Kate (kate_nepveu) wrote,

100 Best First Lines (1/3)

I can't remember how I got here now, but the American Book Review has a list of "100 Best First Lines from Novels," which I find myself mentally commenting on as I read, and I might as well share those comments with you all, because what else is LiveJournal for?

The List, Part 1 of 3, with comments:

I've only read a few of these, and where I have I will note it, but I'm mostly looking at these as first lines. These waver vaguely between the merits of its fame, and whether I'd keep reading.

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

* Well, it's famous, but I don't actually find it that interesting.

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)

* Famous and deservedly so, even with the (to my eyes) odd commas, because they're crucial to the rhythm of the thing.

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

* It's either pretentious or evocative, and I'm not sure which.

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)

* This I like. It has two hooks (why the firing squad, why discover ice) and a pleasing pace.

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

* Well, presumably it tells you what you're getting, but my reaction to "fire of my loins" is . . . not favorable.

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

* I disagree with it. (And unhappy families are not particularly high on my list of things I'm really eager to read about.) However, it's certainly arresting.

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)

* <Grandfather in Princess Bride> Yes, you're very smart, now shut up. </Grandfather>

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

* Starts unwelcoming and ends with a spike of weirdness. I approve. (I don't remember much of the book except that I think it had a sex scene that we tittered over in high school, and it inspired that great last line of Good Omens.)

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)

* Suddenly I find that familiarity is a barrier to comment. I suppose it's good at setting up the theme of oppositions very early. (Read it too young, actually liked it when I read it again in high school because I could figure out what was going on.)

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

* Succinct, but I wonder if it's the book itself that's being honored instead. Maybe I'm jaded by being an sf reader.

11. The Miss Lonelyhearts of the New York Post-Dispatch (Are you in trouble?—Do-you-need-advice?—Write-to-Miss-Lonelyhearts-and-she-will-help-you) sat at his desk and stared at a piece of white cardboard. —Nathanael West, Miss Lonelyhearts (1933)

* I have never heard of this book, but this sentence gives me the impression of a comi-tragic novel. I would keep reading.

12. You don't know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain't no matter. —Mark Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885)

* I'm not good with this type of first-person narration, so I would be a bit wary, but it has personality. (Yes, I'm a heathen, I haven't read it.)

13. Someone must have slandered Josef K., for one morning, without having done anything truly wrong, he was arrested. —Franz Kafka, The Trial (1925; trans. Breon Mitchell)

* Oh, a cynical lawyer's brain, which immediately starts disputing the "someone must have slandered" part, and then moves on to wondering what it says about the worldbuilding that "someone must have" can be asserted. Keep reading.

14. You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino's new novel, If on a winter's night a traveler. —Italo Calvino, If on a winter's night a traveler (1979; trans. William Weaver)

* Somewhere between "Yes, you're very smart" and "wow, this sounds weird in an interesting way." Not knowing exactly where I'd fall, and also the frustration of having all first chapters and no seconds (as I understand it), has kept me from reading it.

15. The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new. —Samuel Beckett, Murphy (1938)

* Well, this is going to be a happy book.

16. 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. —J. D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye (1951)

* And you're probably an asshole. I might keep reading to see if you're going to be an interesting asshole, but not for too long.

17. Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo. —James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916)

* Ahhhh! The non-standard spelling, it burns, precious, it burns!

18. This is the saddest story I have ever heard. —Ford Madox Ford, The Good Soldier (1915)

* Hell of a billing to live up to. Read a bit more to see if we're told what the narrator's general idea of a sad story is.

19. I wish either my father or my mother, or indeed both of them, as they were in duty both equally bound to it, had minded what they were about when they begot me; had they duly considered how much depended upon what they were then doing;—that not only the production of a rational Being was concerned in it, but that possibly the happy formation and temperature of his body, perhaps his genius and the very cast of his mind;—and, for aught they knew to the contrary, even the fortunes of his whole house might take their turn from the humours and dispositions which were then uppermost:—Had they duly weighed and considered all this, and proceeded accordingly,—I am verily persuaded I should have made a quite different figure in the world, from that, in which the reader is likely to see me. —Laurence Sterne, Tristram Shandy (1759–1767)

* Welll, this'll be work, but you have personality; OTOH, you might be a whiner. Let's see.

20. Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show. —Charles Dickens, David Copperfield (1850)

* Is this really a first sentence? It seems like it ought to have something before it. And I didn't realize that "hero of my own life" is a phrase with an actual traceable origin. Would read for context—you mean you haven't decided yet?

21. Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed. —James Joyce, Ulysses (1922)

* Enh. This does nothing for me. Again, I suspect the book being honored rather than the sentence.

22. It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents, except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the house-tops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness. —Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, Paul Clifford (1830)

* Snoopy! Uh, sorry. No, I can't say anything about this, either.

23. One summer afternoon Mrs. Oedipa Maas came home from a Tupperware party whose hostess had put perhaps too much kirsch in the fondue to find that she, Oedipa, had been named executor, or she supposed executrix, of the estate of one Pierce Inverarity, a California real estate mogul who had once lost two million dollars in his spare time but still had assets numerous and tangled enough to make the job of sorting it all out more than honorary. —Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49 (1966)

* Interesting content but it took some work to figure out what it was.

24. It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not. —Paul Auster, City of Glass (1985)

* I've never heard of this either, but it reads like the opening of a thriller. I like it: good phrasing to create a nice ominous feeling and a mystery.

25. Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting. —William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury (1929)

* Who hitting what? But not in a "intrigued" way, in a "mildly annoyed" way.

26. 124 was spiteful. —Toni Morrison, Beloved (1987)

* I have no idea what this means, and I would read at least a paragraph to figure out what was going on. But as a great sentence? I dunno.

27. Somewhere in la Mancha, in a place whose name I do not care to remember, a gentleman lived not long ago, one of those who has a lance and ancient shield on a shelf and keeps a skinny nag and a greyhound for racing. —Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote (1605; trans. Edith Grossman)

* I've been meaning to read this for a long time, mostly because of this sentence.

28. Mother died today. —Albert Camus, The Stranger (1942; trans. Stuart Gilbert)

* I'm very sorry to hear that. What is your three-word declarative sentence doing on this list?

29. Every summer Lin Kong returned to Goose Village to divorce his wife, Shuyu. —Ha Jin, Waiting (1999)

* Never heard of this either but I am intrigued! It's got a hook, certainly.

30. The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel. —William Gibson, Neuromancer (1984)

* I thought it was "a television"? Apparently not. "Color of television" just sounds wrong. I think it's more famous these days for its obsolescence than anything. (I didn't like the book.)

31. I am a sick man . . . I am a spiteful man. —Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Notes from Underground (1864; trans. Michael R. Katz)

* Thanks for telling me! I won't read more about you. (And you probably over-use ellipses too.)

32. Where now? Who now? When now? —Samuel Beckett, The Unnamable (1953; trans. Patrick Bowles)

* Cheating! That's three sentences. And my reaction is "how now, brown cow?"

33. Once an angry man dragged his father along the ground through his own orchard. "Stop!" cried the groaning old man at last, "Stop! I did not drag my father beyond this tree." —Gertrude Stein, The Making of Americans (1925)

* Two sentences! The second sentence is interesting but combined with the title I sense Allegory. I might read more to see if I'm wrong.

Tags: 100 first lines, books

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  • Arrival (movie)

    If you're considering seeing the movie Arrival, and you HAVEN'T read the story it's based on (Ted Chiang's "Story of Your Life"), I would strongly…

  • The Lobster (movie)

    The kids are away for the weekend and there's nothing really compelling in theaters, and we saw The Lobster on the on-demand list and remembered…

  • the room won't stop bobbing up and down

    and I can't tell if it's fatigue or adjusting to being on land. Or both. Thanks to the extreme generosity of Chad's parents, we went with them on a…