This blog is basically about how good books are nice and bad books are the pits. And then I get grumpy.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

What are your favorite first lines?

We all know memorable first lines from famous novels. There's, of course:

"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

And there's also:

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times...." - Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

Children's lit has its classic lines, too. Like:

"Christmas won't be Christmas without any presents," grumbled Jo, lying on the rug." - Louisa May Alcott, Little Women

But there are very many novels out there. And, while they do not provide modern-day writers with material to manipulate and, in some cases, abuse (I'm thinking, the kick-off to Austen's novel), they do have some pretty good openers. One that I like particularly comes from another kids' book, C.S. Lewis's The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. I chuckle whenever I read it and like to fancy that I'll one day have the opportunity to read it aloud at some storytime hour somewhere. It so would make a great spoken sentence. As a matter of fact the whole first paragraph is stellar and with it Lewis paints an enviable character sketch of a main character; you get the feeling you know who you're dealing with when you've read the first page.

"There once was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it."

I can just imagine that avuncular Lewis telling this story beginning to the neighborhood kids. And do you ever hear of anyone talking about it? At least the negative answer to that question means that the sentence has survived untainted by the overuse of writers looking for a cutesy, "clever" way to open their own stories. I might mention again poor Jane Austen's first line to end all first lines.

I suppose that my love of this line is unique and explains why no one has pinched it to use it in their own way. Lewis's line is unassuming, it doesn't try too hard. And perhaps it plays to a childlike sense of humor. But how many subtle lines can send a kid into hysterics? Granted I have yet to witness this but I haven't tested the theory yet. And if my inner gauge is correct I am sure that I would have been rolling on the floor as a kid and reading this line out to adults while waiting to see them collapse into fits of laughter. (I used to do this - read from my books, look up after I'd read the good part, and wonder why my family wasn't chortling heartily. But that's a story for another day.)

So this is my nomination for the best first lines list. It's not Austen or Dickens but just think what a great theater-trained actor could do with it, reading the first clause matter-of-factly, raising his head and stating slowly and viciously "and he almost deserved it," with eyes narrowing at the poetic justice implied.

Now, what's your nomination?


Shimona said...

You might be interested in a discussion on favourite last lines, on the Bookstolistento Forums page.

Jemima said...

Thank you, Shimona. I particularly like George Eliot's Middlemarch's last lines. "But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs."

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