Because I’m nothing if not servicey, I thought I’d point out the obvious fact that lots of people have been talking about classic first lines as of late on the internets. The LA Times litblog Jacket Copy pointed me to a list compiled a few years ago by the American Book Review of the 100 Best First Lines from novels, which includes most of your standards, including:
- “Call me Ishmael.” (Herman Melville, Moby-Dick)
- “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” (Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice)
- “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” (Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina)
- “riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.” (James Joyce, Finnegan’s Wake)
- “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.” (Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities)
- “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)
Etc. I have very few coherent thoughts on the subject of the first line, mostly because I think that trying to come up with a killer first line is like trying to bottle lightening–nearly impossible, and when it happens, it’s mostly by accident. I mean, certainly the first line of Finnegan’s Wake is deliberately fascinating, but that’s because it’s nearly unintelligible. I guess I could say that if it’s going to be long it had better be good (see A Tale of Two Cities), because a short, simple, yet descriptive line is probably more likely to hook a reader than a long, meandering retrospective on the meaning of life, ALTHOUGH aphorisms work well (see Anna Karenina, Pride and Prejudice), but only if they’re actually true.
In the spirit of disclosure, I’ll share the first line of AUT here, and say that though I don’t think it’s particularly “classic” (I don’t believe that anything I could write could ever be so), I don’t think it’s half-bad, either.
“It was the end of summer, when the hills were bone-dry and brown; the sun beating down and shimmering up off the pavement was enough to give you heat stroke.”
What do you think? (FYI: Not to be a paranoid loser, but that line is copyright me. Any attempt to steal it will result in a lot of screaming. I promise you.)