Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Top 7 First Sentences of All Time!

A few days ago I was perusing around in the bookstore, pretending -- quite convincingly in my opinion -- that there was no such thing as homework and that I actually needed a novel to read. I did such a good job convincing myself of this that I made the mistake of picking up Orhan Pamuk's "My Name Is Red." This is the first sentence of that book:
"I am nothing but a corpse now, a body at the bottom of a well."

I say picking up the book was a mistake because after reading that sentence could I do anything by buy and read it? Of course not.
This experience got me thinking about how seductive first sentences can be. I started remembering various first sentences that also pulled me from other responsibilities like homework and into a novel.
I heard once that the best way to sell magazines is to make a top ten list. Because I couldn't think of that many, this is my top 7 list of what I consider to be some of the best first sentences, or first few sentences I've ever come across. Hopefully you'll still read them even though there are only seven. Obviously this list is far from authoritative or comprehensive so please post some of your favorite first sentences as well!

Let the count down begin!

7. Beloved by Toni Morrison

"124 was spiteful. Full of a baby's venom. The women in the house knew it and so did the children."

This is a perfect way to start Morrison's haunting masterpiece. The short, shocking sentences leave you no time to recover before the next one assaults you. These three sentences are a primer to allow the rest of the novel to unfold as emotionally wrenching and beautiful all at once.

6. Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy

"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."

"Blood Meridian" was my first encounter with Cormac McCarthy. As soon as I read those bizarre first sentences I knew everything I heard about McCarthy's unbelievable skill as an author was true. The tone of the novel, as with these sentences, keeps the reader at a far distance from the characters of the novel but doesn't spare him/her the grizzly details of the horrible things that happen to them.

5. Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

"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."

Could you ever find a better sentence to sum up Holden Caulfield than this opening sentence? That's a rhetorical question because it's been a long time since I read the book and there could be several. But still! Right away Salinger introduces you to Holden's exhausting cynicism, harsh wit, and pitiful self-denial in one sentence. Although this sentence in the context of a conversation would immediately drive me away from the speaker, as the first sentence of a novel its irresistibly endearing.

4. The Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

"I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allen Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids - and I might even be said to possess a mind."

This first time I read these sentences, I had a similar experience as with "My Name Is Red." Although I was in the middle of finals, I couldn't help but read on. In these powerful words Ellison at once establishes one of the most memorable characters of American literature and speaks for all the millions of people oppressed in 1952 when the book was published. I've never experienced the kind of hatred inflicted on blacks in the 50s and I doubt that I'll ever be able to understand it. But if I've ever come close to such an understanding, it was while reading "The Invisible Man."

3. Hunger by Knut Hamsun

"All of this happened while I was walking around starving in Christiania - that strange city no one escapes from until it has left its mark on him."

If you've never heard of "Hunger," I highly, highly, highly, highly recommend checking it out. This unsettling opening to the book introduces one of the most frustrating characters I've ever read about. The book is a harbinger to the works of Kafka, Sartre, and Camus and in my opinion surpasses them in many ways. The candid voice of the narrator expressed in this sentence lasts the whole novel and endures homelessness, an mortally serious case of writer's block, and, of course, starvation.

2. The Stranger by Albert Camus

"Maman died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don’t know. I got a telegram from the home: 'Mother deceased. Funeral tomorrow. Faithfully yours.' That doesn’t mean anything. Maybe it was yesterday."

The Stranger is one of my favorite books, and I wish I could read it at least once a month. Because time is short, however, I often settle for just these amazing first few sentences. The narrator's awkward disregard for the death of his mother seems so foreign at the beginning, but by the end of the book Camus has the reader thinking with the same cold, detached logic.

1. The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka

"As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed into a gigantic insect."

This simple statement, in my opinion, is the best first sentence of all time. In 17 words Kafka has pulled the reader into his bizarre universe where nothing could be more commonplace than waking up as a huge beetle. The sentence is both funny and macabre and despite its absurdity seems to make total sense.

Well we made it! Like I said, I'm sure there are lots of other great first sentences and it's your job to point them out! Post them up!


  1. Kafka and JD obviously are the true winners here, but I'm surprised you forgot the opening to Anna Karenina. I mean, talk about a classic that really tells you exactly what that entire tome is about.

  2. Here are a few of mine in no particular order.

    1- Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut

    "My name is Howard W. Campbell, Jr. I am an American by birth, a Nazi by reputation, and a nationless person by inclination."

    The beauty of Mother Night is its questioning or morals, and what is right and wrong. I think that is shown very nicely in the first sentence. Plus Kurt Vonnegut's history with WWII adds so much to all of his books.

    2- The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chobsky

    "Dear friend,

    I am writing to you because she said you listen and understand and didn't try to sleep with that person at the party even though you could have."

    I love this line. It introduces you to the innocent-ness, and backwardness that is Charlie. You fall in love with him from the first line, but you also realize there is something different about him.

    3-The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time by Mark Hadden

    "2. It was 7 minutes after midnight. The dog was lying on the grass in the middle of the lawn in front of Mrs. Shear's house. Its eyes were closer. It looked as if it was running on its side, the way dogs run when they think they are chasing a cat in a dream. But the dog was not running or asleep. That dog was dead. There was a garden fork sticking out of the dog."

    It quickly catches you because there is a dog with a garden fork in it. Not to mention it tarts on chapter 2. It is written from an autistic boys perspective. It is beautiful.

    4- On the Road by Jack Kerouac

    "I first met Neal not long after my father died... I had just gotten over a serious illness that I won't bother to talk about except that it really had something to do with my father's death and my awful feeling that everything was dead"

    It may be the psychology major in me, but that is a magnificent way to describe the feelings associated with depression without saying depression. It made me fall in love at first sight.

    I know there are books that I currently can't think of, but there is a few for now.

    PS I think the starting to Catcher in the Rye is one of the most recognizable beginnings to any book. Have you read Franny and Zoey or Nine Stories. They are fantastic. At one point in Franny she says, I'm sick of not having the courage to be an absolute nobody." I love it. It is a 40 page short story, and is wonderful.

  3. One of the most powerful first lines I've read was the start of Zora Neal Thurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God. Unfortunately I don't have quite the drive of you Parker, and with it being near the end of the school year, I didn't have time to finish the book.

    "Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board."

    This first sentence by itself really draws the reader in with the simple way it relates our wishes to far off objects that we think will bring everything that we desire and yet we really have no idea if they'll ever come or what will be inside them. However, it's the next few lines that really keep the reader reading.

    "For some they come in with the tide. For others they sail forever on the horizon, never out of sight, never landing until the Watcher turns his eyes away in resignation, his dreams mocked to death by Time. That is the life of men. Now, women forget all those things they don’t want to remember, and remember everything they don’t want to forget. The dream is the truth. Then they act and do things accordingly."

    This beginning sets the tone for a novel about freedom and the different roles that men and women have to work in, and how we build those roles for ourselves. It also helps the reader relate to the main character, Janie Mae Crawford, and the way she finds herself while working within the gender role that she and society created for herself.

  4. It sounds like, as usual, you are obsessed with depressing death stories. Here's the first line of the high quality book, Twilight:

    "My mother drove me to the airport with the windows rolled down."

    Doesn't it just grab you and suck you in! No wonder so many people loved that book.

  5. Don't forget Atlas Shrugged, one of my favorites:

    "Who is John Galt?"

    Now don't you want to know? So good.

  6. I like Slughterhouse 5's starting line. It is actually the 2nd chapter, but the first chapter is more of a prologue anyways.

    Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time. Billy has gone to sleep a senile widower and awakened on his wedding day. He has walked through a door in 1955 and come out another one in 1941. He has gone back through that door to find himself in 1963. He has seen his birth and death many times, he says, and pays random visits to all the events in between."

  7. I've got a lot of reading to do. The only sentence here I've read (including all the comments) is "Catcher in the Rye." I'll get around to Cormac McCarthy sometime after I don't have to read textbooks or articles on political philosophy anymore!

  8. Here's one of my favorites:
    "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." Anna Karenina

  9. Name this book "Mike Bowman whistled cheerfully as he drove the Land Rover through the Cabo Blanco Biological Reserve, on the west coast of Costa Rica.

  10. the list of books i need to read is growing.
    also...saw franz kafka's house in prague. nbd.

  11. "This is my favorite book in all the world, though I have never read it."
    -The Princess Bride by William Goldman

    "A well known scientist once gave a public lecture on astronomy . . . At the end of the lecture, a little old lady at the back of the room got up and said: "What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise." The scientist gave a superior smile before replying, "What is the tortoise standing on?" "You're very clever young man, very clever," said the old lady. "But it's turtles all the way down!"
    -A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking

  12. OOoooo, I'm so glad that you decided against putting up another post last night so that this post doesn't look embarrassing. Thants!

    So, I don't know if this is my favorite first sentence of all time, but it is my favorite first sentence/bits of first paragraph of the last month. It comes from Saul Bellow's novella, A Theft:

    "Clara Velde, to begin with what was conspicuous about her, had short blond hair, fashionably cut, growing upon a head unusually big. In a person of an inert character a head of such size might have seemed a deformity; in Clara, because she had so much personal force, it came across as ruggedly handsome. She needed that head; a mind like hers demanded space."

    I also really like the next few sentences where he describes her even further:

    "The mouth was very good but stretched extremely wide when she grinned, when she wept. Her forehead was powerful. When she came to the threshold of middle age, the lines of her naive charm deepened; they would be permanent now."