Friday, July 30, 2010

famous first words

Skimming through the internet the other day I came across a reference to a line of startling familiarity, a line that made me realise some first lines stick in your head forever:

"Sing Goddess, the rage of Peleus' son Achilles" (funnily enough,  I can never remember the first line proper until I see it, as my friend and I spent much of year 12 Ancient History misquoting it as "rage Achilles, rage on Agamemnon". We were also amused by the fact that 'Xerxes' backwards spelt 'Sexrex'. Yeah, mature I know.) From Homer, The Illiad Ironically, a first line that I find impossible to remember is one of the most recognisable for me. I'm not usually very good at first lines, but there are a few I'd know anywhere...

"Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote" My English classes at university drummed this one into me- the first line of Chaucer's 'Canterbury Tales'. I think Chaucer is a genius, but this first line is not quite as engaging as some.

"It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife." Famous from the BBC adaptation (oh yeah, and the original book) of Pride and Prejudice.

And I almost forgot (unbelievable!) one of the most famous first lines in history- "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times" from 'A Tale of Two Cities'. It goes on of course... "it ws 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 directly to Heaven, we were all going the other way."

These are some famous (and familiar) first lines from books I have read (or, in the case of 'The Illiad', started to read) but they are not why I read those books. They are all great lines- lines that set the scene and the tone of the book, and that grab you from the first moment (with the possible exception of Chaucer). But I have also my personal canon of first lines, those that got a book past the first page test and onto my favourites list. Do you recognise them? First off-

"The book was thick and black and covered with dust"- designed, it seems, to appeal to a book lover, hinting at mystery and perfectly setting the scene for a novel about literature, this caught my interest from the beginning.

"A galaxy of cream unribbons in my coffee cup"- ok that's cheating, it's on the first page but it's not the first line, in any case it sold me on the book from that moment.

Any notable first lines that I've forgotten or should know about?

On another note- I've added a link to The Omnivore on the sidebar- a UK site that collects reviews on books, movies and theatre, and adds some commentary too.


  1. I've always been a fan of the opening line of I Capture the Castle: 'I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.'

  2. Yeah- that's a good one! Read it recently and loved it (whole book as well as first line).

  3. Anonymous3/8/10 12:18

    but you don't have "There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it" from the voyage of the dawn treader, which has got to be one of the greats - Merry :)

  4. I don't have them all... by a long shot! A good first line is a marvellous thing. So thanks for sharing :)

  5. Anonymous6/8/10 08:48

    One of the most memorable short books I have read was “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch” - worthy of the Nobel. Wait, it did get a Nobel! (Or was that for “The First Circle”?) The first line was about waking up to reveille - two strokes on a bell - in the arctic “Two fingers thick with frost….” I can’t remember the rest. Looking for the book in our library has been fruitless, so I looked on Google. I discovered to my surprise that I could download the whole volume. (So now I have it in the e-book file on my computer, as well as wherever it is on the shelves.) The translation must be a little bit different, but the phrase is still there. The implication being not only that the frost was two fingers deep on the window, but that the tones of the bell were two frosty fingers waking up the hero. A very pithy conveying of meaning. It's a phrase that has stuck with me.

    I recently discovered an author called Neal Stephenson, and gave away some of his books as presents. Only more recently have I started to read them myself. The books are complicated and full of references. The first line of the one I am reading at present: " The bells of St Mark's were ringing changes up on the mountain when Bud skated over to the mod parlour to upgrade his skull gun." is not particularly notable I guess, but it gets you in. And there is a nice jarring juxtaposition of a church bell ringing changes and a “skull gun”, whatever that is, being upgraded. This one is sci fi, and I guess the line suggests that. But sci fi of a particularly literary quality. Enjoyable and fairly gripping.

    Anyway first lines are not everything. After all there really is a book which begins "It was a dark and stormy night...". Maybe that's a good example, I do believe that in that case the quality of the book following the opening line was not much better than the opening line itself.

    And of course the first line of "The Hobbit" I can remember well enough. "... and that means comfort..." has something to do with it I think. You certainly get a feeling of Englishness, and that seems appropriate even in a fantasy world. I'm finding it hard to remember any other first lines that have made an impact.

    Now I must go and replenish the library to the tune of "The First Circle", and "One Day in the life of Ivan Denisovich." I don't know what has happened to our copies. An electronic copy is just not the same. Happily, there is a nice second hand book shop in Fyshwick.

  6. There are lots of bells ringing in your opening lines. :)

    I would definitely agree that first lines are not everything. It struck me though, writing this post, that they are often good indicators of what the rest of the book is like.

  7. Anonymous7/8/10 10:00

    you're right: I hadn't noticed how bells resonanted in my opening lines.

    Try Neal Stephenson. Maybe you will enjoy him. (I am reading "The Diamond Age" at present.)

  8. Neal Stephenson... Did he write 'Snow Crash'? I've read that. Keep hearing about these other ones... Maybe I'll check them out when I'm next in Canberra?

  9. Anonymous9/8/10 20:59

    Yes, I read Snow Crash recently. (We have it here.) At present I am reading "The Diamond Age". He has written a trio of books about Enlightenment (or maybe I should say, pre-enlightenment) Europe, which I got but have not read - "The Confusion", "The System of the World", and another one whose name escapes me.

  10. He seems very prolific! I enjoyed Snow Crash but the Sumerian stuff got a bit silly by the end I thought...

  11. Anonymous17/8/10 22:31

    Yes, the Sumerian thing was a bit forced, but "The Diamond Age" is a better read, and still stylistically similar - dense plots, with lots of references.

  12. Anonymous22/8/10 19:44

    Here's the "Invocation" from Quicksilver by Neal Stephenson. Quite a promising start, I thought.

    State your intention, Muse. I know you’re there.
    Dead bards who pined for you have said
    You’re bright as flame, but fickle as the air.
    My pen and I, submerged in liquid shade,
    Much dark can spread, on days and over reams
    But without you, no radiance can shed.
    Why rustle in the dark, when fledged with fire?
    Craze the night with flails of light. Reave
    Your turbid shroud. Bestow what I require.

    But you’re not in the dark. I do believe
    I swim, like squid, in clouds of my own make,
    To you, offensive. To us both, opaque.
    What’s constituted so, only a pen
    Can penetrate. I have one here; let’s go.

  13. Sounds promising indeed!