Friday, January 28, 2011

A Foray into First Lines

Do you pay attention to first lines?  I kind of do.  Sometimes.  Usually when I'm wishing I could read the book but I'm reading too many other things to make it feasible.  It's like an extension of the longing glance at the bookshelf or the glancing brush of fingers on the spine.  In practice, I judge a book more by the first few pages than I do the first few lines.

I thought it might be fun, however, to compare some first lines.  I happen to be surrounded by a bunch of Pulitzer Prize winners (many from the giveaway I won at Ordinary Reader) and got curious.  Do think it says anything about a book?  Do you think that it can be used as an accurate assessment of what the book holds?  I've read the first two on the list, and their first sentences definitely remind me of the writing style and story. I want to get to the others soon! Have you read any of these? What do you think?

The Road --2007 publication

The Road, Cormac McCarthy (2007)
"When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he'd reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him."


March, Geraldine Brooks (2006)
"This is what I write to her: The clouds tonight embossed the sky."

Gilead: A Novel

Gilead, Marilynne Robinson (2005)
"I told you last night that I might be gone sometime, and you said, Where, and I said, To be with the Good Lord, and you said, Why, and I said, Because I'm old, and you said, I don't think you're old."


The Known World, Edward P. Jones (2004)
"The evening his master died he worked again well after he ended the day for the other adults, his own wife among them, and sent them back with hunger and tiredness to their cabins."

Middlesex: A Novel (Oprah's Book Club)

Middlesex, Jeffrey Eugenides (2003)
"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 by, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974."

Empire Falls

Empire Falls, Richard Russo (2002)
"Compared to the Whiting mansion in town, the house Charles Beaumont Whiting built a decade after his return to Maine was modest."

The Hours: A Novel

The Hours, Michael Cunningham (1999)
"She hurries from the house, wearing a coat too heavy for the weather."

Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer

Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer, Steven Millhauser (1997)
"There once lived a man named Martin Dressler, a shopkeeper's son, who rose from modest beginnings to a height of dreamlike good fortune."

Independence Day: Bascombe Trilogy (2)

Independence Day, Richard Ford (1996)
"In Haddam, summer floats over tree-softened streets like a sweet lotion balm from a careless, languorous god, and the world falls in tune with its own mysterious anthems."


  1. That's amazing! You can really tell the flavor of the book from the opening line. I've read The Hours and the first line is the writing style throughout. I always, after I check a book out from the library or receive one in the mail, open to the first page and read the first line. It connects me to the book somehow and is like a welcome from me to the book and the book to me.

  2. I'm useless at remembering first lines. I should pay more attention. The only one that has stuck with me is the opening of The Bell Jar.

    I have read The Hours, none of the others. I thought it was a good book, but, rare thing, I actually preferred the film. I wonder if it's because I watched it first.

  3. I read The Hours (loved! but also thought the movie was phenomenal), and began to read Gilead, but put it down about a year ago and never picked it back up. I'd like to get back to it sometime. Also would like to read The Road and Middlesex.

    I just started Mrs. Dalloway this morning and thought I'd post the line here, in keeping with your topic.

    "Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself."

  4. The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel

    -William Gibson, Neuromancer

  5. Love this! Ironic that you posted this as I'm reading A Prayer For Owen Meany, and in an afterword, John Irving wrote "My Favourite First Sentence" where he discusses writing opening sentences.

  6. Anbolyn, I like what you said about it connecting you to a book. I can relate. Reading a book is forming a relationship of sorts, and digesting that first line is the initial contact.

    Em, I've found that when both the book and the film are well done, I seem to hold more appreciation for the one I experienced first. There have been a couple of books that simply let me down in comparison to the film though. I haven't seen or read The Hours yet.

    Jenny, it's that first line that makes me want to read Mrs. Dalloway. All the comments I've read about it put me off somewhat, but I'm hoping to get to it for my Back to the Classics Challenge.

    Ben, talk about spurring the imagination! What a great line.

    Teacher/Learner, sounds interesting! I would be curious to find what various authors thought about writing opening sentences. I was able to read part of "My Favorite First Sentence" on Google Books and found it enjoyable. Made me feel bad for ditching Owen Meany midway, actually. Owen was just so stinking irritating and I couldn't get past it. Maybe I'll have to give John Irving another shot.

  7. I definitely pay attention to first lines, because I think they set the tone for the rest of the novel. I can't think of one I really loved at the moment, but I remember one that made me laugh.

    It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains. - Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

  8. Darlyn, I almost bought that book simply because of that first line. :) Maybe next time I feel like reading P&P I'll read it zombie style instead.

    Kurt Vonnegut's first lines crack me up. They put a smile on my face and make me want to dive in.

    "All this happened, more or less." -Slaughterhouse Five

    "This is a tale of a meeting of two lonesome, skinny, fairly old white men on a planet which was dying fast." -Breakfast of Champions

    "Call me Jonah. My parents did, or nearly did. They called me John." -Cat's Cradle (ok, that was 3, but they were necessary.)

  9. That first line of the Road is heartbreaking to me after reading the book.

    One of my favorites is the first line of Bright Rock, I ust think it also sets the whole book up

    'Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to murder him'


I'd love to hear what you have to say, leave a comment!