Friday, January 16, 2009

You had me at "Hello"

I started reading something recently that I imagined would be extremely interesting. After the first few pages, I could see how it might turn out to be something great, but wasn't just yet. That got me thinking about books that have gripped me from the very first lines uttered by the author. The opening lines that have had the most impact on me.

Of course, when one talks of opening lines, there are some timeless classics that have been done to death. Take for instance -

Anna Karenina
Happy families are all alike, every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

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

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.

[Go here for a list of the 100 best first lines of novels as voted by American Book Review]

These are all brilliant lines. But if I were to be really honest and think of the first lines I have personally enjoyed the most, these wouldn't make my favourites, except maybe the 1984 one. Here are three 'first lines' or 'first paragraphs' that I have found most unbelievably impactful:

#3: Slaughterhouse 5, Kurt Vonnegut

All this happened, more or less. The war parts, anyway, are pretty much true. One guy I knew really was shot in Dresden for taking a teapot that wasn't his. Another guy I knew really did threaten to have his personal enemies killed by hired gunmen after the war. And so on. I've changed all the names.

#2: Midnight's Children, Salman Rushdie

I was born in the city of Bombay ... once upon a time. No, that won't do, there's no getting away from the date: I was born in Dr.Narlikar's Nursing Home on August 15, 1947. And the time? The time matters, too. Well then: At night. No, it's important to be more ... On the stroke of midnight, as a matter of fact. Clock-hands joined palms in respectful greeting as I came. Oh, spell it out, spell it out: at the precise instant of India's arrival at independence, I tumbled forth into the world. There were gasps. And, outside the window, fireworks and crowds.

... and the opening lines I have most enjoyed over years of reading ...

#1: The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams

Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun. Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-eight million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue-green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.

Doesn't fail to bring a smile to my face the hundredth time I read it!

Your favorites, fellow ape-descendants?


  1. Let me bring down Jairam to the level of pulp fiction!

    2 of my favorite opening lines in books are as follows.

    #1: Alistair Mclean's "When Eight Bells Toll

    "The Peacemaker Colt has now been in production, without change in design, for a century. When a Peacemaker's bullet hits you in, say, the leg, you don't curse, step into shelter, roll and light a cigarette one-handed then smartly shoot your assailant between the yes. When the Peacemaker bullet hits your leg you fall to the ground unconscious, and if it hits the thigh-bone and you are lucky enough to survive the torn arteries and shock, then you will never walk again without crutches because a totally disintegrated femur leaves the surgeon with no option but to cut your leg off. And so I stood absolutely motionless, not breathing, for the Peacemaker Colt that had prompted this unpleasant train of thought was pointed directly at my right thigh”

    #2: Eric Segal's "The Doctors"

    “Barney Livigston was the first boy in Brooklyn to see Laura Castalleno naked.
    One August morning in the summer he turned five, wandered into his backyard and was saluted by an unfamiliar voice.

  2. There are countless opening lines that have stuck with me, but my personal favorite is from Charles Dickens' The Tale of Two Cities:

    "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times..."

    In fact, it has my favorite last line as well:

    "It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to, than I have ever known."

  3. For me, Latin American authors of the Magical Realism genre are the masters of the opening lines.

    "It was inevitable: the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love." - Love in the Time of Cholera, Gabriel Garcia Marquez

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

    "Barrabas came to us by sea, the child Clara wrote in her delicate calligraphy. She was already in the habit of writing down important matters, and afterward, when she was mute, she also recorded trivialities, never suspecting that fifty years later I would use her notebooks to reclaim the past and overcome the terrors of my own." - The House of the Spirits, Isabel Allende