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Famous openings

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Jan 11, 2008, 11:26am Top

One of my favourite book openings is from The Stranger by Albert Camus (my translation!):

'Today my mother died. Or maybe it was yesterday, I don't know. I got a telegram from the old people's home: 'Your mother deceased. Funeral tomorrow. Yours faithfully.' It dosen't matter. Maybe it was yeasterday'

What is your favourite opening?

Jan 11, 2008, 12:33pm Top

From Pillars of Hercules by Paul Theroux: "People here in Western civilization say that tourists are no different from apes, but on the Rock of Gibraltar, one of the Pillars of Hercules, I saw both tourists and apes together, and I learned to tell them apart."

I have to say, I remembered that opening as being more pithy than that (I nabbed it off the "Search this Book" feature on Amazon.uk).

Jan 11, 2008, 12:42pm Top

Not original, I know, but I love the first lines of "The Catcher in the Rye." They set up the tone so perfectly.

"If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth."

(Second place goes to "A Tale of Two Cities," BTW.)
(No touchstones for either of these?)

Jan 11, 2008, 1:08pm Top

The first line of Pride and Prejudice:

"It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife."

Because it sets the stage for what will happen, while simultaneously satirizing the attitudes and intentions of some of its more ridiculous characters. The line is a truth universally acknowledged only by the foolish within the book.

Jan 11, 2008, 2:44pm Top


"It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen."

Jan 11, 2008, 3:03pm Top

Two of my favorite openings belong to perhaps my two favorite contemporary novels. First, Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian, which is especially striking because of its tense (the book's written almost entirely in past tense, but he plunges you straight in without warning with the opening present tense):

"See the child. He is pale and thin, he wears a thin and ragged linen shirt. He stokes the scullery fire. Outside lie dark turned fields with rags of snow and darker woods beyond that harbor yet a few last wolves. His folks are known for hewers of wood and drawers of water but in truth his father has been a schoolmaster. He lies in drink, he quotes from poets whose names are now lost. The boy crouches by the fire and watches him."

And Mark Helprin's Winter's Tale:

"There was a white horse, on a quiet winter morning when snow covered the streets gently and was not deep, and the sky was swept with vibrant stars, except in the east, where dawn was beginning in a light blue flood. The air was motionless, but would soon start to move as the sun came up and winds from Canada came charging down the Hudson."

Jan 11, 2008, 3:09pm Top

How about Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides?

"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."

Jan 11, 2008, 3:36pm Top

From Anna Karenina:

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

Jan 11, 2008, 3:56pm Top

Here bygynneth the Book of the tales of Caunterbury.
1 Whan that Aprille, with hise shoures soote,
2 The droghte of March hath perced to the roote
3 And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
4 Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
5 Whan Zephirus eek with his swete breeth

6 Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
7 The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
8 Hath in the Ram his halfe cours yronne,
9 And smale foweles maken melodye,
10 That slepen al the nyght with open eye-

11 So priketh hem Nature in hir corages-
12 Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages ...


Jan 11, 2008, 5:09pm Top


"It took me a long time and most of the world to learn what I know about love and fate and the choices we make, but the heart of it came to me in an instant, while I was chained to a wall and being tortured."

Jan 11, 2008, 5:38pm Top

"A screaming comes across the sky..." - Gravity's Rainbow.

On the other hand,

"A wide plain, where the broadening Floss hurries on between its green banks to the sea, and the loving tide, rushing to meet it, checks its passage with an impetuous embrace. On this mighty tide the black ships -laden with the fresh-scented fir-planks, with rounded sacks of oil-bearing seed, or with the dark glitter of coal - are borne along to the town of St. Ogg's, which shows its aged, fluted red roofs and the broad gables of its wharves between the low wooded hill and the river-brink, tingeing the water with a soft purple hue under the transient glance of this February sun. Far away on each hand stretch the rich pastures, and the patches of dark earth made ready for the seed of broad-leaved green crops, or touched already with the tint of the tender-bladed autumn-sown corn. There is a remnant still of last year's golden clusters of beehive-ricks rising at intervals beyond the hedgerows; and everywhere the hedgerows are studded with trees; the distant ships seem to be lifting their masts and stretching their red-brown sails close among the branches of the spreading ash. Just by the red-roofed town the tributary Ripple flows with a lively current into the Floss. How lovely the little river is, with its dark changing wavelets! It seems to me like a living companion while I wander along the bank, and listen to its low, placid voice, as to the voice of one who is deaf and loving. I remember those large dipping willows. I remember the stone bridge."

- The Mill on the Floss. Immaculate, lucid prose.

Jan 11, 2008, 6:04pm Top

- The ultimate for me from The Gunslinger

"The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed"

Jan 11, 2008, 6:30pm Top

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times."

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens (I can't believe neither of these touchstone!)

This also has a famous ending line:

"It is a far, far better thing that I do than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to, than I have ever known."

Jan 11, 2008, 6:50pm Top

>8 emaestra: I echo your choice from Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina.

and looking at the first and last words of A Tale of 2 Cities makes me want to dive into it now.

Hmmm....the numeral seems to trigger the touchstone for ATof2C but the citation uses the word.

Jan 12, 2008, 1:01am Top

This is famous only in Finland (where everybody knows it even if they don't always know the source):
In the beginning there were the marsh, the hoe - and Jussi.

It is the first sentence of Väinö Linna's trilogy Under the North Star.

Jan 12, 2008, 5:08am Top

The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.

LP Hartley, The Go-Between.

17Moody834 First Message
Jan 13, 2008, 2:09am Top

"Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun. Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-eight million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue-green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea."

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams

Jan 13, 2008, 2:41am Top

Du cote de chez swann

Longtemps, je me suis couché de bonne heure. Parfois, à peine ma bougie éteinte, mes yeux se fermaient si vite que je n’avais pas le temps de me dire: «Je m’endors.» Et, une demi-heure après, la pensée qu’il était temps de chercher le sommeil m’éveillait; je voulais poser le volume que je croyais avoir encore dans les mains et souffler ma lumière; je n’avais pas cessé en dormant de faire des réflexions sur ce que je venais de lire, mais ces réflexions avaient pris un tour un peu particulier; il me semblait que j’étais moi-même ce dont parlait l’ouvrage: une église, un quatuor, la rivalité de François Ier et de Charles Quint. Cette croyance survivait pendant quelques secondes à mon réveil; elle ne choquait pas ma raison mais pesait comme des écailles sur mes yeux et les empêchait de se rendre compte que le bougeoir n’était plus allumé. Puis elle commençait à me devenir inintelligible, comme après la métempsycose les pensées d’une existence antérieure; le sujet du livre se détachait de moi, j’étais libre de m’y appliquer ou non; aussitôt je recouvrais la vue et j’étais bien étonné de trouver autour de moi une obscurité, douce et reposante pour mes yeux, mais peut-être plus encore pour mon esprit, à qui elle apparaissait comme une chose sans cause, incompréhensible, comme une chose vraiment obscure. Je me demandais quelle heure il pouvait être; j’entendais le sifflement des trains qui, plus ou moins éloigné, comme le chant d’un oiseau dans une forêt, relevant les distances, me décrivait l’étendue de la campagne déserte où le voyageur se hâte vers la station prochaine; et le petit chemin qu’il suit va être gravé dans son souvenir par l’excitation qu’il doit à des lieux nouveaux, à des actes inaccoutumés, à la causerie récente et aux adieux sous la lampe étrangère qui le suivent encore dans le silence de la nuit, à la douceur prochaine du retour.

Marcel Proust

Jan 13, 2008, 4:41am Top

Ooh, ooh, I have one:

"If Sarah hadn't put the monkey in the bathtub, we might never have had to help the monsters get big. But she did, so we did, which, given the way things worked out, was probably just as well for everyone on the planet--especially the dead people."

The Monsters of Morley Manor, you rock!

Jan 13, 2008, 4:47am Top

And, of course, Moby Dick,

"Call me Ishmael. Some years ago - never mind how long precisely - having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world."

Jan 15, 2008, 12:07pm Top

Thank you everyone for sharing your best openings :-)

Jan 15, 2008, 2:02pm Top

I agree with #12 - Madcow 299, that's a great line from Stephen King's The Gunslinger and I love it more each time I read it because I know I am starting a great story that I always get a lot out of.

I also love the first line of F Scott Fitzgerald's Tender is the Night - "The hotel and its bright, tan prayer rug of a beach were one." Always puts me right there at the scene.

Aug 15, 2008, 7:39pm Top

I just came across this great opening line in JG Ballard's High-Rise:

"Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog, Dr. Robert Laing reflected on the unusual events that had taken place within this huge apartment building during the previous three months." Not for the squeamish, but it makes me want to read on.

Aug 15, 2008, 7:50pm Top

"I am a sick man...I am a spiteful man. I am an unattractive man. I believe my liver is diseased”

Fyodor Dostoevsky ~ Notes From The Underground

Aug 15, 2008, 7:53pm Top

"It was inevitable: the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love."

Gabriel Garcia Marquez ~ Love in the Time of Cholera

Aug 15, 2008, 8:11pm Top

This game is a lot more fun without giving the answers.

That said, since #25, brought up Gabriel Garcia Marquez, I have to go with "Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice." from One Hundred Years of Solitude. Sadly my Spanish isn't nearly good enough to quote or read the original.

Aug 20, 2008, 9:42pm Top

I sort of like the following:

"Call me Oscar Progresso. Or, for that matter, call me anything you want, as Oscar Progresso is not my name. Nor are Baby Supine, Euclid Cherry, Franklyn Nuts or any of the other aliases that, now and then over the years, I have been forced to adopt."

-Mark Helprin.

Aug 20, 2008, 9:45pm Top

And of course, this is the first line of the first book by Nora Roberts that I ever read, and why I immediatly liked her;

"Obviously, without question, she'd lost her mind. Being a psychologist, she ought to know."

Aug 20, 2008, 10:39pm Top

"I never knew her in life. She exists for me through others, in evidence of the ways her death drove them. Working backward, seeking only facts, I reconstructed her as a sad little girl and a whore, at best a could-have-been--a tag that might equally apply to me."

James Ellroy The Black Dahlia

Mar 3, 2009, 7:44pm Top

Isn't Gabriel Garcia Marquez the master of opening lines? My favorite, ever, (actually an opening paragraph) is:

"On the day they were going to kill him, Santiago Nasar got up at five-thirty in the morning to wait for the boat the bishop was coming on. He'd dreamed he was going through a grove of timber trees where a gentle drizzle was falling, and for a instant he was happy in his dream, but when he awoke he felt completely spattered with bird shit.

Mar 3, 2009, 7:48pm Top

How about Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book?:

"There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife. The knife had a handle of polished black bone, and a blade finer and sharper than any razor. If it sliced you, you might not even know you had been cut, not immediately."

Mar 3, 2009, 9:17pm Top

I'm shocked no one has mentioned the all time classic:
"It was a dark and stormy night"

Mar 3, 2009, 10:53pm Top

From You Suck by Christopher Moore
"You b*tch, you killed me! You suck!"
It cracks me up every time I put an image to it.

Edited: Mar 3, 2009, 11:41pm Top

"these are the times that try men's souls"

it gives me shivers every time

Mar 4, 2009, 12:09am Top

Anna Karenina (already mentioned a few times) is my favorite.

One of the best ever:

"Last night I dreamt I went to Manderlay again."
from Daphne duMaurier's Rebecca

Mar 4, 2009, 1:53am Top

"'What's it going to be then, eh?'
There was me, that is Alex, and my three droogs, that is Pete, Georgie and Dim, Dim being really dim, and we sat in the Korova Milkbar making up our rassodocks what to do with the evening, a flip dark chill winter bastard though dry'"

A Clockwork Orange

although (#27) Memoir from Antproof Case is coming up fast on the inside for me.

Mar 4, 2009, 5:45am Top

A rather long piece from In The Woods by Tana French.

"Picture a summer stolen whole from some coming-of-age film set in small-town 1950's. This is none of Ireland's subtle seasons mixed for a connoisseur's palate, watercolor nuances within a pinch-sized range of cloud and soft rain; this is summer full-throated and extravagant in a hot pure silkscreen blue. This summer explodes on your tongue tasting of chewed blades of long grass, your own clean sweat, Marie biscuits with butter squirting through the holes and shaken bottles of red lemonade picnicked in tree houses. It tingles on your skin with BMX wind in your face, ladybug feet up your arm; it packs every breath full of mown grass and billowing wash lines; it chimes and fountains with birdcalls, bees, leaves and football-bounces and skipping-chants, One! two! three! This summer will never end. It starts every day with a shower of Mr. Whippy notes and your best friend's knock at the door, finishes with long slow twilight and mothers silhouetted in doorways calling you to come in, through the bats shrilling among the black lace trees. This is Everysummer decked in all its best glory."

It goes on and on like this... *wipes up drool*

Mar 4, 2009, 8:57am Top

"I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills" from Isak Dinesen's Out of Africa.

Another favorite that immediately came to mind is the opening line of Rebecca alredy mentioned by Orangeena.

Mar 4, 2009, 11:33am Top

"Now is the winter of our discontent, made glorious summer by this son of York." Richard III

I'm feeling this today (the winter, that is).

Mar 4, 2009, 11:35am Top

And while I'm on Shakespeare, I'll remind you all of the beautiful, rich, haunting (and spoiler-prone) prologue of Romeo and Juliet, which I will not write here but will recite in my head over and over till I've fallen off to dreams.

Mar 4, 2009, 3:06pm Top

My very favorite LAST line:

"It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both."

E.B. White Charlotte's Web

Mar 14, 2009, 2:38am Top

'It was about eleven o'clock in the morning, mid-October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn't care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars.'

Name that book.

Edited: Mar 17, 2009, 5:28am Top

It could only be Raymond Chandler. The Big Sleep?

Mar 14, 2009, 5:32am Top

...and a favourite first line too...

'It was the day my grandmother exploded.'

-- The Crow Road by Iain Banks

Mar 15, 2009, 1:59am Top

"The unicorn lived in a lilac wood, and she lived all alone. She was very old, though she did not know it, and she was no longer the careless color of sea foam, but rather the color of snow falling on a moonlit night. But her eyes were still clear and unwearied, and she still moved like a shadow on the sea."

Peter S. Beagle, The Last Unicorn

Mar 17, 2009, 2:07am Top

#43 right author!

Mar 17, 2009, 6:49am Top

#43/46: Right book too, i just checked :-/

Mar 17, 2009, 8:02am Top

#43/46 Either someone gave me decaffeinated this morning, or some sneaky editing has gone on...

Mar 17, 2009, 4:14pm Top

Ah yes, edited. Nice.

Jan 29, 2011, 4:01am Top

There are eight million stories in the Naked City; this has been one of them.

Although to be fair I'm biased my great uncle was the cinematographer for the film

Jan 29, 2011, 4:44am Top

How about Ronald Hugh Morrieson from 1963 The Scarecrow
"The same week our fowls were stolen, Daphne Moran had her throat cut."

Jan 29, 2011, 9:35am Top

"It was a dark and stormy night," from Paul Clifford; but used better at the start of A Wrinkle in Time.

Jan 29, 2011, 12:42pm Top

Entirely too long to post, but the beginning of Look Homeward, Angel, by Thomas Wolfe.

Mar 25, 2011, 12:03pm Top

Here's one I love from (just read) Shirley:

"Of late years an abundant shower of curates has fallen upon the north of England: they lie very thick on the hills; every parish has one or more of them; they are young enough to be very active, and ought to be doing a great deal of good."

Mar 25, 2011, 12:29pm Top

A funny opening is from Baghdad without a Map and Other Misadventures in Arabia by Tony Horwitz , who happens to be Geraldine Brooks’ husband

Some men follow their dreams, some their instincts, some the beat of a private drummer. I had a habit of following my wife.

Edited: Mar 25, 2011, 1:39pm Top

>40 MissTeacher:: You should check out this link:

I haven't read Shakespeare (yet) but this makes it sound incredibly epic

Edited: Aug 20, 2011, 6:34am Top

It would be a shame to let this thread fade out - I so love a great start to a book. How about this one from Animal's People:
"I used to be human once. So I'm told. I don't remember it myself, but people who knew me when I was small say I walked on two feet just like a human being."

How could anyone not want to know what happens next?

ETA - Does anyone know if the 'Identify the first line' game is still going? I can't seem to find it anywhere. If not, is anyone up for starting a new one or would I be all on my own?

Edited: Aug 21, 2011, 10:12pm Top

I'm partial to:

"In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort."

-- from, of course, The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien

Aug 21, 2011, 10:11pm Top

Also, there's The Crow Road, by Iain Banks. This one may be a bit of a cheat, as I haven't read it, but reading the first line makes me want to:

"It was the day my grandmother exploded."

Aug 21, 2011, 10:34pm Top

"There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it."

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader - C. S. Lewis

Aug 22, 2011, 2:20am Top

"Stephen was never to forget his fifth birthday, for that was the day he lost his father. In actual fact, that wasn't precisely so. But childhood memories are not woven from facts alone, and that was how he would remember it."

When Christ and His Saints Slept - Sharon Kay Penman

I was so intrigued, I couldn't help but want to read more

Edited: Aug 22, 2011, 2:40pm Top

"Call me Ishmael." is an amazing first line , if (1) you have some knowledge of how Biblical names worked in the 19th century, and (2) you stop to think of Ishmael, the narratorʻs name in combination with Ahab, the protagonistʻs, name. But at this point we probably donʻt know that the narrator isnʻt going to be the protagonist. So we may think, just another Biblical name, so what? They were addicted to that in the 19th century.
But both ʻIshmael" and "Ahab" are names that, in real life, not one pair of Christian parents in a thousand would ever give to a child. ("Ahab" must have been about as popular as "Pilate" or "Judas".) As Stanley Elkin once said, though, "I donʻt write real life. I write stories." So ,Melvilleʻs introductory message may have been that this is going to be one hell of a "story"
--with a narrator whose name is synonymous with "exile",* who is soon to meet -- and yield the leading role to--
a protagonist whose name evokes just about the ultimate bad guy of the Old Testament.

*In Islamic tradition, however, Ishmael is a "Major Prophet";
so, surprisingly, to a modern Occidental reader, is his Israeli brother, Isaac.

Aug 22, 2011, 12:57pm Top

My favourite first word of a novel: Doukipudonktan (Zazie dans le métro)

>62 rolandperkins:
True - it's also a first line that can be sabotaged beautifully with a misplaced comma...

Aug 30, 2011, 5:56pm Top

Richard Peck writes wonderful stories for middle school children. The Teacher's Funeral has a wonderful start. It's the kind of book I want to read aloud.

"If your teacher has to die, August isn't a bad time of year for it. You know August. The corn in earring. The tomatoes are ripening on the vine. The clover's in full bloom. There's a little less evening now, and that's a warning. You want to live every day twice over because you'll be back in the jailhouse of school before the end of the month."

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