Friday, June 8, 2012

You had me at "ape descended life-forms."

As I flip past the title page of a book I always wonder what's in store for me. I may have heard one thing or another about a given author or title; I may have read a review, or gotten a recommendation, or drawn my own conclusions based on the name of the book, which genre collection it came from, or its year of publication. As I read the first few words of a novel, though, that is when my preconceptions give way to the beginnings of an informed opinion.

As the proverb goes, you never get a second chance at a first impression, and the first line of a book sets the tone for what's to follow. The first phrase of a book can reveal incredible things about the story to come. It can elicit all sort of reactions from nostalgia, to curiosity, to shock, and many more--the possibilities are truly endless.

There's been a lot of discussion about the best opening lines, and while I can't offer a singular champion, I can say that my personal favorite intro is from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by the late famed British author Douglas Adams. It begins “Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun. Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-eight million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue-green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.” I was immediately struck by the extraordinary wit of this statement as I began to read and was all the more eager to see what other clever lines Adams could deliver; he certainly didn't disappoint on that score (the story was also pretty good).

Perhaps the most famous openers in western literature include...

Charles Dickens'  A Tale of Two Cities,

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.” 

Janes Austen's Pride and Prejudice

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”

Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451.

"It was a pleasure to burn,"

Iain Banks' The Crow Road deserves an honorable mention. While it isn't a particularly famous novel it opens with a bang. The first sentence is: "It was the day my grandmother exploded." If that isn't an attention grabber, I don't know what is.

Have you ever found the first line of a book particularly memorable or notable for any reason?


Jackie D. said...

I love the first line of the Virgin Suicides- "On the morning the last Lisbon daughter took her turn at suicide – it was Mary this time, and sleeping pills, like Therese – the two paramedics arrived at the house knowing exactly where the knife drawer was, and the gas oven, and the beam in the basement from which it was possible to tie a rope."

Fiona Dinwiddie said...

"If I could tell you only one thing about my life it would be this; when I was seven years old the mailman ran over my head." - The Miracle Life of Edgar Mind by Brady Udall

Linda K. said...

"It was a dark and stormy night." Under the chapter title of "Mrs. Whatsit" thus opens the wonderful YA classic "A Wrinkle in Time" by Madeleine L'Engle. It's always worth a re-read.

Laura A. said...

Mary Gaitskill's novel Two Girl, Fat and Thin begins:

"I entered the strange world of Justine Shade via a message on the bulletin board in a laundromat filled with bitterness and the hot breath of dryers." I think it was the "bitterness and hot breath of dryers" that got me.

Great opening, great book.

Laura A. said...

Actually, the title is Two GirlS, Fat and Thin--typo. (Gaitskill would never use incorrect grammar.)

Gus said...

James Thurber's short story, "The Night the Bed Fell", begins thusly:

"I suppose the high-water mark of my youth in Columbus, Ohio, was the night the bed fell on my father." And hilarity ensues forthwith.

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