Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Enticement

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.

4 comments:

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.