Call Me Ishmael: First Lines the less classic edition


I came across this list of “The 100 Best First Lines of Novels” and felt more than a little meh about it. I’m not saying they aren’t great, I mean they are classics for a reason, but I of course noticed the usual lack of any books in any genre with the exception of, “It was a pleasure to burn.” I agree Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 is a classic, it is also usually the only science fiction book allowed to mingle with the big boys of high literature. The above list also demonstrates the usual paucity writers from other cultures, of other colors, or women.

The thing that bothers me about this list, about these sorts of lists in general, is that they are more about name recognition than about the substance of the list. Every time you hit a line in this list that rings a bell you get that warm, fuzzy feeling that says: I remember that Lit class that I took in the halcyon days of my misguided youth before I switched to a business major. And after simply perusing the list you can feel all cultured all over again.

Now I’m not saying you’re not cultured, I’m sure you are. And I’m really not trying to be all hoity toity English major here, maybe it’s just Internet fatigue of seeing list after list that’s all really the same list. And that’s I think where the first liner list rubs me a little bit the wrong way. A great first line is a thing unto itself and, I think, deserves a little more latitude that the usual suspects allow.

Take, “Call me Ishmael,” for example. It’s good hook. Declarative. Establishes the narrator in the first sentence, well names him anyway. It gets the job done, I’ll call you Ishmael and I’ll read the next sentence. The thing is, taken on it’s own, I just don’t think it’s all that. That brief first line is informed and enlarged by the magnificent blunderbuss of a novel that follows it. And here’s the important part, whether you’ve read it or not, everyone knows Moby Dick is a huge densely-written true blue American Classic, and that lends Melville’s first line a little extra stardust.

We love to read because of the richness, the diversity, and the discovery that the written word offers us and these lists of established classics, by reiterating the familiar, deny us everything else that is out there.

So, after reading said list, I was inspired to go no further than my own bookshelf to start a list of great first lines, as opposed first lines from great books (classics aren’t necessarily excluded, it’s just that their first lines had to really move me on their own.) There is a lot of science fiction and some fantasy, there are just as many women writers as men, and I included a few memoirs and non fiction first lines as well.  The list is given in absolutely no order whatsoever.

I hope you like it. Send me your favorite first lines from — well — from anything. 

  1. “You will rejoice to hear that no disaster has accompanied the commencement of an enterprise which you have regarded with such evil forebodings.” Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelly
  2. “Of all the many things that this life has stolen from me, the one which bothers me most is that I cannot remember burying my father.” The Skysailor’s Tale by Michael Swanwick in The Dog Said Bow-Wow
  3. “When I stepped out into the bright sunlight from the darkness of the movie house, I had just two things on my mind: Paul Newman and a ride home.” The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton
  4. “Not everybody knows how I killed old Philip 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 on the neck with a special bicycle-pump which he manufactured himself out of a hollow iron bar.” The Third Policeman by Flann O’Brien
  5. “There is a photo on my wall of a woman I’ve never met, its left corner torn and patched together with tape.” The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
  6. “On a certain day in June, 19–, a young man was making his way on foot northward from the great City to a town or place called Edgewood, that he had been told of but had never visited.” Little Big by John Crowley
  7. “Snowman wakes before dawn.” Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
  8. “The show still looks exactly like when you were sick with a really high fever and you stayed home to watch TV all day.” Loser by Chuck Palahniuk in Stories
  9. “I am not as I once was.” The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N. K. Jemisin
  10. “Lyra and her daemon moved through the darkening hall, taking care to keep to one side, out of sight of the kitchen.” The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman
  11. “My sharpest memory is of a single instant in the dark.” The Liar’s Club by Mary Karr
  12. “When life is imperiled or a dire situation is at hand, safe alternatives may not exist.” The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook by Joshua Piven and David Borgenicht
  13. “I was sitting before my third or fourth Jellybean — which is anisette, grain alcohol, a lit match, and a small, wet explosion in the brain.” Scales by Louise Erdrich in Points of View
  14. “Of all the sacred cows allowed to roam unimpeded in our culture, few are as revered as literacy.” The Alphabet Versus the Goddess by Leonard Shlain
  15. “My mother’s hand was open like a bisque cup, all porcelain, and Christ Jesus’ fingers were tentacles entangled around her palm.” Daughter of the Queen of Sheba by Jacki Lyden
  16. “The angel gleamed in the light of Hethor’s reading candle bright as any brasswork automaton.” Mainspring by Jay Lake
  17. “Marlene’s mother cleaned constantly, bleary-eyed in multiple hairnets, on her vigilant search for the impure; as she walked she so often rolled an antiquated upright vacuum alongside her that it grew to seem like an exterior organ, an intravenous device that performed dialysis or another lifesaving function.” The Brother and the Bird by Alissa Nutting in My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me
  18. “What should we have for dinner?” The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan
  19. “Midwinter – invincible, immaculate.” The Snow Child by Angela Carter in The Bloody Chamber
  20. “They had a small, loud-playing band, and as we moved through the trees, I could hear the notes of the horns bursting like bright metallic bubbles against the sky.” A Coupla Scalped Indians by Ralph Ellison in Points of View
  21. “Once prized, now she languishes in the drawer, one of many contained within a cedar chest.” Green Air by Rikki Ducornet in My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me
  22. “The totality of life, known as the biosphere to scientists and creation to theologians, is a membrane of organisms wrapped around Earth so thin it cannot be seen edgewise from a space shuttle, yet so internally complex that most species composing it remain undiscovered.” The Future of Life by Edward O. Wilson
  23. “I remember how, that night, I lay awake in the wagon-lit in a tender, delicious ecstasy of excitement, my burning cheek pressed against the impeccable linen of the pillow and the pounding of my heart mimicking that of the great pistons ceaselessly thrusting the train that bore me through the night, away from Paris, away from girlhood, away from the white, enclosed quietude of my mother’s apartment, into the unguessable country of marriage.” The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter (I couldn’t pick just one.)
  24. “This book builds on two principles: it’s good to write clearly, and anyone can.” Style Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace by Joseph M. Williams
  25. “With despair — cold, sharp despair — buried deep in her heart like a wicked knife, Miss Meadows, in cap and gown and carrying a little baton, trod the cold corridors that led to the music hall.” in The Music Teacher by Katherine Mansfield in Stories
  26. “The first great act of love I ever witnessed was Split Lip bathing his handicapped daughter.” from Isabelle by George Saunders in Civilwarland in Bad Decline
  27. “I stand here ironing, and what you asked me moves tormented back and forth with the iron.” I stand her ironing by Tillie Olsen in Points of View
  28. “Before the seas and lands had been created, / before the sky that covers everything, / Nature displayed a single aspect only/throughout the cosmos: Chaos was its name, / a shapeless, unwrought mass of inert bulk / and nothing more, with the discordant seeds / of disconnected elements all heaped/together in anarchic disarray.”  The Metamorphoses by Ovid Translated by Charles Martin
  29. “Lorimer gazes around the big crowded cabin, trying to listen to the voices, trying also to ignore the twitch in his insides that means he is about to remember something bad.” Houston Houston, do you read? by James Tiptree, Jr. in Her Smoke Rose up Forever
  30. “In the pages that follow I shall bring forward proof that there is a psychological technique which makes it possible to interpret dreams, and that, if that procedure is employed, every dream reveals itself as a psychical structure which has meaning and which can be inserted at an assignable point in the mental activities of waking life.” The Interpretation of Dreams by Sigmund Freud
  31. “Going to Ford’s Theatre to watch the play is like going to Hooters for the food.” Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell
  32. (“Waiting here, away from the terrifying weaponry, out of the halls of vapor and light, beyond Holland and into the hills, I have come to) wound the autumnal city.” Dhalgren by Samuel R. Delany
  33. “To the rocket scientist, you are a problem.” Packing for Mars by Mary Roach
  34. “My three a.m. nightmare dispersed like a disappointed audience as I tried to find the Coke machine.” What You Do Not Know You Want by David Mitchell in McSweeny’s Astounding Tales
  35. “Fox is a television character, and she isn’t dead yet.” in Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link
  36. “Omon is not a particularly common name, and perhaps not the best there is.” Omon Ra by Victor Pelevin
  37. “What David always hated most about the Summer family dinners was the way everyone talked about him as if he were not there.” Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang by Kate Wilhelm
  38. “The day war was declared, a rain of telephones fell clattering to the cobblestones from the skies above Novy Petrograd.” Singularity Sky by Charles Stross
  39. “The North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance agent promised to fly from Mercy to the other side of Lake Superior at three o’clock.” Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison
  40. “I know you think you saw him first, but I’m pretty sure it was me — he was over there by the underpass, feeling his way along the graffiti-covered wall, and I said, “Look, there’s something you don’t see every day.” Broken Toys by Shaun Tan in Tales From Outer Suburbia
  41. “Summertime at dusk we’d gather on the back porch, tired and sticky from another day of fierce encoded quarrels, nursing our mosquito bites and frail dignities, sisters in name only.” Water Names by Lan Samantha Chang in New Sudden Fiction
  42. “Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank and of having nothing to do: once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, “and what is the use of a book,” thought Alice, “without pictures or conversations?”” Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carol
  43. “My last night of childhood began with a visit home.” Bloodchild by Octavia Butler
  44. “The Ice falls, swept by time and what first impulse I do not know, only that now it falls, free in its falling, the drift of it I envy.” Aurora by Terrance Holt from In the Valley of the Kings
  45. “All week end the two girls were calling each other Temple One and Temple Two, shaking with laughter and getting so red and hot that they were positively ugly, particularly Joanne who had spots on her face anyway.” A Temple of the Holy Ghost by Flannery O’Connor
  46. “I am made out of water.” The Crap Artist by Philip K. Dick

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