The 100 Best First Lines from Novels

American Book Review recently published its list of the 100 Best First Lines from Novels (HT). I actually considered making my own list of best opening lines a while back, but never got around to it. Here’s their top 10.

1. Call me Ishmael. —Herman Melville, Moby-Dick (1851)

2. It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. —Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (1813)

3. A screaming comes across the sky. —Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow (1973)

4. Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice. —Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967; trans. Gregory Rabassa)

5. Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. —Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita (1955)

6. Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. —Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina (1877; trans. Constance Garnett)

7. 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, Finnegans Wake (1939)

8. It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. —George Orwell, 1984 (1949)

9. 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 (1859)

10. I am an invisible man. —Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (1952)

Apparently good opening lines are in short supply recently, at least according to this list. I could only find two entries on the list since 2000:

50. I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974. —Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex (2002)

62. Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person. —Anne Tyler, Back When We Were Grownups (2001)

I know at least a few of you out there are big fiction fans. What are some of your favorite opening lines? I’d be particularly interested to hear if you have any favorites from the last decade or so.

About Marc Cortez

Theology Prof and Dean at Western Seminary, husband, father, & blogger, who loves theology, church history, ministry, pop culture, books, and life in general.

Posted on September 27, 2010, in Writing and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 11 Comments.

  1. “When I stepped out into the bright sunlight from the darkness of the movie house, I had only two things on my mind: Paul Newman and a ride home.”

    S. E. Hinton, The Outsiders.

    Not saying it’s the finest piece of American lit, but I still remember that line from my childhood. That’s gotta count for something.

  2. “When I was very young and the urge to be someplace else was on me, I was assured by mature people that maturity would cure this itch.”

    Travels with Charley – John Steinbeck

  3. Very interesting. Thanks for sharing!

  4. Once upon a time, I studied Literature. This was quite against my will, mind you, but imposed upon my delicate sensibilities on account of the fact that, horribly, the university at which I then conducted my studies had no Classics department. This forced me into the abode of the Cretinous Hacks (i.e., the Department of Comparative Literature), since the at least they offered courses on Ancient and Medieval Literature and various theoretical subjects that were at least theoretically relevant.

    In the course of this excruciating sojourn, a kind and enlightened soul, pained by my plight, suggested that I read Peter Rabinowitz’s Before Reading, which first suggested to me the enlightening notion that the very first and the very last line(s) of a book are, in good literature at least, narrative markers of import to the comprehensive interpretation of a book. Armed with this invaluable bit of knowledge, I did the rest of my time in that den of iniquity with nary a problem.

    All of which is to say that I’ve been looking at first lines in literary works for quite some time, and while all of these you quote here are very nice, my absolute favorite is from a 19th-century Spanish novel, La regenta, by Leopoldo Arias (Clarín):

    “La heroica ciudad dormía la siesta.”

    As someone who’s looked at the epic works more than once, I nearly fell off my chair when I read that.

    My second favorite is that one from Pride and Prejudice, though!

    • That’s outstanding! I’m not familiar with the book, but what a great opening line. Is the rest of the novel as good?

      • Marc> Alas. It’s Leopoldo Alas, not Arias. The editor evidently nodded there and in a couple of other places. All responsible parties have been sacked.

        As for the novel, it’s excellent, and enormously satisfying to read. Of course, it’s also a 19th-century novel, so it’s 700 pages long. But if you have the time and the inclination, I think you would enjoy it on a number of counts.

        The first line made a greater impact on me that one might expect because, when I started to read it, I had just finished writing a long paper about the figure of the sleeping epic hero in Cantar de mio Cid.

        And here’s another first line, this one from the first novel I ever read back in junior high and to this day still one of my favorites, El camino by Miguel Delibes:

        “Las cosas podían haber sucedido de cualquier otra manera, y sin embargo, sucedieron así.”

      • Ah, but have those responsible for the sacking been sacked? That’s key.

  5. “the Deliverator belongs to an elite order, a hallowed subcategory. He’s got esprit up to here. Right now, he is preparing to carry out his third mission of the night. His uniform is black as activated charcoal, filtering the very light out of the air. A bullet will bounce off its arachnofiber weave like a wren hitting a patio door, but excess perspiration wafts through it like a breeze through a freshly napalmed forest. Where his body has bony extremities, the suite has sintered armorgel: feels like gritty jello, protects like a stack of telephone books.”

    Snow Crash
    Neil Stephenson

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