Let’s start at the very beginning, shall we? (It’s a very good place to start, or so I’ve heard). I mean that quite literally: this is the beginning of Keeping Up With The Penguins, so why not look at some of the great opening lines in literature?
What makes a great opening line?
Every writer knows that a great opening line is crucial; often, more work goes into that one sentence than any other. Stephen King has described the opening line as an invitation to continue reading, which seems about right. A great opening line gives rise to many more questions than it answers, and it’s curiosity that drags a reader’s eyes down the page. I’m quite partial to opening lines that make me laugh, or take me by surprise in some way – so no “it was a cold and stormy night”s here, thanks!
For all those would-be booklovers out there, I think reading over lists of great opening lines in literature is actually better when you haven’t read many (or any!) of the books in question. If you’ve already read the book, you’ve got a sense of nostalgic attachment (or detachment, depending on whether you enjoyed it) that can cloud your judgment. If you come at a list like this with a blank slate, it lets you evaluate each line without preconceived ideas. So, tell me: do you feel invited to continue reading by any of these great opening lines?
1. Pride & Prejudice – Jane Austen
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
This great opening line appears on every “best of” list ever written, so I figured we’d get it out of the way early here. Pride and Prejudice is chockers with biting sarcasm and satirical wit, for which Austen is famous. You can almost hear her implied eyebrow-raise as you read it. Read my full review of Pride and Prejudice here.
2. Moby Dick – Herman Melville
“Call me Ishmael.”
And this is the other one that appears on every list. Despite the fact that Moby Dick is a 600-page treatise with nuggets of wisdom on every conceivable subject, these three little words are the most-oft quoted of Melville’s work. Read my full review of Moby Dick here.
Bonus fun fact: Margaret Atwood has confirmed on Twitter that this is her favourite opening line ever.
@joefassler: “Call me Ishmael.” 3 words. Power-packed. Why Ishmael?
It’s not his real name. Who’s he speaking to? Eh?
— Margaret E. Atwood (@MargaretAtwood) July 22, 2013
3. Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy
“All happy families are alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
This cracker from Tolstoy appears on a lot of “best of” lists as well, but the wording varies slightly (depending on how it was translated from the original Russian). It’s one of my personal favourites – not that I’ve ever read Anna Karenina (ha!), but it’s just dark and kind of wry.
4. 1984 – George Orwell
“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”
1984 is one of my favourite books of all time, so I’m probably a bit biased including it here, but I always – from the very first read – thought this line was fucking brilliant.
5. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader – C. S. Lewis
“There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.”
Bet you weren’t expecting you’d see a children’s book on a list of great opening lines! Sadly, winners like The Voyage of the Dawn Treader are often overlooked in favour of more serious “grown-up” books. Keeping Up With The Penguins would never make such a mistake 😉 This line really gives me a giggle, every time I read it.
6. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter – Carson McCullers
“In the town, there were two mutes and they were always together.”
As far as a great opening line asking-more-questions-than-it-answers goes, I’m not sure you can get much better than The Heart is a Lonely Hunter! Which town? Who were the mutes? Why were they mute? Why were they always together? I’ve gotta know!
7. Book of Numbers – Joshua Cohen
“If you’re reading this on a screen, fuck off. I’ll only talk if I’m gripped with both hands.”
This is certainly a different approach to the great opening line: directly telling your reader to fuck off. I literally lol’d the first time I saw this one from Book of Numbers. I give Cohen credit here for his huge balls.
8. The Miseducation of Cameron Post – Emily M. Danforth
“The afternoon my parents died, I was out shoplifting with Irene Klauson.”
I keep looking at the opening line of The Miseducation of Cameron Post, because I have no idea whether it should make me feel sad, or incredulous, or angry, or… the only way to find out, of course, is to read the book! Hats off to Danforth, it’s a great opening line! Read my full review of The Miseducation Of Cameron Post here.
9. True Confessions – John Gregory Dunne
“None of the merry-go-rounds seem to work anymore.”
I find this one from True Confessions out-and-out eerie. Merry-go-rounds are kind of spooky in and of themselves, but now none of them work? Why? (And, most importantly, what kind of township needs more than one?) This great opening line would be enough for me to stick Dunne on the “to be read” pile…
There are probably as many great opening lines as there are books and readers. After all, what I find gripping might be an absolute snooze-fest for you, and you might crack up laughing at something that barely raises a smirk for me. Different horses and all that… What do you think? Have I missed your favourite? Let me know in the comments below! (Or join the conversation on the KUWTP Facebook Page!)