I’ve heard it said that the average art museum patron spends an average of three seconds looking at a painting before moving on. Subtract the sad commentary on the dearth of art appreciation in museums, and you’ll take away a simple fact: first impressions are supremely important. If you only have a precious few seconds to grab a viewer’s attention and keep them looking at a painting for thirty seconds, or even a whole minute, you have to make a statement and grab their attention right away.

The same goes for books, especially in an era of supposedly shortened attention spans and a mind-bogglingly vast array of cultural minutiae to feast on. An author may have only a few pages to make a good  first impression that hooks a reader and propels them– hopefully– to the end of the story.

I have read a lot of books with bad openings that I’ve gone on to like, but I’ve put down even more where the lousy opening was a precursor to a lousier book. It’s the books with the tantalizing, gorgeous, or curiosity-inspiring openers that stay in my mind though.

In no particular order, here are my favorite opening lines, and the books that go with them:

“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”
Gabriel Garcia Marquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Who is Colonel Aureliano Buendía, and why is he facing the firing squad? And why, at that particular moment, does he remember the day his father took him to discover ice? And what happens in his life between the ice and the firing squad?

One simple-seeming, but very complex sentence opens this lush magical realist novel that spans a century of the history of the Buendía family and the town of Macondo. I was hooked from the first line, and One Hundred Years of Solitude went on to be my favorite of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s books.

“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 to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.”
– J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit

What is a Hobbit, exactly, and why does it live in a hold in the ground? And if it’s so comfortable, and this is the beginning of an adventure story, when why does this Hobbit leave its comfortable home at all?

I first read The Hobbit when I was ten or eleven, and that opening has stuck with me ever since. I didn’t know, at that time, what a Hobbit was or that I was signing up for a literary adventure I would never forget. When I finished this one, I immediately wanted to know more about Middle Earth, Hobbits, and elves, and pounced on The Lord of the Rings when I saw the books in my school library. They have been my favorites ever since.

” It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”
– Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

I had to read this book three times before I truly came to appreciate Jane Austen’s wit. Readings for school, being mandatory, often make it difficult to like a story given that you’re constantly on the lookout for Tone or Theme, or that elusive bird, Symbolism. It’s hard to like a story when you’re simultaneously trying to wring out the Important Bits and write a response paper about Women’s Roles in Early Nineteenth Century English Literature, which is what I was doing the first two times I read it.

The third time came about after I read Austen’s Northanger Abbey, which is a wonderfully snarky send up of melodramatic Gothic novels (which we also read for class), and got me interested in reading Austen’s books on my own time, outside of any classroom. I’m happy to say now that Austen is one of my favorite authors, and that the timeless story of how Lizzie and Mr. Darcy finally get together is one of my favorite books of all time.

“In the week before their departure to Arrakis, when all the final scurrying about had reached a nearly unbearable frenzy, an old crone came to visit the mother of the boy, Paul.”
-Frank Herbert, Dune

To be fair, this isn’t the very first sentence in Dune. The book actually begins with a quote from another character from the book, an historian whose historical teachings grace the beginnings of each chapter. But that is the sentence that truly opens the story, and it’s the one that made me wonder who these people were, why they were leaving for Arrakis (and what Arrakis was, for that matter), and, most importantly, why a crone was visiting the boy’s mother.

I was twelve when I first read this book, and was hooked from the opening line. You quickly find out why the crone is there and what she intends to do. What that means for Paul is an answer that unfolds across this epic story. When I first read it as an adolescent, it was a grand adventure story. As I’ve grown older, though, I’ve come to appreciate the philosophy of it, and its lessons of the dangers of blending politics and religion- lessons that we could stand to hear now.

“The night before he went to London, Richard Mayhew was not enjoying himself.”
– Neil Gaiman, Neverwhere

Why is Richard Mayhew not enjoying himself? Where is he, and should I be upset that he’s having a lousy time there? Why is he going to London in the first place?

Neverwhere was the first book I ever read by Neil Gaiman. I found the odd little book in my little hometown’s tiny general story, haphazardly placed among the Harlequin romances and the latest bestselling thrillers. I didn’t know then that I was embarking on the weirdest literary adventure that I had ever encountered, and it would change the way I look at the world. I would, when bored, imagine that some magical world lurked behind the doors that seemed to have been locked forever.

Neverwhere is one of those books I can read over and over and never get tired of, and it helped inspire my love of London and of all things Neil Gaiman.

3 thoughts on “Beginnings

  1. I think it’s very hard, in this day and age, to be able to write a great opening hook. I don’t know how many people read with the intensity. I was at a book club for mansfield Park, and one of the members stated that Jane Austen would never survive today- she would need to be more like John grisham and write short direct sentences and short chapters. When I picked myself up from the floor I wanted to bang my head against the table….

  2. Ungh… Why do people always want to compare the classics to current bestselling thrillers? Apples and oranges, there. Or maybe it’s like comparing apples to celery?

    I think Jane Austen would do quite well for herself, if she were living nowadays. She had then what authors still need now- keen observation skills and a sharp wit. There is always a need for social commentary, and we haven’t gotten tired of love stories yet.

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