Minds are mostly dulled by mouse clicks, not delighted.
But there are those clicks which bring you to gems.
At the blog Faith and Theology I saw a great post in which a man and his daughter search their home’s bookshelves for the best opening lines of novels. “What a great idea”, quoth I.
His favorite first sentence was “Call me Ishmael.”, and indeed that has a lot going for it. I noted with pleasure that they, in their gleanings, did not omit another truly famous line, you know… the one from Jane Austen.
I was surprised that father/daughter treasure hunt didn’t turn up: “It was the best of times…”. You know the rest.
I was delighted to see: ‘Marley was dead: to begin with.” Everyone knows that one, and it ain’t about ganja.
Yes, you could look for 100 years and not find a better opening than that first line crafted by Gabriel García Márquez, even though it is usually in translation. Imagine! It’s even good in Spanish! “Muchos años después, frente al pelotón de fusilamiento, el coronel Aureliano Buendía había de recordar aquella tarde remota en que su padre lo llevó a conocer el hielo.”
And it would be Kafkaesque to forget, “Als Gregor Samsa eines Morgens aus unruhigen Träumen erwachte, fand er sich in seinem Bett zu einem ungeheuren Ungeziefer verwandelt.”
It isn’t just about the language, it is also about the image, the arresting idea which hauls you in by the eyes.
And it doesn’t have to be a novel. For example, there is the sheer joy the following inflicts on the imagination of an Unreconstructed Ossified Manualist, to wit: “In ipso limine Theologiae, ejus notionem, partionem et praestantiam declarare haud ingratum erit.”
How about some of you contribute great first lines of books? Let them be one sentence, not several and not paragraphs. Let’s not ever see, “I know this is more than one sentence… but…” … “This isn’t a first sentence, but…”. Play fair!
Also, I am not talking here are first lines of great books, but rather great first lines from books.
Mediocre books can have great first lines and great books can have first lines that are hardly to be later recalled.
Here are a few from my memory and rapid page flipping.
Magnus est, domine, et laudabilis valde: magna virtus tua, et sapientiae tuae non est numerus. (Augustine of Hippo, Confessions)
arma virumque cano, Troiae qui primus ab oris
Italiam fato profugus Laviniaque venit
litora, multum ille et terris iactatus et alto
vi superum, saevae memorem Iunonis ob iram,
multa quoque et bello passus, dum conderet urbem
inferretque deos Latio; genus unde
Albanique patres atque altae moenia Romae. (Virgil, Aeneid)
Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura
ché la diritta via era smarrita. (Dante, Divina Commedia, Inferno.)
Yah, I know, I read a lot of foreign stuff – in foreign!
riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs. (James Joyce, Finnegan’s Wake)
Whan that Aprill, with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote
And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan Zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halfe cours yronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open eye-
(So priketh hem Nature in hir corages);
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes
To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes;
And specially from every shires ende
Of Engelond, to Caunterbury they wende,
The hooly blisful martir for to seke
That hem hath holpen, whan that they were seeke. (Chaucer, Canterbury Tales)
One sentence, graceful, beautiful, telling a tale.
And it is seasonal!
And speaking of seasonal:
“My father said he saw him years later playing in a tenth-rate commercial league in a textile town in Carolina, wearing shoes and an assumed name.”
I could go on, but it is your turn.
One sentence… one great, electrifying, first sentence and it matters not if the rest of the book is good, bad or indifferent. Tastes will differ, what grabs one may not grab another. Not just the first sentence of a book you like, but an amazing sentence.