First Lines, Books

Selecting a book is a sort of alchemy. First, something compels me to pick it up. That may be a great title, a strange title, a compelling title, an enigmatic title, a just plain weird title. It could be an author that I’ve long been interested in but not yet explored, a favorite author and a book I have not yet read…or a long lost book that I wish to re-read and know I love it enough to re-re-read. Sometimes it can simply be a visual/tactile thing…something about the size and shape that speaks directly to my hand to reach out and pick it up and hold and then once in the hand well it is inevitable, the book opens.

In all cases, once in the hand the book does open…what is the paper stock like and the font and general feel of the book? Then the real key: the first line. The hook, the snare of a beautifully crafted first line. Sometimes this pulls me straight on to the second line, through the full first paragraph, then page, then well there is nothing for it but to acquire the book.

So, I’d like to share a sampling from some first lines that drew me in and continue to do so through re-reads. In fact this is a dangerous project because I may just want to keep reading and thus become sidetracked from my plan.

Well, when the subject of first lines comes up, Ken Kesey is always an author to reckon with:

“they’re out there.”

one flew over the cuckoo’s nest (1962). Three simple words…(OK, four if you break down the contraction) but this powerful brevity just grabs me.

“I check in at the SM County facilities dressed in my usual stuff–leather jacket, striped pants and shoes, silver whistle hanging around my neck.”

Kesey moves from three words to twenty-five to open Demon Box (1986). Here the first person narrator, piques my curiosity. The leather jacket with striped pants…casual? dressy? What is the whistle all about? Who is this person and what is he about? What about him makes this his usual stuff?

“Ike Sallas was asleep when it began, in a red aluminum Galaxxy, not all that far away and only a short skip into the future.”

Sailor Song (1992), this line just makes me grin and want to find out more about Ike and ask “when what began?” OK only one more from Ken Kesey, this one is my personal favorite:

“Along the western slopes of the Oregon Coastal Range…come look: the hysterical crashing of tributaries as they merge into the Wakonda Auga River…”

Yes! “Come look:” a direct invitation from the author to enjoy the view, the “hysterical crashing of tributaries” alongside him. The ellipses encourage me to share more of the beginning of this book which I’ve read countless times and it is a new experience each time:

“Along the western slopes of the Oregon Coastal Range…come look: the hysterical crashing of tributaries as they merge into the Wakonda Auga River…
The first little washes flashing like thick rushing winds through sheep sorrel and clover, ghost fern and nettle, sheering, cutting…forming branches. Then, through barberry and salmonberry, blueberry and blackberry, the branches crashing into creeks, into streams. Finally, in the foothills, through tamarack and sugar pine, shittim bark and silver spruce–and the green and blue mosaic of Douglas fir–the actual river falls five hundred feet…and look: opens out upon the field.”

Sometimes A Great Notion (1963). Well I almost set aside my writing to remain in that landscape and “look” and experience and read this great novel yet again but I pull myself back to share more first lines.

Another writer that hooks me with first lines is Jack Kerouac.

“Hopping a freight out of Los Angeles at high noon one day in late September of 1955 I got on a gondola and lay down with my duffel bag under my head and my knees crossed and contemplated the clouds as we rolled north to Santa Barbara.”

And so the experience begins in The Dharma Bums (1958). Well, it is tempting to include others, but one leads to another so…

I’ll refrain and jump to a few classics:

“SQUIRE TRELAWNEY, Dr. Livesey, and the rest of these gentlemen having asked me to write down the whole particulars about Treasure Island, from the beginning to the end, keeping nothing back but the bearings of the island, and that only because there is still treasure not yet lifted, I take up my pen in the year of grace 17__ and go back to the time when my father kept the Admiral Benbow Inn and the brown old seaman with the sabre cut first took up his lodging under our roof.”

Treasure Island (1883), Robert Louis Stevenson was and is a favorite. Don’t you want to read on and learn the particulars and who IS that “brown old seaman with the saber cut”? I do! As a little girl one Christmas my beloved Uncle Buddy sent me a beautiful hardback copy with illustrations and–yes!–MAPS! There is nothing quite so wonderful as a book that includes maps…even if I’m undecided by the first line, if there are maps that is likely to tip the balance for a book purchase.

“I will begin the story of my adventures with a certain morning early in the month of June, the year of grace 1751, when I took the key for the last time out of the door of my father’s house.”

Wow! Beginning with an ending and questions already…well OK Robert Louis Stevenson again, “RLS”, who knew how to tell a tale, engage you in adventure and keep you up all hours of the night reading, be you child or adult. This example is from Kidnapped (1886). Moving on:

“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again…”

Alfred Hitchcock, master of story telling and suspense chose to open his movie adaptation of Rebecca without changing a single word of Daphne du Maurier’s great gothic novel.

Considering the use of the ellipses, one could argue that the first line is longer:

“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again… I came upon it suddenly; the approach masked by the unnatural growth of a vast shrub that spread in all directions… There was Manderley, our Manderley, secretive and silent as it had always been, the gray stone shining in the moonlight of my dream, the mullioned windows reflecting the green lawns and terrace.”

Either way, Daphne du Maurier pulls you immediately into this story with her first line of Rebecca (1938).

Non-fiction is not exempt from having great first lines. This example is from T. E. Lawrence’s autobiographical account Seven Pillars of Wisdom (1922):

“Some of the evil of my tale may have been inherent in our circumstances.”

Curious about the tale and the circumstances? I was and am. This is a fabulous piece of history insightfully and lyrically told, at times poetic. Lawrence’s love of the desert is infectious. And I note it is time to purchase a new copy of this book we’ve read so often and is now old enough the binding has broken and the pages are loose.


“That was when I saw the Pendulum.”

…can be brilliant and also pique one’s curiosity. Personally I find this first line of Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum (1988) both mysterious and suspenseful.

The next example may well be the best known and universally recognized greatest first line:

“Call me Ishmael.”

Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (1851). An introduction, an invitation.

“I first met him in Piraeus.”

Nikos Kazantzakis’s Zorba the Greek (1952).

I love this first line that just flows from the title…in fact, the title is almost a first line here: “Zorba the Greek. I first met him in Piraeus.”

These little introductions to people, places, things as characters always draw me to the next line and the next. For example I’ll return to Herman Melville, this time White-Jacket (1850):

“It was not a very white jacket, but white enough, in all conscience, as the sequel will show.”

Leads directly to the next line:

“The way I came by it was this.”

And so I’m hooked.

When the hook creates stunning visual images that comes along with a smile or a nod of empathy well…here are four examples from the same author that hook me every time:

“The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.”

“The ghost was her father’s parting gift, presented by a black-clad secretary in a departure lounge at Narita.”

“Through this evening’s tide of faces unregistered, unrecognized, amid hurrying black shoes, furled umbrellas, the crowd descending like a single organism into the station’s airless heart, comes Shinya Yamazaki, his notebook clasped beneath his arm like the egg case of some modest but moderately successful marine species.”

“Five hours’ New York jet lag and Cayce Pollard wakes in Camden Town to the dire and ever-circling wolves of disrupted circadian rhythm.”

Again, how can I not keep reading? Did you recognize William Gibson? Neuromancer (1984), Mona Lisa Overdrive (1988), All Tomorrow’s Parties (1999), Pattern Recognition (2003).

And at random I’ll pause (not stop) here because: long. I may well have another set of wonderful first lines to share, lines that invite you, the reader, to share in the partnership of a story, “come look”!

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