Wednesday, November 01, 2006


Earlier this year the American Book Review offered a list of the "best" first lines in literature. A more interesting list would be of the worst first lines from novels that are nevertheless popular. For example:
When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton.
Faced with that fusillade of cringe-making whimsy it's a wonder anybody makes it to the second line. Not that it's much of an improvement.


TimT said...

Yes, but line number 7622 in The Lord of the Rings isn't bad ...

I quite like the opening to 'The Big Sleep':

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.

The ending is even better.

Some of those are good, but some are just silly. You could say many things about Finnegans Wake, but I don't think that opening line is particularly good. Sure, it gets quoted a lot - but that's because the reviewers never read past the opening line. Not a bad selection, though.

Ben.H said...

Renowned curator Jacques Sauniere staggered through the vaulted archway of the museum's Grand Gallery. A bad sentence to start a bad book.

"Hey look! Isn't that Jacques Sauniere, the renowned curator?"
"Yes! He's staggering through the arch-shaped archway!"

Mind you, The Hobbit's opening sentence has a homespun simplicty to commend it. But what about books with bad first sentences that turn out to be rather good?

TimT said...

That's a good question. Roald Dahl always liked to get his readers in from sentence one:

"What a lot of men with beards there are nowadays!"

But there are other writers who like to gradually woo you, over the course of several sentences. Twain comes to mind:

"You don't know me, without you have read a book called 'The Adventures of Tom Sawyer', by Mr Mark Twain. It was a good book, mostly, though he told some stretchers ..."

The opening to George MacDonald's Phantastes is, sadly, almost never quoted:

"I awoke one morning with the usual perplexity of mind which accompanies the return of consciousness."

Some opening lines change in meaning somewhat over the centuries. Edmund Spenser's 'Faerie Queen':

"A noble knight was pricking on the plain."

'Pricking' meant riding a horse.
P J O'Rourke is a great wit, but interestingly, many of his opening sentences are performed deadpan; they act as a means of setting up jokes.

"Recently I performed an intellectual experiment."

As for Shakespeare, he was an absolute whore for the bad pun. Like his opening to Romeo and Juliet: "We will not carry coals!" "Aye, for then we should be colliers!"

Anonymous said...

Curses, Ben has beat me to it.