Genre: Words/Language & Writers/Books
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”).
Mortimer J. Adler
“How to Mark a Book,” in The Saturday Review of Literature (July 6, 1940)
You know you have to read “between the lines” to get the most out of anything. I want to persuade you to do something equally important in the course of your reading. I want to persuade you to “write between the lines.” Unless you do, you are not likely to do the most efficient kind of reading.
Prior to 1940, books were considered prize possessions, and it was uncommon for people to underline passages or scribble notes in the margins. Many, indeed, considered such actions to be a defacing of books. Adler, who was thrilled by the appearance of new, inexpensive reprint editions of classic books, directly challenged this viewpoint by writing in the second paragraph: “I contend, quite bluntly, that marking up a book is not an act of mutilation but of love.”
The moment one learns English, complications set in.
This simple opening sentence can be appreciated at so many different levels—all of them interesting, and all of them highly relevant to the immigrant experience. In their 2006 listing of the “100 Best First Lines from Novels,“ the folks at the American Book Review ranked it number 41.
Written in the 1940s, but not published until 1990, Chromos anticipated many of the later immigrant narratives that would become so important in American fiction. The book came from out of nowhere to be nominated for the 1990 National Book Award, and is now regarded as a masterpiece of metafiction.
The Sum of Our Days: A Memoir (2008)
There is no lack of drama in my life. I have more than enough three-ring-circus material for writing, but even so, I always approach the seventh of January with trembling. Last night I couldn’t sleep.
On January 8, 1981, Allende wrote a letter to her dying grandfather, a first cousin of Salvador Allende, the president of Chile from 1970-73. That letter would ultimately turn into her first novel, The House of the Spirits (1982). Ever since, Allende has officially started every one of her subsequent twenty-four books on January 8th. She went on to explain: “For twenty-five years, I have begun a book on that date, more from superstition than discipline. I’m afraid that if I begin on any other day the book will be a failure and if I let an eighth of January go by without writing, I’ll not be able to start for the rest of the year.“
I, Asimov: A Memoir (1994)
In 1977, I wrote my autobiography. Since I was dealing with my favorite subject, I wrote at length and I ended with 640,000 words.
In every one of his 500-plus books, Asimov found a way to express his wry sense of humor—and in this one, it shows up in the very first sentence.
“Farewell—Farewell,” Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (August 1992)
I have written three hundred ninety-nine essays for Fantasy & Science Fiction. The essays were written with enormous pleasure, for I have always been allowed to say what I wanted to say. It was with horror that I discovered I could not manage a four hundredth essay.
This is the dramatic opening paragraph of Asimov’s final published article, written just before his death at age 72 on April 6, 1992 (it was formally published six months later). In the second paragraph, he continued:
“It has always been my ambition to die in harness with my head face down on a keyboard and my nose caught between two of the keys, but that’s not the way it worked out.”
After writing more than 500 books and thousands of essays and articles, Asimov had no desire to ever retire—and there is no way he could have foreseen the circumstances surrounding his own death. While the official cause of death was listed as heart and kidney failure, it wasn’t until a decade later that his widow and other family members revealed that his heart and liver problems were the result of an HIV infection contracted from a blood transfusion during a 1988 triple bypass surgery.
W. H. Auden
"Werther and Novella" (1971), in Forewords and Afterwards (1973)
So far as I know, Goethe was the first writer or artist to become a Public Celebrity.
W. H. Auden
"Shakespeare's Sonnets" (1964), in Forewords and Afterwards (1973)
Probably, more nonsense has been talked and written, more intellectual and emotional energy expended in vain, on the sonnets of Shakespeare than on any other literary work in the world.
W. H. Auden
Introduction to Edgar Allan Poe: Selected Prose, Poetry, and Eureka (1950)
What every author hopes to receive from posterity—a hope usually disappointed—is justice.
Auden continued: “Next to oblivion, the two fates which he most fears are becoming the name attached to two or three famous pieces while the rest of his work is unread and becoming the idol of a small circle which reads every word he wrote with the same uncritical reverence.“
W. H. Auden
“One of the Family,“ in The New Yorker (Oct. 23, 1965)
I never enjoy having to find fault with a book, and when the author is someone I have met and like, I hate it.
Auden was referring to David Cecil’s 1964 biography of Max Beerbohm.
W. H. Auden
“A Marriage of True Minds” (1961),“ in Forewords and Afterwards (1973)
The mating of minds is, surely, quite as fascinating a relationship as the mating of the sexes, yet how little attention novelists have paid to it.
Burning Boy: The Life and Work of Stephen Crane (2021)
Born on the Day of the Dead and dead five months before his twenty-ninth birthday, Stephen Crane lived five months and five days into the twentieth century, undone by tuberculosis before he had a chance to drive an automobile or see an airplane, to watch a film projected on a large screen or listen to a radio, a figure from the horse-and-buggy world who missed out on the future that was awaiting his peers, not just the construction of those miraculous machines and inventions but the horrors of the age as well, including the destruction of tens of millions of lives in two wars.
When one brilliant writer chooses to write a biography of another brilliant writer, readers can legitimately expect an extraordinary work, and Burning Boy is just that. The book also begins with a tour de force of an opening sentence—all 104 words of it. For reasons I’m sure you will understand, this was one of my choices for a Smerconish.com post on “Twenty-One of the Best Opening Lines of 2021.“
A bit later in the book, Auster also captured Crane’s pivotal role in American letters: “Crane’s work, which shunned the traditions of nearly everything that had come before him, was so radical for its time that he can be regarded now as the first American modernist, the man most responsible for changing the way we see the world through the lens of the written word.”
“Autobiographical Notes,“ in Notes of a Native Son (1955)
I was born in Harlem thirty-one years ago. I began plotting novels at about the time I learned to read.
Baldwin had published his first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, two years earlier, but he was still working hard to establish a reputation as an important American thinker. The remainder of the book consisted of ten essays he had written for such publications as Harper’s Magazine, Partisan Review, and The New Leader.
Baldwin continued: “The story of my childhood is the usual bleak fantasy, and we can dismiss it with the restrained observation that I certainly would not consider living it again. In those days my mother was given to the exasperating and mysterious habit of having babies.“
Dave Barry Talks Back (1991) (1991)
I am always getting letters from people who want my job.
“Dave,” they start out. They always call me Dave.
“Dave,” they say, “I want your job, because my current job requires me to be a responsible person doing productive work, whereas your job requires you mainly to think up booger jokes.
In a 2005 Slate article (titled “Elegy for the Humorist”), Bryan Curtis wrote: “Barry writes some of the jazziest opening lines in the business.” He certainly demonstrates that in these opening words, and he continued the riff this way: “This kind of thoughtless remark really gets my dander up. Because although the reading public sees only the end product of my work, the truth is that I often spend many hours researching a particular topic before I make booger jokes about it.”
Saul Bellow’s Heart: A Son’s Memoir (2013)
On a visit to Chicago when I was eight, I witnessed a terrible argument, in Yiddish, between my father and grandfather. Driving away from his father’s house, Saul started to cry so bitterly he had to pull off the road. After a few minutes, he excused his lapse of self-control by saying, “It’s okay for grown-ups to cry.“ I knew his heart was breaking. I knew because of the bond between my father’s tender heart and mine.
Bellow, who had recently retired from a four-decade career as a psychotherapist, continued: “As Saul’s firstborn, I believed our relationship to be sacrosanct until his funeral, an event filled with tributes to his literary accomplishments and anecdotes about his personal influence on those in attendance that set in motion my reconsideration of that long-held but unexamined belief.“
Write It Right: A Little Blacklist of Literary Faults (1909)
The author’s main purpose in this book is to teach precision in writing; and of good writing (which, essentially, is clear thinking made visible) precision is the point of capital concern.
I believe this is the first appearance in print of the idea that clear writing is clear thinking. Bierce continued on the subject of precision: “It is attained by choice of the word that accurately and adequately expresses what the writer has in mind, and by exclusion of that which either denotes or connotes something else.”
“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.
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.”
The Crime of Our Lives (2015)
It was in the eleventh grade that I knew I would be a writer. The conviction grew out of two awarenesses that dawned at about the same time. I became aware of the world of realistic adult fiction, with all its power to inform and enchant and absorb one utterly. I became aware, too, of my own talent with words. I seemed to be capable of doing with them what I had been unable to do with a baseball bat or a hammer or a monkey wrench or a slide rule.
Lawrence Block is one of the modern era’s most prolific crime/mystery authors, and this is the marvelous opening paragraph of a compilation of Introductions he wrote throughout his career.
Roy Blount, Jr.
”Reading and Nothingness: Of Proust in the Summer Sun,” in The New York Times (June 2, 1985)
A feeling seems to have arisen that summer is the time for light reading. I don’t know where anyone got that idea.
Blount continued: “The truth about summer is this. There are an enormous number of hours in it—slow hours—and yet, before you know it, somehow it is over. So all you have to do is to start reading Heidegger, say, on the first day of summer. One day you look up and both summer and Heidegger are done.“
The Debut (1981)
Dr. Weiss, at forty, knew that her life had been ruined by literature.
In a chapter titled “Lines That Linger; Sentences That Stick” in More Book Lust (2005), celebrity librarian Nancy Pearl described this as one of her favorite opening lines. About it, she wrote: “A line that every compulsive middle-aged reader can identify with.“
In the novel, the narrator continued about Dr. Weiss: “In her thoughtful and academic way, she put it down to her faulty moral education, which dictated, through the conflicting but in this one instance united agencies of her mother and father, that she ponder the careers of Anna Karenina and Emma Bovary, but that she emulate those of David Copperfield and Little Dorrit.“
This is what I write to her: The clouds tonight embossed the sky. A dipping sun gilded and brazed each raveling edge as if the firmament were threaded through with precious filaments. I pause there to mop my aching eye, which will not stop tearing. The line I have set down is, perhaps, on the florid side of fine, but no matter: she is a gentle critic.
The opening words come from Mr. March, a Union Army chaplain who is reflecting on a letter he is writing to his wife back home in Concord, Massachusetts. A moment later in the letter, he specifically references his daughter Jo—an aspiring writer—in a thought that references all four of his daughters: “I hope my dear young author is finding time amid all her many good works to make use of my little den, and that her friendly rats will not grudge a short absence from her accustomed aerie.“
If any of this sounds familiar, it’s because Brooks got her inspiration for the book from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (1868). The title of the novel refers to the four March sisters, who are living with their mother in the family home while their father is serving as a chaplain in the Union Army. Though physically absent, Mr. March maintains a presence in their lives through his frequent letters home. In one passage that particularly struck Brooks, Alcott wrote: “Jo said sadly, ’We haven’t got father, and shall not have him for a long time.’ She didn’t say ’perhaps never,’ but each silently added it, thinking of father far away, where the fighting was.“ March got mixed reviews from critics, but was devoured by Brooks’s fans, went on to become a bestseller, and was awarded the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
Rita Mae Brown
High Hearts (1986)
“Girl, my fingernails could grow an inch just waiting for you.“ Di-Peachy leaned in the doorway to Geneva’s bedroom.
This is an okay opening line, but not a particularly memorable one. I include it here because Brown’s opening line in the book’s Foreword is sensational: “Novels, like human beings, usually have their beginnings in the dark.“
Rita Mae Brown
Starting From Scratch: A Different Kind of Writer’s Manual (1988)
Writers will happen in the best of families. No one is quite sure why.
Brown’s helpful—and entertaining—guide for writers begins with a clever tweak of an old English proverb: “Accidents will happen in the best regulated families” (Charles Dickens put a version of the saying into the mouth of Mrs. Micawber in David Copperfield). The American humorist Oliver Herford also piggybacked on the saying, writing in The Entirely New Cynic’s Calendar (1905): “Actresses will happen in the best regulated families.”
Rita Mae Brown
Rita Will: Memoirs of a Literary Rabble-Rouser (1997)
My mother was mucking stalls at Hanover Shoe Farm outside of Hanover, Pennsylvania, within a shout of the Mason-Dixon line, when her water broke. Had the hospital not been nearby, I would have been born in a manger.
In her career, Brown has been so adept at crafting opening lines, I was almost certain she’d come up with a winner when she decided to pen a memoir. I wasn’t disappointed. In the opening paragraph, she continued in fine form:
“Perhaps I came into the world knowing Jesus had already done that, and since he suffered for all of us I saw no reason to be redundant.”
The Beauty of Dusk: On Vision Lost and Found (2022)
They say that death comes like a thief in the night. Lesser vandals have the same MO. The affliction that stole my vision, or at least a big chuck of it, did so as I slept. I went to bed seeing the world one way. I woke up seeing it another.
In 2017, New York Times columnist Bruni woke up one morning with significantly blurred vision in his right eye, the result of a stroke that had cut off the blood supply to one of his optic nerves. Rendered functionally blind in that eye, he soon learned that he was in danger of losing sight in the left eye as well. In the memoir’s second paragraph, Bruni continued about the life-altering event:
“I went to bed believing that I was more or less in control of my life—that the unfinished business, unrealized dreams and other disappointments were essentially failures of industry and imagination and could probably be redeemed with a fierce enough effort. I woke up to the realization of how ludicrous that was.”
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.”
Losing Mum and Pup: A Memoir (2009)
I’m not sure how this book will turn out. I mostly write novels, and I’ve found, having written half a dozen, that if you’re lucky, the ending turns out a surprise and you wind up with something you hadn’t anticipated in the outline. I suppose it’s a process of outsmarting yourself (not especially hard in my case).
Buckley, the only child of William F. Buckley, Jr. and Patricia Taylor Buckley, continued: “Perhaps I’m outsmarting myself by writing this book at all. I’d pretty much resolved not to write a book about my famous parents. But I’m a writer, for better or worse, and when the universe hands you material like this, not writing about it seems either a waste or a conscious act of evasion.”
Has Anyone Seen My Toes? (2022)
He shuffles to the bathroom scale and steps onto it with the enthusiasm of a man mounting the gallows.
The first sentence of Buckley’s most recent novel—a hilarious and heavily autobiographical examination of an aging writer’s life during the COVID-19 pandemic—perfectly captures an almost universal experience (since reading it, I haven’t looked at my bathroom scale in the same way again). I was delighted to honor the opener in my compilation of “The Best Opening Lines of 2022” on Smerconish.com (see the full list here).
In the opening paragraph, the narrator continued:
“He imagines metallic groans, the sound of springs straining to their limit, the creak of timbers about to crack. But how can this be? It’s a high-tech scale, probably engineered by people whose native language is German and wear white laboratory gowns. It was a hint-hint present from his wife, Peaches. It tells you not only how much you weigh but also how much you weighed yesterday, and how many calories you can consume today in order to weigh less tomorrow. But all this is academic, for he cannot see the numbers, owing to the protuberance of his belly.”
Earthly Powers (1980)
It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me.
Few opening lines in literary history exceed this one in what might be called in-your-face daring. A 2012 article on “Arresting Openings” in London’s The Telegraph described this opener as “outrageously provocative.“
Also in 2012, The Guardian’s Robert McCrum hailed Burgess’s opening sentence as one of “The 10 Best First Lines in Fiction,“ writing: “This is one of the supreme show-off first-person openings. Burgess challenges the reader (and himself) to step on to the roller coaster of a very tall tale (loosely based on the life of Somerset Maugham).“
“Introduction,” to Expletives Deleted: Selected Writing (1992)
I am known in my circle as notoriously foul-mouthed. It’s a familiar paradox—the soft-spoken, middle-aged English gentlewoman who swears like a trooper when roused.
A candid bit of self-disclosure is always a good way to begin a work of non-fiction—and Carter does it very nicely in the Introduction to a collection of her book reviews. She continued:
“I blame my father, who was neither English nor a gentleman but Scottish and a journalist, who bequeathed me bad language and a taste for the print, so that his daughter, for the last fifteen-odd years, has been writing book reviews and then conscientiously blue-pencilling out her first guy reactions—‘bloody awful’, ‘fucking dire’—in order to give a more balanced and objective overview.”
“Edward Gorey’s Toys,” in The New Yorker (July 12, 2021)
Killing children is generally frowned upon, but Edward Gorey did it all the time.
It’s rare for a short piece about an upcoming art exhibition to have a great opening line, but New Yorker staff writer Cep convincingly demonstrates it can be done. In her brief article about two exhibitions at the Edward Gorey House in Yarmouth Port, Massachusetts, Cep continued: “He squashed them with trains, fed them to bears, poisoned them with lye, forced them to swallow tacks, watched them waste away, and burned them in fires; on his watch, they died of everything from fits to flying into bits.”
Wonder Boys (1995)
The first real writer I ever knew was a man who did all of his work under the name of August Van Zorn.
More than two decades after Wonder Boys was published, Chabon reflected on this opening line in a 2017 essay. He wrote that the words came effortlessly and provided all the questions that needed to be answered as he completed the book. He went on to add: “The seed of the novel—who would tell the story and what it would be about—was in that first sentence, and it just arrived. I just had to tease it all out.“
Lan Samantha Chang
All is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost (2010)
Miranda Sturgis was an exceptional poet. Among the School’s distinguished faculty, she was the brightest star, and graduate students fought to gain admission to her seminars.
The narrator continued: “It was 1986, and the most fervent feared they had missed the age of poetry—that they were born into the era of its decline. To Miranda and the School they came in defiance of that decline; or, at the very least, to sit for two years in the circle of her radiance.“
Agatha Christie: An Autobiography (1977)
One of the luckiest things that can happen to you in life is, I think, to have a happy childhood. I had a very happy childhood.
Christie continued: “I had a home and a garden that I loved; a wise and patient nanny; as father and mother two people who loved each other dearly and made a success of their marriage and of parenthood.” The book was published posthumously, a little over a year after Christie’s death at age 85 in 1976. It also won the 1978 Edgar Award for Best Critical/Biographical Work.
The Bookshop on the Corner (2016)
The problem with good things that happen is that very often they disguise themselves as awful things.
The opening words come from Nina Redmond, a Scottish librarian who has always dreamed of opening a bookstore. She continued: “It would be lovely, wouldn’t it, whenever you’re going through something difficult, if someone could just tap you on the shoulder and say, ‘Don’t worry, it’s completely worth it. It seems like absolutely horrible crap now, but I promise it will all come good in the end,’ and you could say, ‘Thank you, Fairy Godmother.’”
God Knows: It’s Not About Us (2005)
From what source, one might wonder, would anyone gain the energy to write a book? Or the narcissism to think anyone would want to read it?
It beats therapy.
“Barbara Warley Was Loved by Everyone,” in A Lowcountry Heart: Reflections on a Writing Life (2016)
March 26, 2014
I’ve come to that point in my life when my memories seem as important as the life I’m now leading.
Conroy was sixty-eight when he wrote these words, the opening sentence of a eulogy he was delivering for the wife of one of his best friends from college. When I first read the opening sentence, I was immediately reminded of something May Sarton wrote in her 1984 memoir At Seventy: “I suppose real old age begins when one looks backward rather than forward.“
Over the years, I’ve noticed that eulogies penned by writers are often as much about the people writing the eulogy as those they are eulogizing—and that is certainly the case here. In reflecting back to when he first met Warley, for example, Conroy wrote: “Instinctively, we identified ourselves as members of the unhappy tribe who come from troubled and deeply flawed families.”
Two years after Warley’s death, Conroy himself died, at age 70, of a fast-spreading pancreatic cancer.
Leave Me Alone, I’m Reading: Finding and Losing Myself in Books (2005)
It’s not that I don’t like people. It’s just that when I’m in the company of others—even my nearest and dearest—there always comes a moment when I’d rather be reading a book.
I love this opening paragraph for a bunch of reasons, but principally because I might have written the same thing about myself (and, dear reader, there’s a good chance that, if you’re reading these words right now, you might be thinking the same thing).
In her book’s second paragraph, Corrigan continued: “And, for many hours of almost every day, that’s what I’m doing. I have a great job—or, to be accurate, cluster of jobs—for a bookworm. I read for a living.”
In addition to her professorship at Georgetown University, Corrigan is also the longtime book critic for NPR’s Fresh Air, the author of a regular “Mysteries” column for The Washington Post, and a freelance book reviewer for many other publications.
A Childhood: The Biography of a Place (1978; re-isssued 2022)
My first memory is of a time ten years before I was born, and the memory takes place where I have never been and involves my daddy whom I never knew.
These are the intriguing opening words of a memoir that was described by The New Yorker’s Casey Cep as “One of the finest memoirs ever written.” About the meaning that the opening line had for Crews, Cep wrote: “He knew that history, even our own personal history, can take the form of myth if we let it, and he hints at this in the memoir’s opening…. What he then recounts is something he was once told.” Cep then helpfully added:
“Much of what we know about the world is secondhand, as is everything we know about the past, and we demonize or mythologize it at our peril. Find a way to cherish it, sure, but Crews knew better than to reject the world that made him or to romanticize what he barely survived.”
Nina de Gramont
The Christie Affair (2022)
A long time ago in another country, I nearly killed a man.
In a Wall Street Journal review, Tom Nolan wrote that the novel “Sizzles from the first sentence,” and I was pleased to include it in my compilation of “The Best Opening Lines of 2022” on Smerconish.com (see the full list here).
In 1926, Agatha Christie was one of the world’s most popular writers when, after her husband told her he was leaving her for his mistress, she famously disappeared for eleven days. While Christie never talked about what happened, the story has been explored in a number of books and films—but never more ingeniously than in de Gramont’s novel, which told the story from the perspective of Nan O’Dea, the mistress of Agatha Christie’s husband. In the novel, O’Dea continued with a dark but powerful observation:
“It’s a particular feeling, the urge to murder. First comes rage, larger than any you’ve ever imagined. It takes over your body so completely it’s like a divine force, grabbing hold of your will, your limbs, your psyche. It conveys a strength you never knew you possessed. Your hands, harmless until now, rise up to squeeze another person’s life away. There’s a joy to it. In retrospect it’s frightening, but I daresay in the moment it feels sweet, the way justice feels sweet.”
A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, and the Things That Really Matter (2011)
I was twenty-six, and about as dumb, in all human things, as any twenty-six-year-old has a right to be, when I met the woman who would change my life. That she’d been dead for a couple of hundred years made not the slightest difference whatsoever.
In a 2011 review in The New York Times, writer Miranda Seymour described these opening words as “endearingly self-effacing,” and I would concur. After such a delightful opening paragraph, it’s almost impossible to imagine any reader who wouldn’t be eager to read on. Deresiewicz, a former Yale University English professor and respected book critic, continued in the first paragraph: “Her name was Jane Austen, and she would teach me everything I know about everything that matters.”
Rameau’s Nephew (1762)
Come rain or shine, my custom is to go for a stroll in the Palais-Royal every afternoon about five. I am always to be seen there alone, sitting on a seat in the Allée d’Argenson, meditating.
The opening words—which are not exactly sizzling—come from an unnamed narrator who bears an uncanny resemblance to the real-life author. Continuing in the first paragraph, though, the narrator heats things up considerably as he continues with one of literary history’s great metaphorical passages: “I hold discussions with myself on politics, love, taste or philosophy, and let my thoughts wander in complete abandon, leaving them free to follow the first wise or foolish idea that comes along, like those young rakes in the Allée de Foy who run after a giddy-looking little piece with a laughing face, sparkling eye and tip-tilted nose, only to leave her for another, accosting them all, but sticking to none. In my case my thoughts are my wenches.”
This entire first paragraph—but especially the final portion—has such a modern, on-the-edge sensibility that it is hard to believe it was written more than a dozen years before the American Revolution (to be precise, it was written in 1761-62, but first published in a German edition by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in 1805). According to historians, Diderot did not want the piece published during his lifetime for fear of being sued or arrested for his portrayal of the rich and powerful of the time (he had been briefly imprisoned in 1749 for some other writings, so his wariness was understandable). All modern translations of the work are based on a complete manuscript—in Diderot’s own handwriting—found by a French librarian in 1890.
It was because of passages like this that book critic Michael Dirda preferred Diderot over such other French Enlightenment writers as Rousseau and Voltaire. In his Classics for Pleasure (2007), Dirda wrote that Diderot possessed “the kind of restless, original mind that throws off ideas like a Fourth of July sparkler. He is irresistible.”
“White Album,” title essay from The White Album (1979)
We tell ourselves stories in order to live.
These words—which have become something of a signature line for Didion—begin an acclaimed autobiographical essay about her life in San Francisco in the 1960s. In a 2012 Publisher’s Weekly article, Robert Atwan included it in “The Top Ten Essays Since 1950.”
The Writing Life (1989)
When you write, you lay out a line of words. The line of words is a miner’s pick, a woodcarver’s gouge, a surgeon’s probe. You wield it, and it digs a path you follow.
This is a lovely metaphor, and an almost perfect way to begin a book on The Writing Life. Dillard continued: “Soon you find yourself deep in new territory. Is it a dead end, or have you located the real subject? You will know tomorrow, or this time next year.”
Classics for Pleasure (2007)
Classics for pleasure? To some readers this may seem an oxymoron. Aren’t classics supposed to be difficult, esoteric, and a little boring? Yes, teachers and critics claim they’re good for you, but so are milk of magnesia and cod-liver oil. Really, after a hard day’s work, who wants to settle down for more…work? A fast-moving thriller or a steamy romance—those sound more like it.
Dirda, the Washington Post book critic described by writer Michael Kinsley as “the best-read person in America,” continued in the book’s second paragraph: “I sympathize with this common view, even if it is quite wrong. Classics are classics not because they are educational, but because people have found them worth reading, generation after generation, century after century. More than anything else, great books speak to us of our own very real feelings and failings, of our all-too-human daydreams and confusions.”
“The Hard Choices of Elizabeth Hardwick,” in The New Yorker (Nov. 15, 2021)
Elizabeth Hardwick was a master of the opening sentence. Few writers have the guts to begin so boldly—or with so many adjectives.
A moment later, after ticking off several examples of great opening lines from Hardwick, Doherty wrote: “Her friend Susan Sontag said that she wrote ‘the most beautiful sentences, more beautiful sentences than any living American writer.’”
“Insatiable,“ in Granta magazine (Autumn 2011)
Only a sentence, casually placed as a footnote in the back of Justin Kaplan’s thick 2003 biography of Walt Whitman, but it goes off like a little explosion: “Bram Stoker based the character of Dracula on Walt Whitman….”
In a 2018 ThoughtCo.com article on “Eight Great Opening Lines,” literary scholar Richard Nordquist selected Doty’s first sentence as an example of an opening that illustrates H. G. Wells 1898 advice on the importance of “whacking” readers at the beginning of an essay.
Wells’s complete advice went as follows: “So long as you do not begin with a definition you may begin anyhow. An abrupt beginning is much admired, after the fashion of the clown’s entry through the chemist’s window. Then whack at your reader at once, hit him over the head with the sausages, brisk him up with the poker, bundle him into the wheelbarrow, and so carry him away with you before he knows where you are.” For more on Well’s 1898 essay, titled “The Writing of essays,“ go here).
Daphne du Maurier
Myself When Young: The Shaping of a Writer (1977)
All autobiography is self-indulgent.
Justice: Crimes, Trials, and Punishments (2001)
I didn’t start writing until I was fifty years old although an observer’s eye had been observing for forty of those fifty years, while trying out different areas of occupation.
Dunne’s opening sentence emphasizes something that is often unappreciated—one of the most important of all writing skills has nothing to do with writing per se, but with clearly and accurately observing what is going on around us. In the opening paragraph, he continued:
“My career in television and movies in Hollywood had come to a permanent halt, and I had nowhere else to turn. The thought of writing had been lurking within me for some time, but I didn’t actually begin until I finally removed myself from the glamorous world in which I no longer belonged to a one-room cabin in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon. There I began my second career as a writer and a recorder of the social history of our time.”
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.”
“Civilization: Evolution of a Word and a Group of Ideas” (1930); reprinted in A New Kind of History (1973; P. Burke, ed.)
It is never a waste of time to study the history of a word. Such journeys, whether short or long, monotonous or varied, are always instructive.
A Peculiar Treasure (1938)
When I was a small girl living in Appleton, Wisconsin, I often was sent with a quart tin pail to the creamery which was three blocks away on the wrong side of the railroad tracks. The Ferber family, I hastily and grandly add, lived on the right side of the tracks. Any native Middle West American will get the social significance (and the revolting snobbery) of that statement.
Ferber’s opening paragraph is only sixty-eight words in length, but it contains a wealth of information not merely about her own childhood, but also about life in the American Midwest in the final decades of the nineteenth century. She continued: “I didn’t much relish the errand because the creamery had a curdled smell like that of a baby who has just had a digestive surprise.”
The Eyre Affair (2001)
My father had a face that could stop a clock.
The words come from protagonist and narrator Thursday Next, the daughter of Wednesday Next and her husband Colonel Next, a former official in a British Special Operations Unit known as The ChronoGuard. She continued: “I don’t mean he was ugly or anything; it was a phrase the ChronoGuard used to describe someone who had the power to reduce time to an ultraslow trickle.”
“How I Wound Up with a Wound from Heteronyms,” in The Washington Post (May 20, 2021)
The English language has something to confuse or annoy just about anyone—the mysteries of who and whom usage, the e.g. vs. i.e. standoff, the polarizing Oxford comma. I have a long-standing, personal problem with heteronyms—words that are spelled the same but don’t sound alike. Allow me to explain with a little story.
The Invention of Murder (2011)
“Pleasant it is, no doubt, to drink tea with your sweetheart, but most disagreeable to find her bubbling in the tea-urn.“ So wrote Thomas de Quincy in 1826, and indeed, it is hard to argue with him.
It’s relatively uncommon for writers to use a quotation as an opening line, but Flanders chose a perfect one for her delightful book on a grim subject. Subtitled How the Victorians Revelled in Death and Detection and Created Modern Crime, Flanders continued in the opening paragraph: “But even more pleasant, he thought, was to read about someone else’s sweetheart bubbling in the tea-urn, and that, too, is hard to argue with, for crime, especially murder, is very pleasant to think about in the abstract: it is like hearing blustery rain on the windowpane when sitting indoors. It reinforces a sense of safety, even of pleasure....“
The Elements of Eloquence (2013)
Shakespeare was not a genius. He was, without the distant shadow of a doubt, the most wonderful writer who ever breathed. But not a genius. No angels handed him his lines, no fairies proofread for him. Instead, he learnt techniques, he learnt tricks, and he learnt them well.
From the outset, we clearly recognize the central thesis of Forsyth’s book: eloquence is not a gift possessed only by the lucky few, but a skill—and one capable of being taught and learned by many.
Karen Joy Fowler
The Jane Austen Book Club (2004)
Each of us has a private Austen.
This enigmatic opening line is an almost perfect way to begin a perfectly delicious novel. In the opening pages, the narrator goes on to describe what Jane Austen means to five of the six members of a Sacramento-area book club established by a never-married fifty-ish woman named Jocelyn (a control freak who breeds Rhodesian Ridgebacks, she delights in her role as a matchmaker, much like Emma Woodhouse).
Jocelyn quickly enlists her childhood friend Sylvia, who has been recently dumped by her husband, and her older friend Bernadette, an eccentric and multi-married 67-year-old. The fourth member she recruits is a forty-something college linguistics teacher named Grigg (we will learn later that they met a year earlier, and the report of their first meeting is quite Austenesque). Her choice of Grigg comes over the staunch objections of Bernadette, who fears a male member will prefer pontification over communication. But Jocelyn persists, believing that his growing up with three older sisters will make him a suitable member. Of the first four members, Grigg is the only one who does not have “a private Austen.”
The fifth member is Allegra, Sylvia’s gorgeous 30-year-old daughter, a kind of niece to Jocelyn, and an historically heterosexual woman who has lately been describing herself as a lesbian. The sixth and final member is a 28-year-old high school French teacher named Prudie. She is the only true-blue Austen devotee in the group, and the only currently married member, but she is currently questioning just how satisfying her marriage is.
The book is comprised of six chapters, one for each of Austen’s novels. For those who might need it, the final portion of the book contains helpful summaries of each one.
In a New York Times review, writer and word maven Patricia T. O’Conner described the book as “a perfectly cut and polished little gem with just enough facets. But that’s not the half of it. This exquisite novel is bigger and more ambitious than it appears. It’s that rare book that reminds us what reading is all about.”
In 2007, the novel was adapted into a film with an impressive ensemble cast, headed by Naomi Watts, Emily Blunt, Kathy Baker, and Amy Brenneman. While the film takes significant departures from the novel, it was equally enjoyable—and ended up being one of my favorite films of the year.
Skyline: A Reporter’s Reminiscence of the 1960s (1961)
The building of castles in the air made architects of us all.
Given the voluminous output of most newspaper reporters, it’s hard to imagine a better opening line for a journalist’s autobiography. Fowler wrote thousands of newspaper articles and columns in his career, nearly twenty books (including his biographies of John Barrymore, Jimmy Durante, and New York City mayor Jimmy Walker) and screenplays for more than twenty films (including Call of the Wild, A Message to Garcia, and White Fang).
In the opening paragraph of Skyline, Fowler continued: “It would seem harder now to shape the towers of reverie than in the gone time when a man dared send the children of his mind outdoors, and expect them to come home unmarked by the blows of cynics and immune to the contagions of despair.”
The Life and Legend of Gene Fowler (1977), a biography by H. Allen Smith, also begins with some memorable opening words. See the Smith entry in the BIOGRAPHIES page.
“Ode to Billy Joe,” in ’Scuse Me While I Whip This Out (2004)
If Carl Sandburg had come from Waco, his name would have been Billy Joe Shaver.
“Foreword” to Willie Nelson’s Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die (2012)
In April 1933, Willie’s mother, Myrle, gave birth to him in a manger somewhere along the old highway between Waco and Dallas.
“A Salty Piece of Land: Wise Old Jimmy Buffett,” in The New York Times (Nov. 28, 2004)
There is a fine line between fiction and nonfiction, and I believe Jimmy Buffett and I snorted it in 1976.
It’s uncommon to find a killer opening line in a book review, but Friedman is not exactly your typical book reviewer. He continued: “The two of us are among the few musicians in the Western world who make a regular habit of writing prose, which may also explain why this newspaper decided upon me to review this book rather than, say, Philip Roth.”
In an Oct. 21, 2007 New York Times article, Dwight Garner wrote about the opening words of Friedman’s review: “The Book Review editors, like editors everywhere, value a memorable first sentence.”
Garner went on to write: “Reviewing Robbins’s novel ’The Carpetbaggers’ in 1961, Murray Schumach, writing in The Book Review, began his assessment with these two sentences: ’It was not quite proper to have printed ‘The Carpetbaggers’ between covers of a book. It should have been inscribed on the walls of a public lavatory.’ Not quite as fun as Kinky’s opener, but it does get its point across.”
The Silent Miaow: A Manual for Kittens, Strays, and Homeless Cats (1964; photographs by Suzanne Szasz)
When I was a very young kitten, I had the misfortune to lose my mother and find myself alone in the world at age six weeks. However, I was not unduly disturbed by this since I was intelligent, not ill favored, resourceful and full of confidence in myself. Also I had had the advantage of several weeks of instruction from my mother before her unfortunate encounter with a motorcar at night.
This is the opening paragraph of a book that, in an “Editor’s Foreword,” Gallico said was written by a cat. According to Gallico, the manuscript of the book was left on his doorstep, and he originally thought it was written in some kind of cipher. The title, for example was:
£YE [email protected] MUWOQ Q Nabal Dir Kottebs Dra7d abd J1/4 N14dd ca6s
In the Foreword, Gallico said he set the book aside after failing in his first attempts to solve the cipher. When he returned to the book a few months later, the solution came to him in a Eureka! moment. He wrote:
“It was no code at all, and was never intended to be. People unfamiliar with the use of a typewriter produce a pattern of error that is repetitive. The above [title and subtitle] however, is a different sort of stumbling. It is exactly the kind of garbling that might be expected if the typewriter key were to be struck or depressed not by a finger, but by a five-toed paw, which in attempting to hit, say, the ‘a’ would spread out to cover the ‘q,’ ‘w,’ or ‘s,’ so that any one of those others might make the imprint instead of the vowel sought.”
Gallico’s Foreword also contained several other tidbits of interest, but I’ll leave them for interested readers to track down on their own. When the book was published, the titled page indicated that it had been “translated from the feline” by Gallico, a well-known cat lover and author of other cat-related books, including Thomasina, the Cat Who Thought She Was God (1957).
“In ‘Yours in Haste and Adoration,’ Terry Southern’s Thoughts Spill Out,” in The New York Times (Dec. 15, 2015)
It must have been a gas, to borrow one of his favorite terms, to get a letter from Terry Southern. Each was its own little acid trip, streaked with innuendo and poached in a satirical kind of intellectual flop sweat. He used thin, expensive paper and sealed some of his letters with wax. People were said to read them aloud to whoever was in the room.
In the article’s second paragraph, Garner continued: “It must further have been a groove, to use another of his favorite terms, to get a letter from Southern (1924-95) because he seemed to know everyone, from George Plimpton and Lenny Bruce to Ringo Starr and Dennis Hopper and had stories to tell.”
“Metaphysics Laced with Magic,” in The New York Times (February 8, 2022)
Sheila Heti’s new novel, Pure Colour, is about a young woman who turns into a leaf. “Unrequited love’s a bore,” Billie Holiday sang. So, it turns out, is photosynthesis.
GUEST COMMENTARY from veteran poet, playwright, and author Louis Phillips, who writes:
“Although I may not fully agree with Dwight Garner’s assessment of Heti’s new novel, I’m impressed with how he’s able to deliver his entire review in three simple, eye-opening sentences. Each one elicits a specific reaction. The first startles with a great improbability. The second is a clever allusion about the novel. And the third delivers the witty knock-out punch.”
See some of Phillips’ great opening lines on the Short Stories page, beginning here).
I is an Other: The Secret Life of Metaphor (2011)
In later life, Arthur Rimbaud was an anarchist, businessman, arms dealer, financier, and explorer. But as a teenager, all he wanted to be was a poet.
This may seem like an unusual way to begin a book on metaphor—and the role metaphorical language plays in our lives—but it certainly piques the reader’s interest, thereby achieving the objective of all opening lines.
Geary’s Guide to the World’s Great Aphorists (2007)
When I lost my job, an aphorism by Vilhelm Ekelund was the first thing that popped into my mind.
Why is this an effective opening line? When most people lose their jobs, an aphorism is likely one of the last things to pop into their minds.
The World in a Phrase: A Brief History of the Aphorism (2005)
If not for an aphorism by W. H. Auden, I might never have met my wife.
From the very first sentence, we become aware of the important role that short, pithy sayings—better known as aphorisms—have played in Geary’s life.
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.
“In the Beginning: Creating Dynamic, Meaningful & Compelling Openings,“ in The Writer’s Chronicle (October 2012)
The beginning of your story, essay, or novel carries more weight than any other part of your work. This is simply because it is the beginning.
Goodman, a professor of English at the University of New Orleans, continued: “The reason for its prominence is similar to seeing anything for the first time. Your senses are attuned. Your expectations are high. You’re looking intently at what’s there. It’s analogous to seeing a person for the first time.”
About a first sentence (or first paragraph), Goodman also wrote: “There is one thing it must do: compel the reader to continue reading. Or, to put it another way, to make the reader unable not to read on. If the reader stops cold after the first line, it doesn’t matter what else that line does, or what follows.”
And a little later in the article, Goodman offered this information-packed paragraph on the subject: “What can, and should, an opening do, besides being irresistible? It can provide information. Not necessarily by providing facts—although it can do that—because information can be emotional or tonal. It can, speaking of tone, set the tone. It can create a sense of drama, mystery or tension. It can introduce a character. It can hint at a problem. It can engage the reader by the voice of the narrator. It can foretell the ending. (“In my beginning is my end,” T. S. Eliot wrote.) It can do all of these things, or some of them, at the same time. It’s a unique opportunity. You’ll have only one first opened door with your story. Only one, ‘Ladies and Gentlemen, may I have your attention, please?’”
Doris Kearns Goodwin
Leadership in Turbulent Times (2018)
Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson—the lives and times of these four men have occupied me for half a century. I have awakened with them in the morning and thought about them when I went to bed at night.
Looking for Alaska (2005)
The week before I left my family and Florida and the rest of my minor life to go to boarding school in Alabama, my mother insisted on throwing me a going-away party. To say that I had low expectations would be to underestimate the matter dramatically.
In his debut novel, Green spun a captivating coming-of-age tale featuring Miles Halter, a young man with a peculiar fascination with the last words of famous people (as in “I go to seek the Great Perhaps” from Rabelais).
In the opening paragraph, Miles continued: “Although I was more or less forced to invite all my ‘school friends,’ i.e., the ragtag bunch of drama people and English geeks I sat with by social necessity in the cavernous cafeteria of my public school, I knew they wouldn’t come. Still, my mother persevered, awash in the delusion that I had kept my popularity secret from her all these years.”
The End of the Affair (1951)
A story has no beginning or end: arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which, to look ahead.
In this acclaimed semi-autobiographical novel, the narrator is Maurice Bendrix, an up-and-coming English writer who is having an affair with Sarah Miles, a married woman. In the opening paragraph, Bendrix continued on the subject of how—and especially when—to begin a novel:
“I say ‘one chooses’ with the inaccurate pride of a professional writer who—when he has been seriously noted at all—has been praised for his technical ability, but do I in fact of my own will choose that black wet January night on the Common, in 1946, the sight of Henry Miles slanting across the wide river of rain, or did these images choose me? It is convenient, it is correct according to the rules of my craft to begin just there, but if I had believed then in a God, I could also have believed in a hand, plucking at my elbow, a suggestion, ‘Speak to him: he hasn’t seen you yet.’”
The Four Winds (2021)
Elsa Wolcott had spent years in enforced solitude, reading fictional adventures and imagining other lives. In her lonely bedroom, surrounded by the novels that had become her friends, she sometimes dared to dream of an adventure of her own, but not often. Her family repeatedly told her that it was the illness she’d survived in childhood that had transformed her life and left it fragile and solitary, and on good days, she believed it.
The exact nature of Elsa’s illness, the details of her dreams and fantasies, the specific novels that influenced her, and a number of other things as well, have not yet been revealed, but we’re eager to read on—and already rooting for the young, female protagonist.
In the novel’s second paragraph, the narrator further stirred the pot by adding: “On bad days, like today, she knew that she had always been an outsider in her own family. They had sensed the lack in her early on, seen that she didn’t fit in.”
Cruel and Unusual Puns (1991)
Have you heard about the inner-city video game called Super Barrio Mothers? The musical version of The Ten Commandments, to be titled Runelight and Moses? Or that new self-help book on postpartum depression, The Blues of the Birth?
In the opening words to his book on transpositional humor, Hauptman wisely provided a sampling of what was in store for readers. His book was aimed at punsters and fans of wordplay, including one of the great masters, Richard Lederer, whose blurb for the book couldn't have been more apt: "This definitive treasury of transposition puns is truly a re-wording experience."
“Zounds! What the Fork Are Minced Oaths?” in TheConversation.com (July 16, 2020)
What in tarnation is “tarnation?” Why do people in old books exclaim “zounds!” in moments of surprise? And what could a professor of linguistics possibly have against “duck-loving crickets?”
So begins a fascinating article on the subject of “minced oaths,” which Hazen, a professor of linguistics at West Virginia University, described this way: “They are a kind of euphemism: an indirect expression substituted to soften the harsher blow of the profane.”
In the article’s second paragraph, Hazen continued: “I’ll get to the crickets later. But what unites all these expressions is a desire to find acceptable versions of profane or blasphemous words. ‘God’ becomes ‘gosh,’ ‘hell’ becomes ‘heck,’ and ‘damnation’ becomes ‘tarnation.’ In a similar vein, the rather antiquated phrase ‘God’s wounds’ turns into ‘zounds.’”
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.
“Springtime à la Carte,” in The Four Million (1906)
It was a day in March.
Never, never begin a story this way when you write one. No opening could possibly be worse. It is unimaginative, flat, dry and likely to consist of mere wind. But in this instance it is allowable.
I believe this was the only thing Henry ever wrote on the subject of opening lines, and he does it in characteristic fashion—making an emphatic assertion and then immediately walking it back. The narrator continued:
“For the following paragraph, which should have inaugurated the narrative, is too wildly extravagant and preposterous to be flaunted in the face of the reader without preparation.
“Sarah was crying over her bill of fare.
“Think of a New York girl shedding tears on the menu card!
“To account for this you will be allowed to guess that the lobsters were all out, or that she had sworn ice–cream off during Lent, or that she had ordered onions, or that she had just come from a Hackett matinee. And then, all these theories being wrong, you will please let the story proceed.”
Joanna Hines [now writing as Joanna Hodgkin]
The Murder Bird (2006)
Five weeks before Kirsten Waller’s body was found in a clifftop cottage in Cornwall, Grace Hobden cleared away the lunch, checked to make sure her three children were playing on the climbing frame at the bottom of the garden, then went indoors to murder her husband.
This is such a powerful opening paragraph that it’s almost impossible for me to envision someone reading it and setting the book down. But, for the sake of argument, let’s imagine you’re a hard-to-entice type. If so, perhaps the remainder of the first paragraph will win you over:
“Paul Hobden, a large, blubbery whale of a man, was sleeping off the effects of a boozy lunch. In the corner of the room, a black and while film involving much swash and buckle was chattering quietly on the TV. While Douglas Fairbanks Jr swished his sword with laughing, lethal accuracy, Grace Hobden picked up a Sabatier filleting knife from the rack in her kitchen, went into the living room and, without hesitating for a moment, plunged the blade into the soft mound of her husband’s chest.”
The Paranoid Style in American Politics: and Other Essays (1964)
The most difficult and delicate task that faces the author of a book of essays is that of writing an Introduction that makes his various pieces seem considerably more unified, in theme and argument, than they were in fact when they were written.
This opening line from the book’s Introduction is not only beautifully written, it perfectly captures the challenge awaiting all essayists who attempt to put together compilations of previously-published essays.
Originally a 1959 BBC radio lecture titled “The American Right Wing and the Paranoid Style,“ Hofstadter’s in-depth examination of political extremism in America first appeared in essay form in a November 1964 issue of Harper’s magazine. More than four decades later, staff writer Scott Horton wrote in 2007 that Hofstadter’s essay was “one of the most important and most influential articles published in the 155-year history of the magazine.“
When I recently re-read the essay, it presciently shed light on the motivation of modern-day conspiracy theorists and right-wing nationalists. And in a 2018 New York Times op-ed article on the growing signs of authoritarianism in the Republican Party, Paul Krugman tipped his hat to Hofstadter by titling his piece, “The Paranoid Style in G.O.P. Politics.”
“From Harlem to Paris,” in The New York Times (Feb. 26, 1956)
I think that one definition of the great artist might be the creator who projects the biggest dream in terms of the least person.
This is the first sentence of Hughes’s review of James Baldwin’s book of essays—Notes of a Native Son—published several months earlier. Hughes continued: “There is something in Cervantes or Shakespeare, Beethoven or Rembrandt, or Louis Armstrong that millions can understand.”
While acknowledging that the 31-year-old Baldwin was not yet “a great artist,” Hughes certainly recognized his great potential, writing: “Few American writers handle words more effectively in the essay form than James Baldwin. To my way of thinking, he is much better at provoking thought in the essay than he is in arousing emotion in fiction…. In his essays, words and material suit each other. The thought becomes poetry, and the poetry illuminates the thought.”
In One Person (2012)
I’m going to begin by telling you about Miss Frost. While I say to everyone that I became a writer because I read a certain novel by Charles Dickens at the formative age of fifteen, the truth is I was younger than that when I first met Miss Frost and imagined having sex with her, and this moment of my sexual awakening also marked the fitful birth of my imagination.
The narrator and protagonist, a bisexual novelist named Billy Abbott, continued: “We are formed by what we desire. In less than a minute of excited, secretive longing, I desired to become a writer and to have sex with Miss Frost—not necessarily in that order.”
American Sketches (2009)
I was once asked to contribute an essay to the Washington Post for a page called “The Writing Life”. This caused me some consternation.
Isaacson continued: “A little secret of many nonfiction writers like myself—especially those of us who spring from journalism—is that we don’t quite think of ourselves as true writers, at least not of the sort who get called to reflect upon “the writing life.“
On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft (2000)
My earliest memory is of imagining I was someone else—imagining that I was, in fact, the Ringling Brothers Circus Strongboy. This was at my Aunt Ethelyn and Uncle Oren’s house in Durham, Maine. My aunt remembers this quite clearly, and say I was two and a half or maybe three years old.
Lisey’s Story (2006)
To the public eye, the spouses of well-known writers are all but invisible, and no one knew it better than Lisey Landon.
The opening line introduces readers to the widow of the famous actor Scott Landon. After two years of struggling with the loss of her husband, she is finally getting around to cleaning out his office. In the process, all kinds of memories come flooding back to her—and, in typical Stephen King fashion, other strange and unusual events also begin to unfold.
In an “Ask Me Anything” session on Reddit in 2013, King was asked which of his novels was his favorite. While he answered that it was Lisey’s Story, you should know he has answered this question differently over the years. The novel was a favorite of many other people as well, winning the 2006 Bram Stoker Award.
I don’t like to start with an apology—there’s probably even a rule against it—but after reading over the first thirty pages I’ve written so far, I feel like I have to.
The words come from Jamie Conklin, a young boy who is living in Manhattan with single mom Tia, a literary agent. Even though the opening words have a Holden Caulfield feel to them, Jamie is not an ordinary boy. Since birth, he has possessed a special ability to communicate with dead people.
In the opening paragraph, Jamie continued: “It’s about a certain word I keep using. I learned a lot of four-letter words from my mother and used them from an early age (as you will soon find out), but this is one with five letters. The word is later, as in “Later on” and “Later I found out” and “It was only later that I realized.”
Writers and Lovers: A Novel (2020)
I have a pact with myself not to think about money in the morning. I’m like a teenager trying not to think about sex. Or Luke. Or death. Which means not thinking about my mother, who died on vacation last winter. There are so many things I can’t think about in order to write in the morning.
The opening words come from Casey Peabody, a 31-year-old aspiring writer who has been double-whammied by a recent romantic breakup and the death of her mother. Now living in the Boston area, her life is at a turning point, and it is not clear what the future holds in store for her. While working on a novel she has wrestled with for the past six years, Casey is waiting tables at a Harvard Square restaurant and living—although a more accurate term might be existing—in a small, dark, moldy room attached to a garage. A deeply absorbing novel about the ages and stages of one woman’s life, a Boston Globe review said about the work: “The novel is a meditation on trying itself: to stay alive, to love, to care.”
In a 2020 review in London’s Evening Standard, Curtis Sittenfield also hailed the novel, writing: “I loved this book not just from the first chapter or the first page but from the first paragraph.” Sittenfield went on to add: “The voice is just so honest and riveting and insightful about creativity and life.“
“Great Hookers I Have Known,“ in Secret Windows: Essays and Fiction on the Craft of Writing (2000)
When I finally understand what my thirteen-year-old son was talking about, I told him no problem, I could find him a couple of good hookers easy—maybe even a couple of great ones.
Writers have been referring to Great Opening Lines as hooks for many generations, but I’d never heard them described as hookers until I read this essay by King. He went on to explain: “He’d asked about opening lines, and pulp-magazine editors used the slang term “hookers” to describe such lines. The editors knew pretty well who the audience was. Truckers. Short-order cooks. Steelworkers. Farmhands. Working guys, in other words, who wanted to get away from the gray lives they lived and experience more exciting ones—lives that were bright with color and adventure. If you were good enough to cut it, that readership would support you and the magazines would continue to publish you. But if what you wrote started off flat, the readers would quickly flip past you to the next story.“
“The Body,” in Different Seasons (1982)
The most important things are the hardest things to say.
This is one of my Top Ten Favorite Opening Lines, a short, simple, and boldly straightforward declaration that perfectly captures an eternal truth about the human experience. I’ve personally experienced the phenomenon a number of times in my personal life, and I’m sure you have as well. The opening sentence also helps to explain one of the reasons we love writers so much: they help us express deep and powerful feelings that we’d have trouble articulating on our own.
In the opening paragraph, the narrator, a Maine writer named Gordon “Gordie” LaChance, continued: “They are the things you get ashamed of, because words diminish them—words shrink things that seemed limitless when they were in your head to no more than living size when they’re brought out. But it’s more than that, isn’t it? The most important things lie too close to wherever your secret heart is buried, like landmarks to a treasure your enemies would love to steal away.“
Fittingly, in 1982, Rob Reiner adapted the novella into one of my all-time favorite films, “Stand by Me.“ With Richard Dreyfuss providing the narration, King’s wonderful coming-of-age tale was brought to life by the young actors Wil Wheaton, River Phoenix, Corey Feldman, and Jerry O’Connell.
In a 2017 essay, Khaled Hosseini (The Kite Runner and other novels) described the opening words of “The Body” as deeply meaningful when he first read them at age twenty—an age when he said it was common for people to believe the world doesn’t get them. “This passage,” he wrote, was “an expression of how alone we are, really, the things that are most important to us, that are really vital to us, are perversely the most difficult to express.”
Years later, when Hosseini was a developing writer rather than a developing person, the words took on an added significance, something he could not appreciate at that earlier stage of life. He wrote: “This passage is one of the truest statements I’ve encountered about the nature of authorship. You write because you have an idea in your mind that feels so genuine, so important, so true. And yet, by the time this idea passes through the different filters of your mind, and into your head, and onto the page or the computer screen—it becomes distorted, and it’s been diminished. The writing you end up with is an approximation, if you’re lucky, of whatever it was you really wanted to say.”
Night Shift (1978)
Let’s talk, you and I. Let’s talk about fear.
These are the opening words of the Foreword to Night Shift, King’s first collection of short stories. A little more than two decades later, writer Peter Straub wrote about this beginning: “With its deliberate repetition of the first two words, its gliding but insistent rhythm, and its movement from the colloquial contraction of ‘let’s’ to the abrupt shock of the final noun, this flourish is literary to the core.“ They do not come across as literary, though, says Straub, “because they represent that friendliest of all communications, the invitation.“
In the second paragraph, King, ever the skillful host, escorts the reader into his house: “The house is empty as I write this; a cold February rain is falling outside. It’s night. Sometimes when the wind blows this way, we lose the power. But for now it’s on, and so lets talk very honestly about fear. Let’s talk very rationally about moving to the rim of madness...and perhaps over the edge.“ [ellipsis in original]
yerrrnnn umber whunnn
These sounds: even in the haze.
These four lines—which form the entirety of the first chapter—are the first sounds heard by bestselling novelist Paul Sheldon as he slowly emerges from an unconscious state. Even readers who correctly decipher the sounds (“Number One. Your Number One Fan”) have no idea where the story is going to take them.
Misery won the 1987 Bram Stoker Award and was adapted into a popular 1990 film starring James Caan as Sheldon and Kathy Bates as Annie Wilkes, his devoted—and deranged—fan. Bates’s performance was so spectacular she received a Best Actress Oscar later that year. When King was asked in a 2013 Reddit “Ask Me Anything” session about which actor had best captured one of his characters in film adaptations of his works, he replied, “Kathy Bates was a great Annie Wilkes.”
“The Finest Story in The World” (1893)
His name was Charlie Mears; he was the only son of his mother who was a widow, and he lived in the north of London, coming into the City every day to work in a bank. He was twenty years old and suffered from aspirations.
Typically, aspirations are lauded in an almost uncritical manner, and this was the first time I’d seen a suggestion that the virtue can also have an important downside. In the opening paragraph, the unnamed narrator—a published author of some renown, and a kind of mentor to Charlie—continued:
“I met him in a public billiard-saloon where the marker called him by his given name, and he called the marker ‘Bulls-eyes.’ Charley explained, a little nervously, that he had only come to the place to look on, and since looking on at games of skill is not a cheap amusement for the young, I suggested that Charlie should go back to his mother.”
As it turns out, Charlie’s aspirations were of a literary nature, and therefore one of the most difficult of all aspirations to bring to a satisfactory fruition. The plot of Kipling’s classic short story revolves around Charlie’s belief that he has stumbled upon an idea that, as he put it to his mentor, “would make the most splendid story that was ever written.”
All New People (1989)
I am living once again in the town where I grew up, having returned here several weeks ago in a state of dull torment for which the Germans probably have a word.
I fell in love with this line when I first read it more than two decades ago—and was delighted to recently discover what writer Richard Bausch said about it in a 1989 New York Times book review: “Anne Lamott’s wonderful little novel is gripping not because it possesses any of the usual qualities of suspense or dramatic tension, but because its strong, clear, self-deprecating and witty voice takes immediate hold and refuses to let go. I find it hard to imagine that anyone’s critical faculties could withstand the unconventional charm of the very first line.”
Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (1994)
The very first thing I tell my new students on the first day of a workshop is that good writing is about telling the truth.
The Memoir and the Memoirist (2007)
Memoir is the speaking “I” of a trusting author, walking hand in hand with the reader down a path both know well.
Larson continued: “It mirrors the open-faced trait of Americans and their speech. It remains open to the nostalgic and the sentimental. It personalizes horror. It belongs equally to a professional writer and a dockworker, a home health-care nurse and your Uncle Donny.”
Squeeze Play (1990)
Opening Day April 3
You see a lot of penises in my line of work: short ones, stubby ones, hard ones, soft ones. Circumcised and uncircumcised; laid-back and athletic.
There’s only one word to describe an opener like this: a hook. The words come from A. B. Berkowitz, a female Washington Tribune sportswriter who’s been assigned to cover the Washington Senators, the worst team in major league baseball. In the novel’s first paragraph, Berkowitz continued:
“Professionally speaking, they have a lot in common, which is to say they are all attached to guys, most of whom are naked while I am not, thus forming the odd dynamic of our relationship. They are athletes who believe in the inalienable right to scratch their balls anytime they want. I am a sportswriter. My job is to tell you the score.”
An autobiographical novel inspired by Leavy’s own sportswriting career with the Washington Post, the novel was described by Allen Barra in an Entertainment Weekly review as “the funniest, raunchiest, and most compassionate baseball novel I’ve ever read.” Barra went on to add that the novel “is sure to offend some people who cried during Field of Dreams—and that’s good enough for me.”
“Writing: A Life Sentence,“ in Metropolitan Life (1978)
Contrary to what many of you might imagine, a career in letters is not without its drawbacks—chief among them the unpleasant fact that one is frequently called upon to actually sit down and write.
The Miracle of Language (1991)
“Language is the Rubicon that divides man from beast,” declared the philologist Max Müller. The boundary between human and animal—between the most primitive savage and the highest ape—is the language line.
Amazing Words: An Alphabetical Anthology of Alluring, Astonishing, Beguiling, Bewitching, Enchanting, Enthralling, Mesmerizing, Miraculous, Tantalizing, Tempting, and Transfixing Words. (2012)
At seventy-four years of youth, I consider myself to be one of the luckiest men on the face of the earth. Looking back on my life, I can honestly say that I have pretty much closed the distance between who I am and what I do.
An opening paragraph with an endearing personal touch is almost always warmly welcomed by readers—and that is especially true in this case, where the self-disclosure is combined with a thoughtful observation about blurring the distinction between who people are and what they do. Lederer continued: “When you love what you do, you never work a day in your life, and writing forty books has never felt like work. Especially this one.”
When I was asked by Lederer’s publisher to write a blurb for the book, I happily agreed to do so, and offered this assessment: “This is not simply a book about Amazing Words, it is also an amazing book about words—and one that could have only been written by the inimitable Richard Lederer. Enjoy, word lovers, enjoy!”
Richard Lederer’s Ultimate Book of Literary Trivia (2021)
Literature lives. Literature endures. Literature prevails. That’s because readers bestow a special kind of life upon people who have existed only in books.
Reading these opening words, our minds are almost immediately filled with thoughts of people who’ve never actually existed but who seem very real indeed—Sherlock Holmes, Little Nell, Mickey Spillane, Holden Caulfield, Jane Eyre, Atticus Finch, Walter Mitty, Scarlett O’Hara, Harry Potter, Hannibal Lector, Don Quixote, and on and on.
Lederer continued: “Figments though they may be, literary characters can assume a vitality and longevity that pulse more powerfully than flesh and blood.”
The Cunning Linguist Ribald Riddles, Lascivious Limericks, Carnal Corn, and Other Good, Clean Dirty Fun (2003)
In a junior high-school biology class the teacher asks a student, “Mary please name the part of the human body that expands to six times its normal size and explain under what conditions.”
Blushing bright red, Mary simpers, “Teacher that is not a proper question to ask me, and I can’t answer it in front of the class.”
The teacher turns to another student and asks, “All right, Johnny, do you have the answer?”
“The pupil of the eye, and in dim light.”
Lederer continued by having the teacher say: “Correct. Now Mary, I want to tell you three things. First, you didn’t do your homework last night. Second, you have a dirty mind. And third, when you grow up, you’re going to be dreadfully disappointed.”
If we were to apply the Motion Picture Association of America’s film ratings system to Lederer’s more than fifty books, all but this one would probably be G-Rated. The Cunning Linguist probably deserves a PG Rating—not just for the occasionally raunchy content, but also for the punning title (if you can’t figure it out on your own, ask a more worldly friend).
Anguished English (1989)
Mark Twain once wrote, “Man is the only animal that blushes. Or needs to.” He could have added, “The human being is the only animal that truly laughs. Or needs to.”
Tweaking a famous quotation is a time-honored way of beginning a book—especially a non-fiction work—and Lederer does that very nicely here and in his The Miracle of Language entry.
For more than a quarter of a century, Lederer taught English at St. Paul’s School, a prestigious prep school in Concord, New Hampshire. From early in his teaching career, Lederer began recording “bloopers” and “blunders” from his students (like “Noah’s wife was Joan of Ark” and “A man with more than one wife is a pigamist”). Over time, he began soliciting additional examples from teachers around the world, and the result was Anguished English, which he delightfully subtitled: “An Anthology of Accidental Assaults Upon Our Language.“
The book was hugely successful, allowing Lederer to quit his New Hampshire teaching job, move to San Diego, and pursue his passion for words on a full-time basis. In a full and vibrant career, Lederer has written more than fifty books that sold well over a million copies. Count me among the many verbivores—a word coined by Lederer, by the way—who regard him as a national treasure.
The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, and the Unlikely Ascent of Hallelujah (2012)
Allen Ginzberg once said, “Dylan blew everybody’s mind except Leonard’s.”
For a writer, it’s got to be a major challenge to craft an exemplary opening for a biography about the legendary Leonard Cohen and his equally legendary song, “Hallelujah.” But Light finds a way to do it with style—bringing together three iconic historical figures in one intriguing observation about two of them.
The Hour of the Star (1977)
Everything in the world began with a yes. One molecule said yes to another molecule and life was born.
In a 2018 post on CulturaColectiva.com, Zoralis Pérez included this opener in a compilation of “15 First Sentences from Classic Books That’ll Convince You to Read Them.” About the complete list, Pérez wrote:
“When it comes to choosing a new read, you should take into account every little piece of information you can get about it (after all, it’s a pretty big commitment) and the cover is your first impression of the story, so of course, it matters. However, even more important than the cover, it’s the first sentence. A book’s first sentence is like a first kiss or the first time you lock eyes with the person you love. It’s brief and sometimes a little strange, but if you like it, it’s the start of something great.”
Changing Places (1975)
High, high above the North Pole, on the first day of 1969, two professors of English Literature approached each other at a combined velocity of 1200 miles per hour.
This is a spectacular opening line, and I wasn’t at all surprised to see it included in the “100 Best First Lines from Novels,” posted by the American Book Review in 2006 (it came in at #98).
To Show and To Tell: The Craft of Literary Nonfiction (2013)
I should explain straight-out that I consider myself to be as much a teacher as writer. It’s not simply that a good deal of my annual income derives from teaching; it’s also that I find it a fascinating challenge, one that nourishes my psyche—and my own writing.
More than any other contemporary writer, Phillip Lopate’s name is virtually synonymous with the form of writing known as the personal essay. In the book’s opening paragraph, he continued: “Many of my fellow writers treat teaching as a lower calling; they only do it to pay the rent, or until such time as they can support themselves entirely from royalties and advances. For my part, I think I would continue to teach even if I were to win the lottery.”
“My Early Years at School,” in Getting Personal: Selected Essays (2003)
In the first grade I was in a bit of a fog.
The opening line above comes from the very first chapter, and Lopate followed it by writing: “All I remember is running outside at three o’clock with the others to fill the safety zone in front of the school building, where we whirled around with our book bags, hitting as many proximate bodies as possible. The whirling dervishes of Kabul could not have been more ecstatic than we with our thwacking book satchels.”
In the Introduction to the book, Lopate—who is seventy-seven as I write this in 2021, and still very much alive—plays around with readers by suggesting that this book of heavily autobiographical essays is being published posthumously. The Introduction even includes a note from Lopate’s friend and running partner, Dr. Horst Shovel (yes, that’s his real name), who writes that this collection of essays will have to serve as “the informal version of the autobiography he never got around to writing” during his lifetime. I’m not sure why Lopate decided to employ this deceased author conceit, but I’m hoping to one day find out the answer. I’ll let you know when I do.
First Impressions: A Novel of Old Books, Unexpected Love, and Jane Austen (2014)
Fond as she was of solitary walks, Jane had been wandering rather longer than she had intended, her mind occupied not so much with the story she had lately been reading as with the one she hoped soon to be writing.
From the book’s subtitle, readers immediately recognize Jane Austen as the solitary walker, and the novel’s opening sentence neatly captures something important about all writers—they tend to be preoccupied by one of two things: what they’re currently reading and what they’re currently writing. In the opening paragraph, the narrator continued:
“She was shaken from this reverie by the sight of an unfamiliar figure, sitting on a stile, hunched over a book. Her first impression was that he was the picture of gloom—dressed in shabby clerical garb, a dark look on his crinkled face, doubtless a volume of dusty sermons clutched in his ancient hand. Even the weather seemed to agree with this assessment, for while the sun shone all around him, he sat in the shadow of the single cloud that hung in the Hampshire sky.”
The Further Adventures of Ebenezer Scrooge: A Christmas Carol Continued (2015)
Scrooge was alive, to begin with. There could be no doubt whatever about that—alive and kicking.
As most bibliophiles will quickly realize, the novel opens with a lovely tweak of the legendary first words of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol (1843): “Marley was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that.” In the opening paragraph of Lovett’s sequel to the classic work, he had his narrator continue:
“Not that I know why that particular verb should exemplify life; for Scrooge’s part it might better be said that he was alive and singing, or alive and laughing, or alive and generally making a nuisance of himself.”
A Library Journal review of the book said that “Lovett has written a delightful sequel to Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol,” adding: “Told in the style of Dickens with a sly wit, this is an excellent companion to the original Christmas classic.”
W. Somerset Maugham
Strictly Personal (1941)
I have a notion that it is well to tell the reader at the beginning of a narrative what he is in for, and so I shall start by telling you that this is not an account of great events, but of the small things that happened to me during the first fifteen months of the war.
Maugham continued: “For more than two years now the great powers of Europe have been engaged in a fearful struggle, a dozen small nations have been invaded, and France has been vanquished: these are matters that the newspapers have reported and that history will deal with.”
The Summing Up and Strictly Personal are Maugham’s only semi-autobiographical works, published when he was sixty-four and sixty-seven years of age; he would live to be ninety-one.
W. Somerset Maugham
The Summing Up (1938)
This is not an autobiography nor is it a book of recollections. In one way and another I have used in my writings whatever has happened to me in the course of my life.
In this book, often described as a “literary memoir,” Maugham continued: “Sometimes an experience I have had has served as a theme and I have invented a series of incidents to illustrate it; more often I have taken persons with whom I have been slightly or intimately acquainted and used them as the foundation for characters of my invention. Fact and fiction are so intermingled in my work that now, looking back on it, I can hardly distinguish one from the other.”
One of my favorite passages in the book could easily be applied to me, a seventy-nine-year-old lifelong learner when I launched this website. Maughan wrote: “When I was young I was amazed at Plutarch’s statement that the elder Cato began at the age of eighty to learn Greek. I am amazed no longer. Old age is ready to undertake tasks that youth shirked because they would take too long.“
W. Somerset Maugham
The Razor’s Edge (1944)
I have never begun a novel with more misgiving. If I call it a novel it is only because I don’t know what else to call it.
The opening words come not from an unknown narrator, but from Maugham himself. From the outset, he asserts that the story he is about to tell is not a work of fiction, but an account of real people and actual events (as the book unfolds, Maugham also becomes a minor character in the story, periodically showing up in the lives of the major characters). He goes on to pledge that he will forego “the exercise of invention” and set down only what he knows to be true.
In the book’s second paragraph, Maugham continued: “In the present book…I have invented nothing. To save embarrassment to people still living I have given to the persons who play a part in this story names of my own contriving, and I have in other ways taken pains to make sure that no one should recognize them.”
The entire novel generally reflected Maugham’s longstanding interest in Eastern culture, and it specifically began to take form after a 1938 visit he made to the Sri Ramana Ashram in Tamil Nadu, India. The book’s title came from an epigraph at the beginning of the book: “The sharp edge of a razor is difficult to pass over; thus the wise say the path to ‘enlightenment’ is hard.” The passage is from the Katha Upanishad, one of the great spiritual texts of Hinduism.
The Hero of This Book: A Novel (2022)
This was the summer before the world stopped.
The opening line has an ominous, telegraphic quality, suggesting that a world-shattering event has happened, and changed everything. Whatever else we read will be seen through that lens, making it an enormously effective first sentence. In the opening paragraph, the narrator continued:
“We thought it was pretty bad, though in retrospect there was joy to be found. Aboveground monsters were everywhere, with terrible hair and red neckties. The monsters weren’t in control of their powers—the hate crimes, mass shootings, heat waves, stupidity, certainty, flash floods, wildfires—but they had reach. Everyone talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it. Turns out we were supposed to.”
Even though the book is described as a novel, it’s also a memoir, a eulogy, an exploration of grieving and loss, a writing and storytelling guidebook, and more. About the book, Kirkus Reviews enthused: “Braided into McCracken’s gorgeously spiraling narrative is an expansive meditation on the act of writing and, intriguingly, the art of writing memoir...the novel assumes a hybrid quality that could be called autofiction but really is an homage to the art of great storytelling. Novel? Memoir? Who cares. It’s a great story, beautifully told.”
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.”
The World Is My Home: A Memoir (1992)
This will be a strange kind of autobiography because I shall offer the first seven chapters as if I had never written a book, the last seven as if that were all I had done.
Michener continued: “I segregate the material in this way for two reasons: I want the reader to see in careful detail the kind of ordinary human being who becomes a writer and then to see the complex and contradictory motivations that enable him to remain one.”
The Distinguished Guest (1995)
In 1982, when she was seventy-two years old, Lily Roberts Maynard published her first book.
This is the opening sentence of a novel about a writer who achieves fame fairly late in life—and just before she begins to sense the steep decline that awaits as a result of her newly-diagnosed Parkinson’s Disease.
“How to Become a Writer,” in Self-Help (1985)
First, try to be something, anything, else. A movie star/astronaut. A movie star/missionary. A movie star/kindergarten teacher. President of the World. Fail miserably.
These are the unforgettable opening words of a short story, but they read like a self-help essay for aspiring writers. The narrator continued: “It is best if you fail at an early age—say fourteen. Early, critical disillusionment is necessary so that at fifteen you can write long haiku sequences about thwarted desire.”
This short story helped establish Moore’s reputation as a serious writer, and it led biographer Alison Kelly to write in Understanding Lorrie Moore (2009): “The tone of droll irony has since become Moore’s trademark: the more painful the experience, the likelier she is to make it the subject of a joke.”
“The Woke Target Metaphors, Leaving No Scone Unturned,” in The Wall Street Journal (Dec. 27, 2021)
I once knew a magazine journalist who was addicted to metaphors. He was, so to speak, an alcoholic of metaphors. If he took one sip from the demon rum of analogy, he would be in the gutter by the end of the paragraph. His journalism suffered from what might be called cirrhosis of the prose.
Thus begins Morrow’s review of a newly published Inclusive IT Language Guide by the folks at the University of California, Irvine. The Guide contained much questionable advice, according to Morrow, himself a recognized language expert, including the suggestion that the saying “Killing two birds with one stone” be replaced by “Feeding birds with two scones.”
In the second paragraph of his essay, Morrow wrote: “My friend would sit down at his typewriter—this was a long time ago—and set out to tell a seemingly straightforward news story. But in the first or second sentence, his mind would be seized by an image (jaunty, visual, arresting), and pretty soon the seductive analogy would take over the story altogether, hijacking the news report that it was intended merely to embellish.”
“The Office,” in Dance of the Happy Shades (1968)
The solution to my life occurred to me one evening while I was ironing a shirt.
Unusual juxtapositions are a staple of great opening lines, and this is a particularly good one—immediately bringing to mind such historic flashes of illumination as Newton daydreaming under an apple tree. The narrator, an unnamed woman with literary aspirations, continued: “It was simple but audacious. I went into the living room where my husband was watching television and I said, ’I think I ought to have an office.’”
From the outset, I expected “The Office” to be an exploration of Virginia Woolf’s famous observation about female writers needing “A room of one’s own,” but it turns out to be more of a “Be-careful-what-you-wish-for” tale.
In “On Writing ‘The Office,’” a 1978 essay, Munro described this short story as “the most straightforward autobiographical story I have ever written.” While living in Vancouver, British Columbia early in her career, she rented an office above a drugstore, hoping it would provide the space she needed to write a major novel. It turned out to be a failed experiment, though, with Munro confessing: “I spent hours staring at the walls and the Venetian blinds, drinking cups of instant coffee with canned milk, believing that if I concentrated enough I could pull out of myself a novel that would be a full-blown miracle.”
Her frustrating time in that second-story writing space did produce one thing, though, and it was “The Office.” About the entire experience, Munro wrote wryly: “I stayed in the office four months and never wrote another word, but I did get my first ulcer.”
The Black Prince (1973)
It might be most dramatically effective to begin the tale at the moment when Arnold Baffin rang me up and said, “Bradley, could you come round here please, I think that I have just killed my wife.”
Speak, Memory: A Memoir (1951)
The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.
This beautifully-phrased opening line went on to become one of Nabokov’s most popular quotations. In composing his thought, it’s possible Nabokov was inspired by a similar thought from Thomas Carlyle, first offered in his 1840 classic Heroes and Hero-Worship: “One life; a little gleam of Time between two Eternities; no second chance to us for evermore!”
The Invisible Kingdom: Reimagining Chronic Illness (2022)
The stories we tell about illness usually have startling beginnings—the fall at the supermarket, the lump discovered in the abdomen during a routine exam, the doctor’s call. Not mine. I got sick the way Hemingway says you go broke: “gradually and then suddenly.”
A time-honored way to open a book is to invoke the famous words of a famous author, and in this case the quoted saying applies as well to the new topic under discussion as it did to the original one. I was delighted to honor O’Rourke’s opener in my compilation of “The Best Opening Lines of 2022” on Smerconish.com (see the full list here).
A finalist for the National Book Award for Nonfiction, O’Rourke’s meticulously-researched book was described by Esquire magazine as “At once a rigorous work of scholarship and a radical act of empathy.” It also made The New Yorker’s list of “The Best Books of 2022.”
In her highly-praised work, O’Rourke—a poet, writer, and creative writing teacher—also cleverly tweaked one of the most famous opening lines of all time, writing: “And so it is a truth universally acknowledged among the chronically ill that a young woman in possession of vague symptoms like fatigue and pain will be in search of a doctor who believes she is actually sick.” The original opener, from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813), may be seen here.
"Why I Write," in Gangrel (Summer 1946)
From a very early age, perhaps the age of five or six, I knew that when I grew up I should be a writer.
Orwell continued: "Between the ages of about seventeen and twenty-four I tried to abandon this idea, but I did so with the consciousness that I was outraging my true nature and that sooner or later I should have to settle down and write books."
“Politics and the English Language,“ in Horizon magazine (April 1946)
Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way, but it is generally assumed that we cannot by conscious action do anything about it.
Orwell continued: “Our civilization is decadent and our language—so the argument runs—must inevitably share in the general collapse. It follows that any struggle against the abuse of language is a sentimental archaism, like preferring candles to electric light or hansom cabs to aeroplanes. Underneath this lies the half-conscious belief that language is a natural growth and not an instrument which we shape for our own purposes.”
The New Life (1994)
I read a book one day and my whole life was changed.
These simple-but-powerful opening words come from a young man named Osman, an engineering student in Istanbul whose life has been transformed by a novel titled The New Life. About the novel, he continued:
“Even on the first page I was so affected by the book’s intensity I felt my body sever itself and pull away from the chair where I sat reading the book that lay before me on the table. But even though I felt my body dissociating, my entire being remained so concertedly at the table that the book worked its influence not only on my soul but on every aspect of my identity.”
Shortly after the book was released in 1994, the publisher plastered the opening sentence on billboards all around Istanbul, and the book went on to become the fastest selling book in Turkish publishing history.
Twenty-two years later, The Atlantic’s Joe Fassler was having trouble writing a Preface for his soon-to-be-published book, Light the Dark (2017). His struggles evaporated when, as he put it, “I found the way forward between the covers of another book.” That book was Pamuk’s The New Life and, in particular, its opening line.
About that first sentence, Fassler wrote: “What a way to start! Pamuk counters the expectations we bring to a story’s first pages—go ahead and dazzle me—with a fictionalized experience of ecstatic reading. The narrator’s head, as he reads, seems to float off his shoulders. The pages themselves shine with a penetrating light. And that’s when he realizes: He’ll never be the same, not after this.”
Fassler continued: “I’d picked the novel almost randomly from my shelf and read these words in disbelief—it was as if they’d been written for me. Because they’re exactly what this book is about, and as I read them I suddenly understood the approach that I needed to take here.”
More Book Lust (2005)
If we were at a twelve-step meeting together, I would have to stand up and say, “Hi, I’m Nancy P., and I’m a readaholic.”
Pearl continued: “As I explained in the Introduction to Book Lust, my addiction to reading (and my career as a librarian) grew out of a childhood that was rescued from despair by books, libraries, and librarians. I discovered at a young age that books—paradoxically—allowed me both to find and to escape myself.”
Book Lust: Recommended Reading for Every Mood, Moment, and Reason (2003)
I love to read. And while I might not absolutely agree with the Anglo-American man of letters Logan Pearsall Smith, who said, “People say that life is the thing, but I prefer reading,” I come awfully close to subscribing to his sentiment.
The Club Dumas (2003)
The flash projected the outline of the hanged man onto the wall. He hung motionless from a light fixture in the center of the room, and as the photographer moved around him, taking pictures, the flashes threw the silhouette onto a succession of paintings, glass cabinets full of porcelain, shelves of books, open curtains framing great windows beyond which the rain was falling.
Robert S. Phillips
Louis L’Amour: His Life and Trails (1990)
Louis L’Amour. The name itself sounds highly improbable for the author of Western and adventure novels. As one of his early editors said, L’Amour on a paperback sounded like “a Western written in lipstick.”
In my opinion, this is one of the all-time great opening paragraphs for a biography. If more biographers began with openers like this, the entire genre would be improved a thousandfold.
Katherine Anne Porter
“The Laughing Heat of the Sun” (1949), in The Collected Essays and Occasional Writings of Katherine Anne Porter (1990)
Of all fine sights in the world to me, the best is that of an artist growing great, adding to his art with his years, as his life and his art are inseparable.
After offering Henry James, W. B. Yeats, and Edith Sitwell as examples, Porter went on to write:
“The true sign of this growth, in all alike, is the unfailing renewal, the freshness of every latest piece of work, the gradual, steady advance from phase to phase of increased power and direction, depth of feeling, and virtuosity, that laurel leaf added to technical mastery.”
Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake: A Memoir of a Woman’s Life (2012)
It’s odd when I think of the arc of my life, from child to young woman to aging adult. First I was who I was. Then I didn’t know who I was. Then I invented someone, and became her. Then I began to like what I’d invented. And finally I was what I was again.
Anna Quindlen is a consummately skilled writer, and the opening paragraph of her memoir demonstrates something she’s been doing for decades—gracefully reflecting on her own life and simultaneously making a connection with countless readers around the world.
In a New York Times review of Blessings, a 2002 novel by Quindlen, Patricia Volk wrote: “Anna Quindlen is America’s Resident Sane Person.” Volk explained her rationale in a most interesting way—and one that applies to the opening words of Quindlen’s memoir: “She has what Joyce called the common touch, the ability to speak to many people about what’s on their minds before they have the vaguest idea what’s on their minds.”
Leonard E. Read
“I, Pencil: My Family Tree as Told to Leonard E. Read,” in The Freeman (December 1958)
I am a lead pencil—the ordinary wooden pencil familiar to all boys and girls and adults who can read and write.
Writing is both my vocation and my avocation; that’s all I do.
Readers are accustomed to seeing great opening lines from non-humans, especially animals, but this is one of the few literary openers they’ll ever see from an inanimate object. The pencil continued:
“You may wonder why I should write a genealogy. Well, to begin with, my story is interesting. And, next, I am a mystery—more so than a tree or a sunset or even a flash of lightning. But, sadly, I am taken for granted by those who use me, as if I were a mere incident and without background. This supercilious attitude relegates me to the level of the commonplace. This is a species of the grievous error in which mankind cannot too long persist without peril. For, the wise G. K. Chesterton observed, ‘We are perishing for want of wonder, not for want of wonders.’”
Asta’s Book [written under the pen name Barbara Vine and published in the U.S. under the title Anna’s Book] (1993)
My grandmother was a novelist without knowing it.
The opening line of the novel is the first entry made in a diary begun in 1905 by 25-year-old Asta, a Danish woman living in East London with her husband and two sons. Asta, who is pregnant and hoping for a daughter this time, has no idea as she is writing these words that her diary will one day become famous all over England.
“Florence King,“ in The New Brunswick News (July 1, 2016)
On a Sunday morning, tucked into bed on the island of St. Simons, the place where I, at the age of 13, accepted the calling that had haunted me since I was four — that of becoming a writer—Tink brought me a copy of The New York Times and coffee loaded with cream.
Rich continued: “There on the front page of this revered Yankee newspaper, I discovered the obituary of perhaps the first Southern woman to write about the region’s people and draw attention to the differences between us and them—them being anyone else in the world who doesn’t possess an ounce of Southern blood or the common sense to understand we are to be celebrated, not mocked. ’Florence King died,’ I mused quietly. ’She was 80.’”
“The Disappeared,” in The New Yorker (Sep. 10, 2012)
Afterward, when the world was exploding around him, he felt annoyed with himself for having forgotten the name of the BBC reporter who told him that his old life was over and a new, darker existence was about to begin. She called him at home, on his private line, without explaining how she got the number. “How does it feel,” she asked him, “to know that you have just been sentenced to death by Ayatollah Khomeini?”
These are the straightforward-but-still-captivating opening words of a remarkably candid autobiographical essay by an Indian-born British writer who, in 1989, was about to become the most discussed writer of the era. Rushdie continued in the opening paragraph:
“It was a sunny Tuesday in London, but the question shut out the light. This is what he said, without really knowing what he was saying: ‘It doesn’t feel good.’ This is what he thought: I’m a dead man. He wondered how many days he had left, and guessed that the answer was probably a single-digit number. He hung up the telephone and ran down the stairs from his workroom, at the top of the narrow Islington row house where he lived. The living-room windows had wooden shutters and, absurdly, he closed and barred them. Then he locked the front door.”
With a few modest changes, this New Yorker article served as the Prologue for Rushdie’s 2012 memoir Joseph Anton (the title—inspired by Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekhov—was the alias he chose for himself during his years in hiding after the fatwa was announced).
The Edwardians (1930)
Among the many problems which beset the novelist, not the least weighty is the choice of the moment at which to begin his novel.
The book begins with a device that has been used many times over the years, the narrator musing about how to start a novel. The narrator continues: “It is necessary, it is indeed unavoidable, that he should intersect the lives of his dramatis personae at a given hour; all that remains is to decide which hour it shall be, and in which situation they shall be discovered.”
Firmin: Adventures of a Metropolitan Lowlife (2006)
I had always imagined that my life story, if and when I wrote it, would have a great first line: something lyric like Nabokov’s “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins”; or if I could not do lyric, then something sweeping like Tolstoy’s “All happy families are alike, but every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” People remember those words even when they have forgotten everything else about the books. When it comes to openers, though, the best in my view has to be the beginning of Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier: “This is the saddest story I have ever heard.” I’ve read that one dozens of times and it still knocks my socks off. Ford Madox Ford was a Big One.
It’s rare to find opening lines about the subject of literary opening lines, and this one has to be regarded as the best. If you’re reading it for the first time, the words do not come from a person who loves books, but from an animal—a rat named Firmin. When he was born in the basement of a Boston bookstore in 1960, Firmin was the 13th baby born to an alcoholic mother rat who had twelve nipples.
As the runt of the litter, Firmin had to do something to survive, so he began nibbling on the pages of his bedding, an old, discarded copy of Finnegan’s Wake. Firmin’s unusual diet had a transformative effect, allowing him to read and think symbolically. As he grew older, his literary tastes grew more and more refined, and his sense of alienation from his fellow creatures increased—leading him to make dismissive, but brilliant, remarks about them. My favorite was this one: “Thanks to their dwarfish imaginations and short memories they did not ask for a lot, mostly just food and fornication, and they got enough of both to take them through life.”
The first paragraph of Firmin is spectacular, and the second may be even better, capturing the almost universal experience of anyone who has chosen to write for a living: “In all my life struggling to write I have struggled with nothing so manfully—yes, that’s the word, manfully—as with openers. It has always seemed to me that if I could just get that bit right all the rest would follow automatically. I thought of that first sentence as a kind of semantic womb stuffed with the busy embryos of unwritten pages, brilliant little nuggets of genius practically panting to be born. From that grand vessel the entire story would, so to speak, ooze forth. What a delusion! Exactly the opposite was true.”
“On Books and Reading,” in Parerga and Paralipomena, Vol. Two (1851)
Ignorance is degrading only when found in company with riches.
A popular technique in non-fiction writing—and especially in philosophical treatises—is to begin with a grand declaration that is subsequently explored in the rest of the piece. In this case, the provocative opening line comes from one of the great minds in the history of Western philosophy, and also one of the most quotable. His thesis is hard to disagree with: ignorance is understandable in people who have never had access to education or the grand world of ideas, but is a dark stain when it occurs among people of means.
In the opening paragraph, Schopenhauer continued: “The poor man is restrained by poverty and need: labor occupies his thoughts, and takes the place of knowledge. But rich men who are ignorant live for their lusts only…and they can also be reproached for not having used wealth and leisure for that which gives them their greatest value.”
Charles M. Schulz
My Life with Charlie Brown (2010; with M. Thomas Inge)
And so, 25 years have gone by. At one strip per day, that comes to almost 10,000 comic strips. Actually, this is not so much when you consider the longevity of many other comic features. Employees receive wristwatches if they have put in this much time with a company, but a comic-strip artist just keeps on drawing. (Somehow a comic-strip artist is never regarded as an employee.)
Schulz went on to reveal that his enormously successful career began as a childhood dream: “I have been asked many times if I ever dreamed that Peanuts would become as successful as it is, and I think I always surprise people when I say, ‘Well, frankly, I guess I did expect it, because, after all, it was something I had planned for since I was six years old.’”
As the opening paragraph continued, Schulz ticked off several specific items that went into his ultimate achievement of the American Dream: “Obviously I did not know that Snoopy was going to go to the moon, and I did not know that the phrase ‘happiness is a warm puppy’ would prompt hundreds of other such definitions, and I did not know that the term ‘security blanket’ would become part of the American language; but I did have the hope that I would be able to contribute something to a profession that I can say now I have loved all my life.”
“The Gaudy Career of Jonas Cord Jr.,“ in The New York Times (June 25, 1961)
It was not quite proper to have printed The Carpetbaggers between covers of a book. It should have been inscribed on the walls of a public lavatory.
These were the devastating opening words of Schumach’s review of Harold Robbins’s 1961 novel The Carpetbaggers. He continued: “Ostensibly Harold Robbins’ long novel is about the men and women in Hollywood, aviation, high finance. Actually it is an excuse for a collection of monotonous episodes about normal and abnormal sex—and violence ranging from simple battery to gruesome varieties of murder.“ In an Oct. 21, 2007 New York Times article, Dwight Garner paid Schumacher the highest compliment when he cited this as one of the two most memorable opening lines in the history of the New York Times Book Review.
In his tribute, Garner wrote: “The Book Review editors, like editors everywhere, value a memorable first sentence. (Writing here a few years ago, Kinky Friedman began a review this way: ’There is a fine line between fiction and nonfiction, and I believe Jimmy Buffett and I snorted it in 1976.’) This week, Tom Carson reviews a biography of the onetime best-seller page regular Harold Robbins. Reviewing Robbins’s novel The Carpetbaggers in 1961, Murray Schumach, writing in the Book Review, began his assessment with these two sentences: ’It was not quite proper to have printed The Carpetbaggers between covers of a book. It should have been inscribed on the walls of a public lavatory.’ Not quite as fun as Kinky’s opener, but it does get its point across.“
Your First Page: First Pages and What They Tell Us About the Pages That Follow Them (Rev. ed; 2019)
I once spoke with a New York City fireman whose job included talking suicidal “jumpers” down from building edges and bridges. He told me something that has stayed with me ever since. He said that in every case, without exception, when the person jumped, the look on his or her face was always the same. It said, in essence, “Wrong decision.”
In the book’s second paragraph, Selgin, a writer, playwright, editor, illustrator, and professor of English in the MFA program at Georgia College & State University, continued: “Forgive me for opening on such a grisly note. But every opening of a book or story is a fateful plunge. The choices we make in those first few sentences, paragraphs, and pages determine not only how what we’ve written gets read, but whether it will be read at all.”
And in the third paragraph, Selgin continued with this important reminder: “Readers have no obligation to read what we’ve written. If we want them to spend their precious time with our words, we owe them every courtesy. They owe us nothing,”
“Fabulous Tuba Museum Opens in Durham. Womp!“ in News & Observer [Raleigh, NC] (Feb. 22, 2016)
To the ears of a musical novice, the tuba ranks lowest in the family of instruments—an oafish cousin with a voice like a bullfrog. It lacks the flash of a saxophone, the brashness of a trumpet or the showiness of a piccolo—the melodic equivalent of a St. Bernard, warbling from the orchestra’s back row.
These were the opening words of Shaffer’s enthusiastic review of a unique new musical museum that had recently opened in Durham, NC. The full article contains other impressive rhetorical flourishes as well.
“Zebulon Now Boasts North America’s Only Crafter of Bagpipes,” in News & Observer [Raleigh, NC] (Jan. 24, 2023)
The bagpipe occupies the strangest rung on the musical ladder, shaped like an octopus in plaid pants, sounding to some like a goose with its foot caught in an escalator and played during history’s most lopsided battles—by the losing side.
Shaffer has crafted some memorable opening paragraphs in his career—commonly referred to as ledes in the world of journalism—and two of them are unforgettable descriptions of musical instruments (the other one, also in this section, pertains to the tuba). In this article about Roddy MacLellan and “the only North American studio that makes, sells and teaches the Scottish national instrument,” Shaffer continued:
“Add to this the bagpipe’s cantankerous nature, fashioned from some of the world’s rarest wood, a combination of cracking pipes and leaking bags that strain all but the heartiest lungs.”
David Shields and Shane Salerno
J. D. Salinger spent ten years writing The Catcher in the Rye and the rest of his life regretting it.
This magnificent opening sentence is the book’s entire first paragraph. In the second, the authors continued:
“Before the book was published, he was a World War II veteran with Post-traumatic Stress Disorder; after the war, he was perpetually in search of a spiritual cure for his damaged psyche. In the wake of the enormous success of the novel about the ’prep school boy,’ a myth emerged: Salinger, like Holden, was too sensitive to be touched, too good for this world. He would spend the rest of his life trying and failing to reconcile these completely contradictory versions of himself: the myth and the reality.“
Left Hand, Right Hand! Noble Essences, or Courteous Reflections, Vol. Five (1950)
A robust old country-neighbor, one of the last of the squires, was heard during a severe thunderstorm thus to address his faithful and aging servant: “Alec, you damn fool, don’t stand about there, doing nothing! Climb up the lightning-conductor, can’t you, and see if it’s working!”
In this fifth and final volume of his Autobiography, one can only wonder where Sitwell is going with this somewhat unusual—but definitely intriguing—opening. He continued: “The man who climbs such an instrument naturally leads a more exciting life than does he who watches the hurricane and writes about it: in short, as I have argued before, a writer’s life is duller than that of a man of action. Yet I would rather read an account of the storm by one who watched it than by one who climbed the lighting-conductor; and further, I would rather read a book which concerned Leonardo, let us say, and Baudelaire or a lesser artist, than the most circumstantial and detailed volume devoted to the Battle of Waterloo, or a prize-fight.”
Lemony Snicket (pen name of Daniel Handler)
The Reptile Room [Book 2 of A Series of Unfortunate Events] (1999)
The stretch of road that leads out of the city, past Hazy Harbor and into the town of Tedia, is perhaps the most unpleasant in the world. It is called Lousy Lane.
The narrator continued: “Lousy Lane runs through fields that are a sickly gray color, in which a handful of scraggly trees produce apples so sour that one only has to look at them to feel ill. Lousy Lane traverses the Grim River, a body of water that is nine-tenths mud and that contains extremely unnerving fish, and it encircles a horseradish factory, so the entire area smells bitter and strong.”
Lemony Snicket (pen name of Daniel Handler)
The Austere Academy [Book 5 of A Series of Unfortunate Events] (2000)
If you were going to give a gold medal to the least delightful person on Earth, you would have to give that medal to a person named Carmelita Spats, and if you didn’t give it to her, Carmelita Spats was the sort of person who would snatch it from your hands anyway.
The narrator continued: “Carmelita Spats was rude, she was violent, and she was filthy, and it is really a shame that I must describe her to you, because there are enough ghastly and distressing things in this story without even mentioning such an unpleasant person.”
In a New York Times review when the novel was published, Gregory Maguire wrote: “Had the gloom-haunted Edward Gorey found a way to have a love child with Dorothy Parker, their issue might well have been Lemony Snicket, the pseudonymous author of a multivolume family chronicle brought out under the genteel appellation A Series of Unfortunate Events. The scribe of the Baudelaire family misfortunes speaks morosely to his readers, promising that however cheery things may appear, in the end nothing will go well. Rewardingly, so far in five volumes, nothing has.“
Lemony Snicket (pen name of Daniel Handler)
The Bad Beginning, or, Orphans [Book 1 of A Series of Unfortunate Events] (1999)
If you are interested in stories with happy endings, you would be better off reading some other book. In this book, not only is there no happy ending, there is no happy beginning and very few happy things in the middle.
The narrator continued: “This is because not very many happy things happened in the lives of the three Baudelaire youngsters. Violet, Klaus, and Sunny Baudelaire were intelligent children, and they were charming, and resourceful, and had pleasant facial features, but they were extremely unlucky, and most everything that happened to them was rife with misfortune, misery, and despair. I’m sorry to tell you this, but that is how the story goes.”
In a 2022 Collider.com post, Hazel Khatter included this intriguing opener in her list of “10 Great Books That Hooked Readers From the Very First Line.” She wrote: “While this may seem like a risky choice for the first line of a book, it hasn’t stopped millions of people from enjoying it. The first book in A Series Of Unfortunate Events series, The Bad Beginning...is a young adult mystery book that tells an unhappy tale about three very unlucky children. True to its word, the series is sad, not funny or cute sad, but pure, unfiltered sadness seeping through the pages and attacking your heart.“
“Postscript,” in Men Explain Things to Me (2014)
One evening over dinner in March 2008, I began to joke, as I often had before, about writing an essay called “Men Explain Things to Me.” Every writer has a stable of ideas that never make it to the racetrack, and I’d been trotting this pony out recreationally once in a while.
So begins a brief article explaining the origins of “Men Explain Things to Me,” a 2008 essay originally published in TomDispatch.com. The original essay immediately struck a nerve in female readers, and went on to become enormously popular. Even though Solnit did not coin the term “mansplaining,” her essay inspired the term.
In her opening paragraph, Solnit continued: “My houseguest, the brilliant theorist and activist Marina Sitrin, insisted that I had to write it down because people like her younger sister Sam needed to read it. Young women, she said, needed to know that being belittled wasn’t the result of their own secret failings; it was the boring old gender wars, and it happened to most of us who were female at some point or other.”
The Oak and the Calf: Sketches of Literary Life in the Soviet Union (1975)
Underground is where you expect to find revolutionaries. But not writers.
In his literary memoir, Solzhenitsyn continued: “For the writer intent on truth, life never was, never is (and never will be!) easy; his like have suffered every imaginable harassment—defamation, duels, a shattered family life, financial ruin or lifelong unrelieved poverty, the madhouse, jail.”
Charles Bukowski: Locked in the Arms of a Crazy Life (1998)
Charles Bukowski raised himself up from his chair and got a beer from the refrigerator behind him on stage. The audience applauded as he drank, tipping the bottle until it was upside down and he had drained the last golden drop.
“This is not a prop,” he said, speaking slowly with a lilt to his voice, like W. C. Fields. “It’s a necesssssity.”
The words come from the book’s Prologue, and they provide a fitting introduction to one of the most colorful characters in literary history.
The first chapter of the book (titled “Twisted Childhood”) also begins memorably: “Bukowski claimed the majority of what he wrote was literally what had happened in his life. Essentially that is what his books are all about—and honest representation of himself and his experiences at the bottom of American society. He even went so far as to put a figure on it: ninety-three percent of his work was autobiography, he said, and the remaining seven percent was ‘improved upon.’”
The Child That Books Built: A Life in Reading (2002)
“I can always tell when you’re reading somewhere in the house,“ my mother used to say. “There’s a special silence, a reading silence.“
Spufford, the noted English author of fiction as well as non-fiction works, continued: “I never heard it, this extra degree of hush that somehow travelled through walls and ceiling to announce that my seven-year-old self had become about as absent as a present person could be. The silence went both ways. As my concentration on the story in my hands took hold, all sounds faded away. My ears closed.“
Sophie’s Choice (1979)
In those days cheap apartments were almost impossible to find in Manhattan, so I had to move to Brooklyn. This was in 1947, and one of the pleasant features of that summer which I so vividly remember was the weather, which was sunny and mild, flower-fragrant, almost as if the days had been arrested in a seemingly perpetual springtime. I was grateful for that if for nothing else, since my youth, I felt, was at its lowest ebb.
The protagonist, a WWII veteran and struggling young writer with the unusual name of Stingo, opens the novel nicely, but it’s about to get a whole lot better. As he continues, he advances the story with what I regard as literary history’s best-ever description of that dreaded condition known as Writer’s Block:
“At twenty-two, struggling to become some kind of writer, I found that the creative heat which at eighteen had nearly consumed me with its gorgeous, relentless flame had flickered out to a dim pilot light registering little more than a token glow in my breast, or wherever my hungriest aspirations once resided. It was not that I no longer wanted to write, I still yearned passionately to produce the novel which had been for so long captive in my brain. It was only that, having written down the first few fine paragraphs, I could not produce any others, or—to approximate Gertrude Stein’s remark about a lesser writer of the Lost Generation—I had the syrup but it wouldn’t pour.“
The novel went on to win the 1980 National Book Award for Fiction, but the story didn’t become a part of popular culture until the 1982 film adaptation, featuring an Oscar-winning performance by Meryl Streep.
The Kingdom and the Power: Behind the Scenes at The New York Times (1969)
Most journalists are restless voyeurs who see the warts on the world, the imperfections in people and places.
In his opening paragraph, Talese continued: “The sane scene that is much of life, the great portion of the planet unmarked by madness, does not lure them like riots and raids, crumbling countries and sinking ships, bankers banished to Rio and burning Buddhist nuns—gloom is their game, the spectacle their passion, normality their nemesis.”
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.“
“Try to Remember,” in The New Yorker (April 4, 2011)
To memorize the first ten digits of pi, you simply have to sing, to the tune of the Mousketeers song, “If numbers had a heaven / their god would surely be / 3.1415 / 92653.”
“The Lede,” in The New Yorker (Dec. 27, 2021)
It’s said that when James Thurber, as a young newspaper reporter, was told by an editor that his story’s first paragraph, what newspaper people might refer to as his lede, suffered from wordiness, he handed in a rewrite whose opening paragraph was, in its entirety, “Dead.”
There followed a second paragraph: “That’s what the man was when they found him with a knife in his back at 4pm in front of Riley’s saloon at the corner of 52nd and 12th streets.”
In the world of journalism, the opening (or “lead”) sentence in newspaper and magazine articles is often described as a “lede.” There’s some debate about the exact origins of the usage, but few people outside the world of journalism use the term. In his New Yorker article—a homage to ledes from a man who described himself as “a collector” of them—Trillin opened with a marvelous apocryphal story about James Thurber.
“The Quare Fellow,” a 1956 Observer review; reprinted in Tynan on Theatre (1964)
“Bloody sparklin’ dialogue,” said a pensive Irishman during the first interval of The Quare Fellow—and sparkle, by any standards, it amazingly did.
On a number of occasions, Tynan used a snippet of overheard audience conversation to open a review. In this case, it was a terrific way to begin, and it only got better as Tynan expanded on the remark: “The English hoard words like misers; the Irish spend them like sailors; and in Brendan Behan’s tremendous new play language is out on a spree, ribald, dauntless, and spoiling for a fight.”
In the opening paragraph, Tynan continued with this stinging criticism of English drama: “In itself, of course, this is scarcely amazing. It is Ireland’s sacred duty to send over, every few years, a playwright to save the English theatre from inarticulate glumness.”
“Fates and Furies,” in The Observer (July 12, 1955); reprinted as “Macbeth” in Tynan on Theatre (1964)
Nobody has ever succeeded as Macbeth, and the reason is not far to seek. Instead of growing as the play proceeds, the hero shrinks; complex and many-levelled to begin with, he ends up a cornered thug, lacking even a death scene with which to regain lost stature.
In the opening paragraph, Tynan continued: “Most Macbeths, mindful of this, let off their big guns as soon as possible, and have usually shot their bolt by the time the dagger speech is out.”
The review, begun so pessimistically, was soon transformed into adulation for Laurence Olivier’s performance in the role: “The marvel of Sir Laurence Olivier’s reading is that it reverses this procedure, turns the play inside out, and makes it (for the first time I can remember) a thing of mounting, not waning, excitement.”
“The Lost Art of Bad Drama,” in The Observer (March 1955); reprinted in Tynan on Theatre (1964)
Night-nurses at the bedside of good drama, we critics keep a holy vigil. Black circles rim our eyes as we pray for the survival of our pet patient….
Tynan was one of history’s most influential drama critics, and also one of the most articulate, as he demonstrates in this impressive opener. The idea of critics as nurse-maids is a powerful metaphor, and it reveals something important about Tynan’s view of the critic’s role—as a defender of good drama, and, like a physician, one who regards bad drama as a sickness or disease that must be eradicated for the patient to enjoy good health.
Tynan will forever be remembered as a critic, but, as he demonstrates in the opening words of this review, he also deserves to be honored as a superlative writer.
Self-Consciousness: A Memoir (1989)
Had not my twenty-five-year-old daughter undertipped the airline porter in Boston, our luggage might have shown upon the carrousel [sic] in Allentown that April afternoon in 1980, and I would not have spent an evening walking the sidewalks of Shillington, Pennsylvania, searching for the meaning for my existence, as once I had scanned those same sidewalks for lost pennies.
Regarding the word carrousel above, Updike chose to use the original French spelling for a word that is typically spelled carousel in English.
“Confessions of a Wild Bore,” in Assorted Prose (1965)
Pity the poor bore. He stands among us as a creature formidable and familiar yet in essence unknowable. We can read of the ten infallible signs whereby he may be recognized and of the seven tested methods whereby he may be rebuffed.
In an essay that is now regarded as a masterpiece of parody, Updike introduced his subject with an inspired tongue-in-cheek opening paragraph. He continued with a brilliant piece of writing that embedded one of his most quotable observations (it’s at the conclusion of the paragraph, and I’ve put it into italics so you can locate it more readily):
“Valuable monographs exist upon his dress and diet; the study of his mating habits and migrational routes is well past the speculative stage; and statistical studies abound. One out of three hundred and twelve Americans is a bore, for instance, and a healthy adult male bore consumes each year one and a half times his own weight in other people’s patience.”
“The Satiric World of Evelyn Waugh,” in The New York Times (Jan 7, 1962)
A satirist is a man profoundly revolted by the society in which he lives. His rage takes the form of wit, ridicule, mockery.
Some opening sentences are so eloquently expressed they cause the reader to stop reading for just a moment to appreciate the beauty of the construction. This is one of those gems.
“The Tarn,” in The Silver Thorn: A Book of Stories (1928)
As Foster moved unconsciously across the room, bent towards the bookcase, and stood leaning forward a little, choosing now one book, now another with his eye, his host, seeing the muscles of the back of his thin, scraggy neck stand out above his low flannel collar, thought of the ease with which he could squeeze that throat and the pleasure, the triumphant, lustful pleasure, that such an action would give him.
One of the great pleasures of my Great Opening Lines project has been discovering intriguing openers from authors I’ve heard of, but never read. “The Tarn” is one of Walpole’s darker short stories, and the opening scene is so beautifully described you can close your eyes and bring every detail to life in your mind’s eye. Go ahead, try it.
A guest in another man’s home, absorbed by the books in his library, has no idea that the man standing just behind him is having dark, delicious fantasies of strangling him. At this point, readers have no idea what the man has done to stimulate such ferocious rage, or if the host will actually follow through. How could they stop themselves from reading on?
As the story unfolds, we learn that both men are writers—and a familiar literary theme emerges. In a 2021 blog post, speculative fiction writer Matthew Rettino described the story this way: “A highly relatable tale of literary jealousy and sweet revenge.”
Auto da Fay: A Memoir (2002)
I long for a day of judgment when the plot lines of our lives will be neatly tied, and all puzzles explained, and the meaning of events made clear. We take to fiction, I suppose, because no such thing is going to happen….
H. G. Wells
“The Writing of Essays” (1898), in Certain Personal Matters (1898)
The art of the essayist is so simple, so entirely free from canons of criticism, and withal so delightful, that one must needs wonder why all men are not essayists. Perhaps people do not know how easy it is. Or perhaps beginners are misled. Rightly taught it may be learnt in a brief ten minutes or so, what art there is in it. And all the rest is as easy as wandering among woodlands on a bright morning in the spring.
I include the opening paragraph of this essay, not because it is so deserving, but because of the essay’s final paragraph, which you will see in a moment (it includes one of the most interesting things ever written on the subject of Great Opening Lines). The best thing I can say about the opening paragraph above is that it is a little strange. I know of no other serious writer who has maintained that writing is simple or easy, or that it can be learned in a matter of minutes. I’m not sure what Wells was smoking when he wrote the essay, but it looks like it might have been some pretty strong stuff.
The most important thing about Wells’s essay is not the first paragraph, but the final one—which includes this thought about how to effectively begin an essay:
“So long as you do not begin with a definition you may begin anyhow. An abrupt beginning is much admired, after the fashion of the clown’s entry through the chemist’s window. Then whack at your reader (italics mine) at once, hit him over the head with the sausages, brisk him up with the poker, bundle him into the wheelbarrow, and so carry him away with you before he knows where you are.”
Apex Hides the Hurt (2006)
He came up with the names.
The opening line describes an unnamed African-American “nomenclature consultant” who has been experiencing great success in the naming and branding of consumer products (his most recent triumph was creating “Apex hides the hurt” for a bandage company whose product came in multiple colors to match an array of skin tones).
About the protagonist, the narrator continued: “They were good times. He came up with the names and like any good parent he knocked them around to teach them life lessons. He bent them to see if they’d break, he dragged them behind cars by heavy metal chains, he exposed them to high temperatures for extended periods of time. Sometimes consonants broke off and left angry vowels on the laboratory tables. How else was he to know if they were ready for what the world had in store for them?”
Apex Hides the Hurt was a critical as well as a commercial success, with The New York Times hailing it as one of “The 100 Most Notable Books of the Year.”
“Paranoia,” in Leah, New Hampshire (1992)
My name is Aaron Benham, and I am a writer of fiction, a college professor, and an unwilling collector of paranoiacs. Perhaps I am no more surrounded by paranoiacs than anyone else, but sometimes I wonder.
After reading the opening words of this short story several decades ago, I could not get the intriguing phrase collector of paranoiacs out of my mind—and the notion that Benham was an unwilling collector of further fascinated me. In the opening paragraph, he continued:
“Like those who fear dogs only to excite in all dogs an immediate aggressive affection, I seem doomed to be the chosen confessor of those who have systematized their delusions. I wonder if they know how much they frighten me.”
To Write As If Already Dead (2021)
There comes a moment when you are finally given some space and quiet, maybe an hour, possibly two, the occasional birdsong by an open window, and you must go to that other room and return to the problem you’ve been attempting to unravel.
In this genre-bending work (part-biography, part memoir, part novel), Zambreno begins by describing an experience all people—especially writers—are familiar with. I was so impressed I selected it for a Smerconish.com post on The Best Opening Lines of 2021 (see the post here).
For me, that final phrase—the problem you’ve been attempting to unravel—has a haunting, unforgettable quality, causing me to reflect, “Yes, I’m familiar with that kind of problem.”
Writing Places: The Life Journey of a Writer and Teacher (2009)
Of all the places where I’ve done my writing, none was more unusual than the office that had a fire pole.
Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir (Rev. ed. 1998)
This is the age of the memoir. Never have personal narratives gushed so profusely from the American soil as in the closing decade of the twentieth century. Everyone has a story to tell, and everyone is telling it.
Spring Training (1989)
This book was born, though I didn’t know it at the time, seven years ago in Winter Haven, Florida, at the spring training camp of the Boston Red Sox. I was sitting in the grandstand in a sea of codgers, codging the time away.
Zinsser continued: “The sun was warm, the grass was green, and the air was alive with the sounds of rebirth: bat meeting ball, ball meeting glove, players and coaches chattering across the diamond. They were sounds that hadn’t been heard in the land since the World Series ended in October.”
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.”