Genre: Travel, Food, & Drink
Douglas Adams and Mark Carwardine
“Heartbeats in the Night,” in Last Chance to See (1990)
If you took the whole of Norway, scrunched it up a bit, shook out all the moose and reindeer, hurled it ten thousand miles around the world, and filled it with birds, then you’d be wasting your time, because it looks very much as if someone has already done it.
This is the spectacular opening paragraph of one of the best travel essays I’ve ever read—Adam’s account of his visit to the Fiordland region of New Zealand in the late 1980s. This is writing at the level of virtuosity, and an extremely satisfying experience for any reader, and especially connoisseurs of travel writing.
Just when you think an essay’s opening words couldn’t get much better, Adams continues in the second paragraph: “Fiordland, a vast tract of mountainous terrain that occupies the southwest corner of South Island, New Zealand, is one of the most astounding pieces of land anywhere on God’s earth, and one’s first impulse, standing on a clifftop surveying it all, is simply to burst into spontaneous applause.”
And, remarkably, it gets even better as we move into the essay’s third paragraph: “It is magnificent. It is awe-inspiring. The land is folded and twisted and broken on such a scale that it makes your brain quiver and sing in your skull just trying to comprehend what it is looking at.”
Last Chance to See is a book of travel essays written by Adams as he and zoologist Mark Carwardine traveled the world in search of such exotic, endangered species as kakapos in New Zealand, komodo dragons in Indonesia, and white rhinos in Zaire. If you’re a fan of travel books and have not yet seen this one, make every effort to rectify the unfortunate situation as soon as you can. Adams’ writing skills are on dazzling display on almost every page, and you will never again look at some of the animals in the same way (about the kakapo, for example, Adams wrote: “You want to hug it and tell it everything will be all right, although you know that it probably won’t be”).
Out of Africa (1937)
I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills.
Part of the appeal of this opening line is that much can be deduced about the author from the first thirteen words, especially the word had. Clearly, Blixen no longer has the farm, and the entire first sentence contains a strong hint of wistfulness. There is also the clear suggestion that she is not a native of Africa, but someone who moved there from someplace else—and then grew to love the place.
In a 2017 “The Art of the Tale” blog post, the discerning eye of writer and editor Mary Dalton helped me see something in the opening line I had not seen before. Picking up on Blixen’s famous self-description that “I am not a novelist, really not even a writer; I am a storyteller,” Dalton viewed the opening line as more befitting a story, not a memoir. She wrote:
“Out of Africa doesn’t read like your average memoir. Rather, it’s life spun into a fantastic tale, where supernatural forces coexist with the everyday. The opening line…has the invoking nature of a prayer or chant, all round vowels and whispering consonants.”
Blixen, a beloved Danish writer who wrote fictional tales under the pen name Isak Dinesen, continued in the opening paragraph: “The equator runs across these highlands. A hundred miles to the North, and the farm lay at an altitude of over six thousand feet. In the day-time you felt that you had got high up, near to the sun, but the early mornings and evenings were limpid and restful, and the nights were cold.”
In 1985, Out of Africa was loosely adapted into a Sydney Pollack film starring Meryl Streep and Robert Redford. One of the year’s most acclaimed films, it was nominated for eleven Academy Awards, winning seven, including Best Picture and Best Director.
Roy Blount, Jr.
“Another Round?“ in Garden & Gun (Feb./March 2017)
“Whereya from?“ asks an intense-looking complete stranger sitting next to me in O’Hare airport as we experience quite possibly the only thing we will ever have in common: a weather delay.
It takes great skill to begin with an everyday, even banal, interaction and transform it into a great opening line—as Blount does here. In the opening paragraph, he continued:
“I dread being asked this question by a complete stranger, because my response, if truthful and factual, will be complex, and complete strangers who are quick to ask this question, cold, do not have time for complexity.“
Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin
The Physiology of Taste (1825)
The universe would be nothing were it not for life, and all that lives must be fed.
Brillat-Savarin—one of the most influential figures in culinary history—began his classic work with a series of twenty aphorisms, and this is the first one. Some of the sayings went on to achieve legendary status, most notably “Tell me what kind of food you eat, and I will tell you what kind of man you are.”
Brillat-Savarin’s observations have been translated in various ways, but these come from the first English language version of the book, translated by Fayette Robinson and published in 1854.
The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America (1989)
I come from Des Moines. Somebody had to.
Bryson begins his collection of travel essays with a snappy one-liner that would make a stand-up comic proud. In a 2022 ShortList.com post, writer Marc Chacksfield ranked this Number Three on his list of thirty of “The Funniest-Ever Opening Lines.”
In the essay, Bryson continued: “When you come from Des Moines you either accept the fact without question and settle down with a local girl named Bobbi and get a job at the Firestone factory and live there forever and ever, or you spend your adolescence moaning at length about what a dump it is and how you can’t wait to get out, and then you settle down with a local girl named Bobbi and get a job at the Firestone factory and live there forever and ever.”
The Mother Tongue: English and How it Got that Way (1990)
More than 300 million people in the world speak English and the rest, it sometimes seems, try to. It would be charitable to say the results are sometimes mixed.
Bryson continued in the book’s second paragraph: “Consider this hearty announcement in a Yugoslavian hotel: ‘The flattening of underwear with pleasure is the job of the chambermaid. Turn to her straightaway.’ Or this warning to motorists in Tokyo: ‘When a passenger of the foot heave in sight, tootle the horn. Trumpet at him melodiously at first, but if he still obstacles your passage, then tootle him with vigor.’”
When many foreigners attempt to write in English, Bryson wrote that they often aren’t hampered in the least by their ignorance of the language—and he expressed his opinion in a most delightful way: “It would appear that one of the beauties of the English language is that with even the most tenuous grasp you can speak volumes if you show enough enthusiasm—a willingness to tootle with vigor, as it were.”
“Dogged Pursuit,” in Forbes Life (December 2009); reprinted in But Enough About You: Essays (2014)
It’s a bit cramped in the back of the Cessna 206. The windows are frosting over, and as I scrape away the rime with the edge of a credit card what I can make out is not entirely reassuring.
In the opening paragraph, Buckley continued: “Fog and terrain—the latter is disturbing because it is at eye level. Nor is it reassuring that the automatic warning keeps announcing in computer deadpan voice: ‘Caution, terrain. Caution, terrain.’ At such moments one asks oneself, What am I doing here?”
Barnaby Conrad III
“Martini Madness,” in Cigar Aficionado (Spring 1996)
The Martini is a cocktail distilled from the wink of a platinum blonde, the sweat of a polo horse, the blast of an ocean liner’s horn, the Chrysler building at sunset, a lost Cole Porter tune, and the aftershave of quipping detectives in natty double-breasted suits.
This was the brilliant opening line of Conrad’s article about “The Great Martini Revival” of the mid-1990s. He continued: “It’s a nostalgic passport to another era—when automobiles had curves like Mae West, when women were either ladies or dames, when men were gentlemen or cads, and when a ‘relationship’ was true romance or a steamy affair.”
Richard Henry Dana, Jr.
Two Years Before the Mast (1840)
The fourteenth of August was the day fixed upon for the sailing of the brig Pilgrim, on her voyage from Boston, round Cape Horn, to the Western coast of North America.
In 1834, Dana was a Harvard undergraduate who—after a severe case of measles had threatened his vision—dropped out of college and enlisted as a common sailor on a brig departing Boston Harbor for California, then a part of Mexico. A diary he kept during the two-year voyage eventually resulted in a book that became an American classic.
In his memoir, Dana continued: “As she was to get under way early in the afternoon, I made my appearance on board at twelve o’clock, in full sea-rig, with my chest, containing an outfit for a two or three years’ voyage, which I had undertaken from a determination to cure, if possible, by an entire change of life, and by a long absence from books, with a plenty of hard work, plain food, and open air, a weakness of the eyes, which had obliged me to give up my studies, and which no medical aid seemed likely to remedy.“
Take Big Bites: Adventures Around the World and Across the Table (2005)
I’m not crazy about Florence except for the pig museum. If precisely speaking, it’s not a museum, that’s only because some fool in the Italian government doesn’t recognize a national treasure when he sees one.
Any opening paragraph that contains the words “pig museum” is certainly tantalizing, but when it goes on to describe the museum as “a national treasure,” it becomes a bona fide hook.
The Wine Lover’s Daughter: A Memoir (2017)
My father was a lousy driver and a two-finger typist, but he could open a wine bottle as deftly as any swain ever undressed his lover.
This is the delightful opening line of one of the best father-daughter memoirs ever written. About the book, writer and fellow wine lover Christopher Buckley wrote:
“If Anne Fadiman’s book about her father were a wine, it would merit a ‘100’ rating, along with all the oeno-superlatives: ‘smooth,’ ‘elegant,’ ‘brilliant,’ ‘rounded,’ ‘with a dazzling, heart-warming finish.’ But as it is a book and not a wine, let’s call it what it is: a stunning, original, beautifully written, clear-eyed yet tear-inducing account of a daughter’s love for her famous father; and into the bargain, the best family memoir yet to come out of the Baby Boom generation.”
In her opening paragraph, Fadiman—a truly gifted writer—continued: “Nearly every evening of my childhood, I watched him cut the capsule—the foil sleeve that sheathes the bottleneck—with a sharp knife. Then he plunged the bore of a butterfly corkscrew into the exact center of the cork, twirled the handle, and, after the brass levers rose like two supplicant arms, pushed them down and gently twisted out the cork. Its pop was satisfying but restrained, not the fustian whoop of a champagne cork, but a well-bred thwick.”
M. F. K. Fisher
Consider the Oyster (1941)
An oyster leads a dreadful but exciting life.
Indeed, his chance to live at all is slim, and if he should survive the arrows of his own outrageous fortune and in the two weeks of his carefree youth find a clean smooth place to fix on, the years afterwards are full of stress, passion, and danger.
Fisher was one of history’s most popular and influential food writers, but she had great fans in the writing world as well, with W. H. Auden once saying of her: “I do not know of anyone in the United States who writes better prose.“ While I can’t be sure, I’ve got to believe Auden was thinking about these opening words when he made his remark.
In a 1941 New York Times review, Edward Larocque Tinker described Consider the Oyster as a “A gay, pleasant, and instructive book.” Tinker went on to add: “This contribution to gastronomic lore completes the picture of a new type of cookery book that has captured popular favor.”
“The Muse of the Coyote Ugly Saloon,” in Esquire magazine (March 1997)
I was not the prettiest bartender at the Coyote Ugly Saloon. In my opinion, that would have been Caroline. I was partial to Caroline, though, because she had been so nice to me when I began working here. She was very pretty and also very funny. When I asked Caroline how she’d gotten her first bartender job, she cupped her breasts and said simply, “These.”
These are the opening words of the original Esquire article that turned an East Village bar into a New York City cultural landmark. Early in Gilbert’s career, while attempting to make a living as a working journalist, she supplemented her income with waitressing and bartending jobs, including a stint at the Coyote Ugly Saloon. Her article inspired the 2000 film “Coyote Ugly.“
By the way, if you don’t know the meaning of the slang term “coyote ugly,“ a Wikipedia entry says it “refers to the feeling of waking up after a one-night stand, and discovering that one’s arm is underneath someone who is so physically repulsive that one would gladly chew it off without waking the person just so one can get away without being discovered. Coyotes are known to gnaw off limbs if they are stuck in a trap, to facilitate escape.”
Eat, Pray, Love (2006)
I wish Giovanni would kiss me.
Gilbert continued: “Oh, but there are so many reasons why this would be a terrible idea. To begin with, Giovanni is ten years younger than I am, and—like most Italian guys in their twenties—he still lives with his mother. These facts alone make him an unlikely romantic partner for me, given that I am a professional American woman in my mid-thirties, who has just come through a failed marriage and a devastating, interminable divorce, followed immediately by a passionate love affair that ended in sickening heartbreak. This loss upon loss has left me feeling sad and brittle and about seven thousand years old. Purely as a matter of principle I wouldn’t inflict my sorry, busted-up old self on the lovely, unsullied Giovanni.”
French Dirt: The Story of a Garden in the South of France (1991; rev. ed. 2002)
This is a love story. Like most love stories. it has its share of joy and passion, of loss and pain. Like most love stories, it also has its moments of melodrama, of emotions run amok, of suspicions, worries, anxieties, of pride and panic—of jealousy even. And, like many familiar love stories, it has times of great pleasure and bliss, only to end, because fate or the gods willed it, cataclysmically.
In this case, the object of my love was not a woman. It was a small, rectangular piece of land in the south of France.
This is the story of my garden.
These beautiful opening words come from the book’s Prologue, and one would have to be insensate not to want to read on about how gardening may be likened to a great love story. Shortly after Goodman’s book was published, a review in The Midwest Book magazine paid the author—a writer and university professor, not a professional gardener—the supreme compliment, writing: “Goodman is to gardening what M. F. K. Fisher is to food.”
If that amazing analogical tribute didn’t make Goodman’s day, imagine how he felt when the legendary M. F. K. Fisher herself wrote to him about the book: “I possess a deep prejudice against anything written by Anglo-Saxons about their lives in or near French villages. So, Richard, I thank you for breaking the spell. I like very much what you wrote.”
“Love Match,” in Video Night in Kathmandu (1988)
Rambo had conquered Asia.
Iyer continued: “In China, a million people raced to see First Blood within ten days of its Beijing opening, and black marketeers were hawking tickets at seven times the official price. In India, five separate remakes of the American hit went instantly into production, one of them recasting the macho superman as a sari-clad woman.”
“The Quest Becomes a Trek,” in Video Night in Kathmandu (1988)
Within minutes of landing in Kathmandu, I found myself in Eden.
This is the piece’s entire first paragraph. In the second, Iyer continued: “The Hotel Eden, that is, not to be confused with the Paradise Restaurant around the corner or the Hotel Shangri-La. The Eden was on the intersection of Freak Street and the Dharmapath, which was, I thought, the perfect location: at the intersection of hippiedom and Hinduism, where Haight-Ashbury meets the Himalayas.”
“Why We Travel,” in Salon.com (March 18, 2000)
We travel, initially to lose ourselves; and we travel, next, to find ourselves.
On its own, this is a spectacular aphorism, well deserving of inclusion in any of the major anthologies of great quotations. in the article, Iyer continued:
“We travel to open our hearts and eyes and learn more about the world than our newspapers will accommodate. We travel to bring what little we can, in our ignorance and knowledge, to those parts of the globe whose riches are differently dispersed. And we travel, in essence, to become young fools again—to slow time down and get taken in, and fall in love once more.”
“Making Kindness Stand to Reason,” in Sun After Dark (2004)
Though the Dalai Lama is increasingly famous as a speaker, his real gift, you see as soon as you begin talking to him, is for listening.
Iyer is best known for his travel writings, but his profiles about people are also beautifully written—and this particular opener is outstanding. He continued: “And though he is most celebrated around the world these days for his ability to talk to halls large enough to stage a Bon Jovi concert, his special strength is to address twenty thousand people—Buddhists and grandmothers and kids alike—as if he were talking to each one alone, in the language she can best understand.”
“A. K. Phone Home,” in The Best Women’s Travel Writing, 2007 (2007; Lucy McCauley, ed.)
In theory, I’m a grownup. Crow’s feet, mortgage payments, shattered illusions…name the badge of adulthood, and I’m probably sporting it.
After these engaging opening words about herself, Kozolchyk continued:
“Still, I’ve never met another thirty-six-year-old whose parents expect daily communiques from wherever she happens to be. And where I happen to be, quite often, is the boonies—if not the official, geographic Middle of Nowhere, then damned close.”
The Passenger: How a Travel Writer Learned to Love Cruises & Other Lies from a Sinking Ship (2021)
As the cruise ship almost tips over, the horizon that once bisected my lovely balcony door rises like a theater curtain and disappears. Now the sea is the stage. I tumble off my bed onto the floor and roll like a stuntman.
Kwak was a passenger on the Viking Sky when, in 2019, it suffered a complete engine failure, had difficulty remaining upright, and began to drift dangerously close to a jagged shoreline. Kwak continued: “For now the ship has yet to fully flop, though it feels like we’re getting pretty close. Lucky us, the modern ocean liner is an engineering marvel equipped with technologies ensuring that it always stays upright. We’ve been rolling dangerously during a nasty storm but recover and list upright after each pounding wave threatens to capsize us.”
Day-by-Day and Heart-to-Heart (2021)
I arrived October 6, 1964, knowing only one word of Japanese: Sayonara.
By beginning her book with a delightful bit of ironic phrasing, Lazar immediately communicates an important message: this memoir will be far more than a simple recounting of events and experiences.
Free Air (1919)
When the windshield was closed it became so filmed with rain that Claire fancied she was piloting a drowned car in dim spaces under the sea.
A spectacular metaphor is always a good way to begin a novel, as Lewis demonstrates here in what has to be regarded as literary history’s first “road novel” (countless others would follow, with Kerouac’s 1957 classic On the Road arguably the most famous).
Lewis was writing in the early days of the automobile industry, when front windshields had no windshield wipers and could be moved into an “open” or “closed” position.
In a 2011 blog post, Jennifer Hubbard wrote: “This is the story of a young woman driving her father across country—around the time of World War I, when there was no interstate highway system, most roads were mud, and cars were not the button-operated, computerized machines they are now. The first line plunks us right down in the car next to Claire, and its reference to undersea piloting gives us a whiff of adventure.”
“Twilight on the Buffalo Paddock,” in An Outside Chance: Essays of Sport (1980)
Dawn: a curious mixture of noises. Birds, ocean trees soughing in a breeze off the Pacific; then, in the foreground, the steady cropping of buffaloes.
McGuane continued: “They are massing peacefully, feeding and nuzzling and ignoring the traffic. They are fat, happy, numerous beasts; and all around them are the gentle, primordial hills of Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, U.S.A. It is dawn on the buffalo paddock; the frontier is nowhere in sight.”
“A World-Record Dinner,” in An Outside Chance: Essays of Sport (1980)
I concede that “mutton snapper” is hardly a prepossessing title. The sheep, from which the name derives, is not much of an animal. No civilized person deals with him except in chops and stews. To bleat is not to sing out in a commanding baritone; to be sheepish is scarcely to possess a virtue for which civilization rolls out its more impressive carpets.
The title of the essay is nothing to write home about, but the opening paragraph is exceptional, and the writing only gets better as McGuane moves into the second paragraph:
“And it is true that the fish, as you may have suspected, is not at all handsome, with its large and vacant-looking head, crazy red eye, and haphazard black spot just shy of its tail. Yet its brick-orange flanks and red tail are rather tropical and fine, and for a number of reasons it deserves consideration as major light-tackle game. When you have been incessantly outwitted by the mutton snapper, you cease to emphasize his vaguely doltish exterior.”
The chief character in this narrative is the Caribbean Sea, one of the world’s most alluring bodies of water, a rare gem among the oceans, defined by the islands that form a chain of lovely jewels to the north and east.
The narrator continued: “Although bounded on the south and west by continental land masses, it is the islands that give the Caribbean its unique charm.”
I had been sent to Mexico to cover a murder, one of a remarkable kind. And since it had not yet happened, I had been ordered to get photographs, too.
Oxymoronic openings are always intriguing to readers, and this is one of the best. The opening words come from Norman Clay, an American journalist who has been assigned to cover an annual bullfighting festival in the Mexican city of Toledo. A few weeks earlier, he received a telegram from his editor, saying: “Rumor tells me two Mexican matadors are heading for a showdown in which one of them is likely to force the other to such extremes that it will be the same as murder.”
On Trails: An Exploration (2016)
It is impossible to fully appreciate the value of a trail until you have been forced to walk through the wilderness without one.
Moor also began the book’s Prologue with a memorable line: “Once, years ago, I left home looking for a grand adventure and spent five months staring at mud.”
Bring on the Empty Horses (1975)
When Gertrude Stein returned to New York after a short sojourn to Hollywood somebody asked her…“What is it like—out there?”
To which, with little delay and the minimum of careful thought the sage replied…“There is no ‘there’—there.”
Quotation lovers now know that Stein was referring to Oakland, not Hollywood, but Niven took a few liberties with her observation in order to craft a nifty opening to his book about life in Hollywood in the years between 1935 and 1960.
“Roma,” in A Dream of Countries Where No One Dare Live (1993)
Roma. And the thieves were already hard at work.
Ada’s Rules: A Sexy Skinny Novel (2012)
Ada departed the island of fat as she arrived: with little fanfare and for her own reasons. Edited, she was still luscious. Thin again is not simply thin.
The narrator is describing Ada Howard, a hefty (five-feet-two, 220 pounds), middle-aged Nashville woman married to Lucius Howard, the pastor of a church in one of the city’s black neighborhoods. The narrator continued: “The journey had begun in the usual way. She was approaching a twenty-fifth college reunion, where she would see the man who got away, a man Ada hadn’t seen in twenty years.”
Reading the book, I couldn’t decide if this was a diet book disguised as a novel, or vice versa. In a starred review, Publisher’s Weekly wrote, “It is impossible not to fall in love with the plucky plus-size heroine,” adding, “A heartwarming and engaging read, Ada’s story is more than that―readers following Randall’s rules will drop the pounds along with Ada, and perhaps discover something about themselves.”
“A Sonnet to Salad,” in The Pilot (Southern Pines, NC; April 16, 2012)
If food were poetry, subs would be limericks, sushi a haiku and salad a sonnet—14 lines of freshness and exquisite flavor. An antidote to winter sludge. A rainbow of colors and often a surprise.
This is the opening paragraph of Salomon’s delicious tribute to salads. Regarding the surprises often involved in salads, Salomon continued in the second paragraph: “Where else do sweet onions and strawberries, avocados and oranges so happily marry?” She also ended her article on a memorable note: “If dance is poetry in motion, salad is a sonnet on a plate.”
Travels with Charley: In Search of America (1962)
When I was very young and the urge to be someplace else was on me, I was assured by mature people that maturity would cure this itch. When years described me as mature, the remedy prescribed was middle age. In middle age I was assured that greater age would calm my fever and now that I am fifty-eight perhaps senility will do the job. Nothing has worked.
Travels with Charley is Steinbeck’s report of a 10,000-mile road trip around the United States accompanied by his pet poodle Charley. The trip occurred in 1960, when the author was fifty-eight and already diagnosed with the cancer that would result in his death in 1968. The book is generally described as a travelogue, but to my mind it has always read more like a personal narrative or memoir.
Steinbeck’s opening words continued with this further description of his lifelong wanderlust: “Four hoarse blasts of a ship’s whistle still raise the hair on my neck and set my feet to tapping. The sound of a jet, an engine warming up, even the clopping of shod hooves on pavement brings on the ancient shudder, the dry mouth and vacant eye, the hot palms and the churn of stomach high up under the rib cage. In other words, I don’t improve; in further words, once a bum, always a bum. I fear the disease is incurable. I set this matter down not to instruct others but to inform myself.”
Robert Louis Stevenson
“The Plains of Nebraska,” in Across the Plains: With Other Memories and Essays (1892)
It had thundered on the Friday night, but the sun rose on Saturday without a cloud. We were at sea—there is no other adequate expression—on the plains of Nebraska.
At sea on the plains of Nebraska? How can that be? This is perfect example of metaphorical phrasing in which something is literally false, but figuratively true. It is also one of my all-time favorite metaphors, and it came at the beginning of a travel vignette Stevenson wrote in 1879 while on a train from New York City to San Francisco.
If you’ve ever lived in The Great Plains—or traveled through the area during the summer months—you will appreciate the similarity between the great oceans of the world and the thousands of acres of rolling fields of wheat, flax, or corn (in writing the lyrics for the patriotic song “America the Beautiful,“ Katherine Lee Bates employed a similar metaphor in the opening lines: “O beautiful for spacious skies,/For amber waves of grain”).
In his vignette, Stevenson continued: “I made my observatory on the top of a fruit-wagon, and sat by the hour upon that perch to spy about me, and to spy in vain for something new. It was a world almost without a feature; an empty sky, an empty earth; front and back, the line of railway stretched from horizon to horizon, like a cue across a billiard-board; on either hand, the green plain ran till it touched the skirts of heaven.”
Best known for his rollicking adventure tales, Stevenson was also an accomplished essayist and arguably the world’s first internationally-famous travel writer (he wrote ten separate travel memoirs from 1878 to 1905).
The 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.”
Auto Biography: A Classic Car, an Outlaw Motorhead, and 57 Years of the American Dream (2014)
Behold Tommy Arney: six-one, two-forty, biceps big as most men’s thighs and displayed to maximum effect in the black wifebeater that is his warm-weather fashion essential.
If you’re going to begin a book with a description of a person, it had better be a good one. This one starts off beautifully—and continues at the same high level for an entire 147-word first paragraph:
“Thick neck. Goatee. Hair trimmed tight on the sides and to a broomlike inch on top, having grown too thin to facilitate the lush mullet he favored for the better part of two decades. Big, calloused mitts roughened by wrench turning and car towing and several hundred applications of blunt-force trauma, of which dozens resulted in his arrest. Self-applied four-dot tattoo on his left wrist, signifying his years as a guest of the state. A belly nourished by beer, whiskey, Rumple Minze, and buckets of both haute cuisine and Buffalo chicken wings—of the latter, seventy-two at one sitting—but ameliorated by excellent posture. He leads with his chest, shoulders thrown rearward, daring the world to take a swing at him.”
Swift’s tour de force of a first paragraph is followed by a few more of the same high quality, and they ultimately lead to a spectacular conclusion. You’ll have to check it out on your own, though. Trust me, it’ll be worth your while.
Atilla the Gate Agent (2007)
I once had an engagement in the town of Normal, Illinois. I was delighted to learn that a place called Normal actually existed, because I happen to live just a few miles from the town of Peculiar, Missouri. I don’t think it’s any accident of the universe that I live a lot closer to Peculiar than Normal.
When I’m asked, “Of the many different types of opening lines, is there one that is your favorite?“ I usually answer, “Yes, the ones that make me laugh.“ And when it comes to laugh-out-loud opening lines, I generally add that they are not restricted to history’s great humorous writers, like Mark Twain, James Thurber, Erma Bombeck, or Fran Lebowitz. This usually prompts a request for examples from lesser-known authors, and when it does, I generally mention this one from Tamblyn, a talented contemporary musician who describes himself as a “motivational humorist.“
Hunter S. Thompson
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1971)
We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.
This is the opening line of one of the most epic beginnings in contemporary fiction. In the opening paragraph, the narrator—a Gonzo journalist named Raoul Duke—continued:
“I remember saying something like ‘I feel a bit lightheaded; maybe you should drive...’ And suddenly there was a terrible roar all around us and the sky was full of what looked like huge bats, all swooping and screeching and diving around the car, which was going about a hundred miles an hour with the top down to Las Vegas. And a voice was screaming: ‘Holy Jesus! What are these goddamn animals?’”
The writing is so crisp and clear that the scene is easy to imagine: a guy, totally high on drugs, is racing his open convertible at a super-high rate of speed down a long, straight Nevada highway when the hallucinogenic effects of the drug begin to really kick in. Just as we imagine the worst is about to happen, the narrator continues in the second paragraph:
“Then it was quiet again. My attorney had taken his shirt off and was pouring beer on his chest, to facilitate the tanning process. ‘What the hell are you yelling about,’ he muttered, staring up at the sun with his eyes closed and covered with wraparound Spanish sunglasses. ‘Never mind,’ I said. ’It’s your turn to drive.’ I hit the brakes and aimed the Great Red Shark toward the shoulder of the highway. No point mentioning those bats, I thought. The poor bastard will see them soon enough.“
It’s hard to imagine a more exciting opening to a novel. After two paragraphs, we are completely “in” for the rest of the ride. In a 2017 blog post (“20 Strategies to Write Your Novel’s First Paragraph”), writer, editor, and Bookfox.com founder John Fox hailed “The energy of this opening!“ After adding that “The prose is blasting off into space,“ Fox went on to write:
“Despite all the craziness of this opening, it really has a simple strategy: character building. This is the type of character who loves taking drugs, who drives a hundred miles an hour toward Vegas while on drugs, and who doesn’t even realize that he is the one shouting at the imaginary animals (the ‘voice’ is his own).“
Aeneid (1st c. B.C.)
I sing of arms and the man.
Also often translated as “Of arms and the man I sing,” these are the words that begin Virgil’s epic tale of Aeneas, a prince in the nation-state of Troy and a man in search of a new land following his exile after the Trojan War. His wanderings finally take him to Italy, where he becomes the progenitor of a people who ultimately become known as Romans.
One of history’s most famous phrases, it shows up in numerous plays and novels (G. B. Shaw titled his 1994 play Arms and the Man). About the opening passage, Alice Hubbard wrote in a December 1912 issue of The Fra: “It is a trumpet-call to attention. We listen and we have listened since man observed and was interested in other men. War has been the writer’s theme since man first wrote.”
The Passion (1987)
It was Napoleon who had such a passion for chicken that he kept his chefs working around the clock.
The narrator, who is known only as Henri, is a diminutive (five feet two inches) French foot-soldier who is in the personal service of Napoleon (no one taller than Henri has ever been selected to wait on the equally short Emperor). After advancing from the lowly position of chicken neck wringer in the Royal kitchen, he has been placed in charge of the Emperor’s personal larder as the French army prepares for its fateful March toward Russia. He continued:
“What a kitchen that was, with birds in every state of undress; some still cold and slung over hooks, some turning slowly on the spit, but most in wasted piles because the Emperor was busy. Odd to be so governed by an appetite.”
“Your Land,” in The National Road: Dispatches from a Changing America (2020)
A summer afternoon in Kansas: shadows in the grass, and a diagonal slash cut into the earth.
After first reading this deliciously ambiguous opening line, the image that came into my mind was some kind of human creation, like a highway, airport landing strip, or worse, oil pipeline, desecrating the natural landscape. That first impression spurred me on to read further, and I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Zoellner continued—beautifully, I might add—in the second paragraph: “The trench in the soil had nailed me in place, as if I had just been shown the ribs of a dinosaur skeleton. Nothing here but a rut in the ground, but what a remarkable rut, because it had been carved here by hundreds of wagons traveling on the Santa Fe Trail in the mid-nineteenth century, jangling with goods headed southwest, crossing through territory of the Pawneee and Kiowa. The ground still wore a scar of their passage. I could not have been more mesmerized looking at a full-color telescope blast of the Crab Nebula, or the dark shroud of the Virgin of Guadalupe.”
A few months after he was captivated by the sight of the diagonal slash, Zoellner took a break from his work as a newspaper reporter, strapped forty pounds of gear on his back, and hiked the entire length of the trail—900 miles, from Missouri to New Mexico—keeping notes along the way.