They say the first line is one of the most important parts of a book*. Get it right and the readers’ eyes are all yours, get it wrong and they’ll start looking around, distracted by the feet of strangers or two birds fighting over a sandwich.
Over on our Instagram account (here, follow it here) we’ve been asking people for the first lines that have grabbed them. So, along with a few of our own personal favourites, and a pleasingly alliterative title, here are fourteen fantastic first lines.
A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens.
‘Marley was dead: to begin with.’
Setting up the existence of an afterlife and the brilliantly tantalising question of ‘who’s Marley?’, the opening of A Christmas Carol is enough to justify Dickens’s reputation as one of the greats.
Murphy by Samuel Beckett
‘The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new.’
Wonderfully bleak and funny, is there any other way a Samuel Beckett book could begin?
I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
‘I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.’
One of those great openings which simply makes you ask ‘why?’
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J.K. Rowling
‘Mr and Mrs Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.’
Starting with the boring and normal world Harry knows before introducing both him and the reader to a magical alternative was a lovely idea and the use of the Dursley’s own way of thought works brilliantly.
The Luck of the Bodkins by P.G. Wodehouse
‘Into the face of the young man who sat on the terrace of the Hotel Magnifique at Cannes there had crept a look of furtive shame, the shift, hangdog look which announces that an Englishman is about to talk French.’
We can’t even imagine the courage it takes to start your book with a joke this strong.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson
‘We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.’
Changing Places by David Lodge
‘High, high above the North Pole, on the first day of 1969, two professors of English Literature approached each other at a combined velocity of 1200 miles per hour.’
We can just see David Lodge writing this down, sitting back and realising that, after a line this good, he can probably take the rest of the day off.
Neuromancer by William Gibson.
‘The sky above the port was the colour of television, tuned to a dead channel.’
Our favourite thing about this line is that, as somebody on TV’s The Internet pointed out to us, it now means something completely different. When it was written, William Gibson would have been referring to the colour of a screen filled with static. On TVs now, dead channels are usually a pure blue which would, of course, be a lovely sky.
The Third Policeman by Flann O’Brien
‘Not everybody knows how I killed old Phillip Mathers, smashing his jaw in with my spade; but first it is better to speak of my friendship with John Divney because it was he who first knocked old Mathers down by giving him a great blow in the neck with a special bicycle-pump which he manufactured himself out of a hollow iron bar. Divney was a strong civil man but he was lazy and idle-minded. He was personally responsible for the whole idea in the first place. It was he who told me to bring my spade. He was the one who gave the orders on the occasion and also the explanations when they were called for.’
It sums up the entire book’s sense of humour, this one. It’s fairly safe to say that if you find it funny then the rest of the novel is for you.
The Tin Drum by Gunter Grass
‘Granted: I’m an inmate in a mental institution; my keeper watches me, scarcely lets me out of sight, for there’s a peephole in the door, and my keeper’s eye is the shade of brown that can’t see through blue-eyed types like me.’
A brilliant introduction to the mix of madness and clear-headed thought that makes up the warped character of Oscar Matzerath.
The Crow Road by Iain Banks
‘It was the day my grandmother exploded.’
It’s not a list of famous first lines without this one, really.
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
‘Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.’
1984 by George Orwell
‘It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.’
There’s no better way to get across that something’s wrong than to change something as fundamental as the way we organise time.
Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
‘I was born twice; first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.’
What led up to the second birth? Why and how did it happen? For God’s sake, what happens next?!
As always, lists like these will leave out a couple of your favourites. Let us know of your own and embarrass us if we’ve missed anything glaringly obvious.
*We don’t know who ‘they’ are either. Probably something to do with PRISM.
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