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).

Far Out: Best First Lines of Sci Fi and Horror Novels (that I Think You Should Read)

The modern American reading public has the collective attention span of a stressed-out, sleep-deprived gnat with ADD. At least, that’s what conventional wisdom would have us believe. English teachers, editors and published writers all seem to tell aspiring writers every day that they’ve got to hook readers with the first line or they’ll lose them. Disgusted editors, they are told, will fling their manuscripts disdainfully into the slush pile if they’re not captivated by the opening lines. As a member of the reading public, I find these assumptions vaguely insulting.

And a little true – though I tend to give an author a few paragraphs or pages before I make any summary judgments about his or her skill. So I don’t require that a “hook” be buried in that first line to keep me engaged. But I have to admit, I love a good opener.

So here are a few of my favorite first lines from my two favorite genres, science fiction and horror. Not only are these intriguing sentences, but each begins a book that I would highly recommend reading. See what you think:

 “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”
1984, George Orwell
  
 
 
 
“Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun.”
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams
 
 
 
 
“Behind every man now alive stand thirty ghosts, for that is the ratio by which the dead outnumber the living.”
2001 – A Space Odyssey, Arthur C. Clarke.
 
 
“It was a pleasure to burn.”
Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury
 
 
 
 
 
 
“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.””
The Hobbit, J. R. R. Tolkien
(Okay I know this is two sentences but it could have been one and it’s one of my favorite openers.)
 
 
 
 
 “No live organism can continue for long to exist under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream.”
The Haunting of Hill House, Shirley Jackson
 
 
 
 
 
 “The story so far: In the beginning, the universe was created. This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move.”
The Restaurant at the End of the UniverseDouglas Adams
(Two sentences again, I know. But it’s my list and I can cheat if I want to.) 
 
 
 “First of all, it was October, a rare month for boys.”
Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury
 
 
  
 
 
“My name is Odd Thomas, though in this age when fame is the altar at which most people worship, I’m not sure you should care who I am or that I exist.”
Odd Thomas, Dean Koontz
 
“Sam Vimes sighed when he heard the scream, but he finished shaving before he did anything about it.”
Night WatchTerry Pratchett
 
“Lyra and her daemon moved through the darkening Hall, taking care to keep to one side, out of sight of the kitchen.”
The Golden CompassPhilip Pullman
 
 
 
 
  
 
“The terror, which would not end for another twenty-eight years – if it ever did end – began, so far as I know or can tell, with a boat made from a sheet of newspaper floating down a gutter swollen with rain.”
ITStephen King
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
“The year that Buttercup was born, the most beautiful woman in the world was a French scullery maid named Annette.”
The Princess Bride, William Goldman
 
  
 
 
“No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water.”
War of the Worlds, HG Wells
 
 
 
 “The regular early morning yell of horror was the sound of Arthur Dent waking up and suddenly remembering where he was.”
Life, the Universe and EverythingDouglas Adams
(Nobody opened a story like Douglas Adams.)

Vintage Science Fiction Cover Art

One summer day when I was about twelve, I complained to a friend that I couldn’t find anything interesting to read. My friend gave a little laugh and said, Come with me. Leading me to her garage, she flicked on the light, waited a moment for dramatic effect, and said, Pick.

I was in awe. One whole wall of the garage was covered by homemade bookshelves and those shelves were stuffed to overflowing with, what I would soon discover, were science fiction paperbacks.

They’re my dad’s, my friend said. He’s kind of a sci fi junkie. You can borrow anything you want.

I stepped forward and picked one at random. Inherit the Stars by James P. Hogan. The cover art convinced me to take it home. And so began an addiction to science fiction that would last thirty years (and counting).

So a few years ago, when I was in the depths of my thrift store addiction, I began buying old sci-fi paperbacks. It gave me something new to hunt for, and I really liked the cover art, especially from the 40s, 50s and 60s. (If you read my last post you’ll know I have a fascination with yesterday’s vision of tomorrow.) But it was hard to display the covers if the books just sat on a bookshelf. So I decided to take on another craft project. I started collecting the covers, some cheesy ones and some of the classics that I had read as a kid, with the thought that I would one day try to decoupage them on the top of an old trunk.

Since I am not a particularly successful crafter and a great procrastinator, the covers went into a  manila envelope and have been occupying the bottom drawer of my desk for a few years now. But one day, I swear, I’m going to finish this project. In the meantime, they’re this week’s Thrift Pick of the Week.