Guy Dammann has an article up over at the Guardian Book Blog about his favorite first lines (but since he is British, he spells it “favourite”). This is something I’ve always thought about. For many, the first line is the most important part of a novel. It’s the hook that has to make people want to keep reading. I have often stared at the open white space on the screen and watched my cursor blink as I tried and tried to come up with a poetic, resonant opening.
“Some openers are so prescient that they seem to burn a hole through the rest of the book, the semantic resonance recurring with the persistence of the first theme in Beethoven’s fifth symphony. The effervescent, pitiless bleakness of Camus’ The Stranger is like that: “My mother died today, or perhaps it was yesterday.” Others ease you effortlessly into their world: “In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly-fishing,” begins A River Runs Through It. Like a trout, you’re hooked.”
The Stranger is one that has always stuck with me. I’ve read many novels in my time on this earth. Even keeping with a conservative estimate of three books a month, that’s 36 books a year for, let’s say, 15 years. That’s 540 books so far (and that is a definite lowball). Of those, I can remember maybe handful of opening lines. The above-mentioned Camus is one. The rest? I’m glad you asked:
“The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.”- Stephen King, The Gunslinger (The Dark Tower, Book 1)
“Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead bearing a bowel of lather on which a mirror and razor lay crossed.” -James Joyce, Ulysses
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”- Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
“In a sense, I am Jacob Horner. —John Barth, The End of the Road
“Listen: Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.”- Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five
“In a hole in the ground, there lived a Hobit.”- J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit
“Call me Ishmael.”- Herman Melville, Moby-Dick
“The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.” —William Gibson, Neuromancer
“It was love at first sight.” —Joseph Heller, Catch-22
“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”- George Orwell, 1984
The American Book Review has their list of the top 100, which I only consulted after compiling my list. Most of mine were on there, at least the big canonical ones. I must confess that A Tale of Two Cities is there chiefly through cultural osmosis, since I have never read it. I also see that I got Slaughterhouse-Five wrong. Now that I look, I see that I was mentally skipping over the preamble of the first chapter and jumping right into the narrative.
What does this mean? What is it about these first lines that made them stick in my consciousness while the other 531 or so have slipped through like sand in a sieve? They are poetic, to be sure. But is that all it takes? The list has many equally poetic openings that I have read but that just didn’t resonate with me. These lines not only roll off the tongue with an impressive artistry, but they plant you within the narrative immediately. They incite curiosity as much as they inspire repetition. In what sense is he not Jacob Horner? Who is Ishmael? Why was it love at first sight? Striking thirteen? WTF?
But that can’t be all it takes, either. I don’t necessarily care about Buck Mulligan, no matter how plump or stately he happens to be, and his progress down the stairs is none of my business. But Joyce’s way with language keeps me reading. It’s a mystery, an alchemy that I am still trying to understand.