Books Recommendations Writing

Favorite firsts

I mentioned recently that the Chronicle had included the first line of Alcestis in their ongoing feature of “grabbers.” On Twitter a little while ago, someone (I forget who, argh) linked to this list at Flavorwire of their thirty favorite opening lines in literature. As usual, I liked some of them and boggled at others, and there are few lines I’d add to any list of that sort.

For example…

From Margaret Atwood’s Lady Oracle, which I taught for the first time in the fall:

I planned my death carefully; unlike my life, which meandered along from one thing to another, despite my feeble attempts to control it.

And, okay, from Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale:

We slept in what had once been the gymnasium.

(Totally beats The Road, I’m sorry.)

P&P always gets the most love among Austen’s openings, for good reason, but Emma‘s is also brilliant:

Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and a happy disposition seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.

The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling:

An Author ought to consider himself, not as a Gentleman who gives a private or eleemosynary Treat, but rather as one who keeps a public Ordinary, at which all Persons are welcome for their Money.

A Sentimental Journey:

–They order, said I, this matter better in France–

And if we’re including plays, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, of course:


Do you have favorite first lines you feel are always overlooked? I’m intrigued that the Flavorwire list is specifically about favorites, not just about lines that are particularly grabby. I think my own favorite first lines tend to be those that communicate a flavor of the book. I almost included the opening of The Portrait of a Lady here, but it’s an intentionally misleading first line, tonally; it’s breezy and somewhat superficial and it hides from you the depth of the drama within the book. That’s a respectable strategy, but it means that I don’t really think about the first line when I think about the book as a whole.

Speaking of great openings, here’s the beginning of Lydia Kiesling’s lovely post about Brideshead Revisited at the Millions:

Brideshead Revisited is one of my favorite novels.  I am prone to the use of superlatives, fits of florid enthusiasm, and weeping, so I have dozens of favorite novels, songs, and movies.  I also have a lot of mortal enemies (mostly from the parking lot) and several best friends.  Both my cats are my favorite.  There are so many things to love (and loathe).  Let’s say that I am catholic with my affections.

The people in Brideshead Revisited are also Catholic with their affections, but for them it means something different, namely that they are crazy.  Or not crazy, exactly, but capable of nuances of feeling, infinitely tied to a class and place and time, that seem no longer to be part of anyone’s emotional spectrum.  These feelings do not register on the brute psychic seismographs of today; they require some exquisite baroque device, ancient but extraordinarily sensitive, sitting under a drop cloth in a crumbling country estate.

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