Publishers sometimes say that getting someone to pick up a novel is half the battle won. But once that book is held in the palm of a potential reader’s hand, it’s up to the first line to grab their attention and never let it go. Arguably, (other than maybe the closing line), there’s no sentence more important than the opening line. A book, of course, won’t stand or fall on the very first line of prose, but a really good opening tells the reader what to expect in terms of language, plot and character. It should be compelling, mysterious, poetic or shocking. It should make the reader want to immediately sit down in the middle of the aisle and carry on reading.
It’s no surprise then that writers and readers alike have been captivated by the art of the opening line. In fact, the American Book Review even came up with a list of its hundred greatest ever. One decade which provides a large selection of those chosen was the 1960s. It seems the decade wasn’t just famed for the Beatles and the Stones, Woodstock, the Cuban Missile Crisis, JFK , Martin Luther King, the Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia, the construction of the Berlin Wall, The Feminine Mystique, the Stonewall Riots, the moon landings, the very first computer games and Rosemary’s Baby. Its literature’s opening lines rocked and rolled, too. But don’t take our word for it, sit back, crank up some old school tunes and enjoy these fantastic openers from yesteryear.
1. “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice”. —Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967; trans. Gregory Rabassa)
2. “One summer afternoon Mrs. Oedipa Maas came home from a Tupperware party whose hostess had put perhaps too much kirsch in the fondue to find that she, Oedipa, had been named executor, or she supposed executrix, of the estate of one Pierce Inverarity, a California real estate mogul who had once lost two million dollars in his spare time but still had assets numerous and tangled enough to make the job of sorting it all out more than honorary.” —Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49 (1966)
3. “All this happened, more or less.” —Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five (1969)
4. “I was the shadow of the waxwing slain / By the false azure in the windowpane;” —Vladimir Nabokov, Pale Fire (1962)
5. “Francis Marion Tarwater’s uncle had been dead for only half a day when the boy got too drunk to finish digging his grave and a Negro named Buford Munson, who had come to get a jug filled, had to finish it and drag the body from the breakfast table where it was still sitting and bury it in a decent and Christian way, with the sign of its Saviour at the head of the grave and enough dirt on top to keep the dogs from digging it up.” —Flannery O’Connor, The Violent Bear it Away (1960)
6. “It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.” —Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar (1963)
7. “It was love at first sight.” —Joseph Heller, Catch-22 (1961)
8. “If I am out of my mind, it’s all right with me, thought Moses Herzog.” —Saul Bellow, Herzog (1964)
9. “Hiram Clegg, together with his wife Emma and four friends of the faith from Randolph Junction, were summoned by the Spirit and Mrs. Clara Collins, widow of the beloved Nazarene preacher Ely Collins, to West Condon on the weekend of the eighteenth and nineteenth of April, there to await the End of the World.” —Robert Coover, The Origin of the Brunists. (1966)
10. “In the last years of the Seventeenth Century there was to be found among the fops and fools of the London coffee-houses one rangy, gangling flitch called Ebenezer Cooke, more ambitious than talented, and yet more talented than prudent, who, like his friends-in-folly, all of whom were supposed to be educating at Oxford or Cambridge, had found the sound of Mother English more fun to game with than her sense to labor over, and so rather than applying himself to the pains of scholarship, had learned the knack of versifying, and ground out quires of couplets after the fashion of the day, afroth with Joves and Jupiters, aclang with jarring rhymes, and string-taut with similes stretched to the snapping-point.” —John Barth, The Sot-Weed Factor (1960)
11. “I will tell you in a few words who I am: lover of the hummingbird that darts to the flower beyond the rotted sill where my feet are propped; lover of bright needlepoint and the bright stitching fingers of humorless old ladies bent to their sweet and infamous designs; lover of parasols made from the same puffy stuff as a young girl’s underdrawers; still lover of that small naval boat which somehow survived the distressing years of my life between her decks or in her pilothouse; and also lover of poor dear black Sonny, my mess boy, fellow victim and confidant, and of my wife and child. But most of all, lover of my harmless and sanguine self.” —John Hawkes, Second Skin (1964)
12. “They say when trouble comes close ranks, and so the white people did.” —Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea (1966)
13. “They’re out there. Black boys in white suits up before me to commit sex acts in the hall and get it mopped up before I can catch them.” – Ken Kesey: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1962)