Monday, May 5, 2008

Julie's Favorite First Lines

There have been some memorable first lines in my reading history. In college I read lots of mysteries, particularly of the hard-boiled kind. The first line that grabbed me then was from Mickey Spillane’s Vengeance Is Mine:

THE GUY WAS DEAD AS HELL. He lay on the floor in his pajamas with his brains scattered all over the rug and my gun was in his hand.

I was a big fan of Mickey Spillane. I think that I read all of his books but that was by far the best, most memorable first line. It has stuck with me to this day. Maybe now that I’ve written it down I can finally forget about it.

Of course, I was an English major in college so I read a lot of the classics too. Mickey was just for fun. So on the more serious side the best first line was that from Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities:

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 . . .

This is recognized as the most famous first line and it’s deserving of its fame. It is a great one.

While in graduate school I took a break from studying to read some modern classics. It makes sense, as an undergrad I read from the very high, the classics, and the very low, Mickey Spillane. As a graduate student I suppose I had graduated to more modern fiction where maybe the high and the low are a little less distinguishable. Here the book that most grabbed me, from beginning to end, was Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. The first line of this book has to be one of the most seductive ever written:

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.

How could you not read on after that? Nabokov is a true poet. I love it.

Now as a middle-aged geezer my reading tastes are still all over the place. For the most part I’ve done with the classics and am back to reading for fun. Still many mysteries, some travel literature and occasionally something completely different. My latest author discovery is Ken Bruen, the Irish noir writer. Here is a great first line from his book Calibre:

Shit from Shinola. You have to hand it to the goddamn Yanks, they have great verbals, man. I love they way they cuss.

You can certainly tell from this that Ken Bruen owes more to Mickey Spillane that to my other favorites. You can also tell where my brain is these days, unfortunately. Oh well…

So I looked at the first line of the book I’m currently reading. It’s another Ken Bruen, Priest, another good first line:

What I remember most about the mental hospital
The madhouse
The loony bin
The home for the bewildered
is a black man may have saved my life.


I’m still working on the complete works of Ken Bruen and I’m looking forward to every one of them. I hope you’ll read this and give him a try too.

So what are your favorite lines? Take a look at the book you’re reading right now. How does its first line compare to these? Send your comments…Let’s see who can find the best first lines.

Submitted by Julie Stump

1 comment:

Macaire at VPL said...

My favorite first lines are recent discoveries and also come from genre fiction. The first is from a mystery by Deanna Raybourn called Silent in the Grave and it goes:
To say that I met Nicholas Brisbane over my husband's dead body is not entirely accurate. Edward, it should be noted, was still twitching upon the floor.

The second is from a book that spoofs both Regency romances and chick lit. Based on the opening of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, the opening of Janet Mullany's The Rules of Gentility goes:
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single woman of fortune and passable good looks amuses herself in London with fashion, philanthropic works, and flirtation, until a suitable gentleman makes an offer. I consider the pursuit of the bonnets and a husband fairly alike – I do not want to acquire an item that will wear out, or bore me after a brief acquaintance, and we must suit each other very well.

I think a great first line is one of those things that sets a good writer apart from a great one, and goes a long way toward making an entire book more memorable.