There are many things that make us read the first page of a book. It can be an author’s reputation, a favourable review, a recommendation by a trusted friend or a breathtaking cover. Yet all these pale into insignificance compared against the importance of a wonderful opening line. A book, of course, won’t stand or fall on the very first line of prose, but a really good first line can do so much to establish that crucial sense of voice. It’s the first thing that acquaints the reader, which makes them eager and enlists them for the long haul. So there’s incredible power in it, when it says, Come in here. You want to know about this and someone does just that.
It should come as no surprising then that writers and readers alike are so fascinated by the art of the opening line. So much so, in fact, that the American Book Review even came up with a list of its greatest ever. Of the 100 showcased, 1950s novels supplied the most, which begs the questions was this decade the heyday of the brilliant opener? To make your own mind up, sit back and enjoy the first words of some of literature’s finest reads.
If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. —J. D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye (1951)
A story has no beginning or end; arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead. —Graham Greene, The End of the Affair (1951)
There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it. —C. S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (1952)
I am an invisible man. —Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (1952)
He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish. —Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea (1952)
Where now? Who now? When now? —Samuel Beckett, The Unnamable (1953; trans. Patrick Bowles)
The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there. —L. P. Hartley, The Go-Between (1953)
I am an American, Chicago born—Chicago, that somber city—and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent. —Saul Bellow, The Adventures of Augie March (1953)
It was a pleasure to burn. —Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451 (1953)
Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. —Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita (1955)
“Take my camel, dear,” said my Aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass. —Rose Macaulay, The Towers of Trebizond (1956)
In a sense, I am Jacob Horner. —John Barth, The End of the Road (1958)
Granted: I am an inmate of a mental hospital; my keeper is watching me, he never lets me out of his sight; there’s a peephole in the door, and my keeper’s eye is the shade of brown that can never see through a blue-eyed type like me. – Günter Grass, The Tin Drum (1959)