When I’m browsing books, I always give special weight to the opening line. The very best of them set up the essential conflict right off the bat. They reassure you that, yes, there’s a story here, and you’re not going to have to wait until Chapter 8 to get interested in it. I’m a great fan of opening lines, from the famous to the obscure. Often they’re the reason I take a closer look at a book I might otherwise pass by.
So it’s interesting to examine this list, compiled by American Book Review, of what they deem the 100 best first lines of all time. Some I agree with; others … meh.
For example, the No. 1 choice: “Call me Ishmael.” I don’t know. While eloquent, as a single sentence it doesn’t really grab you by the throat, or suggest the epic struggle to come in Moby Dick.
Then there’s that other famous beginning: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Leo Tolstoy’s oft-quoted opening to Anna Karenina ranks No. 6. This, I think, does a better job of what a first sentence should do: tell you that this is not going to be a story about happy (and therefore boring) people.
Personally, I am most fond of lines like this: “It was the day my grandmother exploded.” I haven’t read this book, The Crow Road by Iain M. Banks, but with an opening like that it’s just a matter of time.
Of course, I wouldn’t bring this up if I didn’t have an opening line of my own to offer, from my upcoming story “Strange Days” in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. It’s not literature, but I think it helped sell the story: “Loin cloth, black loafers and a foot-long Bowie knife: It wasn’t a great look for an out-of-shape man in his 60s, especially one whose torso had not seen the sun since the Carter administration.”
Any great first lines stick in your mind?