Genre: Psychology & Self-Help
Twenty Years at Hull House (1910)
On the theory that our genuine impulses may be connected with our childish experiences, that one’s bent may be tracked back to that “No-Man’s Land” where character is formless but nevertheless settling into lines of future development, I begin this record with some impressions of my childhood.
Some modern readers may find these words a bit too formal or old-fashioned, but I can’t read them without admiring the beautiful phrasing. Read it again—slowly this time, and pausing after each comma to let the words sink in—and I think you will know what I mean. I first read this opening paragraph many, many decades ago, and one phrase in particular—where character is formless but nevertheless settling into lines of future developmentstill comes to mind when I observe prepubescent children.
Mortimer J. Adler
How to Speak, How to Listen (1983)
How do you make contact with the mind of another person?
I've got to be honest, I can't think of a better opening sentence for a book on the twin subjects of how to speak and how to listen.
Tuesdays with Morrie (1997)
The last class of my old professor’s life took place once a week in his house, by a window in the study where he could watch a small hibiscus plant shed its pink leaves. The class met on Tuesdays. It began after breakfast. The subject was The Meaning of Life. It was taught from experience.
This is a wonderful opening paragraph to what many people regard as the best non-fiction book of 1997—and one of the most touching and inspirational books of all time. In 1995, Albom was an acclaimed sports reporter at the Detroit Free Press when he learned that one of his favorite Brandeis University professors, Morrie Schwartz, was dying of Lou Gehrig’s disease. The two men had been close in the 1970s, and Albom felt guilty about letting sixteen years pass with no contact. After reaching out to his former professor, Albom flew every week from Detroit to Boston to visit the 78-year-old Schwartz at his home (a newspaper strike in Detroit dictated the timing of the visits: every Tuesday for fourteen weeks).
Albom hoped the proceeds from an anticipated book might help to pay Schwartz’s medical bills, but he didn’t expect much. But after Tuesdays with Morrie was published in 1997, it spent four years on The New York Times Best Seller list, selling nearly twenty million copies (it was adapted into a popular 1999 made-for-tv film, with Jack Lemmon as Schwartz and Hank Azaria as Albom. The film received four Emmy nominations, winning three (Best Motion Picture Made for Television, Best Actor in a Motion Picture for Lemmon, and Best Supporting Actor for Azaria).
As a Man Thinketh (1903)
The aphorism, “As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he,” not only embraces the whole of a man’s being, but is so comprehensive as to reach out to every condition and circumstance of his life.
Opening a book—especially a non-fiction work—with a great quotation is a time-honored practice, and it is especially effective when the quotation updates a legendary biblical passage (Proverbs 23:7). In the opening paragraph, Allen continued with one of his most widely quoted thoughts: “ A man is literally what he thinks, his character being the complete sum of all his thoughts.“
It is not a stretch to regard Allen’s book as the father of modern self-help books, and one can see key elements of it in later works by Dale Carnegie, Napoleon Hill, Og Mandino, and other giants of the genre. It is also a small irony that the great American self-help book publishing empire all began with a small book by an English philosophical writer.
Mutuality Matters (2018)
After winning several music awards one year, Carlos Santana was asked by an eager young entertainment reporter how he felt about “this belated recognition after so many years as a professional musician.” In an apparent non sequitur, Santana smiled warmly and replied, “I am becoming the people I love,” to which the reporter responded, “But what does that have to do with these awards?”
After piquing our curiosity in her opening words, Anderson continued: “Santana explained, ‘To a greater degree over time, these friends, musical or not, seem to infuse my music and my life. And my friends say the same has happened to them.’ Then looking gently at the reporter, Santana asked, ‘Have you had that gratifying feeling of mutuality?’”
Moving From Me to We (2012)
Writing of her secret life as a prostitute, a blogger with the pseudonym Belle de Jour had a backstory worthy of a movie script.
This is an unusual—and intriguing—way to begin a self-help book, and it turns out to be 100% true. Anderson continued: “In fact what she did was turned into a Showtime TV series. She wanted to step into a dramatically different adventure for the next chapter of her life story. She was moved to express another side of herself, and then write about it. You see, in her other life, she’s ‘a respected specialist in developmental neurotoxicology and cancer epidemiology.’”
The woman’s real name was Dr. Brooke Magnanti, a highly trained English medical professional. In 2003, under the nom de plume Belle de Jour, she began writing a blog about her secret life as a sex worker. After receiving the Guardian’s Best Blog Award, de Jour’s profile increased dramatically, and she went on to write a number of bestselling books, some with terrific opening lines (see them here).
Getting What You Want (1993)
When trying to reach agreement, we always find a shorter path when we seek the truth beneath the apparent truth. Several people have helped teach me that, often not in any way they intended
These are legitimate words of wisdom—expressed eloquently, I might add—and I was delighted to discover them at the beginning of the Preface to Anderson’s book. These two sentences illustrate something I’ve often said about Great Opening Lines in non-fiction books: the best way to begin is to say something important, and to say it well.
A few pages later, in the opening sentence of Chapter One, Anderson also began nicely by employing the time-honored practice of posing a question that attempts to “frame” the matter under discussion: “Do you ever avoid saying what you want or how you feel for fear of how someone will react?”
"Why We're So Nice: We're Wired to Cooperate," in The New York Times (July 23, 2002)
What feels as good as chocolate on the tongue or money in the bank but won't make you fat or risk a subpoena from the Securities and Exchange Commission?
Angier continued: "Hard as it may be to believe in these days of infectious greed and sabers unsheathed, scientists have discovered that the small brave act of cooperating with another person, of choosing trust over cynicism, generosity over selfishness, makes the brain light up with quiet joy."
The Bible: A Biography (2006)
Human beings are meaning-seeking creatures. Unless we find some pattern or significance in our lives, we fall very easily into despair.
Mary Kay Ash
Mary Kay (Rev. Ed.; 1987)
There are four kinds of people in this world:
- those who make things happen
- those who watch things happen
- those who wonder what happened
- those who don’t know that anything happened!
I knew from a very early age that I wanted to be first on that list.
The first edition of Ash’s memoir, originally published in 1981, opened in a very different way: “When I was seven years old, my daddy came home from the sanatorium. His tuberculosis had been arrested but not completely cured in his three years there, and he remained an invalid for the rest of my years at home, in need of a great deal of tender, loving care.”
In the revised edition, the paragraph about her father was retained, but placed a few paragraphs later—after she clearly took someone’s advice to open with words that would better convey her trademark wit and charm.
“Of Revenge,” in Essays (1625)
Revenge is a kind of wild justice, which the more man’s nature runs to, the more ought law to weed it out.
And a Voice to Sing With: A Memoir (1987)
I was born gifted. I can speak of my gifts with little or no modesty, but with tremendous gratitude, precisely because they are gifts, and not things which I created, or actions about which I might be proud.
Typically, readers might be turned off by someone who starts off by saying, “I was born gifted,“ but Baez quickly forestalls such a reaction by clarifying what a gift actually means—something given to people, and, therefore, not something they can take credit for.
In her second paragraph, Baez continued: “My greatest gift, given to me by forces which confound genetics, environment, race, or ambition, is a singing voice. My second greatest gift, without which I would be an entirely different person with an entirely different story to tell, is a desire to share that voice, and the bounties it has heaped upon me, with others. From that combination of gifts has developed an immeasurable wealth—a wealth of adventures, of friendships, and of plain joys.“
What’s It All About? Philosophy and the Meaning of Life (2005)
“You’re T. S. Eliot,” said a taxi driver to the famous poet as he stepped into his cab. Eliot asked him how he knew. “Ah, I’ve got an eye for a celebrity,” he replied. “Only the other evening I picked up Bertrand Russell, and I said to him, ‘Well, Lord Russell, what’s it all about?’ And do you know he couldn’t tell me.’”
**A Condition of Doubt: The Meanings of Hypochondria (2012)
Hypochondriacs have two significant beliefs; that their bodies contain something that will kill them, and that, if they could only read their bodies closely enough, they should be able to find that lurking threat before it is too late.
Belling continued: “If a doctor examines such a patient and announces that no evidence of disease can be found, the patient (who would love to be able to believe the doctor) is not finally convinced. The patient concludes that this particular doctor is just not good enough to have found the horror that must—surely?—be hidden somewhere within.”
“Getting to the ‘Click’: Teaching the MFA at Bennington,” in Los Angeles Review of Books (Oct. 12, 2021)
Teaching writing, unlike most other kinds of teaching, is an intervention, closer to therapy than to any transmissible instruction.
Girl Gone Mad: A Novel (2020)
The girl cut herself.
With a knife, most likely—with a paring knife or steak knife pilfered from the kitchen when her parents weren’t around—or maybe she used a pair of scissors already in her bedroom, opening them up and then pressing the tip of one of the blades against her skin.
The opening words come from Emily Bennett, a 28-year-old Pennsylvania therapist who works with troubled teen and pre-teen girls—and herself a former troubled middle school girl whose past is about to be resurrected.
In her opening words, Bennett continued: “It was one of the things I would eventually get to, but not today. Today was the girl’s first appointment. An intake, really. All I had was the referral that she had been sent from the psychiatric inpatient facility where she’d been for eight days.”
The Heroine’s Bookshelf: Life Lessons, from Jane Austen to Laura Ingalls Wilder (2010)
In times of struggle, there are as many reasons not to read as there are to breathe. Don’t you have better things to do? Reading, let alone rereading, is the terrain of milquetoasts and mopey spinsters. At life’s ugliest junctures, the very act of opening a book can smack of cowardly escapism. Who chooses to read when there’s work to be done?
In the Introduction to her debut book, Blakemore begins by advancing an argument that she goes on to completely demolish: “Call me a coward if you will, but when the line between duty and sanity blurs, you can usually find me curled up with a battered book, reading as if my mental health depended on it. And it does, for inside the books I love I find good, respite, escape and perspective. I find something else, too: heroines and authors, hundreds of them, women whose real and fictitious lives have covered the terrain I too must tread.”
Continuing on the theme of Great Opening Lines, you will also enjoy the first sentence of Chapter One of Blakemore’s book—a magnificent tweak of Jane Austen’s classic opening: “It is a truth universally acknowledged that going back on a proposal of marriage isn’t the best way to start the day.”
Humankind: A Hopeful History (2019)
This is a book about a radical idea.
An idea that’s long been known to make rulers nervous. An idea denied by religions and ideologies, ignored by the news media and erased from the annals of world history.
At the same time, it’s an idea that’s legitimized by virtually every branch of science. One that’s corroborated by evolution and confirmed by everyday life. An ideal so intrinsic to human nature that it goes unnoticed and gets overlooked.
If only we had the courage to take it more seriously, it’s an idea that might just start a revolution. Turn society on its head. Because once you grasp what it really means, it’s nothing less than a mind-bending drug that ensures you’ll never look at the world the same again.
So what is this radical idea?
That most people, deep down, are pretty decent.
The Road to Character (2015)
Recently I’ve been thinking about the difference between the resume virtues and the eulogy virtues.
Brooks continued: “The resume virtues are the ones you list on your resume, the skills that you bring to the job market and that contribute to external success. The eulogy virtues are deeper. They’re the virtues that get talked about at your funeral, the ones that exist at the core of your being—whether you are kind, brave, honest or faithful; what kind of relationships you formed.“
Rita Mae Brown
Loose Lips (1999)
Life will turn you inside out. No matter where you start you’ll end up someplace else even if you stay home. The one thing you can count on is that you’ll be surprised.
A boy and girl were spending the night together in the back seat of a Volvo estate car. The car was in a garage. It was pitch black.
With these simple—but highly evocative—words, we are introduced to Gemma Brogan and David “Tar” Lawson, both fourteen years old and on the verge of escaping their highly dysfunctional home environments. Little do they know at this point of their journey that an even more dismal future awaits.
Burgess’s dark and gritty tale about teenage drug addiction went on to win the 1996 Carnegie Medal, awarded annually by England’s Library Association for the outstanding children’s book by a British writer. In 2007, on the 70th anniversary of the Carnegie Medal, Junk was named one of the Top Ten winners of the award. In 1997, the book was published in America under the title Smack, yet another slang term for heroin.
When the novel came out in a 25th Anniversary edition in 2021, the Guardian’s Julia Eccleshare wrote about it: “Melvin Burgess’s ground-breaking Junk remains the best book about teenagers and drugs to this day.”
Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals (2021)
The average human lifespan is absurdly, terrifyingly, insultingly short.
Some opening lines are like a whack on the side of the head, and Burkeman does his best here to grab—or better, to arrest—the reader’s attention.
In the opening paragraph, he continued: “Here’s one way of putting things in perspective: the first modern humans appeared on the plains of Africa at least 200,000 years ago, and scientists estimate that life, in some form, will persist for another 1.5 billion years or more, until the intensifying heat of the sun condemns the last organism to death. But you? Assuming you live to be eighty, you’ll have had about four thousand weeks.”
The idea about whacking readers with an opening sentence was first advanced by H. G. Wells in an 1898 essay on the subject of writing essays (see the Wells entry in the NON-FICTION page).
The Stranger (1942)
Mother died today. Or maybe, yesterday; I can’t be sure.
This simple reflection has achieved an iconic status in modern literature. The narrator and protagonist is a French Algerian known only by the name Meursault. He continued: “The telegram from the Home says: YOUR MOTHER PASSED AWAY. FUNERAL TOMORROW. DEEP SYMPATHY. Which leaves the matter doubtful; it could have been yesterday.“
Meursault seems incapable of expressing normal, or expected, emotions. As a result, he went on to become the personification of a form of emotional detachment now commonly called alienation.
“An Absurd Reasoning,“ in The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays (1955)
There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.
These are the powerful opening words of the first essay in the collection. Camus continued: “Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest—whether or not the world has three dimensions, whether the mind has nine or twelve categories—comes afterwards.“
Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff…and It’s All Small Stuff (1997)
Whenever we’re dealing with bad news, a difficult person, or a disappointment of some kind, most of us get into certain habits, ways of reacting to life—particularly adversity—that don’t serve us very well.
Carlson’s opening salvo couldn’t be much simpler—when things go bad, people often do things to make matters worse—and as soon as book was published, the words struck a major chord with readers. The book remained on The New York Times Best Seller list for 101 weeks, spawned a host of similarly-tiled spinoffs (for moms, dads, teens, and others), and made Carlson one of the era’s most popular self-help writers.
In 2006, after the 45-year-old Carlson died unexpectedly of a heart attack, his former literary agent Patti Breitman said of him: “He preached what the Buddha preached, but without the preaching.”
“Kindred Spirits,” in The New Yorker (May 31, 2021)
It’s a good time to be dead—at least, if you want to keep in touch with the living.
Cep continued: “Almost a third of Americans say they have communicated with someone who has died, and they collectively spend more than two billion dollars a year for psychic services on platforms old and new. Facebook, Tik Tok, television: whatever the medium, there’s a medium.“ This was one of my choices for a Smerconish.com post on “Twenty-One of the Best Opening Lines of 2021.“
Modern Madness: An Owner’s Manual (2020)
I was sitting next to Michael Jackson, admiring his feet.
In this sequel to Manic, a 2008 bestselling memoir detailing her lifelong struggle with bipolar disorder, Cheney’s first paragraph goes on to offer a few more details about the superstar athlete’s physical appearance and persona. It is in the second paragraph where the book really begins to take off:
“Looking back, there was indeed something extraordinary in that room, only it had nothing to do with Michael Jackson’s feet. It was the mere fact that I was sitting there as one of his attorneys, representing him in a big, messy lawsuit involving one of the most successful albums of all time. That was me, all right—counselor to the stars. The voice of reason and restraint, in a gray Armani suit and a gorgeous white silk shirt I’d bought especially for the deposition, because it had these long, elegant French cuffs that would just about hide the virulent red slashes across my wrists I’d acquired from a recent suicide attempt.”
Manic: A Memoir (2008)
If you come with me on this journey, I think a word of warning is in order: manic depression is not a safe ride.
Cheney, a successful Beverly Hills entertainment lawyer, continued: “It doesn’t go from Point A to Point B in a familiar, friendly pattern. It’s chaotic, unpredictable. You never know where you’re headed next. I wanted this book to mirror the disease, to give the reader a visceral experience.”
E. M. Cioran
“Some Blind Alleys: A Letter,” in Phillip Lopate, ed., The Art of the Personal Essay (1994)
Every form of talent involves a certain shamelessness.
Anatomy of an Illness: As Perceived by the Patient (1979)
This book is about a serious illness that occurred in 1964. I was reluctant to write about it for many years because I was fearful of creating false hopes in others who were similarly afflicted. Moreover, I knew that a single case has small standing in the annals of medical research, having little more than “anecdotal” or “testimonial” value.
In many non-fiction works, the best beginnings are often simple and straightforward—and that is certainly true with Cousins’s account of his famous attempt to treat a serious connective tissue disease with massive amounts of Vitamin C and systematic viewing of episodes of the TV-show Candid Camera (a method he called “laugh therapy”).
Cousins continued: “However, references to the illness surfaced from time to time in the general and medical press. People wrote to ask whether it was true that I ‘laughed’ my way out of a crippling disease that doctors believed to be irreversible.
The Selfish Gene (1976)
Intelligent life on a planet comes of age when it first works out the reason for its own existence.
Highly quotable opening lines are relatively rare in non-fiction writing, and this is especially true in science writing. In a refreshing exception to the rule, Dawkins begins his classic 1976 book with an observation we want to linger over—even savor—for a few moments before reading on. In the rest of the opening paragraph, Dawkins continued:
“If superior creatures from space ever visit earth, the first question they will ask, in order to assess the level of our civilization, is: ‘Have they discovered evolution yet?’ Living organisms had existed on earth, without ever knowing why, for over three thousand million years before the truth finally dawned on one of them. His name was Charles Darwin.”
Near the end of The Selfish Gene, Dawkins coined the word meme, a cultural analog to the concept of a gene in biology. The coinage quickly became a meme in itself, and life in The Internet Age would never be the same. Twenty-three years later, in 1999, Dawkins returned to the subject of memes in a Time magazine essay—and he introduced the subject in an interesting and effective way. See the entry below.
“The Selfish Meme,” in Time magazine (April 11, 1999)
Years ago, in an Oxford tutorial, I taught a young woman who affected an unusual habit. When asked a question that required deep thought, she would screw her eyes tight shut, jerk her head down to her chest and then freeze for up to half a minute before looking up, opening her eyes and answering the question with fluency and intelligence.
In the essay’s opening paragraph, Dawkins continued: “I was amused by this and did an imitation of it to divert my colleagues after dinner. Among them was a distinguished Oxford philosopher. As soon as he saw my imitation, he immediately said, ‘That’s Wittgenstein! Is her surname ____ by any chance?’ Taken aback, I said that it was. ‘I thought so,’ said my colleague. ‘Both her parents are professional philosophers and devoted followers of Wittgenstein.’ The gesture had passed from the great philosopher, via one or both of her parents, to my pupil.”
Here, Dawkins nicely demonstrates how a well-chosen anecdote can achieve two important goals at the same time—engaging the reader and illustrating the topic under discussion. He continued in the second paragraph:
“Our cultural life is full of things that seem to propagate virus-like from one mind to another: tunes, ideas, catchphrases, fashions, ways of making pots or building arches. In 1976 I coined the word meme (rhymes with cream) for these self-replicating units of culture that have a life of their own.”
Simone de Beauvoir
The Second Sex, Vol. 2 (1949)
One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.
Epigrammatic opening lines have always been popular with readers, and this one has become de Beauvoir’s most famous observation (one could almost argue that it is her signature line). In nine simple words, she encapsulated her groundbreaking thesis that being female is a cultural rather than a biological construct. It’s a perfect opening line, in my opinion, and I only wish she had used it to begin the first volume of her classic work, not the second. Volume I opened memorably, but I think you will agree that it isn’t in the same league:
“Woman? Very simple, say the fanciers of simple formulas: she is a womb, an ovary; she is a female—this word is sufficient to define her. In the mouth of a man the epithet female has the sound of an insult….”
Gavin de Becker
The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals That Protect Us from Violence (1997)
He had probably been watching her for a while. We aren’t sure—but what we do know is that she was not his first victim.
These opening words look a lot like the beginning of a suspense thriller, but they actually opened a non-fiction book that has become a classic in the literature on violence against women.
In his book, de Becker went well beyond the cliche of learning to trust one’s “gut instincts” by pinpointing a number of key warning signs—he called them pre-incident indicators, or PINS—that were precursors to violence.
Belle de Jour
Belle de Jour’s Guide to Men (2009)
You might be wondering what, exactly, a prostitute might have to say about men and relationships… [ellipsis in original]
Let’s put it this way: I have met men. Loads of men. Men of every conceivable shape, size, and type. In my work as a call girl, I have seen them at their most cocksure and at their most vulnerable. And if this experience has taught me anything at all, it is that this odd and inscrutable species we call Man is often libelously misrepresented in the female press.
With the “teaser” comment at the end, we wonder where, exactly, de Jour is going—but we’re damn sure going to continue reading to find out.
“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.”
The Power of Premonitions (2009)
Sometimes things grab hold and just won’t let go.
Dossey continued in the first paragraph: “That’s what it’s been like with premonitions for me. I’ve been wrestling with them for a long time, unable to detach, rather like Jacob’s struggle with the angel in the Old Testament. The main difference is that Jacob’s brawl lasted only one night. My tussle with premonitions has persisted for more than three decades and shows no signs of ending.“
Reinventing Medicine: Beyond Mind-Body to a New Era of Healing (2009)
During my first year of medical practice, I had a dream that shook my world.
Go ahead, with the book in your hand, read this opening sentence—and try not to read on.
The Extraordinary Healing Power of Ordinary Things: Fourteen Natural Steps to Health and Happiness (2007)
There is an old saying: If you want to hide the treasure, put it in plain sight. Then no one will see it.
We’ve seen many times in these pages how effective it is to open a book—especially a non-fiction book—with a powerful quotation, biblical passage, or proverbial saying, and Dossey demonstrates that very nicely here. He continued in the second paragraph: “In the pages that follow, we will explore things that are in plain sight, but whose healing power and ability to add to life’s fulfillment have been overlooked or forgotten.”
Arthur Conan Doyle
The Sign of the Four (1890)
Sherlock Holmes took his bottle from the corner of his mantelpiece, and his hypodermic syringe from its neat Morocco case. With his long, white nervous fingers he adjusted the delicate needle and rolled back his left shirt cuff.
After this dramatic opening, Dr. John Watson—the beloved sidekick and chronicler of literary history’s greatest consulting detective—continued: “For some little time his eyes rested thoughtfully upon the sinewy forearm and wrist, all dotted and scarred with innumerable puncture marks. Finally, he thrust the sharp point home, pressed down the tiny piston, and sank back into the velvet-lined armchair with a long sigh of satisfaction.”
For more than a hundred and thirty years, new readers have been stunned to learn of Holmes’s addiction to cocaine (his famous “seven-percent solution”). Dr. Watson describes the scene masterfully above, and in the very next paragraph, reveals what can only be called—in modern terms—his own codependency: “Three times a day for many months I had witnessed this performance, but custom had not reconciled my mind to it. On the contrary, from day to day I had become more irritable at the sight, and my conscience swelled nightly within me at the thought that I lacked the courage to protest.”
Peter F. Drucker
Adventures of a Bystander (1978)
Bystanders have no history of their own. They are on the stage but are not part of the action. They are not even audience. The fortunes of the play and of every actor in it depend on the audience whereas the reaction of the bystander has no effect except on himself.
Drucker continued: “But standing in the wings—much like the fireman in the theater—the bystander sees things neither actor nor audience notices. Above all, he sees differently from the way actors or audience see.”
Peter F. Drucker
“Managing Oneself,“ in Harvard Business Review (January 2005)
History’s great achievers—a Napoleon, a da Vinci, a Mozart—have always managed themselves. That, in large measure, is what makes them great achievers.
Surviving the Toxic Workplace (2010)
Do you dread getting out of work each day and dealing with bosses and co-workers who drive you crazy? Are you surrounded by people who are incompetent, negative, verbally abusive, and impossible to deal with? Have you asked the human resources department for help, yet nothing changes?
Beginning a book with a series of pointed questions is a classic way to begin a self-help book—and that approach is enhanced when a little wordplay is added, as we see with the clever tweak of the medical term staph infections in the very next sentence: “These are all signs of Staff Infections—the difficulties you experience in dealing with toxic people and workplace conditions.
Wayne W. Dyer
Your Erroneous Zones (1976)
Look over your shoulder. You will notice a constant companion. For want of a better name, call him Your-Own-Death. You can fear this visitor or use him for your personal gain. The choice is up to you.
In the early 1970s, while a professor at St. John’s University (New York), Dyer’s lectures were so popular with students that a Manhattan literary agent convinced him to put his ideas together in a book. The result was the cleverly-titled and eminently readable self-help book Your Erroneous Zones.
After the book was published, initial sales were so sluggish that Dyer decided to take matters into his own hands. He quit his job, loaded the back of his station wagon with books, and embarked on a national promotional tour in which he tenaciously pursued radio stations for interviews and bookstores for book signings. His efforts paid off—handsomely. The book gradually became a word-of-mouth bestseller. It ultimately sold over 30 million copies, and built a foundation upon which Dyer forged one of the most successful writing careers in history, with well over forty books published before his death at age 75 in 2015.
“Who Are You?” in I Remember Nothing (2010)
I know you. I know you well. It’s true I always have a little trouble with your name, but I do know your name. I just don’t know it at this moment.
Ephron continued: “We’re at a big party. We’ve kissed hello. We’ve had a delightful conversation about how we are the last two people on the face of the earth who don’t kiss on both cheeks. Now we’re having a conversation about how phony all the people are who do kiss on both cheeks. Ha ha ha ha ha ha. You’re so charming. If only I could remember your name.”
Ambition: The Secret Passion (1980)
Ambition is one of those Rorschach words: define it and you instantly reveal a great deal about yourself.
Clarissa Pinkola Estés
Women Who Run with the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype (1992)
Wildlife and the Wild Woman are both endangered species.
This is the entire first paragraph of a book that is now regarded as a classic in feminist thought. The book, written by a Jungian psychoanalyst, drew heavily from folk tales, fairy tales, and worldwide mythology. It remained on The New York Times bestseller list for nearly three years—145 weeks in all (Estés was the first Latina to make the coveted list).
In the second paragraph, Estés continued: “Over time, we have seen the feminine instinctive nature looted, driven back, and overbuilt. For long periods it has been mismanaged like the wildlife and the wildlands. For several thousand years, as soon and as often as we turn our backs, it is relegated to the poorest land in the psyche. The spiritual lands of Wild Woman have, throughout history, been plundered or burnt, dens bulldozed, and natural cycles forced into unnatural rhythms to please others.”
Then There Was Larry: A Memoir (2021)
We all have secrets. In our lives, we’ve done or heard or thought things that we’ve chosen not to share with our friends, family, community, and colleagues.
Estorge’s memoir had me in the first four words. I immediately thought, “Who doesn’t?” And then I put down the book for a moment, reflected on a few of my secrets, and wondered how many other readers might do the same thing.
In her first paragraph, Estorge continued: “Some secrets are as endearing as a caterpillar tickling its way across your toes. Like telling your friend that her baby is adorable despite the newborn’s resemblance to E.T. Some secrets are as harmless as a personal pet peeve. Like when your coworker says, ‘I seen that movie,’ and you want to grip her by the shoulders and say, ‘It’s I have seen that movie.’ Some secrets, however, are as poisonous as the Cone Snail with their harpoon-like teeth and paralysis-causing venom—a creature you don’t want to brush up against accidentally.”
Agony is socially unacceptable. One is not supposed to weep. Particularly is one not supposed to weep when one is moderately presentable and thirty-two. When one’s wife has been dead six months and everyone else has done grieving.
The words come from Tony Beach, a young wine merchant whose wife died six months earlier. He continued: “Ah well, they say, he’ll get over it. There’s always another pretty lady. Time’s a great healer, they say. No doubt they’re right. But oh dear God…the emptiness in my house.”
The Diary of Anne Frank (1947; originally titled The Annex)
June 12, 1942
I hope I will be able to confide everything to you, as I have never been able to confide in anyone, and I hope you will be a great source of comfort and support.
This was the very first entry written by Anne Frank in a diary she’d been given on her 13th birthday. Bound with red-and-white checkered cloth, the book had a small lock on the front, giving the newly minted teenager a secure feeling that no one but her would be able to read the contents. An exceptional student in a local Montessori school, Anne was already dreaming of a literary career—and the diary’s opening words reveal a sophistication beyond her years.
In February of 1934, Frank was four-and-a-half-years-old and living temporarily with her grandmother when she joined her parents and older sister Margot in Amsterdam, Netherlands. A year earlier, after the Nazi Party won the federal elections and Hitler became Chancellor, thousands of Jewish families began fleeing their native Germany and settling in neighboring European countries. The Franks lived a comfortable (if slightly uneasy) life until May of 1940, when Germany formally occupied the Netherlands and began to identify and deport the country’s Jews.
In the summer of 1942, just after Margot received a letter ordering her to report to a work camp, the family began hiding in a secret room in a building where her father worked. The “secret annex,” as they sometimes called it, was hidden behind a bookcase, and it kept them and a number of other Amsterdam Jews safe until they were arrested by the Gestapo in 1944. Anne and Margot were first sent to Auschwitz, and then the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, where they died—most likely of typhus—several months later.
After the war, Anne’s father Otto—the only surviving member of the Frank family—returned to Amsterdam to discover that his secretary had saved Anne’s diary. To honor his daughter’s dream of becoming a writer, he published a Dutch version in 1947.
First published in English as Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl in 1952, the book failed to find an audience and was out of print the following year. In 1955, “The Diary of Anne Frank”, a play by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, debuted on Broadway. A critical success, the play won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1956 and greatly fueled interest in Anne’s story. In 1959, the play was adapted into the “The Diary of Anne Frank,” a film starring Millie Perkins (it was nominated for seven Oscars, winning three.) Now regarded as a cinematic classic, the film re-ignited interest in Anne’s diary, which went on to become one of the world’s most popular books, translated into more than 70 languages and selling more than 35 million copies.
Viktor E. Frankl
Man’s Search for Meaning (1946)
This book does not claim to be an account of facts and events but of personal experiences, experiences which millions of prisoners have suffered time and time again. It is the inside story of a concentration camp, told by one of its survivors.
These are the opening lines of one of the most influential books of the 20th century. In 1942, Frankl was a Viennese neurologist and psychiatrist when he, his wife, and his parents were transported to a Czechoslovakian concentration camp. Two years later, they were sent to Auschwitz (where his wife and parents perished).
In 1945, after Allied forces liberated many of the Nazi concentration camps, he put the finishing touches on a memoir he began while reflecting on his experiences as a prisoner. The original title of his book, first published in 1946, was Saying Yes to Life in Spite of Everything: A Psychologist Experiences the Concentration Camp. After the book was published in English in 1956 (under the title Man’s Search for Meaning), it became an international best-seller and Frankl was hailed as one of modern psychology’s most influential figures.
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.
What Would Kinky Do?: How to Unscrew a Screwed-Up World (2008)
Let us begin this ordeal with a fairly safe assumption: No human being who has ever lived in this world has ever taken good advice.
Friedman continued: “Millions upon millions of people, however, have gladly and gratefully taken bad advice, foolish advice, pop advice, and glib advice. Why is this? No doubt it’s partly because of the perversity of human nature. This notwithstanding, the other part, I believe, is because of the sanctimonious, constipated, pompous, smug, and self-righteous way that good advice is usually given.”
The Art of Loving (1956)
Is love an art?
Opening a book with a rhetorical question is a time-honored way to immediately engage the reader, and Fromm—one of the great popularizers of psychological concepts to a lay audience—does that very nicely here.
In the opening paragraph, he continued: “Then it requires knowledge and effort. Or is love a pleasant sensation, which to experience is a matter of chance, something one ‘falls into’ if one is lucky? This little book is based on the former premise, while undoubtedly the majority of people today believe in the latter.”
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.”
Worlds of Wonder: How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy (2018)
The very best writing instructor I ever had was an incompetent.
A terminal alcoholic who could barely find the classroom each day, he was a bleary-eyed, red-nosed, overstuffed, walking elbow-wrinkle of a human being. Whatever writing ability he’d ever had, he’d long since drowned it, and the corpse was a layer of dried sediment at the bottom of a bottle.
He didn’t like me either.
Stephen Jay Gould
“The Rule of Five,” in The Flamingo’s Smile: Reflections in Natural History (1985)
The human mind delights in finding pattern—so much so that we often mistake coincidence or forced analogy for profound meaning.
Stephen Jay Gould
“A Most Ingenious Paradox,” in The Flamingo’s Smile: Reflections in Natural History (1985)
Abstinence has its virtuous side, but enough is enough.
Ordinary People (1976)
To have a reason to get up in the morning, it is necessary to possess a guiding principle. A belief of some kind. A bumper sticker, if you will.
This is one of my all-time favorite opening lines—a grand philosophical declaration with a dash of wit.
After all these years, I’m still not sure how it directly relates to the rest of the novel, but, given the wisdom as well as the beauty of the saying, that’s a small criticism. I’ve written a query letter to Ms. Guest, and I’m hoping she’ll be able to shed some light on the connection. Stay tuned.
Reasons to Stay Alive (2015)
I can remember the day the old me died.
It started with a thought. Something was going wrong. That was the start. Before I realized what it was.
With these opening words of Chapter One, Haig begins his memoir—and the story of his longtime struggle with depression and anxiety disorder. They are not the first words the reader sees, however. In a note to the reader at the very beginning of the memoir (titled “This Book is Impossible”), Haig wrote:
“Thirteen years ago I knew this couldn’t happen.
“I was going to die, you see. Or go mad.
“There was no way I would still be here. Sometimes I doubted I would even make the next ten minutes. And the idea that I would be well enough and confident enough to write about it in this way would have been just far too much to believe.
“One of the key symptoms of depression is to see no hope. No future.”
The Drinking Life: A Memoir (1995)
This is a book about my time in the drinking life. It tells the story of the way one human being became aware of alcohol, embraced it, struggled with it, was hurt by it, and finally left it behind. The tale has no hero.
Among the many paradoxes of human life, this is perhaps the most peculiar and consequential: We often behave in ways that are guaranteed to make us unhappy.
In crafting the first sentence of a non-fiction work, it’s hard to beat an emphatic assertion that is single-mindedly designed to get the reader’s attention. When I read this opener for the first time, it stopped me in my tracks—and I felt compelled to set the book down for a moment to reflect on the significance of Harris’s grand declaration.
In the remainder of his opening paragraph, Harris elaborated on his thesis by identifying one culprit in particular: “Many of us spend our lives marching with open eyes toward remorse, guilt, and disappointment. And nowhere do our injuries seem more casually self-inflicted, or the suffering we create more disproportionate to the needs of the moment, than in the lies we tell to other human beings. Lying is the royal road to chaos.”
There is an internal landscape, a geography of the soul; we search for its outlines all our lives.
This is a magnificent first line—equally as good, in my opinion, as any of history’s classic aphoristic or epigrammatic openings. The words come from an introspective narrator who appears to be an older man reflecting on tragic mistakes he made not in his youth, but in his later, mature years. If you appreciate the quality of this first line, you will also likely appreciate the entire opening paragraph:
“There is an internal landscape, a geography of the soul; we search for its outlines all our lives. Those who are lucky enough to find it ease like water over a stone, onto its fluid contours, and are home. Some find it in the place of their birth; others may leave a seaside town, parched, and find themselves refreshed in the desert. There are those born in rolling countryside who are really only at ease in the intense and busy loneliness of the city. For some, the search is for the imprint of another; a child or a mother, a grandfather or a brother, a lover, a husband, a wife, or a foe. We may go through our lives happy or unhappy, successful or unfulfilled, loved or unloved, without ever standing cold with the shock of recognition, without ever feeling the agony as the twisted iron in our soul unlocks itself and we slip at last into place.”
Had he died at fifty, the narrator goes on to suggest, he would have been remembered as a doctor, an established politician, and a loving husband and father. But he concludes his opening reflections by saying, “But I did not die in my fiftieth year. There are few who know me now who do not regard that as a tragedy.” And with that remarkable conclusion, the reader is left wondering, “What exactly happened in this man’s sad life?”
Beach Read (2020)
I have a fatal flaw.
We all have fatal flaws, but what makes them so dangerously self-destructive is that they’re almost always ignored, minimized, explained away, dismissed, or just plain denied. To see someone so readily admit to a fatal flaw, even in a novel, is unusual and refreshing.
The frank admission comes from January Andrews, a 29-year-old author of romance novels. After a taste of commercial success a few years earlier, Andrews is now broke and almost homeless. She continued on the subject of fatal flaws: “I like to think we all do. Or at least that makes it easier for me when I’m writing—building my heroines and heroes up around this one self-sabotaging trait, hinging everything that happens to them on a specific characteristic: the thing they learned to do to protect themselves and can’t let go of, even when it stops serving them.”
The opening line of Henry’s novel resonated so much with me that I selected it as one of “Twenty of the Best Opening Lines of 2020” in a Smerconish.com post at the end of the year.
Think and Grow Rich (1937)
Truly, “thoughts are things,” and powerful things at that, when they are mixed with definiteness of purpose, persistence, and a burning desire for their translation into riches, or other material objects.
These are the opening words of the book’s Introduction, but in an earlier “Author’s Preface,” Hill already tantalized readers with these two paragraphs:
“In every chapter of this book, mention has been made of the money-making secret which has made fortunes for more than five hundred exceedingly wealthy men whom I have carefully analyzed over a long period of years.
“The secret was brought to my attention by Andrew Carnegie more than a quarter of a century ago. The canny, lovable old Scotsman carelessly tossed it into my mind when I was a young boy. Then he sat back in his chair, with a merry twinkle in his eyes, and watched carefully to see if I had brains enough to understand the full significance of what he had said to me.”
Lost Horizon (1933)
Cigars had burned low, and we were beginning to sample the disillusionment that usually afflicts old school friends who meet again as men and find themselves with less in common than they used to think.
This is a wonderful opening line, perfectly capturing the mixture of sadness and disappointment that has been experienced by countless middle-aged people over the years when they’ve had some kind of reunion with childhood or adolescent friends.
"The Platonist", in Essays: Moral, Political, & Literary (1741-42)
To some philosophers it appears [a] matter of surprise that all mankind, possessing the same nature and being endowed with the same faculties, should yet differ so widely in their pursuits and inclinations, and that one should utterly condemn what is fondly sought after by the other.
“Soap Opera,” in The Progressive (October 1967)
You could probably prove, by judicious use of logarithms and congruent triangles, that real life is a lot more like soap opera than most people will admit.
“Say So,” in Rosie magazine (2001, Vol. 128)
I like politicians, which is sort of like confessing that you are into interspecies dating. I consider this a harmless perversion on my part, and besides, I discuss it only with consenting adults.
“Mr. Right is Dead,“ title story of Mr. Right is Dead (1965)
Eventually people are willing to admit most of their flaws—greed, jealously, pride, hostility—but the feeling they’re most ashamed to admit is loneliness.
Carl G. Jung
Memories, Dreams, Reflections (1961)
My life is a story of the self-realization of the unconscious.
This opening sentence is from the book’s Prologue, and it captures in a nutshell Jung’s view of the powerful role the unconscious plays in human affairs. He continued:
“Everything in the unconscious seeks outward manifestation, and the personality too desires to evolve out of its unconscious conditions and to experience itself as a whole. I cannot employ the language of science to trace this process of growth in myself, for I cannot experience myself as a scientific problem.”
“An Answer to the Question: ’What is Enlightenment?“’ in Berlin Monthly (Dec. 1784)
Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity.
Kant continued: “Immaturity is the inability to use one’s own understanding without the guidance of another. This immaturity is self-incurred if its cause is not lack of understanding, but lack of resolution and courage to use it without the guidance of another. The motto of enlightenment is therefore: Sapere aude! Have courage to use your own understanding.”
Sapere aude! is a Latin proverb generally translated as “Dare to know!” or “Dare to be wise!” In modern usage, it has also come to mean something close to: “Dare to think for yourself!”
Girl, Interrupted (1993)
People ask, How did you get in there? What they really want to know is if they are likely to end up there as well. I can't answer the real question. All I can tell them is, It's easy.
In her best-selling memoir, Kaysen chronicled her eighteen-month experience as a patient at McLean Hospital, a psychiatric hospital in Massachusetts (the book was adapted into an award-winning 1999 film, starring Angelina Jolie in an Oscar-winning performance and Winona Ryder in the role the author).
Kaysen continued in the next paragraph: "And it is easy to slip into a parallel universe. There are so many of them: worlds of the insane, the criminal, the crippled, the dying, perhaps of the dead as well. These worlds exist alongside this world and resemble it, but are not in it."
A Most Dangerous Method (1993)
Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung met for the first time on 3 March 1907. They talked for thirteen hours straight.
Kerr continued: “The last time the two men were together in the same room was at the Fourth International Psychoanalytic Congress, held in Munich on 7-8 September 1913. On that occasion, so far as is known, they said not a single word to each other. So it was in silence that one of the most vexed partnership in the history of ideas ended.”
Martin Luther King, Jr.
Strength to Love (1963)
A French philosopher said, “No man is strong unless he bears within his character antitheses strongly marked.” The strong man holds in a living blend strongly marked opposites.
These are the opening words of the book’s first chapter, titled “A Tough Mind and a Tender Heart.” The French philosopher in question is Blaise Pascal (1623-1662), and the observation comes from his 1669 defense of Christian thought, Pensées (literally, “Thoughts”).
In the book, Dr. King continued: “Not ordinarily do men achieve this balance of opposites. The idealists are not usually realistic, and the realists are not usually idealistic. The militant are not generally known to be passive, nor the passive to be militant. Seldom are the humble self-assertive, or the self-assertive humble. But life at its best is a creative synthesis of opposites in fruitful harmony.”
Drinking: A Love Story (1996)
It happened this way: I fell in love and then, because the love was ruining everything I cared about, I had to fall out. This didn’t happen easily, or simply, but if I had to pinpoint it, I’d say the relationship started to fall apart the night I nearly killed my oldest friends two daughters.
This is a powerful introduction to a powerful and, if you will excuse the word, sobering memoir. Three months after the incident with her friend’s daughters, Knapp quit drinking—for good.
The two sentences above come from the Prologue to the book, and they are so captivating that I’m featuring them instead of the opening words of Chapter One, which begins simply: “I drank.“
In the second paragraph of Chapter One, Knapp continued: “I drank Fumé Blanc at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, and I drank double-shots of Johnnie Walker Black on the rocks at a dingy Chinese restaurant across the street from my office, and I drank at home. For a long time I drank expensive red wine, and I learned to appreciate the subtle differences between a silky Merlot and a tart Cabernet Sauvignon and a soft, earthy Beaucastel from the south of France, but I never really cared about those nuances because, honestly, they were beside the point.“
Education and Ecstasy (1968)
Teachers are overworked and underpaid. True. It is an exacting and exhausting business, this damming up the flood of human potentialities.
It is generally inadvisable to begin a book with a sarcasm-laced observation, but Leonard--a leader of the human potential movement and critic of the educational establishment—was clearly trying to get people’s attention. In the first paragraph, he continued: “What energy it takes to make a torrent into a trickle, to train that trickle along narrow, well-marked channels!“
The Ultimate Athlete (1974)
In every fat man, the saying goes, there is a thin man struggling to get out. If this is so, then every skinny man must at times find himself surrounded by the ghostly outlines of muscles and heft. And there must somehow exist an ideal physique for every one of us—man, woman, and child.
Leonard continued: “Every body that moves about on this planet, if you look at it that way, may well be inhabited by a strong and graceful athlete, capable of Olympian feats.“
The Dance of Anger (1985)
Anger is a signal, and one worth listening to.
This is a brilliant opening line, succinctly capturing in nine simple words the essence of an entire book. They also begin a full paragraph that is one of psychology history’s clearest and most lucid descriptions of a complex emotion:
“Anger is a signal, and one worth listening to. Our anger may be a message that we are being hurt, that our rights are being violated, that our needs or wants are not being adequately met, or simply that something is not right. Our anger may tell us that we are not addressing an important emotional issue in our lives, or that too much of our self—our beliefs, values, desires, or ambitions—is being compromised in a relationship. Our anger may be a signal that we are doing more and giving more than we can comfortably do or give. Or our anger may warn us that others are doing too much for us, at the expense of our own competence and growth. Just as physical pain tells us to take our hand off the hot stove, the pain of our anger preserves the very integrity of our self. Our anger can motivate us to say ‘no’ to the ways in which we are defined by others and ‘yes’ to the dictates of our inner self.”
Daniel J. Levitin
Successful Aging (2020)
The poet Dylan Thomas wrote that one should not go gently into that good night, that old age should burn and rage at close of day. As a younger man reading that poem, I saw futility in those words. I saw aging only as a failing: a failing of the body, of the mind, and even of the spirit.
Levitin, a neuroscientist who authored four previous New York Times bestsellers, turned his attention to aging in this latest book, also a bestseller. He continued: “I saw my grandfather suffer aches and pains. Once agile and proudly self-sufficient, by his sixties he struggled to swing a hammer and was unable to read the label on a box of Triscuit crackers without his glasses. I listened as my grandmother forgot words, and I cried when eventually she forgot what year it was.”
The Magic Power of Self-Image Psychology (1964)
Imagine that you are seated in a theatre, looking at the curtain which hides behind the blank screen, as you wait for the feature picture to begin.
What will this picture do for you? How will it affect you? What impact will it have on your life?
Will you feel moved—perhaps even to tears? Will you laugh at a comedy, or feel terrified at the crises faced by the hero or heroine? Will you feel wonderful waves of love and compassion—or surges of resentment?
Maltz continued: “All these feelings will pulse through you—and more. For the picture you will see is about the most fascinating person in the world—yourself. In this theatre, which is in the mind and heart of each of us, you are the producer, director, writer, actor or actress, hero and the villain. You are the film technician up in the booth—and the audience which reacts to this thrilling drama.”
Adventures in Staying Young (1955)
In attempting to help someone else, it often turns out that actually you are helping yourself.
The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life (2016)
Charles Bukowski was an alcoholic, a womanizer, a chronic gambler, a lout, a cheapskate, a deadbeat, and on his worst days, a poet. He’s probably the last person on earth you would ever look to for life advice or expect to see in any sort of self-help book.
Which is why he’s the perfect place to start.
A. H. Maslow
Toward a Psychology of Being (1962)
There is now emerging over the horizon a new conception of human sickness and of human health, a psychology that I find so thrilling and so full of wonderful possibilities that I yield to the temptation to present it publicly even before it is checked and confirmed, and before it can be called reliable scientific knowledge.
These are the hopeful opening words of a book that helped launch the humanistic psychology movement in America. The introductory chapter was based on a 1954 lecture Maslow originally delivered at the Cooper Union in New York City.
Man’s Search for Himself (1953)
One of the few blessings of living in an age of anxiety is that we are forced to become aware of ourselves.
These are the opening words of the Preface to the book. May continued: “When our society, in its time of upheaval in standards and values, can give us no clear picture of ‘what we are and what we ought to be,’ as Matthew Arnold puts it, we are thrown back on the search for ourselves. The painful insecurity on all sides gives us new incentive to ask, Is there perhaps some important source of guidance and strength we have overlooked?”
Love and Will (1989)
The striking thing about love and will in our day is that, whereas in the past they were always held up to us as the answer to life’s predicaments, they have now themselves become the problem.
Brightness Falls (1992)
The last time I saw Russell and Corrine together was the weekend of the final softball game between the addicts and the depressives.
This is a magnificent opening sentence, perfectly capturing how folks in the 1990s recovery world viewed their lives—with addicts and depressives playing baseball as natural and matter-of-fact as the Red Sox and Yankees. The opening words begin a kind of prologue to the novel, although it is not formally titled as such, and the unnamed narrator continued with an impressive display of writing talent:
“The quality of play was erratic, the recovering addicts being depressed from lack of their chosen medications and the depressives heavily dosed with exotic chemical bullets aimed at their elusive despair. Being myself among the clinically numb, I don’t remember the outcome of the game now, though I submit that taken together we were as representative a group as you could hope to field at that juncture in history. It was the fall of 1987.”
Dead Man in the Silver Market: An Autobiographical Essay on National Prides (1954)
Men of all races have always sought for a convincing explanation of their own astonishing excellence and they have frequently found what they were looking for.
Menen has been largely forgotten by modern readers, but he was popular enough to be remembered in a warm New York Times obituary after his death in 1989. A prolific writer of two-dozen novels, travel books, and non-fiction works, Menen was born in London in 1912 to an Irish mother and Indian father. He was also known as a gifted satirist, as he proves in this magnificent opening line. Menen’s book is often described as an autobiography, but it is in reality a series of essays, many of a semi-autobiographical nature.
No Man is an Island (1955)
A happiness that is sought for ourselves alone can never be found; for a happiness that is diminished by being shared is not big enough to make us happy.
These are the opening words of Chapter I, which is memorably titled “Love Can Be Kept Only By Being Given Away.“ This single observation went on to become one of Merton’s most popular quotations.
In the second paragraph, Merton continued: “There is a false and momentary happiness in self-satisfaction, but it always leads to sorrow because it narrows and deadens our spirit. True happiness is found in unselfish love, a love which increases in proportion as it is shared,”
Of Merton’s many spiritual and philosophical works, No Man is an Island is my favorite, and one I have returned to again and again over the years (technically, it is a collection of essays rather than a single non-fiction work). The title, of course, comes from a famous line in John Donne’s classic prose work, Devotions upon Emergent Occasions (1624)
The Maidens: A Novel (2021)
Edward Fosca was a murderer.
This was a fact. This wasn’t something Mariana knew just on an intellectual level, as an idea. Her body new it. She felt it in her bones, along her blood, and deep within every cell.
Edward Fosca was guilty.
The protagonist is Mariana Andros, an English psychotherapist—and also a recent widow—who shows up at Cambridge University to comfort her niece Zoe, a student who is grieving the recent murder of a classmate. The murdered girl belonged to a secret society of beautiful young female students known as The Maidens, all acolytes of a charismatic professor of Greek tragedy named Edward Fosca.
Mariana soon begins to suspect the smug professor, who has an alibi, and she becomes convinced of his guilt when another body is found. The narrator continued about her: “And yet—she couldn’t prove it, and might never prove it. This man, this monster, who had killed at least two people, might, in all likelihood, walk free.”
Black Swan Green (2006)
Do not set foot in my office. That’s Dad’s rule. But the phone’d rung twenty-five times. Normal people give up after ten or eleven, unless it’s a matter of life or death. Don’t they?
The opening words come from 13-year-old Jason Taylor, described in a Boston Globe review as “one of the most endearing, smart, and funny young narrators ever to rise up from the pages of a novel.” The novel was widely praised—winning several Best of the Year awards—and almost everyone likened the narrator and protagonist to Catcher in the Rye’s Holden Caulfield. In the first paragraph, Jason continued:
“Dad’s got an answering machine like James Garner’s in The Rockford Files with big reels of tape. But he’s stopped leaving it on recently. Thirty rings, the phone got to. Julia couldn’t hear it up in her converted attic ’cause “Don’t You Want Me?” by Human League was thumping out dead loud. Forty rings. Mum couldn’t hear ’cause the washing machine was on berserk cycle and she was hoovering the living room. Fifty rings. That’s just not normal. S’pose Dad’d been mangled by a juggernaut on the M5 and the police only had this office number ’cause all his other I.D.’d got incinerated? We could lose our final chance to see our charred father in the terminal ward.”
The entire opening paragraph is wonderful, but the first words of the second paragraph match it in quality: “So I went in, thinking of a bride going into Bluebeard’s chamber after being told not to.”
In this heavily autobiographical novel, Jason is a stammerer (in America, we generally say stutterer instead), a speech disorder the author also struggled with in his early years. In a 2011 article in Prospect magazine, Mitchell bemoaned the fact that stammering is rarely discussed openly and constructively (he tweaked a famous Oscar Wilde observation by saying, “Stammering is the disability which cannot say its name”). In his article, he continued: “This silence is even common in the homes of stammerers…my open and kind parents and I discussed my speech impediment exactly never, and this ‘don’t mention the stammer’ policy was continued by friends and colleagues into my thirties. I’d probably still be avoiding the subject today had I not outed myself by writing a semi-autobiographical novel, Black Swan Green, narrated by a stammering 13-year-old.”
The Naked Ape: A Zoologist’s Study of the Human Animal (1967)
There are one hundred and ninety-three living species of monkeys and apes. One hundred and ninety-two of them are covered with hair. The exception is a naked ape self-named Homo sapiens.
Morris, a zoologist and former curator of mammals at the London Zoo, said his purpose in writing the book was to examine human beings in the same way that members of his profession had previously studied animals. In his opening words, he continued: “This unusual and highly successful species spends a great deal of time examining his higher motives and an equal amount of time studiously ignoring his fundamental ones.”
Shortly after publication, the book became an international bestseller, translated into more than two dozen languages. Part of the book’s popularity came from Morris’s clear and often captivating prose—as seen in his opening words. But it is also clear that many readers were attracted by the book’s titillating details, including Morris’s assertion that, compared to other mammals, male human beings had the highest ratio of penis size to body mass (it was for this and a few other reasons that Morris described human beings as “the sexiest primate alive”).
The Scar (2011)
Mom died this morning.
It wasn’t really this morning.
Dad said she died during the night, but I was sleeping during the night.
For me, she died this morning.
These are among the most powerful words to ever open a children’s book. In a Booklist review, writer and editor Daniel Kraus wrote: “This is not a book for everyone, but it could be an important one for those in need. From the opening line—“Mom died this morning”—it’s clear that this is going to be a hard book to get through, and it is, with the unnamed little boy struggling with wild fluctuations of emotion: anger at being left behind; sympathy for his grieving dad; and panic about forgetting his mother, which he tries to counteract by closing all the windows, holding his breath, and running around until his heart pounds, since he was told that she’ll always be ‘in your heart.’”
Clark E. Moustakas
I have experienced loneliness many times in my life but until recently I lived my loneliness without being aware of it.
Moustakas continued: “In the past I tried to overcome my sense of isolation by plunging into work projects and entering into social activities. By keeping busy and by committing myself to interesting and challenging work, I never had to face, in any direct or open way, the nature of my own existence as an isolated and solitary individual.”
Clark E. Moustakas
Loneliness and Love (1972)
Every once in a while I awaken to the reality that I’m all I got.
Moustakas continued: “This awareness is usually thrust upon me when the spirit of my life is broken, when the person who I am is clearly not being received, when I am being judged, examined, questioned.”
Wiving: A Memoir of Loving Then Leaving the Patriarchy (2020)
I am fifty years old and have just moved to a seaside town in Portugal. I’m reading in a quiet bar when a man asks why a beautiful woman like me is alone.
What he means is, What is happening between your legs?
What he means is, You are breaking the rules of the story, but I can set you straight.
What he means is, I can fill that terrible gap between your legs.
This was one of my choices for The 20 Best Opening Lines of 2021. I had expected Myers’s memoir to be a relatively straightforward tale of self-discovery, but her opening words quickly set me straight. In addition to being a moving tale about her personal journey from young, devout Mormon girl to strong, independent woman, it is also a stirring polemic about life for women in a male-dominated world.
Myer continued: “In the story, a woman who is—according to an occult and capricious geometry of features and culture and a man’s particular taste—’beautiful’ must be attached to a man. To be unattached at my age is a violation of the story. This man wants an explanation. If my answer isn’t plausible, if there is no man waiting around the corner or recently dead or banging a college student, I should be grateful he is offering me a happy ending.
“His desire lands on my shoulders like a bird of prey.
“What he means is, I need you to fill the gap in me.“
Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood (2016)
The genius of apartheid was convincing people who were the overwhelming majority to turn on each other. Apart hate, is what it was. You separate people into groups and make them hate one another so you can run them all.
These are the very first words of the book, coming from what is essentially an untitled Preface. When Noah, the popular host of The Daily Show, was born in Johannesburg, South Africa in 1984, his father had Swiss-German heritage and his mother was of Xhosa descent (a people native to the region). At the time, South Africa was governed by a strict policy of apartheid, which made interracial marriage—and, in fact, all intimate interracial relationships—illegal. A year after Noah’s birth, interracial relationships were decriminalized, but the very notion that he was born a crime went on to become a defining feature of his life, and it was no surprise when he chose the phrase as the title of his memoir.
In the opening paragraph above, Noah succinctly summarized the political strategy behind apartheid rule. In the second, he continued: “At the time, black South Africans outnumbered white south Africans nearly five to one, yet we were divided into different tribes with different languages…. Long before apartheid existed these tribal factions clashed and warred with one another. Then white rule used that animosity to divide and conquer. All nonwhites were systematically classified into various groups and subgroups. Then these groups were given differing levels of rights and privileges in order to keep them at odds.”
In the formal first Chapter of his memoir, titled “Run,” Noah began with what are usually described as the opening words of the book: “Sometimes in big Hollywood movies they’ll have these crazy chase scenes where somebody jumps or gets thrown from a moving car. The person hits the ground and rolls for a bit. Then they come to a stop and pop up and dust themselves off, like it was no big deal. Whenever I see that I think, That’s rubbish. Getting thrown out of a moving car hurts way worse than that.”
And then, in the next paragraph, he added: “I was nine years old when my mother threw me out of a moving car.” This unusual and, quite frankly, intriguing revelation pretty much ensured that readers would want to find out more about the incident—and why he would choose to begin his memoir with it
How We Die: Reflections on Life’s Final Chapter (1993)
Every life is different from any that has gone before it, and so is every death. The uniqueness of each of us extends even to the way we die.
Janusian Days: Memoirs of an Almost-Old Psychiatrist (2019)
My passion for medicine dawns in the realm of childhood idealism and spiritual innocence. I am ten years old and picture myself as a medical missionary like Albert Schweitzer or Tom Dooley.
Olsson continued: “Mom reads me books about these famous missionary doctors. I pledge to selflessly help African natives with cures of bodies, minds, and souls. I go with Mom to weekly Bible study and missionary prayer meetings at our Baptist church. I pray for missionaries in Africa, China, and India. I help box up clothes, canned goods, bandages, and medicines for shipment to them. My church community embraces such efforts to help others. Mom smiles. I feel love and importance.“
Michael A. Paesler and Patrick J. Moyer
Near-Field Optics (1996)
“Siehst du?” in German, “Do you get the picture?” in English, and “Tu vois?” in French are more often than not metaphors that ask about understanding rather than vision.
If you’re looking for great opening lines in works of non-fiction, one of the last places you might consider is a graduate-level physics textbook. But, every now and then, as we saw in the David L. Goodstein entry earlier on this page, you will be very pleasantly surprised.
In Near-Field Optics, the authors continued: “Across a broad range of human cultures, the visual sense has risen to such a position of prominence that to envision often means to understand.”
The Last Lecture (2008; with Jeffrey Zaslow)
I have an engineering problem.
While for the most part I’m in terrific physical shape, I have ten tumors in my liver and I have only a few months to live.
I am a father of three young children, and married to the woman of my dreams. While I could easily feel sorry for myself, that wouldn’t do them, or me, any good.
So, how to spend my very limited time.
Few people would describe imminent death from cancer as an “engineering problem,” but Randy Pausch was hardly a typical person. The Last Lecture was an expanded version of a literal “last lecture” that Pausch delivered to students at Carnegie Mellon University on Sep. 18, 2007 (the lecture’s formal title was “Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams”).
Earlier in the year, Pausch had been invited to deliver a hypothetical “final talk,” a lecture in which professors were asked to imagine what they would say to students if they could deliver only one more lecture. In 2006, Pausch had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and he and his doctors were aggressively fighting it. A month before the lecture, though, he learned that he had only several more months to live.
On the night of the lecture, over 400 students and faculty members—fully aware of Pausch’s medical situation—gave him a prolonged standing ovation before the lecture. When Pausch finally said, “Make me earn it,” and motioned for the audience to sit down, a voice from the crowd shouted out, “You did!” His inspirational lecture that evening became an immediate YouTube sensation, and Hyperion Books soon offered him a 6.7 million dollar book advance. Pausch was 47-years-old when be died on July 25, 2008, but he lived long enough to see his book make The New York Times bestseller list. It remained on the list for 85 consecutive weeks, ultimately selling over five million copies.
The Last Lecture (2008; with Jeffrey Zaslow)
I have an engineering problem.
While for the most part I’m in terrific physical shape, I have ten tumors in my liver and I have only a few months to live.
I am a father of three young children, and married to the woman of my dreams. While I could easily feel sorry for myself, that wouldn’t do them, or me, any good.
So, how to spend my very limited time.
Few people would describe imminent death from cancer as an “engineering problem,” but Randy Pausch was hardly a typical person. As a book, The Last Lecture was an expanded version of a literal “last lecture” that Pausch delivered to students at Carnegie Mellon University on Sep. 18, 2007 (the lecture’s formal title was “Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams”).
Earlier in the year, Pausch had been invited to deliver a hypothetical “final talk,” a lecture in which professors were asked to imagine what they would say to students if they could deliver only one more lecture. In 2006, Pausch had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and he and his doctors were aggressively fighting it. A month before the lecture, though, he learned that he had only a few more months to live.
On the night of the lecture, over 400 students and faculty members—fully aware of the situation—gave Pausch a prolonged standing ovation before the lecture. When he finally said, “Make me earn it,” and motioned for the audience to sit down, a voice from the crowd shouted out, “You did!” His inspirational lecture that evening became a immediate YouTube sensation, and Hyperion Books soon offered him a 6.7 million dollar book advance. Pausch was 47-years-old when be died on July 25, 2008, but he lived long enough to see his book make The New York Times bestseller list. It remained on the list for 85 consecutive weeks, ultimately selling over five million copies.
The Road Less Travelled (1978)
Life is difficult.
This is the entire first paragraph. Peck continued in the second: “This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths. It is a great truth because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it. Once we truly know that life is difficult—once we truly understand and accept it—then life is no longer difficult. Because once it is accepted, the fact that life is difficult no longer matters.”
People of the Lie (1983)
This is a dangerous book.
A dangerous book? Peck had me in the opening line!
Come into my cell. Make yourself at home. Take the chair; I’ll sit on the cot. No? You prefer to stand by the window? I understand. You like my little view. Have you noticed that the narrower the view the more you can see. For the first time I understand how old ladies can sit on their porches for years.
The narrator is a New Orleans lawyer named Lancelot Andrews Lamar. As the novel unfolds, we learn he has murdered his wife after discovering another man has fathered his youngest daughter.
Here, at the beginning, Lamar continued: “Don’t I know you? You look very familiar. I’ve been feeling rather depressed and I don’t remember things very well. I think I am here because of that or because I committed a crime. Perhaps both. Is this a prison or a hospital or a prison hospital? A Center for Aberrant Behavior? So that’s it. I have behaved aberrantly. In short, I’m in the nuthouse.”
Your Best Destiny: Becoming the Person You Were Created to Be (2015; with James Lund)
It is no accident that you picked up this book. You’re searching for something,
The best openers establish an immediate connection with readers, as Phipps does here in the book’s first paragraph. In the second, he continued: “Perhaps you sense that your life is off-kilter. Maybe you’ve just noticed it, or maybe you’ve lived with a feeling of frustration for years. Perhaps you’ve just closed a chapter in your life and aren’t sure where to turn next. Whatever led you to this point, though, you now realize you’re not moving. You’re not growing. You’re unsatisfied and seeking more—but more what?
House Rules (2010)
Everywhere I look, there are signs of a struggle. The mail has been scattered all over the kitchen floor; the stools are overturned. The phone has been knocked off its pedestal, its battery pack hanging loose from an umbilicus of wires. There’s one single faint footprint at the threshold of the living room, pointing toward the dead body of my son, Jacob.
The first paragraph is a classic hook. As soon as readers take the bait, the next two paragraphs begin to reel them in:
“He is sprawled like a starfish in front of the fireplace. Blood covers his temple and his hands. For a moment, I can’t move, can’t breathe.
Suddenly, he sits up. “Mom,” Jacob says, “you’re not even trying.”
The Bell Jar (1963)
It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.
The opening words come from Esther Greenwood—a thinly disguised version of the author—a Massachusetts college student who descends into mental illness while serving as a summer intern at a prominent magazine in New York City.
In a 2012 Guardian article, writer and critic Robert McCrum called this one of “The 10 Best First Lines in Fiction,” writing: “Postwar American first lines don’t come much more angsty or zeitgeisty than this.”
Commonly described as a roman à clef, The Bell Jar was American poet Sylvia Plath’s only novel, and it was originally published in England under the pseudonym Victoria Lewis. Plath died by suicide a month after the book was published, and her own name would not appear on any editions of the book until 1967.
Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985)
We were keeping our eye on 1984. When the year came and the prophecy didn’t, thoughtful Americans sang softly in praise of themselves. The roots of liberal democracy had held. Wherever else the terror had happened, we, at least, had not been visited by Orwellian nightmares.
Postman’s book, written before Facebook, Twitter, and the rise of Social Media, can only be considered prescient, as we see in his second paragraph: “But we had forgotten that alongside Orwell’s dark vision, there was another—slightly older, slightly less well known, equally chilling: Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Contrary to common belief even among the educated, Huxley did not prophesy the same thing. Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.”
The Disappearance of Childhood (1982)
Children are the living messages we send to a time we will not see.
This is not simply a Great Opening Line, it is one of the best things ever said on the topic of children (one day, I’m hoping to do a book titled The Single Best Thing Ever Said on Just About Any Topic You Can Think Of, and this is my Number One choice for observations about children).
The Echo Maker (2006)
Cranes keep landing as night falls. Ribbons of them roll down, slack against the sky. They float in from all compass points, in kettles of a dozen, dropping with the dusk.
It’s always nice to see a novel begin with a beautiful description, but this one also contains the interesting tidbit that a flock of cranes may also be correctly called a kettle (technically, a kettle is a gathering of any group of soaring birds—including cranes and vultures—that utilize circular updrafts of warm air to gain elevation).
In the opening paragraph, the narrator continued: “Scores of Grus canadensis settle on the thawing river. They gather on the island flats, grazing, beating their wings, trumpeting: the advance wave of a mass evacuation. More birds land by the minute, the air red with calls.”
It’s Not About You: A Brief Guide to a Meaningful Life (2019)
Life is not about you. It’s about what you do for others.
The faster you are able to get over yourself, the more you can do for the people who matter most.
In these opening words, we immediately sense an author who’s not going to beat around the bush. Like a demanding coach who has our best interests at heart or a tough-as-nails uncle with a caring heart, he’s going to give it to us straight.
Rath continued in the same vein in the book’s third paragraph: “Yet external forces keep pulling you toward self-centered pursuits. From books pushing ‘happiness’ to advertisements convincing you that consumption leads to adoration, these messages tempt you to focus inward. That is all a trap (and a load of crap).”
The Cracker Factory (1977)
I woke up, rolled over carefully to prevent the pin cushion in my head from doing major damage, opened the eye with the astigmatism and focused on the window with its mesh screen and bars.
“Oh no,” I groaned, “I’ve fallen down the rabbit hole again.” I curled up in a ball, or more appropriately, since I was in a psychiatric ward, the fetal position.
Still Me (1998)
A few months after the accident I had an idea for a short film about a quadriplegic who lives in a dream. During the day, lying in his hospital bed, he can’t move, of course. But at night he dreams that he’s whole again, and is able to do anything and go everywhere.
In Pursuit of Laughter (1936) (1936)
No man pursues what he has at hand. No man recognizes the need of pursuit until that which he desires has escaped him.
Books that begin with a grand, sweeping generalization carry an aura of authority, and this one is no exception. In her beautifully-phrased opening observation, Repplier immediately comes across as someone who knows what she’s talking about—and there is a clear suggestion she is about to edify us on the subject. In this case, the opening words also provide a strong clue as to the thesis of the book: humans pursue laughter the most when there is little true humor in their lives.
Repplier continued in the first paragraph: “Those who listen to the Middle Ages instead of writing about them at monstrous length and with undue horror and commiseration, can hear the echo of laughter ringing from every side, from every hole and corner where human life existed. Through the welter of wars and famine and pestilence, through every conceivable disaster, through an atmosphere darkened with ignorance and cruelty and needless pain there emerges, clear and unmistakable, that will to live that man shares with the beast, and which means that, consciously or unconsciously, he finds life worth the living.”
On Violence and On Violence Against Women (2021)
It is a truism to say that everyone knows violence when they see it, but if one thing has become clear over the past decade it is that the most prevalent, insidious forms of violence are those that cannot be seen.
Take Back Your Life! Regaining Your Footing After Life Throws You a Curve (2003)
It was Saturday, June 13, 1998, a glorious day for many reasons. My husband Mark and I were celebrating our third wedding anniversary, and the weather was beautiful—warm and windless.
We decided to go for a bicycle ride on a trail in Granville, Ohio, and arrived about 5:00 p.m. We were happily riding for about ten minutes when Mark heard a loud noise that sounded like a gunshot. He slowed down to investigate, then called ahead to me, “Look over there, something’s falling!” I glanced to my right and saw a few leaves floating to the ground. Then Mark yelled, “Stop!”
Rossetti, who went on to become an acclaimed inspirational speaker and Universal Design advocate, continued: “It was too late. An 80-foot tree was falling on our path. In an instant, I was crushed by a 3 1/2 ton tree and surrounded by live electric power lines.” In three simple, cleanly written paragraphs, Rossetti perfectly captures the circumstances of a freak accident that forever changed her life. Who wouldn’t want to read further?
The Conquest of Happiness (1930)
Animals are happy so long as they have health and enough to eat. Human beings, one feels, ought to be, but in the modern world they are not, at least in a great majority of cases.
“Havelock Ellis: Life as an Art,“ in The Dial (November 1923)
Moralists, in the main, have been a somewhat forbidding race. Their main preoccupation has usually been to try to prevent people from doing that they wanted to do, on the ground—formerly explicit, but now seldom avowed—that the natural man is wicked.
Russell continued: “Psychoanalyzed, such moralists would be found to be moved principally by envy: being themselves too old or too sour or too stiff for the pleasures of life, they feel a discomfort, when they see others enjoying themselves, which appears in consciousness as moral reprobation.“
“Our Sexual Ethics“ (1936); reprinted in Why I Am Not a Christian (1957)
Sex, more than any other element in human life, is still viewed by many, perhaps by most, in an irrational way.
A simple assertion, crafted skillfully by a talented writer, can be a most effective way to begin an essay, as Russell demonstrates here. When I first read these opening words as a young man in the 1960s, my first reaction was, “How little things have changed.” And now, almost ninety years after Russell first penned the words, my reaction is exactly the same.
In his essay, Russell continued: “Homicide, pestilence, insanity, gold and precious stones—all the things, in fact, that are the objects of passionate hopes or fears—have been seen, in the past, through a mist of magic or mythology; but the sun of reason has now dispelled the mist, except here and there. The densest cloud that remains is in the territory of sex, as is perhaps natural since sex is concerned in the most passionate part of people’s lives.“
Becoming Wild: How Animal Cultures Raise Families, Create Beauty, and Achieve Peace (2020)
A flock of scarlet macaws bursts from the deep rainforest like flaming comets, several dozen big, bright birds with streaming tails and hot colors. With much self-generated fanfare, they settle into high trees above a steep riverbank. They’re noisy and playful. If this is the serious business of their lives, they seem to be enjoying themselves and each other.
These words open the book’s Prologue, and the ingredients of a great opening paragraph—especially in a work of non-fiction—are all here: it is very well written, has just the right amount of style or pizzazz, provides an overall sense of direction, and has a tone that we might call inviting or welcoming.
Robert M. Sapolsky
A Primate’s Memoir: A Neuroscientist’s Unconventional Life Among the Baboons (2001)
I joined the baboon troop during my twenty-first year. I had never planned to become a savanna baboon when I grew up; instead I had always assumed I would become a mountain gorilla.
In Book Lust to Go (2010), American librarian Nancy Pearl wrote: “From its inviting (and very funny) first paragraph to its last heart-breaking chapter, A Primate’s Memoir by neuroscientist (and winner of a McArthur ‘genius grant’) Robert Sapolsky could hardly be better reading.”
For more than two decades, Sapolsky was associated with a national park in Kenya, where he continued the tradition of Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey by attempting to fit into a troop of Savannah baboons. It was something he dreamed of doing since childhood, as he went on to explain in his opening words: “As a child in New York, I endlessly begged and cajoled my mother into taking me to the Museum of Natural History, where I would spend hours looking at the African dioramas, wishing to live in one.”
“It’s Your Friends Who Break Your Heart,” in The Atlantic (Feb. 9, 2022)
It is an insolent cliché, almost, to note that our culture lacks the proper script for ending friendships. We have no rituals to observe, no paperwork to do, no boilerplate dialogue to crib from.
This is a stellar opening paragraph in two different ways. First, it insightfully advances the argument that, over the centuries, no reliable coping mechanisms have ever been developed for an age-old problem—the ending of friendships. And, second, it provides lovers of language with such delicious metaphorical flourishes as an insolent cliché, a proper script for ending friendships, and boilerplate dialogue to crib from.
In the second paragraph, Senior argued that something important might be learned from the ending of one particular friendship—all painstakingly documented in The Wellness Letters, an unpublished (so far, at least) manuscript that cheerfully began as a celebration of a friendship and, eighteen months later, documented its painful dissolution. In the article’s second paragraph, Senior wrote:
“Yet when Elisa Albert and Rebecca Wolff were in the final throes of their friendship, they managed, entirely by accident, to leave behind just such a script. The problem was that it read like an Edward Albee play—tart, unsparing, fluorescent with rage.”
The Other Side of Me: A Memoir 2005
At the age of seventeen, working as a delivery boy at Afremov’s drugstore in Chicago was the perfect job, because it made it possible for me to steal enough sleeping pills to commit suicide.
Sheldon spent a career attempting to craft great opening lines for his eighteen novels—which collectively sold more than 300 million copies—and it seems only appropriate that he began his autobiography with one of his best (the memoir’s title, by the way, plays off the title of his 1973 novel The Other Side of Midnight).
Born in Chicago in 1917, Sheldon entered adolescence in the early years of the Great Depression. In 1934, at age 17, the grinding poverty was wearing on him, and his dreams of going to college seemed increasingly unlikely. To make matters worse, he was an aspiring writer who had submitted dozens of short stories to magazines like Collier’s and The Saturday Evening Post, only to have all of them rejected. He finally decided to bring an end to “this suffocating misery.”
In the opening paragraph, Sheldon continued: “I was not certain exactly how many pills I would need, so I arbitrarily decided on twenty, and I was careful to pocket only a few at a time so as not to arouse the suspicion of our pharmacist. I had read that whiskey and sleeping pills were a deadly combination, and I intended to mix them, to make sure I would die.”
At home alone on the day he’d chosen to die, he gulped down a first swig of whiskey and was about to toss the sleeping pills into his mouth when his father unexpectedly opened the door to their apartment. What happened then was as interesting as anything found in a Sheldon novel, but you’ll have to read it for yourself. Trust me, it will be worth it.
I Put a Spell on You: The Autobiography of Nina Simone (1991; with Stephen Cleary)
When I used to get blue years ago James Baldwin would say the same thing to me each time, “This is the world you have made for yourself Nina, now you have to live in it.“ Jimmy was always a man to see things as they really are and his gaze would never flinch no matter how unpleasant the things he saw were.
This is the opening paragraph of the Prologue to the book. Simone continued in the next paragraph: “When you sit down to think about your life, as I have had to for this book, you have to look back over some things you’ve kept out of the daylight of your mind for years, and they can catch you. It might be a photograph of an old boyfriend found at the back of a drawer: you look at it and then feel a bundle of different reactions tumbling inside you, and you say to yourself, “My God, I never knew he affected me so deeply!“
I always enjoy a memoir in which the author describes an important life lesson they’ve learned, identify the person who imparted that lesson, and then provide another delicious detail or two. Rarely though, does this happen in the book’s opening words—and rarely does the writer mention a person who was also highly influential in my own personal development. Simone does both here, and I think you will agree she does it very, very nicely.
Michael A. Singer
The Untethered Soul: The Journey Beyond Yourself (2007)
In case you haven’t noticed, you have a mental dialogue going on inside your head that never stops. It just keeps going and going.
Singer continued: “Have you ever wondered why it talks in there? How does it decide what to say and when to say it? How much of what it says turned out to be true? How much of what it says is even important? And if right now you are hearing, ‘I don’t know what you are talking about. I don’t have any voice inside my head!’—that’s the voice we’re talking about.”
Scott A. Small
Forgetting: The Benefits of Not Remembering (2021)
As a memory specialist, all I hear about is forgetting.
The Common Sense of Baby and Child Care (1946)
You know more than you think you do.
These are among the most famous opening words in the history of non-fiction books (from a first chapter titled “Trust Yourself”). At the time, Spock was a 43-year-old practicing pediatrician who was vigorously opposed to a then-popular “scientific parenthood” movement that urged new parents to put their faith in “experts.” Spock’s goal was to reassure young mothers that they were already up for the challenge of parenting, and his first words couldn’t have been more perfectly phrased.
The book was an immediate—and spectacular—success, selling 500,000 copies in the first six months after publication. It went on to become one of the most influential books of the twentieth century, revolutionizing child-rearing methods for a generation of women born after WWI and now looking at a whole new post-WWII world. The book was ultimately revised ten times and has sold more than 50 million copies in forty different languages.
Inside Comedy: The Soul, Wit, and Bite of Comedy and Comedians of the Last Five Decades (2021)
Insecurity combined with arrogance is good DNA for a comedian. So is anger, aggression, and sadness.
This is the first sentence of Chapter One, nicely titled: “Disguised as a Normal Person.” Steinberg continued, “If you’ve had a great life and a wonderful bar mitzvah and you’ve been given a lot of money, you’d make a lousy comedian. You’re better off being the comedian’s lawyer.”
Steinberg opens his book with an assertion that is widely believed in the world of show business—comedians may make people laugh, but it is not laughter that produces comedians, but rather a constellation of qualities on the other end of the spectrum from laughter.
You’re Too Kind: A Brief History of Flattery (2002)
Perfect, gentle reader: I will not begin this book with a tribute to your discernment, because a person of your obvious accomplishments would certainly be immune to such blandishments. You would surely see through such transparent puffery and reject it out of hand. Someone with as much self-assurance and insight as you would not want any soft soap and sycophancy, but rather candor and direct truth.
Well, nothing personal, dear reader, but I doubt it.
Stengel continued: “We like to think that the smarter a person is, the higher she ascends up the ladder of success, the less susceptible that individual is to flattery. In fact, the opposite seems to be the case. People of high self-esteem and accomplishment generally see the praise directed at them as shrewd judgment rather than flattery.”
"Why Human Beings Become Violent," in Churchill's Black Dog, Kafka's Mice, and Other Phenomena of the Human Mind (1988)
Men who commit violent crimes are not infrequently told by magistrates or judges that they have behaved like animals. This is grossly unfair to other species.
Storr continued: "Nature is red in tooth and claw when one species preys upon another in search of food; but destructive violence between members of the same species is comparatively rare, and usually only occurs under special circumstances of overcrowding or shortage of food. Man is uniquely violent and cruel."
"Churchill: The Man," in Churchill Revised (1969; A. J. P. Taylor, et. al., eds.)
The psychiatrist who takes it upon himself to attempt a character study of an individual who he has never met is engaged upon a project which is full of risk.
"Isaac Newton," A Life in Reading in British Medical Journal (Dec. 21-28, 1985)
Isaac Newton is generally acknowledged to have been one of the greatest creative men of genius who ever existed. It also happened that he showed many striking abnormalities of personality, and at one time was considered mad by his contemporaries.
Human Aggression (1968)
That man is an aggressive creature will hardly be disputed.
Intellectual “hooks” in works of non-fiction are generally far less dramatic than those seen in novels and short stories, but they serve the purpose of getting a reader to read on—and therefore meet the criterion of a Great Opening Line. Storr continued: “With the exception of certain rodents, no other vertebrate habitually destroys members of his own species. No other animal takes positive pleasure in the exercise of cruelty upon another of his own kind.“ As Storr continues, he goes on to make this remarkable generalization: “There is no parallel in nature to our savage treatment of each other. The somber fact is that we are the cruelest and most ruthless species that has ever walked the earth.“
Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness (1990)
In Paris on a chilly evening late in October of 1985, I first became aware that the struggle with the disorder in my mind—a struggle which had engaged me for several months—might have a fatal outcome.
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.
Between Breaths: A Memoir of Panic and Addiction (2016)
I don’t know if I was born an alcoholic, but I was definitely born anxious. The alcoholism came to me later in life, after years of drinking to ease stress and worry, and to fend off panic.
In a first chapter that Vargas titled “Chasing the Glow,” the popular television news personality continued: “But the anxiety? It was there from the start. My earliest memories are infused with it. It was a steady theme throughout my childhood, and it is the background music of my adult life.”
Necessary Losses (1986)
We begin life with a loss. We are cast from the womb without an apartment, a charge plate, a job or a car.
Mary Jane Ward
The Snake Pit (1946)
“Do you hear voices?” he asked.
So begins one of the most influential novels of the twentieth century, responsible for bringing public attention to the substandard care in state psychiatric hospitals—and ultimately to much-needed reforms. After the novel was adapted into a 1948 film (starring Olivia de Havilland in an Oscar-nominated performance), a publicity release from 20th Century Fox claimed that Ward’s book had resulted in regulatory reform in twenty-six of the then forty-eight states.
The Purpose Driven Life: What on Earth Am I Here For? (2002)
It’s not about you.
Pithy and powerful is the goal for many writers attempting to craft a great opening line, and the first four words of The Purpose Driven Life perfectly illustrate the point.
In the book’s second paragraph, Warren continued: “The purpose of your life is far greater than your own personal fulfillment, your peace of mind, or even your happiness. It’s far greater than your family, your career, or even your wildest dreams and ambitions. If you want to know why you were placed on this planet, you must begin with God. You were born by his purpose and for his purpose.”
Warren’s book capitalized on a huge word-of-mouth campaign to make the New York Times bestseller list, where it remained for over 90 weeks. In 2020, Warren announced that more than 50 million copies of the book—in more than 85 languages—had been sold, making it one of the biggest selling religious books of all time.
Wallace D. Wattles
The Science of Getting Rich (1910)
Whatever may be said in praise of poverty, the fact remains that it is not possible to live a really complete or successful life unless one is rich.
Wattles, one of America’s first “self-help” authors, continued: “No man can rise to his greatest possible height in talent or soul development unless he has plenty of money; for to unfold the soul and to develop talent he must have many things to use, and he cannot have these things unless he has the money to buy them with.”
The Wisdom of Insecurity: A Message for an Age of Anxiety (1951)
By all outward appearances our life is a spark of light between one eternal darkness and another.
No Boundary: Eastern and Western Approaches to Personal Growth (1979)
Suddenly, without any warning, at any place or time, with no apparent cause, it can happen.
The “it” of the opening sentence, Wilber goes on to explain, is a heightened state of awareness in which “the individual comes to feel, beyond any shadow of a doubt, the he or she is fundamentally one with the entire universe, with all worlds, high or low, sacred or profane.”
How to Raise Successful People: Simple Lessons for Radical Results (2019)
There are no Nobel Prizes for parenting or education, but there should be.
One of America’s most respected educators, Wojcicki was named California Teacher of the Year in 2002. In this book, she outlined her TRICK approach to raising children as well as educating them: Trust, Respect, Independence, Collaboration, and Kindness. She continued in the first paragraph: “They are the two most important things we do in our society. How we raise and educate our children determines not only the people they become but the society we create.”
The Beauty Myth (1990)
At last, after a long silence, women took to the streets.
After an opening that nods in the direction of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963), Wolf continued: “In the two decades of radical action that followed the rebirth of feminism in the early 1970s, Western women gained legal and reproductive rights, pursued higher education, entered the trades and the professions, and overturned ancient and revered beliefs about their social role. A generation on, do women feel free?”
In the second paragraph, Wolf provided a partial answer to the question (they “do not feel as free as they want to”) and hinted at the thesis of her book (it “has to do with the relationship between female liberation and female beauty”).
Irvin D. Yalom
The Schopenhauer Cure (2005)
Julius knew the life-and-death homilies as well as anyone. He agreed with the Stoics, who said, “As soon as we are born we begin to die,“ and with Epicurus, who reasoned, “Where I am, death is not and where death is, I am not. Hence why fear death.” As a physician and a psychiatrist, he had murmured these very consolations into the ears of the dying.
Julius Hertzfeld is a 65-year-old psychotherapist with a thriving San Francisco practice. In the novel’s second paragraph, the narrator continued about him: “Though he believed these somber reflections to be useful to his patients, he never considered that they might have anything to do with him. That is, until a terrible moment four weeks earlier which forever changed his life.”
Irvin D. Yalom
When Nietzsche Wept (1992)
The chimes of San Salvatore broke into Josef Breuer’s reverie. He tugged his heavy gold watch from his waistcoat pocket. Nine o’clock. Once again, he read the small silver-bordered card he had received the day before.
21 October 1882
I must see you on a matter of great urgency. The future of German philosophy hangs in the balance. Meet me at nine tomorrow at the Café Sorento.
So begins a novel that ultimately leads to a fascinating and complex relationship between Breuer—a prominent Viennese physician who has recently established a friendship with a young colleague named Sigmund Freud—and the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.
About the novel, writer and scholar Theodore Roszak wrote: “Deep thought wrapped up in superb storytelling. What more could one ask?”