Thursday, August 19, 2010

Favorite First Lines From Books

I was inspired by Amanda at The Zen Leaf, who posted today about her favorite lines from books.  I realized that many of the lines I remember most are first lines, so that's what I'm listing.  Many of them are famous, a few not so famous.  And I couldn't limit myself to just ten, so here they are, in no particular order:

1. "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of good fortune must be in want of a wife."  -- Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice.

I can't say anything about Jane Austen that hasn't already been said, and probably better than I could say it.  Probably my favorite book in the whole world, a great first line.

2.  "Last night I dreamt I was at Manderlay again."  -- Daphne du Maurier, Rebecca

Rebecca, the best gothic novel ever.   Not only does it have a great plot, and memorable setting, and scary villain, it's beautifully written.  The movie and television adaptations are great, but if you don't read the book you're really missing out.

3.  "Mr. and Mrs. Dursley of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much."  -- J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorceror's Stone

In just a few words, J. K. Rowling sucked me into the memorable world of Harry Potter, and I've been a fan (sometimes to the point of obsession) for almost eleven years.  I'm counting the days until I get to visit The Wizarding World of Harry Potter (only 97 left!)

4. "I write this sitting in the kitchen sink." -- Dodie Smith, I Capture the Castle

Immediately, we learn that our narrator is a writer, or diarist, and that she's quirky.  Intriguing!  Cassandra Mortmain lives up to the intro in this charming book (one of J. K. Rowling's favorites, by the way).

5.  "When he was 13, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow." -- Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

What happened to Jem, and how is this important to the story?  One of the classics of American literature.  If, like me, you read it in high school and didn't see the big deal about it, read it again.  It means so much more to me now as an adult.  I can't wait for my daughter to read it next year.

6. "Scarlett O'Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were." -- Margaret Mitchell, Gone with the Wind

I don't think I'd like to be friends with Scarlett, but I'll always admire her spunk and determination.  It's probably not PC to love this novel, but it will always be one of my favorites. 

7. "Every summer Lin Kong returned to Goose Village to divorce his wife, Shuyu." -- Ha Jin, Waiting

One of my favorite lines from contemporary literature.  Every summer?  Do they get remarried every year -- what is going on here?  A great book about modern China, and a heartbreaking story.

8.  "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."  -- Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

Bleak House is still my favorite Dickens so far, but I don't think Dickens ever wrote a better opening line.  A Tale of Two Cities also includes what is probably the best last line in a book: "It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far far better rest that I go to than I have ever know."

9.  "There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it." -- C. S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

Who is Eustace, and what has he done to deserve it? And what is he doing on the Dawn Treader? Eustace is one of Lewis' most memorable characters in the Narnia series. The Horse and His Boy will always be my favorite in the series, but Dawn Treader comes pretty close. I'm looking forward to the movie adaptation.

10. "In the land of Ingary, where such things ase seven-league boots and cloaks of invisibility still exist, it is quite a misfortune to be born the eldest of three." -- Diana Wynne Jones, Howl's Moving Castle

I know I keep harping on it, but Diana Wynne Jones is sadly underrated in this country.  She's written more than 30 books of children's fantasy, and I've loved nearly every one I've read so far (13 and counting).  Everyone mourning the end of the Harry Potter series needs to read her books.

11.  "I had the story, bit by bit, from various people, and, as generally happens in such cases, each time it was a different story." -- Edith Wharton, Ethan Frome.

One of the most beautiful, heartbreaking stories I've ever read. Ethan is so tragic, but I still find the story wonderful and fascinating. Another novel that I think is best appreciated as an adult.

12.  "During my career as a backup singer with the with Vernon and Ruby Shakely and the Shakettes, it often occurred to me that this was not a lifetime occupation and that someday I would have to figure out my rightful place in society." -- Laurie Colwin, Goodbye Without Leaving

I loved Laurie Colwin's food columns when she wrote for Gourmet, but her prose is just beautiful.  I realized after reading her short stories that I would never write anything as good, and I should just give up trying. I've read all her books and wish there were more, but sadly, Colwin died suddenly in 1992 at the age of 48.  She's best known for two collections of food essays, Home Cooking and More Home Cooking.

So -- what are your favorite first lines?


  1. Great choices! The first lines of Tale of Two Cities are wonderful, aren't they? I always find myself reciting them in my head.

  2. I don't remember first lines any more than I remember others, but these stand out for me in particular:

    1. It was love at first sight. (Catch-22)

    2. It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn't know what I was doing in New York. (The Bell Jar)

    3. As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect. (Metamorphosis)

    4. Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself. (Mrs. Dalloway)

    Crap, there was another one, but I can't remember it anymore! I lost it while typing up these others. Ah well.

  3. Kristen -- I also love the first line of David Copperfield, but I had to limit myself to only one Dickens.

    Amanda -- I like the one from The Bell Jar also. In library school we played Banned Book Jeapordy, and first lines was one of the categories. The line from the Bell Jar was one of the questions and nobody got it.

  4. I enjoyed your choices, although not familiar with all of the books.

    Here is one that is a bit of a cheat since it comes from a first chapter, yet the book has a prologue.

    ''I have been here before,' I said; I had been there before; with Sebastian more than twenty years ago on a cloudless day in June, when the ditches were creamy with meadowsweet and the air heavy with all the scents of summer; it was a day of peculiar splendour, and although I had been there so often, in so many moods, it was to that first visit that my heart returned on this, my latest.'

    Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited.

    It's so long that I don't remember it, but it resonates with me and I remember the 'spirit' of it.

  5. My favorite first lines would definitely include numbers 1, 2, 4, 8, and 11. The I'd add Mrs. Dalloway, like Amanda did, and Anna Karenina's
    "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."

  6. I love your choices! One very unexpected side effect of reading book blogs for me has been that I now pay more attention to opening lines. They can really set the tenor of the whole book.

  7. JoAnn -- I love the first line of Anna Karenina, but the rest of the book made me crazy so I couldn't bring myself to include it. Same with Mrs. Dalloway -- I have a hard time with stream-of-consciousness.

    Jenny -- I looked back at a lot of my favorites and I was surprised that so many DIDN'T have great first lines.

  8. I love your first lines as well as the last line from tempted to think about and write a post of my own on similar lines, only most of mine would be a copy of yours :)

    Landed up here on your site from Amanda's Bleak House readalong page

  9. The TOTC opening line has always been a favourite of mine but here are a couple more that have always stuck with me:

    1. "In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit."

    J.R.R. Tolkien - The Hobbit

    2. "It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen."

    George Orwell - 1984

    3. "Marley was dead, to begin with."

    Charles Dickens - A Christmas Carol

    4. "The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning."

    Ian FLeming - Casino Royale


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