One of the immeasurable benefits of novels is travel to other places and times with characters who begin as strangers and rapidly become part of our experience. How the author introduces us to a setting, a character, a premise, and occasionally even the designing principle of the literary work as a whole in a single sentence is a key moment. Does the author establish a contract with us in that first line? Or does s/he need a paragraph or a chapter to accomplish that?
Here are some distinctive opening lines. There is no possible way to fairly represent all literature. These are from my own reading, which scarcely scratches the surface. I’m working on catching up, and hope that you will add suggestions from books you admire. In that way, we can assemble a reading list for us all.
He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.
Ernest Hemingway – The OLD MAN AND THE SEA (1952)
Call me Ishmael.
Herman Melville – MOBY DICK (1851)
A soft fall rain slips down through the trees and the smell of ocean is so strong that it can almost be licked off the air.
Sebastian Junger – The PERFECT STORM (1997)
One day in the spring of 1998, Bluma Lennon bought a secondhand copy of Emily Dickinson’s poems in a bookshop in Soho, and as she reached the second poem on the first street corner, she was knocked down by a car.
Carlos María Domínguez – The HOUSE OF PAPER (2004)
In that last winter of the war, she knew to use point blank ink.
Ivan Doig – HEART EARTH (1993)
Fedor Mikhailovich Smokovnikov, chairman of the Bureau of Fiscal Affairs, was a man who took pride in his incorruptible honesty and who was dismally liberal in his views; not only was he a freethinker, but he despised all form of religion, looking upon them as nothing but the relics of superstition.
Leo Tolstoy – The FORGED COUPON
The is the saddest story I have ever heard.
Ford Madox Ford – The GOOD SOLDIER (1915)
I started off this morning looking for a lost dog.
Gretel Ehrlich – Looking For a Lost Dog, from ISLANDS, The UNIVERSE, HOME (1991)
Floating upward through a confusion of dreams and memory, curving like a trout through the rings of previous risings, I surface.
Wallace Stegner – CROSSING TO SAFETY (1987)
“Yes, of course, if it’s fine tomorrow,” said Mrs. Ramsay.
Virginia Woolf – TO THE LIGHTHOUSE (1927)
In some distant arcade, a clock tower calls out six times and then stops.
Alan Lightman - EINSTEIN'S DREAMS (1993)