand.
A grand declaration right out of the gate is designed to get the attention of thoughtful readers, and this one succeeds admirably. In the book, Durant continued:
“In our youth, we may have resented, with proud superiority, its cherished incredibilities; in our less confident years we marvel at its prosperous survival in a secular and scientific age, its patient resurrection after whatever deadly blows by Epicurus, or Lucretius, or Lucan, or Machiavelli, or Hume, or Voltaire. What are the secrets of this resilience?”
“Tutti Frutti. Little Richard,” in The Philosophy of Modern Song (2022)
A-Wop-Bop-A-Loo-Bop-a-Wop-Bam-Boom. Little Richard was speaking in tongues across the airwaves long before anybody knew what was happening.
These are the opening words of one of the sixty-plus essays in a book described by The New Yorker’s David Remnick as “Dylan wandering through the enormous record bin of his mind.” Based in part on Dylan’s popular “Theme Time Radio Hour,” a weekly program on XM Satellite Radio from 2006-2009, The Philosophy of Modern Song is a collection of intellectually and emotionally evocative essays on the modern era’s most popular songs. In his tribute to Little Richard and his 1955 “Tutti Frutti” classic, Dylan continued:
“He took speaking in tongues right out of the sweaty canvas tent and put it on the mainstream radio, even screamed like a holy preacher—which is what he was.”
The book is filled with similar delights. For one other example, here are the two opening paragraphs of his essay on the 1963 song “Detroit City,” by Bobby Bare:
“In this song you’re the prodigal son. You went to sleep last night in Detroit City. This morning you overslept, dreamt about white snow cotton fields, and had delusions about imaginary farmsteads. You’ve been speculating about your mother, having visions about your old pappy, making up stories about your brother, and idealizing your sister, and now you want to go home. Back to where things are more neighborly.
“From the postcards and junk mail that you dashed off, everybody assumes you’re a bigwig, that things are cool and beautiful, but they’re not, and the disgrace of failure is overwhelming. Your life is unraveling. You came to the big city, and you found out things about yourself you didn’t want to know, you’ve been on the dark side too long.”
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.
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 all sent to Auschwitz, where his wife and parents perished.
In 1945, after Allied forces liberated many of the Nazi concentration camps, Frankl 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.
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.”
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.
Everyone Knows Your Mother is a Witch (2021)
Herein I begin my account, with the help of my neighbor Simon Satler, since I am unable to read or write. I maintain that I am not a witch, never have seen a witch, am a relative to no witches. But from very early in life, I had enemies.
The year is 1619, and the opening words come from Katharina Kepler, an illiterate and curmudgeonly herbalist who, we will shortly learn, is also the mother of the renowned mathematician, scientist, and astronomer, Johannes Kepler. In this fictionalized, darkly comic portrayal of an actual 1620 witchcraft trial, Katharina’s son actually shows up at the proceedings to defend his mother against the charges.
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.” Those two baby boys, of course, were Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln.
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.
The Power and the Glory (1940)
Mr. Tench went out to look for his ether cylinder: out into the blazing Mexican sun and the bleaching dust. A few buzzards looked down from the roof with shabby indifference: he wasn’t carrion yet.
The End of the Affair (1951)
A story has no beginning or end: arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which, to look ahead.
In this acclaimed semi-autobiographical novel, the narrator is Maurice Bendrix, an up-and-coming English writer who is having an affair with Sarah Miles, a married woman. In the opening paragraph, Bendrix continued on the subject of how—and especially when—to begin a novel:
“I say ‘one chooses’ with the inaccurate pride of a professional writer who—when he has been seriously noted at all—has been praised for his technical ability, but do I in fact of my own will choose that black wet January night on the Common, in 1946, the sight of Henry Miles slanting across the wide river of rain, or did these images choose me? It is convenient, it is correct according to the rules of my craft to begin just there, but if I had believed then in a God, I could also have believed in a hand, plucking at my elbow, a suggestion, ‘Speak to him: he hasn’t seen you yet.’”
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.”
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.”
“Zounds! What the Fork Are Minced Oaths?” in TheConversation.com (July 16, 2020)
What in tarnation is “tarnation?” Why do people in old books exclaim “zounds!” in moments of surprise? And what could a professor of linguistics possibly have against “duck-loving crickets?”
So begins a fascinating article on the subject of “minced oaths,” which Hazen, a professor of linguistics at West Virginia University, described this way: “They are a kind of euphemism: an indirect expression substituted to soften the harsher blow of the profane.”
In the article’s second paragraph, Hazen continued: “I’ll get to the crickets later. But what unites all these expressions is a desire to find acceptable versions of profane or blasphemous words. ‘God’ becomes ‘gosh,’ ‘hell’ becomes ‘heck,’ and ‘damnation’ becomes ‘tarnation.’ In a similar vein, the rather antiquated phrase ‘God’s wounds’ turns into ‘zounds.’”
Lost Horizon (1933)
Cigars had burned low, and we were beginning to sample the disillusionment that usually afflicts old school friends who meet again as men and find themselves with less in common than they used to think.
This is a wonderful opening line, perfectly capturing the mixture of sadness and disappointment that has been experienced by countless middle-aged people over the years when they’ve had some kind of reunion with childhood or adolescent friends.
Les Misérables (1862; Norman Denny translation)
In the year 1815 Monseigneur Charles-François-Bienvenu Myriel was Bishop of Digne. He was then about seventy-five, having held the bishopric since 1806.
The first paragraph of Hugo’s classic novel isn’t exactly a bell-ringer, but the second paragraph clearly reflected Hugo’s belief that readers always perked up when they were provided with rumor and gossip. The narrator continued:
“Although it has no direct bearing on the tale we have to tell, we must nevertheless give some account of the rumors and gossip concerning him which were in circulation when he came to occupy the diocese.”
"The Platonist", in Essays: Moral, Political, & Literary (1741-42)
To some philosophers it appears [a] matter of surprise that all mankind, possessing the same nature and being endowed with the same faculties, should yet differ so widely in their pursuits and inclinations, and that one should utterly condemn what is fondly sought after by the other.
“Of the Independency of Parliament,“ in Essays: Moral, Political, & Literary (1741-42)
Political writers have established it as a maxim that, in contriving any system of government…every man ought to be supposed a knave, and to have no other end in all his actions than private interest.
“Of the First Principles of Government,“ in Essays: Moral, Political, & Literary (1741-42)
Nothing appears more surprising to those who consider human affairs with a philosophical eye than the easiness with which the many are governed by the few; and the implicit submission with which men resign their own sentiments and passions to those of their rulers.
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.”
“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.
“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!”
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.”
The Husband (2006)
A man begins dying at the moment of his birth.
About this opening line, Koontz wrote: "This is very humble philosophy, something everyone knows, but perhaps it strikes the reader because we never see our fate put quite so bluntly, especially when talking about birth, which is usually couched in joyful terms."
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.”
Elmer Gantry (1927)
Elmer Gantry was drunk. He was eloquently drunk, lovingly and pugnaciously drunk.
Following the example of the American Book Review, which published a 2006 list of “100 Best First Lines from Novels,” many subsequent lists of Great Opening Lines offer only the first sentence (“Elmer Gantry was drunk”), shortsightedly omitting the beauty and the power of the novel’s full first words. In their compilation, the ABR editors made this mistake with some other entries as well, most notably the opening words of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (1961). See the Heller entry here.
In the novel, the narrator continued: “He leaned against the bar of the Old Home Sample Room, the most gilded and urbane saloon in Cato, Missouri, and requested the bartender to join him in ‘The Good Old Summer Time,’ the waltz of the day.”
Elmer Gantry was the most controversial book of 1927, banned in Boston, of course, and in many other American cities. After the influential American evangelist Billy Sunday denounced Lewis as “Satan’s cohort,” ministers all around the country followed suit, suggesting he be “tarred and feathered,“ and even imprisoned for his heresy (not surprisingly, the author received numerous death threats and, for a time, even had police protection). The controversy greatly spurred book sales, ultimately making it the best-selling novel in the U.S. for 1927. In 1960, director Richard Brooks adapted the novel into an Oscar-nominated film with a riveting, Oscar-winning performance by Burt Lancaster in the title role.
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.”
Adventures in Staying Young (1955)
In attempting to help someone else, it often turns out that actually you are helping yourself.
I still recall the moment when I first came across this opening line more than a half-century ago. It perfectly phrased something I’d personally experienced but had never consciously thought about—or seen put into words.
The Bringer of Happiness (2022)
I should have assumed with parents known to the world as Mary Magdalene and Jesus Christ, I would be different.
W. Somerset Maugham
The Razor’s Edge (1944)
I have never begun a novel with more misgiving. If I call it a novel it is only because I don’t know what else to call it.
The opening words come not from an unknown narrator, but from Maugham himself. From the outset, he asserts that the story he is about to tell is not a work of fiction, but an account of real people and actual events (as the book unfolds, Maugham also becomes a minor character in the story, periodically showing up in the lives of the major characters). He goes on to pledge that he will forego “the exercise of invention” and set down only what he knows to be true.
In the book’s second paragraph, Maugham continued: “In the present book…I have invented nothing. To save embarrassment to people still living I have given to the persons who play a part in this story names of my own contriving, and I have in other ways taken pains to make sure that no one should recognize them.”
The entire novel generally reflected Maugham’s longstanding interest in Eastern culture, and it specifically began to take form after a 1938 visit he made to the Sri Ramana Ashram in Tamil Nadu, India. The book’s title came from an epigraph at the beginning of the book: “The sharp edge of a razor is difficult to pass over; thus the wise say the path to ‘enlightenment’ is hard.” The passage is from the Katha Upanishad, one of the great spiritual texts of Hinduism.
Alexander McCall Smith
The Sunday Philosophy Club [Book 1 of the Isabel Dalhousie Mysteries] (2004)
Isabel Dalhousie saw the young man fall from the upper circle, from the gods.
The Sunday Philosophy Club is the first of sixteen novels to feature Isabel Dalhousie, a spinsterish Scottish philosopher who is prone to literary and philosophical ramblings. The novel opens with a dramatic scene. While sitting in an Edinburgh concert hall, Dalhousie sees a young man plunge to his death from an upper balcony. As he passes her on the way down—in what almost seems like a slow-motion fall—she gets a clear view off his terror-filled face.
The narrator continued: “His flight was so sudden and short, and it was for less than a second that she saw him, hair tousled, upside down, his shirt and jacket up around his chest so that his midriff was exposed. And then, striking the edge of the grand circle, he disappeared headfirst towards the stalls below.”
“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….
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)
Sacred Journey of the Peaceful Warrior (1991)
I wept on my wedding night.
This is a powerful opening line, and it is all the more impressive because compelling “hooks” like this generally come from novels, and not personal growth/self-discovery books. The first sentence is also the complete first paragraph, thereby ensuring maximum impact. In the book’s second paragraph, Millman continued with a poignant description of the inner turmoil and psychic pain that can result from losing our way in life:
“Linda and I were married on a Sunday in the spring of 1967, during my senior year at U.C. Berkeley. After a special dinner, we spent our brief honeymoon in a Berkeley hotel. I remember waking before dawn, unaccountably depressed. With the world still cloaked in darkness, I slipped out from under the rumpled covers and stepped softly out onto the balcony so as not to disturb Linda. As soon as I closed the sliding glass door, my chest began to heave and the tears came. I could not understand why I felt so sad, except for a troubling intuition that I had forgotten something important, and that my life had somehow gone awry.”
J. Leslie Mitchell
The Thirteenth Disciple (1931)
One of his earliest memories was of how, at the age of five, he set out to commit suicide.
Suicide at age five? A perfect example of what writers describe as a “hook.“
J. Leslie Mitchell
When Kleon heard the news from Capua he rose early one morning, being a literatus and unchained, crept to the room of his Master, stabbed him in the throat, mutilated that Master’s body even as his own had been mutilated: and so fled from Rome with a stained dagger in his sleeve and a copy of The Republic of Plato hidden in his breast.
One of the most gratifying aspects of my research for this project was discovering spectacular opening paragraphs in the works of authors I’d never heard of. Mitchell, a popular Scottish author in the early decades of the twentieth century, published many novels, including Spartacus, under his own name, and many others under his pen name, Lewis Grassic Gibbon.
This is not the Spartacus novel that inspired Stanley Kubrick’s popular 1960 film adaptation, though. Douglas relied on Dalton Trumbo’s screenplay of Howard Fast’s 1951 novel of the same name. Mitchell’s opening line above demonstrates great flair and style, and I feel certain that, nearly twenty years later, Howard Fast must have devoured Mitchell’s earlier work when he was writing his version of the Spartacus legend.
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.
The Moviegoer (1961)
This morning I got a note from my aunt asking me to come for lunch. I know what this means. Since I go there every Sunday for dinner and today is Wednesday, it can mean only one thing: she wants to have one of her serious talks.
The opening words—from 29-year-old New Orleans stockbroker Binx Bolling—suggest that there is something about his life that is deeply concerning to his aunt. It turns out, her concerns are well-founded, for her nephew is mired in a form of existential alienation that few American writers had documented at the time. As soon as it was published, Percy’s debut novel was compared to the soul-searching works of Dostoevsky and the existential novels of European writers (in Time magazine, Richard Lacayo cleverly wrote: “Percy’s book is like Sartre’s Nausea without the nausea”).
The Moviegoer went on to win the 1962 National Book Award for fiction, and is now regarded as a modern American classic. In 1998, The Modern Library ranked it No. 60 on its list of the 100 Best English-language Novels of the 20th century. Later in his career, Percy described his protagonist “as a young man who had all the advantages of a cultivated old-line southern family: a feel for science and art, a liking for girls, sports cars, and the ordinary things of the culture, but who nevertheless feels himself quite alienated from both worlds, the old South and the new America”
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.
The Fountainhead (1943)
Howard Roark laughed.
A name and a verb is about as simple as an opening line can get. In a 2011 blog post, English writer Kit Whitfield wrote about the line: “Stark as the architecture it exalts, The Fountainhead’s first sentence is a declarative, aggressively simple statement. We are told the hero’s name and a single verb. Three words stand alone on the page; Rand ends not only her first sentence, but her first paragraph there. The effect is that of freeze-frame. We hear a name, poised in the action of laughing: the isolation of the words makes it clear that to see him laughing is, by itself, enough to understand him—or at least, to understand something important about him.“
Atlas Shrugged (1957)
Who is John Galt?
It’s rare for a novel’s opening line to become a cultural meme, but that is exactly what has happened with this one—a question-turned-statement that has appeared on coffee mugs, T-shirts, bumper stickers, and posters at political gatherings.
About the saying, Rand aficionado Don Hauptman said in a personal communication: “The ’Who is’ device is not only the lead but an ingenious thread that carries through the entire long novel—puzzling characters who wonder if he exists or is a myth. It’s a cry of despair and resignation in a world that’s collapsing. It became a catchphrase among Rand enthusiasts decades ago, but transitioned into popular culture when leaders of the Tea Party Movement, some of whom were Objectivists, talked about ’Going Galt,’ or dropping out of society.“
“Faith and Force: The Destroyers of the Modern World,” lecture at Yale University (Feb. 17, 1960); reprinted in Philosophy, Who Needs It (1982)
If you want me to name in one sentence what is wrong with the modern world, I will say that never before has the world been clamoring so desperately for answers to crucial problems—and never before has the world been so frantically committed to the belief that no answers are possible.
“The Metaphysical Versus the Man-Made,” in The Ayn Rand Letter (March 12, 1973); reprinted in Philosophy, Who Needs It (1982)
“God grant me the serenity to accept things I cannot change, courage to change things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”
This remarkable statement is attributed to a theologian with whose ideas I disagree in every fundamental respect: Reinhold Niebuhr. But—omitting the form of a prayer, i.e., the implication that one’s mental-emotional states are a gift from God—that statement is profoundly true, as a summary and a guideline: It names the mental attitude which a rational man must seek to achieve.”
This is a terrific way to begin a philosophical article—presenting a statement from a man you disagree with “in every fundamental respect,” and then not only agreeing with the statement, but praising it as “profoundly true.”
About Niebuhr’s famous maxim, Rand continued with this intriguing tease: “The statement is beautiful in its eloquent simplicity; but the achievement of that attitude involves philosophy’s deepest metaphysical-moral issues.”
“An Untitled Letter,” in The Ayn Rand Letter (Jan-Feb, 1973); reprinted in Philosophy, Who Needs It (1982)
The most appropriate title for this discussion would be “I told you so.” But since that would be in somewhat dubious taste, I shall leave this untitled.
In the universe of titillating openings, this is one of the very best. Who can not read on?
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).”
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.”
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).
“The Disappeared,” in The New Yorker (Sep. 10, 2012)
Afterward, when the world was exploding around him, he felt annoyed with himself for having forgotten the name of the BBC reporter who told him that his old life was over and a new, darker existence was about to begin. She called him at home, on his private line, without explaining how she got the number. “How does it feel,” she asked him, “to know that you have just been sentenced to death by Ayatollah Khomeini?”
These are the straightforward-but-still-captivating opening words of a remarkably candid autobiographical essay by an Indian-born British writer who, in 1989, was about to become the most discussed writer of the era. Rushdie continued in the opening paragraph:
“It was a sunny Tuesday in London, but the question shut out the light. This is what he said, without really knowing what he was saying: ‘It doesn’t feel good.’ This is what he thought: I’m a dead man. He wondered how many days he had left, and guessed that the answer was probably a single-digit number. He hung up the telephone and ran down the stairs from his workroom, at the top of the narrow Islington row house where he lived. The living-room windows had wooden shutters and, absurdly, he closed and barred them. Then he locked the front door.”
With a few modest changes, this New Yorker article served as the Prologue for Rushdie’s 2012 memoir Joseph Anton (the title—inspired by Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekhov—was the alias he chose for himself during his years in hiding after the fatwa was announced).
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.“
Our Knowledge of the External World (1914)
Philosophy, from the earliest times, has made greater claims, and achieved fewer results, than any other branch of learning.
Compared to the abstract and often obtuse prose of so many philosophers, Russell had a rare ability to express himself simply, clearly, and, most important, memorably. In the opening paragraph, he continued: “Ever since Thales said that all is water, philosophers have been ready with glib assertions about the sum-total of things; and equally glib denials have come from other philosophers....”
“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.
"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.
When the lord, also known as god, realized that adam and eve, although perfect in every outward aspect, could not utter a word or make even the most primitive of sounds, he must have felt annoyed with himself, for there was no one else in the garden of eden whom he could blame for this grave oversight, after all, the other animals, who were, like the two humans, the product of his divine command, already had a voice of their own, be it a bellow, a roar, a croak, a chirp, a whistle or a cackle.
In a 2011 review in The London Review of Books, critic Robert Alter wrote: “These opening lines establish the perception of God as a bit of a blunderer, inclined to petulance, given to correcting divine mistakes in ill-considered ways. That image has at least some grounding in biblical representation, especially in Genesis, where God is imagined in emphatically anthropomorphic terms. The notion, on the other hand, that the first man and woman were initially without language is Saramago’s invention for satiric ends.”
The Witches: Suspicion, Betrayal, and Hysteria in 1692 Salem (2015)
In 1692 the Massachusetts Bay Colony executed fourteen women, five men, and two dogs for witchcraft.
A simple tweak can transform an unspectacular opener into an unforgettable one, and that’s exactly what happened when Schiff had the acumen to add “and two dogs” to her book’s first sentence.
“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.”
“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.”
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.”
The Benefactor (1963)
If only I could explain to you how changed I am since those days! Changed yet still the same, but now I can view my old preoccupations with a calm eye.
The opening lines of Sontag’s debut novel pique our curiosity. What is the nature of the preoccupation? How has it changed? For those of us who’ve experienced a youthful preoccupation calmed by the years, there’s an immediate identification with the narrator, an aging French writer known only as Hippolyte.
As the narrator continues, our curiosity is further heightened: “In the thirty years which have passed, the preoccupation has changed its form, become inverted so to speak. When it began, it grew in me and emptied me out. I ignored it at first, then admitted it to myself, then sought consolation from friends, then resigned myself to it, and finally learned to exploit it for my own wisdom. Now, instead of being inside me, my preoccupation is a house in which I live; in which I live, more or less comfortably, roaming from room to room.”
“Thoughts on Various Subjects, Moral and Diverting,” in Miscellanies (1711)
We have just religion enough to make us hate, but not enough to make us love one another.
“Thoughts on Various Subjects” is actually less of an essay than a compilation of Swift’s thoughts on various subjects. The opening quotation is a wonderful way to begin the collection, though, so I’ve included it here. Swift went on to offer some of his most famous observations in the piece, including “When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.” This was the line, of course, that inspired the title of John Kennedy Toole’s brilliant 1980 novel A Confederacy of Dunces (the Toole novel also had a wonderful opening paragraph, which you will find here).
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.”
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.
This is the opening paragraph of a book that turned my life around when I was a college undergraduate, more than sixty years ago (yes, you read that correctly!). I read the book during one of the darkest periods of my life, and it not only helped me weather the storm, it inspired me to become a quotation collector. For the fuller story, go here: https://www.drmardy.com/dmdmq/note
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.”
In a castle of Westphalia, belonging to the Baron of Thunder-ten-Tronckh, lived a youth, whom nature had endowed with the most gentle manners.
In Volraire’s most famous novel, the narrator continued: “His countenance was a true picture of his soul. He combined a true judgment with simplicity of spirit, which was the reason, I apprehend, of his being called Candide.”
Erich von Däniken
Chariots of the Gods? Unsolved Mysteries of the Past (1968)
It took courage to write this book, and it will take courage to read it.
So begins a book described by Sam Leith in a Jan. 7, 2022 Telegraph article as, “The cult non-fiction book of all cult non-fiction books.” When the book was first published, it was heavily promoted with the tagline “Was God an Astronaut?” reflecting von Däniken’s theory that extraterrestrial beings visited the earth around 5,000 B.C., mated with human beings, and introduced them to technology that resulted in such previously unexplained phenomena as Egypt’s great pyramids, Stonehenge, and the Nazca Lines in Peru.
In the opening paragraph, von Däniken continued: “Because its theories and proofs do not fit into the mosaic of traditional archaeology, constructed so laboriously and firmly cemented down, scholars will call it nonsense and put it on the Index of those books which are better left unmentioned.”
Some opening lines are a bit like a secret handshake, making sense only to people “in the know.” The Index here refers to the Index Liborum Prohibitorum (“List of Prohibited Books”), an extensive list of books that, for many centuries, practicing Catholics were forbidden to read. Begun in the 16th century, the Index continued until its abolishment by Pope Paul VI in 1966.
“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,” 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).
Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1880)
The Jebel es Zubleh is a mountain fifty miles and more in length, and so narrow that its tracery on the map gives it a likeness to a caterpillar crawling from the south to the north.
In a lifetime of reading, this is the first opening line I recall recognizing as a Great Opening Line. It was in the winter of 1959, and I was a high school senior in Garrison, North Dakota. The epic William Wyler film adaptation of the novel was running at our local movie theater, and my high school English teacher was showcasing the novel in the school library. When I opened the book and read the first sentence, I was so struck by the “caterpillar” image that I asked her if it was an example of a metaphor. She clearly sensed that a “teachable moment” had arrived, and explained that, technically speaking, it was a simile and not a metaphor—because of the “likeness” word. Many years later, I would recognize that, on that day, a seed was planted in my mind, one that would eventually blossom into my love affair with metaphorical language.
A few years after the original novel was published, Ben-Hur surpassed Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) as the best selling novel in American history. It remained in the top position until it was nudged into second place by Gone with the Wind (1936). One of the most famous novels of all time, it has seen five separate film adaptations, the first in 1907 and the most famous the 1959 version starring Charlton Heston, which went on to receive eleven Academy Awards.
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.”
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.
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.”
Hudson River Bracketed (1929)
By the time he was nineteen Vance Weston had graduated from the College of Euphoria, Illinois, where his parents then lived, had spent a week in Chicago, invented a new religion, and edited for a few months a college magazine called “Getting There,” to which he had contributed several love poems and a series of iconoclastic essays.
Any opening paragraph containing the words invented a new religion is certain to get the attention of most readers. As the narrator continues, there is another four-word phrase—for a whole week—that has a similar quality:
“He had also been engaged for a whole week to the inspirer of the poems, a girl several years older than himself called Floss Delaney, who was the somewhat blown-upon daughter of an unsuccessful real-estate man living in a dejected outskirt of the town.”
No Boundary: Eastern and Western Approaches to Personal Growth (1979)
Suddenly, without any warning, at any place or time, with no apparent cause, it can happen.
The “it” of the opening sentence, Wilber goes on to explain, is a heightened state of awareness in which “the individual comes to feel, beyond any shadow of a doubt, the he or she is fundamentally one with the entire universe, with all worlds, high or low, sacred or profane.”
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.
“Value Shoppers Find Bargain in Golden Rule,” in The Chicago Tribune (February 28, 1996)
Straight from the mouth of Jesus come words that ought to appear, at least paraphrased, in 10-inch-high letters at the front of every public and private school classroom in America: “As you wish that men would do to you, do so to them.“
Zorn continued: “That’s from Luke 6:31 and, almost identically, Matthew 7:12. But it’s also from Aristotle (‘We should behave to our friends as we would wish our friends to behave to us’), Confucius (‘What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others’) and the prophet Muhammad (‘A person is not a believer unless and until he loves for his brother what he loves for himself,’ according to the translation of local Islamic scholar Irfan Khan.)”
And in the next paragraph, Zorn continued: “It is from the Talmud (‘What is hateful to you, do not do unto others’), the Hindu tradition (‘Whatever you do comes back to you,’ says Swami Varadananda, a South Side Hindu monk. ‘It’s the underlying precept of our ethical system.’) and is consistent with the philosophies of Buddhism and much of American Indian spirituality.”