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).

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