Sunday, January 24, 2016

First Sentences . . .

…from a few of my favorite books:

"I was born in the year 1632, in the city of York, of a good family, though not of that country, my father being a foreigner of Bremen, who settled first at Hull.  He got a good estate by merchandise, and leaving off his trade, lived afterwards at York, from whence he had married my mother, whose relations were named Robinson, a very good family in that country, and from whom I was called Robinson Kreutznaer; but, by the usual corruption of words in England, we are now called—nay we call ourselves and write our name—Crusoe; and so my companions always called me."   -  Robinson Crusoe,  Daniel Defoe

“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."  - The Catcher in the Rye,  J. D. Salinger

“I have been here before," I said;  I had been there before;  first with Sebastian more than twenty years ago on a cloudless day in June, when the ditches were white with fool's parsley and meadowsweet and the air heavy with all the scents of summer;  it was a day of peculiar splendour, such as our climate affords once or twice a year, when the leaf and flower and bird and sun-lit stone and shadow seem all to proclaim the glory of God;  and though I had been there so often, in so many moods, it was to that first visit that my heart returned on this, my latest."  - Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh

“Mr. Utterson the lawyer was a man of rugged countenance that was never lighted by a smile;  cold, scanty and embarrassed in discourse;  backward in sentiment;  lean, long, dusty, dreary and yet somehow loveable." The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Robert Louis Stevenson

“I stand at the window of this great house in the south of France as night falls, the night which is leading me to the most terrible morning of my life."  - Giovanni's Room,  James Baldwin

"So, then people do come here in order to live;  I would sooner have thought one died here."  - The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge,  Rainer Maria Rilke

“A Saturday afternoon in November was approaching the time of twilight, and the vast tract of unenclosed wild known as Egdon Heath embrowned itself moment by moment."  - The Return of the Native,  Thomas Hardy

"A screaming comes across the sky."   - Gravity's Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon

"There was a depression over the Atlantic."   - The Man Without Qualities, Robert Musil

“Buck did not read the newspapers, or he would have known that trouble was brewing, not alone for himself, but for every tide-water dog, strong of muscle and with warm, long hair, from Puget Sound to San Diego."  - The Call of the Wild,  Jack London

"High up on the long hill they called the Saddle Back, behind the ranch and the county road, the boy sat his horse, facing east, his eyes dazzled by the rising sun."  - My Friend Flicka,  Mary O'Hara

"I am twenty-six inches tall, shapely and well proportioned, my head is perhaps a trifle too large."   - The Dwarf, Par Lagerkvist

…and perhaps the best opening sentence in all of literature:

“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, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way--in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only."   - A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens


R.T. said...

Terrific! It's like a "reader's digest" prescription list for someone (like me) pondering which book ought to be next. Thanks for the provocations. There are some great "hooks" in those first lines. I'm taking the bait and soon reading some of those books.

Rob said...

One that always stuck in my mind was the first line from William Gibson's Neuromancer:

"The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel."

It sets the mood perfectly for a dystopian cyberpunk novel. I was unfortunately less fond of everything that came after.

James said...

R. T.,

Thanks for commenting. The first line of good books are usually clever and rewarding.

James said...


That's a great first line. Setting the mood is one of the things first sentences often do well.

M. said...

"Robert Cohn was once middleweight boxing champion of Princeton."

The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway

With the whole first paragraph, a masterpiece of compression.

James said...


Thanks for the first sentence. This is not only indicative of the novel but tells us about the author.