As I’ve written before, I choose books to read based on how attention-grabbing and/or well-written the first two pages are. I’m not sure if I mentioned this part before, but the book that made me decide that two pages was all I needed was Nelson Algren’s A Walk on the Wild Side. I wasn’t sure what I was expecting when I pulled it off the shelf at a bookstore and skimmed the back cover before opening the book and being instantly amazed by Algren’s prose. I got to the bottom of the second page and thought to myself, “Self, you must read this entire book!” So I bought it and read it and liked it and from then on, I’ve found my two page test to be pretty reliable.
So there’s that story, anyway.
Of course, there are other books that take considerably less than two pages to capture me entirely. A perfect example of this is Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita which pretty much had me from the first line and then only got better from there. Now, it’s difficult to come at a novel as famous as Lolita these days without having at least a passing knowledge of what the book is about, and I knew that it was about an older man getting it on with a young teenage girl which is totally sick and wrong, and I had opinions about what I was going to think about the book before I even started reading, which is, I’m reasonably certain, why it managed to blow me away like it did. Now, don’t get me wrong: fictional character or no, I’m never forgiving ol’ Humbert H. for getting his perv on, but the thing is, the opening lines of Lolita are, well… they’re sexy:
Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.
She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.
See what I mean? Best opening lines ever. But then, as he says at the end of the following paragraph, “You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.”
The thing about great opening lines is that not only do they make you smile or frown or think (or a combination thereof) when you encounter them, but the really good ones sneak into the popular consciousness somehow and we know them without being familiar with where they originally came from, or at least sometimes without having read the source material. For example, even though I have made a completely pointless vow never to read Moby-Dick, I still know the opening line. So, I’ve compiled a list of what I think are some really good openers, and I will kick it off with the aforementioned line from that book about the whale, because it is the least I can do for Melville, since I am seriously never ever reading that book even though I will admit I have enjoyed several — okay, two — of his shorter works. And without further ado, here it is:
— “Call me Ishmael.” (Herman Melville, Moby-Dick)
— “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” (Daphne DuMaurier, Rebecca)
— “Now is the winter of our discontent” (William Shakespeare, Richard III)
— “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” (Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina — just because I didn’t finish it, it doesn’t mean I can’t be impressed with the first sentence)
— “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way — in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.” (Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities, showing how to rock a really long sentence)
— “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)
— “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.” (Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway)