March 30, 2008 § 2 Comments


1) Age of Innocence – Edith Wharton

2) The Divine Secrets of the Ya Ya Sisterhood – Rebecca Wells

3) The Poisonwood Bible – Barbara Kingsolver

4) The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay – Michael Chabon

5) Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone – JK Rowling

6) Lonesome Dove – Larry McMurty

7) The Things They Carried – Tim O’Brien

8 ) The Three Musketeers – A. Dumas (fils)

9) Skinny Legs and All – Tom Robbins

10) Bridget Jones Diary – Helen Fielding

I’ll bet you read some of those, right? So, where do you stand on the importance of the first line of a book?


One of the nice things about Poets&Writers magazine is the “One Line” column they put in there, showcasing the first line of fiction and poetry books that have recently published.

Writers, especially new ones, are aware of the pressure, the hook, the grab, put on that first sentence of their book. There is little wandering  these days through the countryside and looking up at the weather a la Hardy or Wharton – we are fast-book junkies.

Thus, the first line has to work (someone I know said it had to be “sticky” – ugh, um, no.) 

You can tell in reading some books where the author gave up under the strain of the making that first page or chapter absolutely tight, taut and power-packed. You can see where some authors relax, cease the relentless structure and fall into the speed of telling their story and the other elements that compel us to keep reading.

Multitaskers, I dare say, can’t take hundreds of pages of tight drama or tight taut prose as wrought in the first line, not in one sitting.  You cannot and should not zip through Annie Dillard’s Writing Life or essays. You cannot zip through Faulkner. (There are other non-zippers but these come to mind immediately.)

Anyway, first-line-mania aside, and just for the fun of it, I am inscribing here the first line of each of the books that are piled on the table next to my desk. Let’s see what you think is a winner, and can you get the book title AND the author of any of them? (Snarl should get at least one of these…) All of the following are first lines from novels.

1)  “On a January evening of the early seventies, Christine Nilsson was singing in Faust at the Academy of Music in New York.”

2) “Sidda is a girl again in the hot heart of Luisiana, the bayou world of Catholic saints and voodoo queens.” 

3) “Imagine a ruin so strange it must never have happened.”

 4) “In later years, holding forth to an interviewer or to an audience of aging fans at a comic book convention, Sam Clay liked to declare, apropos of his and Joe Kavalier’s greatest creation, that back when he was a boy, sealed and hog-tied inside the airtight vessel known as Brooklyn, New York, he had been haunted by dreams of Harry Houdini.”

5) “Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.”

6) “When Augustus came out on the porch the blue pigs were eating a rattlesnake – not a very big one.”

7) “First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross carried letters from a girl named Martha, a junior at Mount Sebastian College in New Jersey.”

8.) “On the first Monday of the month of April, 1626, the market-town of Meung, in which the author of the “Romance of the Rose” was born, appeared to be in as perfect a state of revolution as if the Huguenots had just made a second Rochelle of it.”

9) “It was a bright, defrosted, pussy-willow day at the onset of spring, and the newlyweds were driving cross-country in a large roast turkey.”

10) “129 lbs. (total fat groove), boyfriends 1 (hurrah!), shags 3 (hurrah!), calories 2,100, calories used up by shags 600, so total calories 1,500 (exemplary).


#1 is literature, and by today’s standards ‘old’; #2 several more follow these characters; #3 perhaps this author’s best known; #4 whew, lotsa clues here already;#5 “new’ classic creates multi-millionaire; #6 hmmm…I am still wading through this one; #7 modern American lit; #8 this is NOT Dickens; #9 this one is perhaps obscure but some critics ranked it with Joyce and Pynchon; #10 oh, please, it kick-started a genre.

 Answers in tomorrow’s blog.

Tagged: , ,

§ 2 Responses to First Lines…AND THE ANSWERS ARE!

  • laylou says:

    it is totally sad that the only one I know is #10… Bridget Jones Diary (perhaps the sequel!). #7 is familiar but I can’t place it. Please post the list so I can read a few of these… #7 for sure, #5 and #2 also.

  • Nora says:

    next time i come over, prepare to have your books raided!

    first line is important… obviously. that’s how i choose the books i read at the library: the first line. if that’s good, i’ll finish the paragraph. and if that is good, i’ll borrow it (or buy if I’m at B&N a la Darling!) 🙂 Thanks for the literary quiz. Keep ’em coming.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

What’s this?

You are currently reading First Lines…AND THE ANSWERS ARE! at This Writing Life ....


%d bloggers like this: