Genre: Politics & Government
Dan Abrams and David Fisher
Lincoln’s Last Trial: The Murder Case That Propelled Him to the Presidency (2018)
Mister Robert Roberts Hitt, the well-known steno man, arrived in Springfield late on the sweltering afternoon of August 28, 1859. As he stepped down onto the platform of the new station, he paused briefly and nattily patted the beads of sweat from his forehead, then vainly attempted to tug the wrinkles out of his jacket.
Abrams and Fisher continued in the first paragraph: “The Alton Express had covered the two hundred miles from Chicago in a quite acceptable nine hours. Hitt had tried with limited success to practice his shorthand on the ever-shaking rails. It had not surprised young Hitt that the carriage was far more crowded than he had previously experienced: the Peachy Quinn Harrison murder trial had attracted considerably more attention than might otherwise have been expected once it became known that Abe Lincoln was going to defend the accused killer.”
A Man of the People (1966)
No one can deny that Chief the Honorable M. A. Nanga, M.P. was the most approachable politician in the country. Whether you asked in the city or in his home village, Anata, they would tell you he was a man of the people. I have to admit this from the outset or else the story I’m going to tell will make no sense.
The narrator is Odili Samalu, an idealistic school teacher in a fictional African country resembling post-colonial Nigeria. About Samalu, John Day wrote in a 1966 Time magazine review: “He is, in fact, perhaps the most engaging character in fiction about Africa since the hero of Joyce Gary’s Mister Johnson, who was factotum to a white colonial official.“ From the outset, the phrase they would tell you seems significant—and that proves to be the case as the story unfolds.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.“
“If Only Trump Had Been Stopped From Grabbing America’s Steering Wheel,” in The New York Times (June 28, 2022)
If the Jan. 6 rioters weren’t going to be pointing their guns at him, then he didn’t care that they were armed.
This is the dramatic opening line of an opinion piece Bruni wrote just after Cassidy Hutchinson’s compelling testimony before the January 6 Committee on June 28, 2022. In her testimony, Hutchinson reported that Trump instructed the Secret Service to turn off the magnetometers so that more of his supporters—even those who were armed—could make it into his Jan. 6, 2021 rally at the Ellipse. According to Hutchinson, Trump said, “I don’t fucking care that they have weapons. They’re not here to hurt me. Take the fucking mags away.”
In Bruni’s second paragraph, he continued: “There may be no better distillation of Donald Trump’s narcissism.”
No Way to Treat a First Lady (2002)
Babette Van Anka had made love to the President of the United States on eleven previous occasions, but she still couldn’t resist inserting “Mr. President” in “Oh, baby, baby, baby.”
In the novel—an absolutely hilarious “take” on presidential sex scandals—the narrator continued: “He had told her on the previous occasions that he did not like being called this while, as he put it, congress was in session. But she couldn’t stop thinking to herself, I’m screwing the President of the United States! In the White House! Unavoidably, the ‘Mr. President’ just kept slipping out.” The novel, one of my all-time favorites, was named a New York Times Notable Book of the Year.
Make Russia Great Again (2020)
“How could you work for a man like that?”
“What were you thinking?”
“What possessed you?”
All the time I get this, even in here, which frankly strikes me as a bit rich. Who knew inmates at federal correctional institutions had such keenly developed senses of moral superiority?
The narrator and protagonist is Herb Nutterman, a longtime Trump Organization employee who is called out of retirement to become President Donald Trump’s White House Chief of Staff. Buckley has given us some terrific opening lines in his career, and it was wonderful to see the old master continuing to perform at such a high level. This one easily made my list of The Top Twenty Opening Lines of 2020.
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.
The Heart of a Dog (1925)
Ooow-ow-ooow-owow! Oh, look at me, I’m dying. There’s a snowstorm moaning a requiem for me in this doorway and I’m howling with it. I’m finished.
The Heart of a Dog is a searing satire of Russian Bolshevism. Almost immediately banned by Communist authorities, the novella didn’t surface again until many decades later. The narrator of the tale, it quickly becomes clear, is a dog—and a dog with strong political opinions.
As the story begins, he is writhing in pain. He goes on to explain: “Some bastard in a dirty white cap—the cook in the office canteen at the National Economic Council—spilled some boiling water and scalded my left side. Filthy swine—and a proletarian, too. Christ, it hurts. That boiling water scalded me right through to the bone. I can howl and howl, but what’s the use?“
Lincoln and the Civil War (2011)
If the legendary oddsmaker Jimmy the Greek had been alive when the Civil War began, he would probably have given the South a better-than-even chance of winning.
In the opening paragraph, Burlingame continued: “As historian William Hanchett has cogently argued, ‘Contrary to the conventional assumption, the North, not the South, was the underdog in the Civil War.’”
An American Marriage: The Untold Story of Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd (2021)
Abraham Lincoln was apparently one of those men who regard “connubial bliss” as an oxymoron.
In the book’s opening paragraph, Burlingame—described by Time magazine as “a towering figure in Lincoln scholarship”—continued with this revealing anecdote: “During the Civil War, he pardoned a Union soldier who had deserted to return home and wed his sweetheart, who reportedly had been flirting with another swain in his absence. As the president signed the necessary document sparing the miscreant’s life, he said: ‘I want to punish the young man—probably in less than a year he will wish I had withheld the pardon.’” This was one of my choices for a Smerconish.com post on “Twenty-One of the Best Opening Lines of 2021.“
In his book, Burlingame attempted to set the historical record straight by telling the unvarnished truth about Lincoln’s notoriously unhappy marriage. On top of the countless monumental problems the 16th U.S. President wrestled with, Burlingame wrote that “he had to cohabit the White House with a psychologically unbalanced woman whose indiscrete and abusive behavior taxed his legendary patience and forbearance to the limit.”
The day Somebody McSomebody put a gun to my breast and called me a cat and threatened to shoot me was the same day the milkman died.
The opening words come from an 18-year-old protagonist known only as “Middle Sister” (we will shortly learn that no characters in the novel are formally named). The novel was hailed by critics from the outset, and went on to become one of the most acclaimed books of the year, winning the 2018 Man Booker Prize, the 2018 National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction, and the 2019 Orwell Prize for Political Fiction.
In a 2019 “Narrative Muse” post, Australian blogger Aisha Lelic wrote, “Milkman had me hooked with the very first line,“ adding: “Its hypnotic rhythm and tone reminded me of hard-boiled fiction—tough, terse, and cynical with a touch of loneliness and dread. And yet it’s nothing like hard-boiled fiction. In fact, Milkman is like nothing I have ever read.“
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.“
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 Napoleon of Notting Hill (1904)
The human race, to which so many of my readers belong, has been playing at children’s games from the beginning, and will probably do it till the end, which is a nuisance for the few people who grow up.
This has long been my favorite Chesterton quotation, and I was pleasantly surprised to learn that it was the opening line of a 1904 alternate reality novel that imagined what life in London would be like in 1984. In a 2011 DailyWritingTips.com post on “20 Great Opening Lines to Inspire the Start of Your Story,“ Mark Nichol wrote about this opener: “Astute observations accompanied by an implied sigh of disgust are tricky to master, but Chesterton, one of the most multifaceted men of letters, lights the way for you with this sample of the form.“
There are many who believe that the future date chosen for Chesterton’s novel inspired George Orwell to title his classic dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four.
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.”
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.”
J. M. Coetzee
Waiting for the Barbarians (1980)
I have never seen anything like it: two little discs of glass suspended in front of his eyes in loops of wire.
The narrator, who is living in an unspecified time in the distant past, meets a man wearing a new and novel kind of protective eye covering. In the opening paragraph, he continued:
“Is he blind? I could understand it if he wanted to hide blind eyes. But he is not blind. The discs are dark, they look opaque from the outside, but he can see through them. He tells me they are a new invention.“
When Coetzee was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2003, the Nobel Prize committee described Waiting for the Barbarians as “a political thriller in the tradition of Joseph Conrad, in which the idealist’s naiveté opens the gates to horror.“
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.”
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.”
Louis de Bernières
The Troublesome Offspring of Cardinal Guzman (1992)
Once again, Cardinal Dominic Trujillo Guzman felt a pang like that of childbirth spear him in the belly, and he doubled over, clutching himself and moaning. As always when this happened, his only thoughts were of the guilt of his life.
This is a powerful opening sentence, and readers immediately begin to wonder, “What has this man done that haunts him so?“ The narrator continued: “In his anguish it was as if ancient coffers opened before his eyes, but instead of overflowing with gold doubloons, louis d’or, silver crucifixes encrusted with rubies, there spilled out demons.“
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.
“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.”
“We Are Trapped in the Madness of Powerful Individuals,” in The New York Times (Feb. 27, 2022)
What has surprised me most about the history I have lived through is how often we get dragged on demented, destructive rides by leaders who put their personal psychodramas over the public’s well-being.
In the article, published just after Vladimir’s Putin’s infamous invasion of Ukraine in February, 2022, Dowd was reminded of a number of previous “demented, destructive rides” she’d been forced to take in her lifetime. She continued: “And it always feels as though we are powerless to stop the madness of these individuals, that we are trapped in their ego or libido or id or delusion.”
“Hence, Mike Pence,” in The New York Times (June 18, 2022)
The fate of a sycophant is never a happy one.
This is one of the best opening lines of 2022, in my opinion, and a perfect way to describe the fate of Mike Pence, who, after years of loyally standing by Donald J. Trump, defied Trump’s wishes by helping to certify Joseph Biden as the winner of the 2020 presidential election. The opening line was followed by three brief paragraphs that matched it in quality:
“At first, you think that fawning over the boss is a good way to move forward. But when you are dealing with a narcissist—and narcissists are the ones who like to be surrounded by sycophants—you can never be unctuous enough.
“Narcissists are Grand Canyons of need. The more they are flattered, the more their appetite for flattery grows.
“That is the hard, almost fatal, lesson Pence learned on Jan. 6, when he finally stood up to Donald Trump after Trump asked for one teensy favor: Help destroy American democracy and all we stand for.”
Advise and Consent (1960)
When Bob Munson awoke in his apartment at the Sheraton Park Hotel at seven thirty-one in the morning he had the feeling it would be a bad day.
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.“
George Eliot (pen name of Mary Ann Evans)
Felix Holt, the Radical (1866)
On the first of September, in the memorable year 1832, some one was expected at Transome Court.
Someone is coming, and given the phrasing some one, it is probably an important person, perhaps even a royal. But who, exactly? A sense of expectancy is created in the first few words, and continues for the remainder of the opening paragraph:
“As early as two o’clock in the afternoon the aged lodge-keeper had opened the heavy gate, green as the tree trunks were green with nature’s powdery paint, deposited year after year. Already in the village of Little Treby, which lay on the side of a steep hill not far off the lodge-gates, the elder matrons sat in their best gowns at the few cottage-doors bordering the road, that they might be ready to get up and make their curtsy when a travelling-carriage should come in sight; and beyond the village several small boys were stationed on the lookout, intending to run a race to the barnlike old church, where the sexton waited in the belfry ready to set the one bell in joyful agitation just at the right moment.”
“Crazy Ladies,” in Crazy Salad (1975)
Washington is a city of important men and the women they married before they grew up.
A Vain and Indecent Woman The Scandalous Life of Joan of Kent (2018)
They call my little Joan the most beautiful woman in all England. Well, every father thinks that about his daughter. That she is special, and prettier. But I never had the opportunity to boast. My name is Edmund of Woodstock and I am the son of a king and the brother of a king and the grandfather of a king.
The narrator of the novel, the father of Joan of Kent, immediately piques our interest with the comment about never having had the opportunity to boast about his daughter. He then takes the story in a whole new direction when he continues:
“I was twenty-nine years old when I died.
“Died; I use the term loosely. I was murdered, but within the dictates of the law and with the full approval of the king, even though he was barely eighteen years at the time.”
Cry Justice [Book 4 in the Charlie George series] (2021)
The head had been impaled on a railing outside the Royal Courts of Justice in the Strand in the early hours of a cold November morning. There was a fine dusting of frost on the corpse’s hair and eyelids which gave it a festive touch.
Stark contrasts are a staple of Great Opening Lines, and this exquisite opener is one of the best from a master craftsman. It was also one of my choices for a Smerconish.com post on “Twenty-One of the Best Opening Lines of 2021.“
The opening paragraph also contains a suggestion that more dark humor will be awaiting the reader—and that proves to be exactly the case. The narrator continued: “The dead man looked disconsolate. Reasonably so, in the circumstances, Charlie thought.“
Term Limits (1997)
The old wood cabin sat alone, surrounded by trees and darkness. The shades were drawn, and a dog lay motionless on the front porch. A thin stream of smoke flowed out of the chimney and headed west, across the rural Maryland countryside toward Washington, D.C. Inside, a man sat silently in front of the fireplace, shoving stacks of paper into the hot flames.
Even if an opening paragraph is not dramatic or compelling, it can still entice readers if it is an exceptional word painting. After reading this opener, I closed my eyes for a moment and visualized the entire scene with ease. We soon learn that the man torching documents is Scott Coleman, a former Navy SEAL who is described as “an assassin of assassins, an exporter of death, trained and funded by the United States government.”
In the early 1990s, after receiving a medical discharge from the U.S. Marine Corps, Flynn was working in a commercial real estate job in Minneapolis when he felt inspired to write a political thriller. He quit his job, moved to Denver, and bartended at night while working on the book during the day.
After five years and sixty rejection letters, he decided to self-publish the book. When the book found an audience back in Flynn’s home state of Minnesota, Pocket Books came knocking, and published a hardcover edition in 1998 (a paperback version came a year later.) The book was hailed by critics, made the New York Times Bestseller list, and established Flynn as a major new writer. He went on to write twenty more novels, most of them bestsellers, before his premature death at age 47 in 2013 after a three-year struggle with an aggressive prostate cancer.
Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot: And Other Observations (1996)
After Delacorte asked me to write a book on politics, my very first creative act was coming up with the title Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot and Other Observations. I thought the title, aside from being personally offensive to Limbaugh, would sell books. Let me explain why: it makes fun of Limbaugh by pointing out that he is a big lardbutt.
Franken continued in the book’s next two paragraphs:
“Confident that I was now on my way to a bestseller, I took some time off and went to Florida with my wife and kids. But when I returned and sat down to work, it became immediately apparent that the “title tail” was going to wag the “content dog.” That is to say, I’d actually have to write about Rush Limbaugh.
Which, of course, meant I’d have to listen to him on radio, read his books, and watch him on TV. ’How much am I getting paid for this?’ I asked myself.“
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.
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.”
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.”
Black Wave (2020)
“What happened to us?“ The question haunts us in the Arab and Muslim world. We repeat it like a mantra.
Ghattas, a Lebanese scholar and journalist, provides a glimpse of his thesis in the book’s subtitle: Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the Forty-Year Rivalry That Unraveled Culture, Religion, and Collective Memory in the Middle East.
In the first paragraph of the book, Ghattas continued: “You will hear it from Iran to Syria, from Saudi Arabia to Pakistan, and in my own country of Lebanon. For us, the past is a different country, one that is not mired in the horrors of sectarian killings; a more vibrant place, without the crushing intolerance of religious zealots and seemingly endless, amorphous wars. Though the past had coups and wars too, they were contained in time and space, and the future still held much promise.“
In writing “the past is a different country” above, Ghattas was almost certainly inspired by one of the most famous opening lines in literary history, from L. P. Hartley’s The Go-Between (1953): “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there. See the Hartley entry here.
The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776) (1776)
In the second century of the Christian era, the empire of Rome comprehended the fairest part of the earth, and the most civilized portion of mankind.
When we read an opening line like this, we can understand why historian J. B. Bury would write, “Edward Gibbon is one of those few who hold as high a place in the history of literature as in the roll of great historians.“
In the first paragraph of his classic work, Gibbon continued: “The frontiers of that extensive monarchy were guarded by ancient renown and disciplined valor. The gentle, but powerful influence of laws and manners had gradually cemented the union of the provinces. The peaceful inhabitants enjoyed and abused the advantages of wealth and luxury.“
First Friends: The Powerful, Unsung (and Unelected) People Who Shaped Our Presidents (2021)
I was in the third grade when I saw Abraham Lincoln assassinated.
The opening words come from the book’s Preface, and, after reading them, it is virtually impossible not to read on. Ginsberg continued: “It was during the sixth-grade play at Windermere Elementary School, outside of Buffalo, New York, and I was jarred and transfixed. Until then I didn’t know anything about politics let alone Lincoln, but from that moment on I was obsessed with the American presidency.”
The opening paragraph has nothing to do with the precise subject of the book—the best friends of American presidents, and their almost-always-overlooked impact on American history—but they send an important subliminal message to readers: the author has been fixated on the U.S. presidency since childhood, and anything he chooses to write about it should be seen from that perspective.
Lord of the Flies (1954)
The boy with fair hair lowered himself down the last few feet of rock and began to pick his way towards the lagoon.
Golding’s classic dystopian novel starts off innocently enough, but quickly descends into a dark allegorical tale about the moral degeneration of a band of English schoolboys stranded on an island.
A quarter of a century after the novel came out, Golding shared with an interviewer the story of the book’s inception. Sitting with his wife in front of the home fireplace, he looked over at her and said, “Wouldn’t it be a good idea to write a story about some boys on an island, showing how they would really behave, being boys and not little saints as they usually are in children’s books.” When she said, “That’s a first-class idea! You write it!” Golding concluded: “So I went ahead and wrote it.”
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.”
The Tin Drum (1959)
Granted: I am an inmate of a mental hospital; my keeper is watching me, he never lets me out of his sight.
The novel’s opening words come from Oskar Matzerath, a Polish man in his late twenties who is being confined in a mental hospital in the early 1950s. Is he a legitimate patient, or some kind of Cold War political prisoner? He offers a hint at the answer when he goes on to say: “There’s a peephole in the door, and my keeper’s eye is the shade of brown that can never see through a blue-eyed type like me.”
The Tin Drum was Grass’s first novel (his previous works were poetry, dramatic plays, and libretti for ballet), and he originally struggled to turn the ideas he had about the novel to words on a page. He struggled and struggled until the first sentence above came to him. After that, he reported, “The barriers fell, language surged forward, memory, imagination, the pleasure of invention, and an obsession with detail all flowed freely.”
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 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.'"
“Hiroshima,“ in The New Yorker (Aug. 31, 1946)
At exactly fifteen minutes past eight in the morning, on August 6, 1945, Japanese time, at the moment when the atomic bomb flashed on Hiroshima, Miss Toshiko Sasaki, a clerk in the personnel department of the East Asia Tin Works, had just sat down at her place in the patent office and was turning her head to speak to the girl at the next desk.
In a 2020 NPR interview, Lesley Blume, author of Fallout: The Hiroshima Cover-Up and the Reporter Who Revealed It to the World (2020), described this as “one of the most famous introductions in journalistic history.”
After the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings brought WWII to an end, the U.S. government released plenty of pictures of mushroom clouds and landscape devastation, but nothing about the horrifying human toll. The government’s reluctance to be transparent was captured in a remark by Henry Stimson, then U. S. Secretary of War: “I did not want to have the United States get the reputation for outdoing Hitler in atrocities”
Hersey, a respected war correspondent at the time, chose to tell his story through the experiences of six Japanese survivors of the atomic blast. His 30,000-word article took up nearly the entire August 31, 1946 issue of The New Yorker magazine. For the first time, the American public was learning about such ghastly details as melting eyeballs and people being vaporized.
The issue sold out within hours of publication, and the article was soon reprinted in newspapers around the country, unheard of at the time for a piece of such enormous length. Two months later, the article was published as a full-length book. A main selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club, it was sent free to members (the first and only time this has happened). The book is now regarded as a classic in journalism history.
The day had gone by just as days go by. I had killed it in accordance with my primitive and retiring way of life. I had worked for an hour or two and perused the pages of old books. I had had pains for two hours, as elderly people do. I had taken a powder and been very glad when the pains consented to disappear. I had lain in a hot bath and absorbed its kindly warmth. Three times the mail had come with undesired letters and circulars to look through. I had done my breathing exercises, but found it convenient today to omit the thought exercises. I had been for an hour’s walk and seen the loveliest feathery cloud patterns penciled against the sky. That was very delightful. So was the reading of old books. So was the lying in the warm bath.
Impatient readers might be tempted to stop reading at this point, thinking these are simply the meanderings of an aging, but contented man. But that would be a mistake. The protagonist, a middle-aged man named Harry Haller, continued:
“But, taken all in all, it had not been exactly a day of rapture. No, it had not even been a day brightened with happiness and joy. Rather, it had been just one of those days which for a long while now had fallen to my lot; the moderately pleasant, the wholly bearable and tolerable, lukewarm days of a discontented middle-aged man; days without special pains, without special cares, without particular worry, without despair; days when I calmly wonder, objective and fearless, whether it isn’t time to follow the example of Adalbert Stifter and have an accident while shaving.”
“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.”
The Paranoid Style in American Politics: and Other Essays (1964)
The most difficult and delicate task that faces the author of a book of essays is that of writing an Introduction that makes his various pieces seem considerably more unified, in theme and argument, than they were in fact when they were written.
This opening line from the book’s Introduction is not only beautifully written, it perfectly captures the challenge awaiting all essayists who attempt to put together compilations of previously-published essays.
Originally a 1959 BBC radio lecture titled “The American Right Wing and the Paranoid Style,“ Hofstadter’s in-depth examination of political extremism in America first appeared in essay form in a November 1964 issue of Harper’s magazine. More than four decades later, staff writer Scott Horton wrote in 2007 that Hofstadter’s essay was “one of the most important and most influential articles published in the 155-year history of the magazine.“
When I recently re-read the essay, it presciently shed light on the motivation of modern-day conspiracy theorists and right-wing nationalists. And in a 2018 New York Times op-ed article on the growing signs of authoritarianism in the Republican Party, Paul Krugman tipped his hat to Hofstadter by titling his piece, “The Paranoid Style in G.O.P. Politics.”
“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.
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.”
“Of the First Principles of Government,“ in Essays: Moral, Political, & Literary (1741-42)
Nothing appears more surprising to those who consider human affairs with a philosophical eye than the easiness with which the many are governed by the few; and the implicit submission with which men resign their own sentiments and passions to those of their rulers.
“Franklin and the Art of Leadership,” in American Sketches (2009)
Benjamin Franklin would, I think, have been pleased, even tickled by the election of Barack Obama as president.
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.“
“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.
“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.”
“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.
“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.
“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.“)
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.”
“The Collateral Damage of Queen Elizabeth’s Glorious Reign,” in The New Yorker (April 29, 2022)
The Queen is the only royal who actually matters or does anything. That’s not fair, of course, but the monarchy is unfairness personified and glorified, long to reign over us.
It’s hard to imagine a better description of the modern English monarchy, and it was a pleasant surprise to find it in Knight’s review of Tina Brown’s The Palace Papers (2022). In his first paragraph, he continued:
“Naturally, the rest of the Royal Family—the heirs; the spares; Princess Michael of Kent, whose father was in the S.S. and whom Diana nicknamed the Führer; Princess Anne, Charles’s younger sister, who’s known to feed the chickens in a ballgown and Wellington boots after a night at the palace—are all busy. They have numberless engagements and causes, which fill their identical, repeating years, but they exist only as heralds for the magical authority of the Crown, which resides in the Queen and nobody else.”
By the way, in Brown’s in-depth examination of the House of Windsor, the long-time royal observer referred to the entirety of Queen Elizabeth’s relatives in a memorable metaphorical way: “They are high-born scaffolding.”
“A 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.”
This Town: Two Parties and a Funeral—Plus Plenty of Valet Parking!—in America’s Gilded Capital (2013)
Tim Russert is dead. But the room is alive.
Leibovich’s provocative opening words perfectly encapsulate the nature of life in Washington, DC—even at a memorial service for a recently departed news legend, politics permeates the room. Leibovich continued by describing the challenge facing a political reporter at such an event:
“You can’t work it too hard at a memorial service, obviously. It’s the kind of thing people notice. But the big-ticket Washington departure rite can be such a great networking opportunity. You can almost feel the ardor behind the solemn faces: lucky stampedes of power mourners, about two thousand of them, wearing out the red-carpeted aisles of the Kennedy Center.”
One of the most anticipated books of the year, This Year debuted at Number One on The New York Times Best Seller List, and remained on the list for twelve weeks. In a New York Times review of the book (cleverly titled “A Confederacy of Lunches”), novelist Christopher Buckley began his review by writing:
“Not to ruin it for you, but: if you already hate Washington, you’re going to hate it a whole lot more after reading Mark Leibovich’s takedown of the creatures who infest our nation’s capital and rule our destinies. And in case you are deluded enough as to think they care, you’ll learn that they already hate you.”
“How John McCain Turned His Cliches into Meaning,” in The New York Times (Dec. 18, 2013)
When I walk into John McCain’s office a week before Thanksgiving, he is not at all happy—and he seems to be enjoying it.
This oxymoronic opening serves as an example about why Leibovich was hailed by The Washingtonian’s Garrett M. Graff as “Washington’s reigning master of the political profile.” In the piece’s second paragraph, Leibovich continued:
“He is sampling none of the usual flavors of upset we tend to associate with the Arizona senator: not the ‘McCain is bitter’ or ‘get off my yard’ varieties, not even the ‘deeply troubled’ umbrage that politicians of all stripes love to assume. Here is a man, instead, who is gleefully seizing an opportunity for outrage.”
This is the Fire: What I Say to My Friends About Racism (2021)
May 25, 2020
Today I heard a dying man call out to his mama, and I wept for the world that will soon belong to you. I know what comes next as surely as I know the Mississippi rolls down to the sea.
The weeping passes, and rage takes hold.
The rage burns out, and blame begins.
The blame bounces back and forth, and promises are made.
The promises wither, and complacency returns.
And the complacency stays. It stagnates like a lullaby on autoplay, until another man dies facedown on another street in another city, and the weeping begins again.
These are the opening words to the book’s Prologue, titled “A Letter to My Nephew.” After the unmistakable allusion to the George Floyd killing, Lemon offered a bleak-but-beautifully-phrased assessment of the likely aftermath.
Astute readers will quickly surmise that, in approaching his book, Lemon was inspired by James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time (1963). Both books have fire in the title, and Baldwin also began his classic work with a letter to his nephew. Both books also contain a similar tone of deep frustration and controlled rage at America’s failure to learn from its own painful history.
These Truths: A History of the United States (2018)
The course of history is unpredictable, as irregular as the weather, as errant as affection, nations rising and falling by whim and chance, battered by violence, corrupted by greed, seized by tyrants, raided by rogues, addled by demagogues.
It takes a touch of audacity to attempt a one-volume history of the United States, and Lepore—a Harvard University history professor as well as a New Yorker staff writer—opens with a bang. Bruce Watson, a noted writer/historian in his own right, alerted me to Lepore’s opening words, writing: “It’s not easy to sum up history in a sentence, nor is it easy to do a full U.S. history in a single book, but Lepore rises to both tasks. Introducing her monumental single-volume history, she makes many profound statements about history as an inexact science and America as a work in progress. She had me from the start.”
Lepore’s book was widely hailed, but my favorite critical comment came from Casey Cep, also a New Yorker staff writer, in a Harvard Magazine review. After describing the work as “Astounding,” Cep went on to write that Lepore “has assembled evidence of an America that was better than some thought, worse than almost anyone imagined, and weirder than most serious history books ever convey.”
The title of Lepore’s book, of course, comes from the second line of the Declaration of Independence, which begins, “We hold these truths to be self-evident….“
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.
My bad luck started just before Christmas 1985. But at the time, as so often happens, it seemed like good luck.
In this fictional account of the Iran-Contra affair, the opening words come from U. S. Army Major Norman Starr. A member of the National Security Council, he has received a subpoena to appear before a congressional committee investigating illegal covert activities by U.S. military personnel.
In the novel’s second paragraph, Starr continued: “I had graduated from West Point just in time to join the final fighting in the rice paddies of Vietnam. Returning with a chest full of medals, a few earned, most routine, I married Nancy Makin, a girl from Maryland whom I’d been dating whenever I found myself with stateside duty. We had spent our first three years of married life in the Panama Canal Zone, where I had the shameful task of watching as Jimmy Carter gave away that marvel of engineering to the Panamanians.”
Bend Sinister (1947)
An oblong puddle inset in the coarse asphalt; like a fancy footprint filled to the brim with quicksilver.
The novel begins with this impressive opening description—visual, textured, and layered with potential meaning.
Many years later, Nabokov offered this lovely thought about the entire novel: “Bend Sinister was the first novel I wrote in America, and that was half a dozen years after she and I had adopted each other.”
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.”
Viet Thanh Nguyen
The Sympathizer (2015)
I am a spy, sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces. Perhaps not surprisingly, I am a man of two minds. I am not some misunderstood mutant from a comic book or a horror movie, although some have treated me as such. I am simply able to see any issue from both sides.
The setting is the Vietnam War and the unnamed narrator is a captured North Vietnamese spy with one foot in each of two different worlds (his mother was Vietnamese and his father a French Catholic priest). As the novel opens, he is being forced to write a confession while confined to a 3-by-5-foot solitary cell. Nguyen’s debut novel went on to win the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and many other awards.
In 2017, Nguyen, a professor of English and American Studies at the University of Southern California, told the Atlantic’s Joe Fassler that he’d been struggling for months to write an opening sentence that would “grab the reader from the beginning” and “once it was written, would drive the rest of the novel completely.” One day, after many months poring over a new 2011 translation of António Lobo Antune’s 1979 novel Os Cus de Judas (published under the title Land at the End of the World), a line popped into his mind: “I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces.” Nguyen was elated. Finally, he had found his first sentence, saying to Fassler: “It just came to me. And I thought, that’s it. All I have to do is follow this voice for the rest of the novel, however long it takes.”
In the novel, the narrator continued: “Sometimes I flatter myself that this is a talent, and although it is admittedly one of a minor nature, it is perhaps also the sole talent I possess. At other times, when I reflect on how I cannot help but observe the world in such a fashion, I wonder if what I have should even be called talent. After all, a talent is something you use, not something that uses you. The talent you cannot not use, the talent that possesses you—that is a hazard, I must confess. But in the month when this confession begins, my way of seeing the world still seemed more of a virtue than a danger, which is how some dangers first appear.”
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.”
Joyce Carol Oates
Black Water (1992)
The rented Toyota, driven with such impatient exuberance by The Senator, was speeding along the unpaved unnamed road, taking the turns in giddy skidding slides, and then, with no warning, somehow the car had gone off the road and had overturned in black rushing water, listing to its passenger’s side, rapidly sinking.
Am I going to die—like this?
This is the entirety of the novel’s first chapter, and the haunting final thoughts of Kelly Kelleher, a fictional version of Mary Jo Kopechne, the 28-year-old political staffer who drowned in 1969 when a car driven by Senator Edward Kennedy skidded off a small bridge on Chappaquidick Island in Massachusetts. The novel parallels the tragic events, but it is also a larger, almost mythical story about, in Oates’s words, “the almost archetypal experience of a young woman who trusts an older man and whose trust is violated.“
A Promised Land (2020)
Of all the rooms and halls and landmarks that make up the White House and its grounds, it was the West Colonnade that I loved best.
Many great opening lines don’t bowl readers over, they simply get them to ask, “Why?” Or in this case, “Why select what is essentially a walkway—no matter how beautiful—over the many more historic choices?” Obama went on to offer a most interesting answer, and one providing a glimpse into the mind of the man:
“For eight years that walkway would frame my day, a minute-long, open-air commute from home to office and back again. It was where each morning I felt the first slap of winter wind or pulse of summer heat; the place where I’d gather my thoughts, ticking through the meetings that lay ahead, preparing arguments for skeptical members of Congress or anxious constituents, girding myself for this decision or that slow-rolling crisis.”
I spent much of my childhood listening to the sound of striving.
The former First Lady continued: “It came in the form of bad music, or at least amateur music, coming up through the floorboards of my bedroom—the plink plink plink of students sitting downstairs at my great-aunt Robbie’s piano, slowly and imperfectly learning their scales.”
Animal Farm (1945)
Mr. Jones, of the Manor Farm, had locked the hen-houses for the night, but was too drunk to remember to shut the popholes.
The narrator continued: “With the ring of light from his lantern dancing from side to side, he lurched across the yard, kicked off his boots at the back door, drew himself a last glass of beer from the barrel in the scullery, and made his way up to bed, where Mrs. Jones was already snoring.”
The drunken, careless farmer is the thinly disguised czar Nicholas II, and the unfolding tale a brilliant satire of a high-minded revolution that descends into totalitarianism. When Animal Farm was first published in England in 1945, it was subtitled A Fairy Story. A year later, when the book appeared in the United States, the subtitle was eliminated completely in some printings and replaced with A Satire or A Contemporary Satire in others.
“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.”
Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949)
It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.
It’s common for dystopian novels to open with a disquieting or unsettling hint, and Orwell’s classic tale does that by mentioning a clock number that doesn’t exist. In How to Read Literature (2013), Terry Eagleton wrote:
“This first sentence gains its effect from carefully dropping the word ‘thirteen’ into an otherwise unremarkable piece of description, thus signaling that the scene is set either in some unfamiliar civilization or in the future. Some things haven’t changed (the month is still named April, and winds can still be bitter), but others have, and part of the effect of the sentence springs from this juxtaposition of the ordinary and the familiar.”
The narrator continued: “Winston Smith, his chin nuzzled into his breast in an effort to escape the vile wind, slipped quickly through the glass doors of Victory Mansions, though not quickly enough to prevent a swirl of gritty dust from entering along with him.”
“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.“
“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.
Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985)
We were keeping our eye on 1984. When the year came and the prophecy didn’t, thoughtful Americans sang softly in praise of themselves. The roots of liberal democracy had held. Wherever else the terror had happened, we, at least, had not been visited by Orwellian nightmares.
Postman’s book, written before Facebook, Twitter, and the rise of Social Media, can only be considered prescient, as we see in his second paragraph: “But we had forgotten that alongside Orwell’s dark vision, there was another—slightly older, slightly less well known, equally chilling: Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Contrary to common belief even among the educated, Huxley did not prophesy the same thing. Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.”
“The 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.
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.“
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.”
Deadline: A Memoir (1991)
I started to write this book as a political memoir of my fifty years as a reporter, columnist, Washington correspondent, and executive editor of The New York Times, but it got away from me and turned into a personal memoir of love and hope.
Straight from the Heart: My Life in Politics & Other Places (1989; with Peter Knobler)
My Daddy used to say, “She looks like she was rode hard and put up wet,” and that is about the way I feel on finishing this book. Telling the story of your life is not an easy task.
These are the opening words to the Preface of the book. Richards continued: “Reliving the tough times is painful, but the recollection of good times with my friends and family warmed me like a blanket.”
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 continued, she proceeded 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.’”
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.”
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).
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.”
Ordinarily, I have a proclivity for bitterness.
The narrator continued: “But it still hurts me that another dear old friend is dead. They’ll have to sweep away twice her weight in leaves to open up that tiny plot. No car doors will slam for this funeral. Her frail mourners are barely strong enough to shift the gears.“
“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.
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.”
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.”
“#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 Gulag Archipelago, 1918-1956, Vol. I (1973)
How do people get to this clandestine Archipelago? Hour by hour planes fly there, ships steer their course there, and trains thunder off to it—but all with nary a mark on them to tell of their destination.
The narrator continued: “And at ticket windows or at travel bureaus for Soviet or foreign tourists the employees would be astounded if you were to ask for a ticket to go there. They know nothing and they’ve never heard of the Archipelago as a whole or of any one of its innumerable islands.”
Cancer Ward (1968)
On top of everything, the cancer wing was Number 13.
The narrator continued: “Pavel Nikolayevich Rusanov had never been and could never be a superstitious person, but his heart sank when they wrote ’Wing 13’ on his admission card.”
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.”
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962)
At five o’clock that morning reveille was sounded, as usual, by the blows of a hammer on a length of rail hanging up near the staff quarters. The intermittent sounds barely penetrated the windowpanes on which the frost lay two fingers thick, and they ended almost as soon as they’d begun. It was cold outside, and the camp guard was reluctant to go on beating out the reveille for long.
The narrator continued: “The clanging ceased, but everything outside still looked like the middle of the night when Ivan Denisovich Shukhov got up to go to the bucket.”
Few books in history have had a greater impact than this one. In a 2012 BBC broadcast, Steve Rosenberg described it as “The book that shook the USSR,” and he quoted Soviet writer Vitaly Korotich as saying, “The Soviet Union was destroyed by information—and this wave started from Solzhenitsyn’s One Day.”
“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?
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
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 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?”
Mario Vargas Llosa
Conversation in the Cathedral (1969)
From the doorway of La Crónica Santiago looks at the Avenida Tacna without love: cars, uneven and faded buildings, the gaudy skeletons of posters floating in the mist, the gray midday. At what precise moment had Peru fucked itself up?
This frank appraisal comes from Santiago Zavala, an undistinguished editorial writer for a Lima newspaper (he is also the son of a millionaire businessman-turned-politician). As Zavala continues his reflections, we discover that, in his own life, he has also failed to live up to his expectations: “The newsboys weave in and out among the vehicles halted by the red light on Wilson, hawking the afternoon papers, and he starts to walk slowly toward Colmena. His hands in his pockets, head down, he goes along escorted by people who are also going in the direction of the Plaza San Martin. He was like Peru, Zavalita was, he’d fucked himself up somewhere along the line.”
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’m glad he did.
Donald E. Westlake [see also RICHARD STARK]
Each ant emerged from the skull bearing an infinitesimal portion of brain.
It’s a grisly opening, true, but unsurpassed in its ability to snare a reader’s interest. The narrator continued: “The double thread of ants shuttling between corpse and nest crossed at a diagonal the human trail beside which the murdered woman had been thrown.”
George F. Will
“The Cubs and Conservatism,” in The Washington Post (March 21, 1974); reprinted in Bunts: Pete Rose, Curt Flood, Camden Yards and Other Reflections on Baseball (1997)
A reader demands to know how I contracted the infectious conservatism for which he plans to horsewhip me. So if you have tears, prepare to shed them now as I reveal how my gloomy temperament received its conservative warp from early and prolonged exposure to the Chicago Cubs.
After a first sentence almost guaranteed to get a reader’s attention, Will suggested that the roots of his political conservativism could be traced to his early love of the perennially-losing Chicago Cubs. He then went on to offer a delightful two-paragraph comparison of liberals and conservatives:
“The differences between conservatives and liberals are as much a matter of temperament as ideas. Liberals are temperamentally inclined to see the world as a harmonious carnival of sweetness and light, where goodwill prevails, good intentions are rewarded, the race is to the swift, and a benevolent Nature arranges a favorable balance of pleasure over pain. Conservatives (and Cub fans) know better.
“Conservatives know the world is a dark and forbidding place where most new knowledge is false, most improvements are for the worse, the battle is not to the strong, nor riches to men of understanding, and an unscrupulous Providence consigns innocents to suffering. I learned this early.”
Caroline Randall Williams
“You Want a Confederate Monument? My Body is a Confederate Monument,” an Op-Ed article in The New York Times (June 26, 2020)
I have rape-colored skin.
Over the years, it’s been common to describe some opening lines as “arresting,” and this one clearly deserves that designation. It was my choice for The Best Opening Line of 2020, heading my Smerconish.com post on the twenty best openers of the year.
In her piece, Williams continued: “My light-brown-blackness is a living testament to the rules, the practices, the causes of the Old South. If there are those who want to remember the legacy of the Confederacy, if they want monuments, well, then, my body is a monument. My skin is a monument.”
A poet, author, and Writer-in-Residence at Vanderbilt University, Williams was directly addressing those who were calling for the preservation of Confederate statues in public places. Few people in America were more qualified to write on the subject. Williams’s great-grandfather was Arna Bontemps, one of the leading voices of the Harlem Renaissance; her grandmother was Avon Williams, an influential civil-rights lawyer in the 1960s; and her mother is Alice Randall, a popular songwriter and author of The Wind Done Gone (2001), a brilliant parody of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind.
That is only part of the story, though. Williams’s great-great-grandfather was Edmund Pettus—yes, the man the Selma, Alabama bridge was named after—a Confederate Army officer, a Grand Dragon of the KKK, and, in his later years, a U.S. Senator from Alabama. About her family legacy, Williams wrote: “The black people I came from were owned and raped by the white people I came from.”
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.”
During the Top Secret President’s Daily Brief the afternoon of Tuesday, January 28, 2020, discussion in the Oval Office turned to a mysterious pneumonia-like virus outbreak in China. Public health officials and President Trump himself were telling the public the virus was low-risk for the United States.
“This will be the biggest national security threat you face in your presidency,” Robert O’Brien, the national security adviser, told Trump, expressing a jarring, contrarian view as deliberately and as strongly as possible.
Trump’s head popped up.
Rage was one of my selections for “The 20 Best Opening Lines of 2020.“
Bob Woodward and Robert Costa
Two days after the January 6, 2021, violent assault on the United States Capitol by supporters of President Donald Trump, General Mark Milley, the nation’s senior military officer and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, placed an urgent call on a top secret, back-channel line at 7:03 a.m. to his Chinese counterpart, General Li Zuocheng, chief of the Joint Staff of the People’s Liberation Army.
It’s rare for a book—as opposed to a newspaper—to be the source of breaking news, but that’s exactly what happened when the opening paragraph of Woodward & Costa’s new book revealed Gen. Milley’s previously unknown telephone call to his Chinese counterpart. The book’s next three paragraph filled out the picture nicely:
“Milley knew from extensive reports that Li and the Chinese leadership were stunned and disoriented by the televised images of the unprecedented attack on the American legislature.
“Li fired off questions to Milley. Was the American superpower unstable? Collapsing? What was going on? Was the U.S. military going to do something?
“‘Things may look ’unsteady,’ Milley said, trying to calm Li, whom he had know for five years. ‘But that’s the nature of democracy, General Li. We are 100 percent steady. Everything’s fine. But democracy can be sloppy sometimes.”
The entire phone call lasted for an hour and a half, and it seemed to calm down the rattled Chinese general. But what General Li did not know at the time—as the book would soon reveal—was that Gen. Milley had completely “misled” him. Despite Milley’s reassurances about America’s steadiness or its occasionally sloppy democratic practices, Woodward and Costa wrote that Milley believed that the events of Jan. 6th were nothing short of a treasonous attempt at a coup d’état in the world’s most powerful democracy. Peril became an immediate bestseller, and was one of my choices for “21 of the Best Opening Lines of 2021.”
The Coyotes of Carthage (2020)
Andre marvels, watching a kid, a stranger of maybe sixteen, pinch another wallet.
In his debut novel, Wright, an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin Law School and co-director of the Wisconsin Innocence Project, gets off to an intriguing in media res beginning. From the outset, there is a clear suggestion that the narrator, a black political operative named Andre Ross, has more than just a passing familiarity with the art of pickpocketing.
The narrator continued in the opening paragraph: “This lift makes the kid’s fifth, at least that Andre’s seen this morning—two on the train, two on the underground platform, and now this one on the jam-packed escalator that climbs toward the surface. The kid’s got skills, mad skills.”
The Coyotes of Carthage was shortlisted for the Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence. The novel was described as “riveting” by the Washington Post, and John Grisham welcomed Wright as “a major new voice in the world of political thrillers.”