Genre: Science & Technology
The Other Einstein (2016)
October 20, 1896
I smoothed the wrinkles on my freshly pressed white blouse, flattened the bow encircling my collar, and tucked back a stray hair into my tightly wound chignon. The humid walk through the foggy Zürich streets to the Swiss Federal Polytechnic campus played with my careful grooming. The stubborn refusal of my heavy dark hair to stay fixed in place frustrated me. I wanted every detail of the day to be perfect.
Some books have a great opening line, others a great opening paragraph, and still others a great opening chapter—and that is the case with Benedict’s wonderful historical novel about Einstein’s first wife, Mileva “Mitza” Maric.
I’m only presenting the quite serviceable opening paragraph here, but I urge you to check out the entire first chapter. It will take you less than five minutes to read—and you won’t regret it. In a blurb for the book, writer Kathleen Tessaro (The Perfume Collector and more) wrote that Benedict’s novel “has the reader rooting for our heroine from the very first pages.”
The Rose’s Kiss: A Natural History of Flowers (1999)
Fresh flowers accompany us through some of the most emotional moments of our lives.
Bernhardt, a trained botanist and popular science writer, continued in the first paragraph: “High school students give and receive corsages before the prom. Courtships, weddings, and anniversaries must have their bouquets. Mourners hope that floral tributes and wreaths will lend grace to a funeral and help ease the immediate burden of grief.”
The Body: A Guide for Occupants (2019)
Long ago, when I was a junior high school student in Iowa, I remember being taught by a biology teacher that all the chemicals that make up a human body could be bought in a hardware store for $5.00 or something like that.
In his opening paragraph, Bryson continued: “I don’t recall the actual sum. It might have been $2.97 or $13.50, but it was certainly very little even in 1960s money, and I remember being astounded at the thought that you could make a slouched and pimply thing such as me for practically nothing.”
The Sea Around Us (1951)
Beginnings are apt to be shadowy, and so it is with the beginnings of that great mother of life, the sea.
A relatively unknown marine biologist at the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries, Carson became a major voice for conservation as a result of The Sea Around Us. The book, which remained on The New York Times Best Seller list for 86 weeks, also won the 1952 National Book Award for Nonfiction.
Carson continued: “Many people have debated how and when the earth got its ocean, and it is not surprising that their explanations do not always agree. For the plain and inescapable truth is that no one was there to see, and in the absence of eyewitness accounts there is bound to be a certain amount of disagreement.“
“Cadaver,” in Travels (1988)
It is not easy to cut through a human head with a hacksaw.
Crichton is best known for his novels—so many of which have been adapted in classic American films—but he was also a skilled non-fiction writer, as he demonstrates in this “hook” he wrote for a piece on his experiences as a student at the Harvard Medical School.
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.
Unweaving the Rainbow (1998)
We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones.
I love all great opening lines, but paradoxical openers have a special place in my heart (or, perhaps I should say, in my mind). This one is a doozie, ingeniously bringing together two highly incongruous elements in a single statement.
In The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century (2014 ), Steven Pinker wrote: “Good writing starts strong. Not with a cliché…not with a banality…but with a contentful observation that provokes curiosity.” He went on to write about Dawkins’s first sentence:
“The reader of Unweaving the Rainbow opens the book and is walloped with a reminder of the most dreadful fact we know, and on its heels a paradoxical elaboration. We’re lucky because we’ll die? Who wouldn’t want to know how this mystery will be solved? The starkness of the paradox is reinforced by the diction and meter: short, simple words, a stressed monosyllable followed by six iambic feet.”
In the remainder of what becomes an enlightening opening paragraph, Dawkins continued:
“Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include poets greater than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here.”
Given these additional thoughts, how can we best explain the paradox laid out in the first sentence? I’d say it this way. We’re lucky to die because it means we were fortunate enough to have beaten the odds by simply having been born.
In his Sense of Style book, Pinker went on to do a sentence-by-sentence analysis of the entire first paragraph seen above. I won’t go into the details here, but it’s worth a look if you get the chance. And the concluding tribute Pinker paid to Dawkins’s opening words was truly special:
“Good writing can flip the way the world is perceived, like the silhouette in psychology textbooks which oscillates between a goblet and two faces. In six sentences Dawkins has flipped the way we think of death, and has stated a rationalist’s case for an appreciation of life in words so stirring that many humanists I know have asked that it be read at their funerals.”
“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.”
“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.”
How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking (2014)
Right now, in a classroom somewhere in the world, a student is mouthing off to her math teacher.
Ellenberg, the Vilas Distinguished Achievement Professor of Mathematics at the University of Wisconsin and a worthy heir to Martin Gardner as a distinguished writer about math & science, finds a perfect way to introduce his book on the importance of math literacy—fully realizing that the seeds of math illiteracy are sown early in life, and mainly in the classroom. He continued in the first paragraph: “The teacher has just asked her to spend a substantial portion of her weekend computing a list of thirty definite integrals.”
In the book’s second paragraph, Ellenberg continued: “There are other things the student would rather do. There is, in fact, hardly anything she would rather not do. She knows this quite clearly…. [ellipsis mine] She doesn’t see the point, and she tells her teacher so. And at some point in this conversation, the student is going to ask the question the teacher fears most: “When am I going to use this?”
“Adventures Of a Mathematician: The Man Who Invented the H-Bomb,” in The New York Times (May 9, 1976)
Biographical history, as taught in our public schools, is still largely a history of boneheads: ridiculous kings and queens, paranoid political leaders, compulsive voyagers, ignorant generals—the flotsam and jetsam of historical currents. The men who radically altered history, the great creative scientists and mathematicians, are seldom mentioned if at all.
This is the opening paragraph of Gardner’s review of S. M. Ulam’s 1976 book, Adventures of a Mathematician. In the review, he described Ulam, a Polish mathematician, as the man who, modifying a previously failed plan of Edward Teller’s, deserves credit for inventing the H-Bomb.
In the review’s second paragraph, Gardner wrote: “Imagine Aristotle revivified and visiting Manhattan. Nothing in our social, political, economic, artistic, sexual or religious life would mystify him, but he would be staggered by our technology. Its products—skyscrapers, cars, airplanes, television, pocket calculators—would have been impossible without calculus. Who invented calculus?”
Scott L. Gardner, Judy Diamond, & Gabor Racz
Parasites: The Inside Story (2022)
Parasites are rarely described in positive terms. They are seen as blood suckers, freeloaders, scroungers, flunkies, deadbeats, and the worst kind of groupies.
When serious scientific books begin with a touch of whimsy, they send a clear message to readers: “Yes, this may be a work of serious scholarship, but that doesn’t mean it has to be boring.” In a 2022 review in The New Yorker (“In Praise of Parasites?“), Jerome Groopman described the book as “an approachable and often fascinating primer on the subject.“
The Tipping Point: How Little things Can Make a Big Difference (2006)
For Hush Puppies—the classic American brushed suede shoes with the lightweight crepe sole—the Tipping Point came somewhere between late 1994 and early 1995.
In a 2008 article in The Guardian (“A Thriller in Ten Chapters”), Robert McCrum wrote: “The Tipping Point was almost a flop. It was published to mixed reviews in the US, did no serious business in the UK and was saved by—yes—word of mouth. After a dismal launch, and as a desperate last resort, Gladwell persuaded his American publisher to sponsor a US-wide lecture tour. Only then did the book ‘tip.’ Eventually, it would become a literary success of its time, turn its author into a pop cultural guru and spend seven years on The New York Times bestseller list.”
“From Its Myriad Tips,” in London Review of Books (May 20, 2021)
Try to imagine what it is like to be a fungus.
This was the opening line of Gooding’s review of Merlin Sheldrake’s 2020 book, Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds, and Shape our Futures. The idea is not as far-fetched as it might originally seem, for that is exactly what Sheldrake—a respected English biologist—attempted to do when he sought the assistance of LSD and psilocybin in an attempt to expand his thinking about how fungi reproduce and spread.
David L. Goodstein
States of Matter (1975)
Ludwig Boltzmann, who spent much of his life studying statistical mechanics, died in 1906, by his own hand. Paul Ehrenfest, carrying on the work, died similarly in 1933. Now it is our turn to study statistical mechanics.
Perhaps it will be wise to approach the subject cautiously.
It’s exceedingly rare for textbooks in any field to have a spectacular opening line—and especially one with such understated wit—but professor Goodstein manages to achieve it in a graduate-level physics text! For another opening gem from a physics text, see the Paesler and Moyer entry.
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
“The Flamingo’s Smile,” title essay from The Flamingo’s Smile: Reflections in Natural History (1985)
Buffalo Bill played his designated role in reducing the American bison from an estimated population of 60 million to near extinction.
Gould continued: “In 1867, under a contract to provide food for railroad crews, he and his men killed 4,280 animals in just eight months.”
A respected paleontologist and Harvard University professor for thirty-five years, Gould is widely regarded as one of history’s best science writers. He also became something of a celebrity in the broader culture as a result of 300-plus essays he wrote for Natural History magazine. The essays were compiled into many bestselling books with great titles: The Panda’s Thumb (1980), Hen’s Teeth and Horse’s Toes (1983), The Flamingo’s Smile (1985), Bully for Brontosaurus (1991), and Dinosaur in a Haystack (1995).
Steve Jobs (2011)
When Paul Jobs was mustered out of the Coast Guard after World War II, he made a wager with his crewmates. They had arrived in San Francisco, where their ship was decommissioned, and Paul bet that he would find himself a wife within two weeks.
Isaacson began his acclaimed biography with a tantalizing tidbit about his subject’s adoptive father; and—while I won’t go into the details here—it all makes eminent sense in the grand scheme of Jobs’s remarkable life.
By a Spider’s Thread [Book 8 in the Tess Monaghan series] (2004)
They were in one of the “I” states when Zeke told Isaac he had to ride in the trunk for a little while.
This terrific opening line comes from a brief prefatory piece titled “September.” As a born-and-bred Midwesterner, I’ve long loved this opener, and I was pleased to recently discover that the sentence is also a personal favorite of the author. In 2006, when Lippman was asked by NPR’s Maureen Pao if she had a favorite sentence, she answered this way:
“Is it possible to answer that sentence without sounding like a jerk? I’ll select the opening of By a Spider’s Thread, which was nominated for the Ross Thomas Prize for Best Opening Line, so I’m technically not the one who’s making any claim for it.”
By a Spider’s Thread is the 8th book in Lippmann’s popular series of Tess Monaghan mysteries. In the novel, Tess is hired by Mark Rubin, a wealthy Jewish man, to find his missing wife and children. Chapter One of the novel also begins beautifully:
“Tess Monaghan had been a high school senior when her father had bestowed his single life lesson, the one piece of advice that was supposed to open all doors and allow his only child to hurdle every obstacle: He showed her how to shake a man’s hand.”
By the way, I’ve been searching—without much success, I might add—for more information about the Ross Thomas Prize for Best Opening Line (it’s apparently different from the regular Ross Thomas Award for best debut novel, first presented in 1983). I did find one other winner (see the Jennifer Apodaca entry here), but nothing about the contest. If you can provide any information, I’d be grateful.
On 24 October 1944 planet Earth was following its orbit about the sun as it has obediently done for nearly five billion years.
This would be a good opening line without the word obediently, but the inclusion of that single word transforms it into a great one. The narrator continued: “It moved at the stunning speed of sixty-five thousand miles an hour, and in doing so, created the seasons. In the northern hemisphere it was a burnished autumn; in the southern, a burgeoning spring.”
The Naked Ape: A Zoologist’s Study of the Human Animal (1967)
There are one hundred and ninety-three living species of monkeys and apes. One hundred and ninety-two of them are covered with hair. The exception is a naked ape self-named Homo sapiens.
Morris, a zoologist and former curator of mammals at the London Zoo, said his purpose in writing the book was to examine human beings in the same way that members of his profession had previously studied animals. In his opening words, he continued: “This unusual and highly successful species spends a great deal of time examining his higher motives and an equal amount of time studiously ignoring his fundamental ones.”
Shortly after publication, the book became an international bestseller, translated into more than two dozen languages. Part of the book’s popularity came from Morris’s clear and often captivating prose—as seen in his opening words. But it is also clear that many readers were attracted by the book’s titillating details, including Morris’s assertion that, compared to other mammals, male human beings had the highest ratio of penis size to body mass (it was for this and a few other reasons that Morris described human beings as “the sexiest primate alive”).
The domestic cat is a contradiction. No animal has developed such an intimate relationship with mankind, while at the same time demanding and getting such independence of movement and action.
Morris continued: “The dog may be man’s best friend, but it is rarely allowed out on its own to wander from garden to garden or street to street. The obedient dog has to be taken for a walk. The headstrong cat walks alone.”
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.”
“Welcome to Hell, Elon: You Break It, You Buy It,” in The Verge (Oct. 28, 2022)
You fucked up real good, kiddo.
Patel, a prominent technology journalist and founder of The Verge, opens his article with what I regard as the year’s single best assessment of Elon Musk’s head-scratching purchase of Twitter in 2022. His first sentence also made my compilation of “The Best Opening Lines of 2022” on Smerconish.com (see the full list here).
In the article’s second paragraph, Patel continued:
“Twitter is a disaster clown car company that is successful despite itself, and there is no possible way to grow users and revenue without making a series of enormous compromises that will ultimately destroy your reputation and possibly cause grievous damage to your other companies.”
I also loved Patel’s closing line: “Anyhow, welcome to hell. This was your idea.”
Gravity’s Rainbow (1973)
A screaming comes across the sky.
In 2006, The American Book Review ranked this Number 3 on its classic list of “The 100 Best First Lines from Novels.” Younger readers may be forgiven for not recognizing this classic opening line as an unparalleled description of a WWII V-2 rocket propelling toward its target. Many modern readers also fail to appreciate how the book’s metaphorical title perfectly captures the parabolic trajectory of such a rocket from launch to final impact.
After the book was named co-winner (with Isaac Bashevis Singers’s A Crown of Feathers and Other Stories) of the 1974 National Book Award for Fiction, the notoriously reclusive Pynchon declined the award. Sensing a rare publicity opportunity, the president of Viking Press suggested that Professor Irwin Corey, an up-and-coming comedian, accept the award on Pynchon’s behalf. During Corey’s mock acceptance speech, a streaker famously ran across the stage and throughout the auditorium.
Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers (2003)
The way I see it, being dead is not terribly far off from being on a cruise ship. Most of your time is spent lying on your back. The brain has shut down. The flesh begins to soften. Nothing much new happens, and nothing is expected of you.
Science writers are not noted for a sense of humor, but in her debut book, Roach proved from the outset that it’s possible to write a serious science book that is also world-class quirky and laugh-out-loud funny. In the book’s Introduction, Roach continued by describing how cadavers have played an integral, even essential, role in human history—albeit in their own deathly quiet way.
In the remainder of the book, Roach proved herself to be an Opening Lines master, beginning almost every chapter in a way that would have garnered an A-plus from any college professor of Creative Writing. For example, in Chapter One (titled, “A Head Is a Terrible Thing to Waste”), here’s how she began a chapter on a Face-Lift Refresher Course for Plastic Surgeons:
“The human head is of the same approximate size and weight as a roaster chicken. I have never before had occasion to make the comparison, for never before today have I seen a head in a roasting pan. But here today are forty of them, one per pan, resting face-up on what looks to be a small pet-food bowl. The heads are for plastic surgeons, two per head, to practice on.”
Later chapters open in an equally impressive manner, and here are three examples. In Ch. 3 (“Life After Death”), Roach began: “Out behind the University of Tennessee Medical Center is a lovely, forested grove with squirrels leaping in the branches of hickory trees and birds calling and patches of green grass where people lie on their backs in the sun, or sometimes the shade, depending on where the researchers put them.”
In Ch. 4 (“Dead Man Driving”), Roach opened with: “By and large, the dead aren’t very talented. They can’t play water polo, or lace up their boots, or maximize market share. They can’t tell a joke, and they can’t dance for beans. There is one thing dead people excel at. They’re very good at handling pain.”
And in Ch. 8 (“How to Know If You’re Dead”), she began: “A patient on the way to surgery travels at twice the speed of a patient on the way to the morgue. Gurneys that ferry the living through hospital corridors move forward in an aura of purpose and push, flanked by caregivers with long strides and set faces, steadying IVs, pumping ambu bags, barreling into double doors. A gurney with a cadaver commands no urgency. It is wheeled by a single person, calmly and with little notice, like a shopping cart.”
Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife (2005)
I don’t recall my mood the morning I was born, but I imagine I felt a bit out of sorts. Nothing I looked at was familiar. People were staring at me and making odd sounds and wearing incomprehensible items. Everything seemed too loud, and nothing made the slightest amount of sense.
Roach’s opening paragraph may not have much to do with life after death, but it’s an intriguing way to begin any book, especially a science book.
Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex (2008)
A man sits in a room, manipulating his kneecaps. It is 1983, on the campus of the University of California, Los Angeles. The man, a study subject, has been told to do this for four minutes, stop, and then resume for a minute more. Then he can put his pants back on, collect his payment, and go home with an entertaining story to tell at suppertime.
Manipulating his kneecaps? Where on earth could this be going? It all becomes clear—and delightfully so—as Roach continues in her opening paragraph: “The study concerns human sexual response. Kneecap manipulation elicits no sexual response, on this planet anyway, and that is why the man is doing it: It’s the control activity. (Earlier, the man was told to manipulate the more usual suspect while the researchers measured whatever it was they were measuring.)”
About Bonk, writer A. J. Jacobs (The Year of Living Biblically) said: “I would read Mary Roach on the history of Quonset huts. But Mary Roach on sex? That’s a godsend!” As we saw earlier with Roach’s Stiff book, many of the opening lines of other chapters in Bonk are also inspired. Let me cite a few examples. In Ch. 2 (“Dating the Penis-Camera”), Roach began: “Let me state it simply. Women came into Masters and Johnson’s laboratory and had sex with a thrusting mechanical penis-camera that filmed—from the inside—their physical responses to it.”
Ch. 6 (“The Taiwanese Fix and the Penile Pricking Ring”), opened this way: “A man having penis surgery is the opposite of a man in a fig leaf. He is concealed face-to-feet in surgical sheets, with only his penis on view. It appears in a small, square cutout in the fabric, spotlit by surgical lamps.”
And in Ch. 12 (“Mind Over Vagina”), Roach’s opening paragraph began: “The human vagina is accustomed to visitors. Even the language of anatomy imbues the organ with an innlike hospitality, the entrance to the structure being named the ‘vaginal vestibule.’ Take off your coat and stay awhile.”
Fuzz: When Nature Breaks the Law (2021)
On June 26, 1659, a representative from five towns in a province of northern Italy initiated legal proceedings against caterpillars.
I had to read this opening sentence a second time to make sure I got it right. As it turns out, I did. In her latest popular science book, Roach turned her attention to conflicts between human beings and the natural world. And, as she has done with each of her previous eight books, she found a way to begin with a great opening line.
In the opening paragraph, Roach continued: “The local specimens, went the complaint, were trespassing and pilfering from peoples’ gardens and orchards. A summons was issued and five copies made and nailed to trees in forests adjacent to each town. The caterpillars were ordered to appear in court on the twenty-eighth of June, at a specified hour, where they would be assigned legal representation.”
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.”
Scott A. Small
Forgetting: The Benefits of Not Remembering (2021)
As a memory specialist, all I hear about is forgetting.
Miss Kopp Just Won’t Quit [Book 4 of the Kopps Sisters series] (2018)
On the day I took Anna Kayser to the insane asylum, I was first obliged to catch a thief.
This terrific opening sentence from narrator and protagonist Constance Kopp—a fictionalized version of a real-life woman by the same name who became New Jersey’s first female deputy sheriff in 1914—pulls us directly into the book. There’s also something especially attractive about the inclusion of that word obliged.
Sensing our interest in the word, Miss Kopp—one of literary history’s most recent, and most interesting, female detectives—continued: “I say ‘obliged’ as if it were a hardship, but in fact I enjoy a good chase. A man fleeing a crime scene presents any sworn officer with the rare gift of an easy win. Nothing is more heartening than a solid arrest, made after a little gratifying physical exertion, particularly when the thief is caught in the act and there are no bothersome questions later about a lack of evidence or an unreliable witness.”
The Astonishing Armadillo (1993)
Slowly, slowly for the past 150 years, a small army has trundled steadily northward from Mexico. In 1854 the army crossed the Mexican border and invaded Texas. The invaders were small creatures, each with a head like a lizard’s, eyes like a pig’s, ears like a mule’s, a shout like a hog’s, claws like a bear’s, and a tail like a rat’s. These astonishing creatures were nine-banded armadillos.
This spectacular opening paragraph reads almost like the beginning of a sci-fi or horror novel—and nicely demonstrates that even science books can begin with a literary flourish. Stuart continued: “Naturalist John James Audubon described the armadillo as ‘a small pig in the shell of a turtle.’”
The Liars of Nature and the Nature of Liars: Cheating and Deception in the Living World (2023)
She is pregnant. Raising a child takes a lot of time and energy, yet she is short of both. Homeless, she has no choice but to find somebody else to take care of her baby—for free. It’s not easy, but she knows how to pull it off.
These are the dramatic opening words of one of the best opening paragraphs of the year, and they come not from a novel, but a work of non-fiction. The author, a professor of biology at Central Washington University in Ellensburg, Washington, continued:
“She scouts around and spots a cozy house in a quiet neighborhood. The young wife of the family looks caring and has just given birth to a new baby, so is a perfect choice as a surrogate. She hides herself and waits in the vicinity, keeping watch on the house. Opportunity presents itself when the new mother takes a short trip to get some food. She sneaks in and switches the baby with her own. Then she heartlessly throws the victim’s infant in a dump.”
After describing this scenario as “a cold-blooded murder case,” Dr. Sun went on to clarify that the perpetrator of the crime is a female cuckoo bird who has snuck her own fertilized egg into the nest of a female warbler. Publishers Weekly described Sun’s book as “an eye-opening take on lying in the natural word,” adding that “The smart parallels between human and animals make for an insightful outing.” The book’s opening paragraph is truly exceptional and is currently on track to make my annual list of the best opening lines of the year.
The Big Roads: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries, and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighways (2011)
I was overdue for a road trip. It had been years since I’d last embraced that most cherished of American freedoms: to slide behind the wheel of a car equipped with a good stereo and comfortable seats, and head out into the country, beholden to no particular route, no timetable; to grow inured to the road, the thrum of the tires, the warbling silence and thuds of a big truck’s slipstream, the whistle of hot summer past the windows. To live off the contents of a cooler on the floorboards and whatever sustenance the road happened to offer.
When I open a non-fiction book on a specialized topic—like, say, a history of the U. S. Interstate Highway System—my goal is to become better informed on a subject of interest. Given this expectation, it’s pleasantly surprising and even a bit exhilarating to quickly discover that you’ve found yourself in the hands of an accomplished writer. My initial assessment of Swift’s writing chops were strongly reinforced as I moved on to the book’s second paragraph:
“It had to be a long trip, as it might be years more before I got another, so I decided to go west, all the way west, through a thousand towns and across the great sweep of farm and forest and desert and windblown high plain that waited between home and the Pacific. We’d take back roads, I told my daughter, the two-laners of generations past. We’d drive with the windows down so that we could smell the tar of mid-July blacktop, hear the corn’s rustle, holler at grazing cows. We’d drive for just a few hours a day, and slow enough to study the sights, immerse ourselves in wherever we were and remember it afterward. We’d make few plans; we’d stop when we were hungry, when we tired, and wherever caught our fancy.”
Nassim Nicholas Taleb
The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable (2007)
Before the discovery of Australia, people in the Old World were convinced that all swans were white, an unassailable belief as it seemed completely confirmed by empirical evidence. The sighting of the first black swan might have been an interesting surprise for a few ornithologists (and others extremely concerned with the coloring of birds), but that is not where the significance of the story lies.
In his widely acclaimed book, Taleb continued: “It illustrates a severe limitation to our learning from observations or experience and the fragility of our knowledge. One single observation can invalidate a general statement derived from millennia of confirmatory sightings of white swans. All you need is one single (and, I am told, quite ugly) black bird.”
“My Inventions,” in Electrical Experimenter Magazine (February 1919)
The progressive development of man is vitally dependent on invention. It is the most important product of his creative brain. Its ultimate purpose is the complete mastery of mind over the material world, the harnessing of the forces of nature to human needs.
In the opening paragraph, Tesla continued: “This is the difficult task of the inventor who is often misunderstood and unrewarded. But he finds ample compensation in the pleasing exercises of his powers and in the knowledge of being one of that exceptionally privileged class without whom the race would have long ago perished in the bitter struggle against pitiless elements.”
Gary G. Tibbetts
How the Great Scientists Reasoned: The Scientific Method in Action (2013)
In the beginning was the book of Nature. For eon after eon, the pages of the book turned with no human to read them.
This is a beautiful way to begin a book, and it’s especially nice to see it opening a science book. In the opening paragraph, Tibbetts continued his discourse at a lofty level, writing: “No eye wondered at the ignition of the sun, the coagulation of the earth, the birth of the moon, the solidification of a terrestrial continent, or the filling of the seas. Yet when the first primitive algae evolved to float on the waters of this ocean, a promise was born—a hope that someday all the richness and variety of the phenomena of the universe would be read with appreciative eyes.”
Neil deGrasse Tyson
Astrophysics for People in a Hurry (2017)
In the beginning, nearly fourteen billion years ago, all the space and all the matter and all the energy of the known universe was contained in a volume less than one-trillionth the size of the period that ends this sentence.
Tyson, who has replaced his childhood hero Carl Sagan as the world’s most popular astrophysicist and popularizer of modern science, begins with an astonishing, almost mind-boggling, observation. He continued: “Conditions were so hot, the basic forces of nature that collectively describe the universe were unified. Though still unknown how it came into existence, this sub-pinpoint-size cosmos could only expand. Rapidly. In what today we call the big bang.”
Erich von Däniken
Chariots of the Gods? Unsolved Mysteries of the Past (1968)
It took courage to write this book, and it will take courage to read it.
So begins a book described by Sam Leith in a Jan. 7, 2022 Telegraph article as, “The cult non-fiction book of all cult non-fiction books.” When the book was first published, it was heavily promoted with the tagline “Was God an Astronaut?” reflecting von Däniken’s theory that extraterrestrial beings visited the earth around 5,000 B.C., mated with human beings, and introduced them to technology that resulted in such previously unexplained phenomena as Egypt’s great pyramids, Stonehenge, and the Nazca Lines in Peru.
In the opening paragraph, von Däniken continued: “Because its theories and proofs do not fit into the mosaic of traditional archaeology, constructed so laboriously and firmly cemented down, scholars will call it nonsense and put it on the Index of those books which are better left unmentioned.”
Some opening lines are a bit like a secret handshake, making sense only to people “in the know.” The Index here refers to the Index Liborum Prohibitorum (“List of Prohibited Books”), an extensive list of books that, for many centuries, practicing Catholics were forbidden to read. Begun in the 16th century, the Index continued until its abolishment by Pope Paul VI in 1966.
The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming (2019)
It is worse, much worse, than you think.
In his powerful polemic on the imminent danger of the climate crisis, Wallace-Wells continued: “The slowness of climate change is a fairy tale, perhaps as pernicious as the one that says it isn’t happening at all.”
Fear of Landing (2007)
There is something warm and comforting about doing an autopsy on a cow.
These almost unforgettable opening words come from narrator and protagonist Abner Dueck, a Canadian veterinarian on a two-year assignment in Indonesia to study the feasibility of importing North American cows to Java.
Dueck continued: “It’s real. You don’t have to worry that they don’t speak English or Flat German. You don’t have to speak Indonesian or Javanese. You forget about your addiction to chewing sunflower seeds. All you need is a sharp knife and all your senses on heightened alert: touch, sight, smell, even sound.”
On Pandemics (2nd ed.; 2020)
Until a few years ago, many scientists had banished words like “threat” and “danger” from our vocabulary. In an attempt to be more rigorously quantitative and less emotional, we began to write about risks. Our response to danger was called “risk management.”
Waltner-Toews continued: “A risk is a threat or a danger that you can put into a box. Then you can count boxes, and manage them. The assumption in risk management is that you can quantify danger. This is only partially true.”
Sex, Ecology, Spirituality: The Spirit of Evolution (1995)
It is flat-out strange that something—that anything—is happening. There was nothing, then a Big Bang, then here we all are. This is extremely weird.
In the book’s second paragraph, Wilber continued: “To Schelling’s burning question, ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’ there have always been two general answers. The first might be called the philosophy of ‘oops.’ The universe just occurs, there is nothing behind it, it’s all ultimately accidental or random, it just is, it just happens—oops!”
A moment later, Wilber went on to write: “The other broad answer that has been tendered is that something else is going on; behind the happenstance drama is a deeper or higher or wider pattern, or order, or intelligence…. Something else is going on, something quite other than oops.”
A Theory of Everything: An Integral Vision for Business, Politics, Science, and Spirituality (2000)
We live in an extraordinary time: all of the world’s cultures, past and present, are to some degree available to us, either in historical records or as living entities. In the history of the planet Earth, this has never happened before.
Rats, Lice, and History (1935)
This book, if it is ever written, and—if written—it finds a publisher, and—if published—anyone reads it, will be recognized with some difficulty as a biography.
Zinsser, a prominent American physician and bacteriologist, may have been the first person in history to write a biography about a thing rather than a person—and he directly addressed that issue in the opening words of his book on typhus (the formal subtitle was: Being a Study in Biography, Which, After Twelve Preliminary Chapters Indispensable for the Preparation of the Lay Reader, Deals with the Life History of Typhus Fever).
Biographical writing was enjoying great popularity in the early decades of the 20th century, and it seems clear that Zinsser was hoping to capitalize on the trend. A bit later in his Introduction, he wrote: “The subject of our biography is a disease,” and he went on to add: “We shall try to write it in as untechnical a manner as is consistent with accuracy. It will of necessity be incomplete, for the life of our subject has been a long and turbulent one from which we can select only the high spots.“ Zinsser’s attempt to capitalize on the interest in biographical writing appears to have been successful, as his book became the 8th bestselling nonfiction book of 1935.
In the Preface to his work, Zinsser also offered some memorable opening words, and they provide a hint as to why he chose to frame the book as a biography: “These chapters—we hesitate to call so rambling a performance a book—were written at odd moments as a relaxation from studies of typhus fever in the laboratory and in the field. In following infectious diseases about the world, one ends by regarding them as biological individuals which have lived through centuries, spanning many generations of men and having existences which, in their developments and wanderings, can be treated biographically.”