You Better Not Tell: Best First Lines of My Favorite 20th Century Novels

Once, in another life, I went to college – four of them actually, in three different states where I studied a variety of subjects, got disillusioned or distracted, dropped out, moved, got a another crappy job, quit and went back to school, until finally, in 1996, after 12 years of false starts and changes, just after my 30th birthday, I got a big piece of embossed paper that says, basically, that I’m rather good at reading.  It’s not a particularly useful degree, but it was fun to get.

Because I love books. I love everything about them. The weight of them in my hands, the smell of aging paper, the lure of the cover art or the mystery of a battered, jacketless hardback; the crackle of brittle glue when you open an old text; the marbled or illustrated endpapers; the arcane details on the back of the title page; chapters with names or numbers or introductory quotes; epilogues and intriguing prefaces, and all those lovely pages filled with words in every permutation imaginable. Books are my drug, and I’ve been a junkie since I learned to read.

So here’s another post about books – in particular, their first lines –  a follow-up to my last post about the novel beginnings of some representatives of my favorite genres, science fiction and horror. This time, I’m focusing on any novel that I’ve read and enjoyed that was published in the century of my birth.

(Some of my favorite novels didn’t make the list because their first lines weren’t all that catchy. And some of the best first lines I’ve read didn’t make the list because they were the beginnings of short stories. Not to short the short story. As a literary form, I tend to agree with Edgar Allen Poe who once called it the ideal device for telling a story, superior to the novel in delivering a singular punch. But this is a list of novels. So here we go.)

“It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.”
The Bell Jar (1963), Sylvia Plath
“You better not tell nobody but God.”
The Color Purple (1982), Alice Walker
“I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills.”
Out of Africa (1937), Isak Dinesen
“My wound is geography.”
Prince of Tides (1986), Pat Conroy
“He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.”
The Old Man and the Sea (1952), Ernest Hemingway
“Time is not a line, but a dimension like the dimensions of space.”
Cat’s Eye (1988), Margaret Atwood
“We slept in what had once been the gymnasium.”
The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), Margaret Atwood
“I bought Mother a new car. It damn near killed Aunt Louise.”
Six of One (1978), Rita Mae Brown
(I have to cheat at least once per list, so I included these two sentences that could have been one.)
“A green hunting cap squeezed the top of a fleshy balloon of a head.”
A Confederacy of Dunces (1980), John Kennedy Toole
“Mildred hid the ax beneath the mattress of the cot in the dining room.”
Mama (1987), Terry McMillan
“Novalee Nation, seventeen, seven months pregnant, thirty-seven pounds overweight – and superstitious about sevens – shifted uncomfortably in the seat of the old Plymouth and ran her hands down the curve of her belly.”
Where the Heart Is (1995), Billie Letts
“The old woman remembered a swan she had bought many years ago in Shanghai for a foolish sum.”
The Joy Luck Club (1989), Amy Tan
“Millions upon millions of years ago, when the continents were already formed and the principal features of the earth had been decided, there existed, then as now, one aspect of the world that dwarfed all others… a mighty ocean, resting uneasily to the east of the largest continent, a restless ever-changing, gigantic body of water that would later be described as Pacific.”
Hawaii (1959), James Michener
“No one remembers her beginnings.”
Rubyfruit Jungle (1973), Rita Mae Brown

Now that I look at the list I’ve assembled, I’ve realized every one of these books had a powerful effect on me for one reason or another, the quality of the prose, the circumstances of the author’s life, the elements of the story and how it was told, and, always, a connection to my life. I remember when, where and why, I read each and how I felt when I read it and what I loved about each. So I guess these are very personal choices.

Do you have books like that? Did you ever read a favorite book of a friend or partner to get to know her/him better? Ever read that first semi-autobiographical novel of a poet or writer to try to see how she ticked? Ever fall in love with an author who can write more eloquently than you about a passion you share? Ever feel grateful to an author for expanding your world? Yeah, me too.

So let’s talk. Tell us about your personal books (with great first lines or not).

Leave a comment


  1. Marla

     /  October 4, 2012

    My favorite first line of a novel: “They threw me off the hay truck about noon.” The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain.

  2. Call me Ishmael…has to be one of my top faves, though 19th century of course. But I so seldom remember the first lines of a beloved book. Here’s one from my favorite movie (tho I prefer reading): “They’ve shut down the main reactors. We’ll be destroyed for sure.”

    • I should do a movie list! And Star Wars will definitely be on it! And maybe a 19th century novel list so we can include Moby Dick.

      • YES! I thought about a post detailing some of the cool old books available on Google books, but haven’t gotten to it. Those Victorians were freaky.

  3. Brilliant, Tori! Clearly, we are both Atwood fans. And you have identified the first lines of two of my all-time favorite novels! And I also LOVE Billie Letts! Now I know more of what I appreciate so much about you!

    • I love Margaret Atwood. Cat’s Eye was the first of her novels that I read and still my favorite. I can’t think of another book written so convincingly in first person present but is constructed almost entirely of flashbacks. Seems like that would be tricky but she made it seem easy. And it was truly funny. I think. It’s been at least a decade since I read it. I should reread it. Soon. Billie Letts is a great storyteller, interesting characters, funny and heart-breaking by turns, adept with a well-crafted sentence. Did you read The Honk and Holler? I think she has a third that I have not read. I should make a trip to the used bookstore soon.

  4. Paul J. Stam

     /  October 4, 2012

    Tori, you have hit almost all of my favorite novels. My problem is that I don’t remember the first lines until someone like brings pleasant memories by mentioning them. Thanks.

    • Oh heck, Paul. I didn’t remember these. I just thought of some of my favorites and looked up the first lines. Let me guess your favorites: Hawaii, Prince of Tides maybe, Out of Africa, The Old Man and the Sea. Am I right or completely off base? What’s not on the list that you love?

  5. “Even severed as it was from the rest of the body, the hand was majestic.” – Candice Millard, Destiny of the Republic. It’s about the assassination of President James Garfield, the bungling of his care by various doctors and his agonizing, slow but preventable death. The first sentence is a reference to the Statue of Liberty in its disassembled state after shipment from France. I’ve never before noticed the allure of an opening sentence, although the lengthy one from Michener tells me to run, run away!

    • That’s a great line! I would like to have seen the Statue of Liberty in pieces. Sounds like you’re a history buff. I have to say, what I know about President Garfield wouldn’t fill a thimble. I had no idea he died like that. And yes, Michener is the master of a run-on sentence but he does it so well, I’ve never minded – especially when he writes about natural history. (Did you know many of his novels include at least one chapter about some nature topic. Centennial has a chapter about beavers I believe and Chesapeake has one about geese (as well as the natural history of the bay). Fun stuff.

  6. Great Post! I love to read – some books speak and continue to speak to me, others give me fun and laughter, others give me enjoyment and take me places, and on and on:) Thanks for sharing & Have a Great Day:)

  7. “The candleflame and the image of the candleflame caught in the pierglass twisted and righted when he entered the hall and again when he shut the door.” Those were the first words I read by Cormac McCarthy…somewhere in 1992…and the first words from his novel, All The Pretty Horses. Somewhere between that first sentence and the last, I fell ass-over-tea-kettle in love with the man’s words and the depth of his mind and raw emotion…he is without doubt, my favorite author ever….

    Another one of his books, The Road, from 2006, has been referred to as a love letter to his son…and these are the first words: “When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he’d reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him.” The father and son’s love for each other is like a sad, sweet melody that you can hear beneath and through the unapologizing horribleness of the book…so compelling…it makes my heart ache for my little one.

    • Beautiful lines. He’s another author I have put off reading for too long. I shied away from The Road because it sounded so intensely tragic, I didn’t think I was up for the emotional investment, but will put All the Pretty Horses on my new list for the bookstore. Can’t pass up such a high recommendation. (I felt the same way about Pat Conroy when I read Prince of Tides. Don’t know if that’s comparing apples and oranges but the richness of his prose and the intense emotion of his metaphors, including the powerful poignancy reflected in his descriptions of the SC low country, had a big impact on me.) I love talking books! Thanks for sharing your favorite.

      • McCarthy is truly wonderful…me thinks…very raw, some graphic violence, yes, but his words are incredible…my wife hates it, but I love his sentences and vocabulary, such richness there…and yes, Pat Conroy is moving, as well. Prince of Tides was the first I read of his…something else…and then The Great Santini…sad, evocative…wonderful.

        I could chat and chat about them, too…ah, but work calls…have a fun day…and you’re very welcome for the share. 🙂

  8. I love this game.
    From The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver: “Imagine a ruin so strange it must never have happened.”
    From The Stand by Stephen King: “Hapscomb’s Texaco sat on US 93 just north of Arnette, a pissant four-street burg about 110 miles from Houston.”
    And Seventh Son by Orson Scott Card: “Little Peggy was very careful with the eggs.”

    • It’s a fun game, isn’t it? I’m so glad so many people decided to play! I have read some of Kingsolver’s short stories (in High Tide in Tuscon) but none of her novels. I’ve heard so much good about The Poisonwood Bible and love that line. I will put it on my bookstore shopping list. Love The Stand. Great line. I have not read anything by Orson Scott Card – I know, a big omission for an old sci fi nerd like me. He seems so prolific, it’s hard to know where to start.

      • I know lots of people loved the Ender series, but I could never get into it. My favorite was the Alvin Maker Series– a combination of alternate history based on “What would have happened if some of the immigrants to the US really did have special talents (i.e. Salem witch trials)?” and “What if we hadn’t decimated the Native Americans?” Highly recommend it!

  9. Oh, gosh, I can’t think of anything right now, but you have me so intrigued with “Mama” that I may have to check it out! Cool post.

  10. Great idea. Will do. Right now.

  11. hello, Tori… you have a wonderful list… i don’t remember the first lines of novels i like, dang… but i read several Atwood, too and also read Where the Heart Is. read the Color Purple twice and most of Alice Walker’s writings and Rita Mae Brown’s too. likewise with Amy Tan’s works. wow, i happen to have read most of the novels in your list, haha. i think i read several Sylvia Plath in college, too. yes, those people know how to tell stories. they make good yarns – good writings that make for excellent reading. 🙂

    the novel i like most is Their Eyes Were Watching God – i want to be able to write like Z.N. Hurston. Alan Paton’s Cry the Beloved Country is also very touching. i must also mention Carson McCullers’ The Ballad of the Sad Cafe (which i like better than The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter). there, hahaha. hope things are doin’ great, your side of town… regards 😉

  12. “We think,sometimes, there’s not a dragon left”
    Richard Bach The Bridge Across Forever


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