West and Grand

Well Begun is Half Done: A List of Literary Beginnings

Reading a book is like starting a relationship.  Sometimes it starts slowly and you don’t even realize your interest is piquing.

Sometimes you begin not liking anything about it, but then you start to enjoy the quirks and disregard things that bothered you.  Sometimes you realize it just isn’t for you.

But, sometimes the first sentence draws you in and you know you’re in for a good ride.  Those great beginnings can stay with you long after the last page is finished and the book is finally closed.

Some of the introductions that stick out most in my mind are classics and instantly recognizable.  A few of these are simply personal favorites that have stayed with me through the years.

Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man, in possession of good fortune, must be in want of a wife.  However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighborhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters. 

Jane Austen is a master.  The first sentence alone hammers home the sardonically observational tone of the book, and the second clues you in to the plot.  I could say more, but I’ll keep it simple:  you should read Pride and Prejudice.

A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens

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–in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

Charles Dickens didn’t believe in brevity, but this sentence sets us up for a sweeping story, and Dickens delivers.  Dickens is a master at showing us both the grand and the grim in people, and the French Revolution is the perfect vehicle for both.

Moby Dick, Herman Melville

Call me Ishmael.  Some years ago—never mind how long precisely—having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. 

We soon learn that a nice long cruise isn’t always the best answer to our problems.  (Incidentally, Robinson Crusoe learned this lesson, too.  So the next time life is a bit hard on shore, reconsider and keep both feet on dry land.)  Ahab and his quest for the Great White are one of the towering legends of American literature, and rightly so.  Ishmael is the observer and narrator of an epic and tragic adventure that many people are afraid to read.  Give it a try, it’s well worth the effort.

Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.  It seemed to me I stood by the iron gate leading to the drive, and for a while I could not enter for the way was barred to me. 

Du Maurier’s gothic tale of jealousy, love, and hatred is classic.  So much of the story is about mood, because Rebecca is dead long before the story opens.  We learn of her only through the memories and observations of those who knew her and through her replacement, the second wife who narrates the story.  Without reading too much into the introduction, you realize immediately that not all dreams are good dreams and you soon see that the destruction of innocence can happen even in beautiful estates like Manderley.

The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.  Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down or eat:  it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.

J.R.R. Tolkien was brilliant.  Among many other accomplishments:  he wrote books about an amazing adventure; he created his own languages; he illustrated his own stories.  His books have inspired for decades and the movies have now birthed a whole new fandom.  However, part of the brilliance of The Hobbit is that we go “There and Back Again” with Bilbo and we are able to see through this introduction how both the leaving and the returning could be so hard for him.

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, C.S. Lewis

There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.  His parents called him Eustace Clarence and masters called him Scrubb.  I can’t tell you how his friends spoke to him, for he had none. 

Lewis created Narnia, and, for his first few books, the children who visited Narnia were good kids we could root for.  When Eustace gets pulled in with his cousins, Edmund and Lucy, this changes.  We have little reason to root for Eustace, but part of the magic of this story lies not in the plot, but in Eustace’ eventual repentance and redemption.  In fact, Eustace is something of a hero by the end of this story, and he returns to Narnia in The Silver Chair.

A Wrinkle in Time, Madeleine L’Engle

It was a dark and stormy night.  In her attic bedroom Margaret Murry, wrapped in an old patchwork quilt, sat on the foot of her bed and watched the trees tossing in the frenzied lashing of the wind. 

Madeleine L’Engle created a classic in young adult fiction and sci-fi/fantasy in this book.  The dark mood of the opening indicates the shadow that has over-taken the Murrys.  L’Engle also took a much-ridiculed sentence—It was a dark and stormy night—and created a mood that was anything but laughable.  In contrast, see Snoopy, or check out the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest.  L’Engle gives legitimacy to seven words in need of gravitas.

Postcards from the Edge, Carrie Fisher

Maybe I shouldn’t have given the guy who pumped my stomach my phone number, but who cares?  My life is over anyway.

Carrie Fisher is Princess Leia.  Absorb that for a moment, because that alone is reason to love her in my book.  Postcards is a semi-autobiographical look at Fisher’s own struggles with fame, family, and drug and alcohol abuse.  Fisher’s observations of her life are both wry and funny; I take comfort in the fact that Fisher survived her addictions and is making me laugh today.

Redeployment, Phil Klay

We shot dogs.  Not by accident.  We did it on purpose, and we called it Operation Scooby.  I’m a dog person, so I thought about that a lot.

I would say that I am not excited by war fiction in general, and certainly not current war fiction.  I would say I’m not drawn to short stories.  However, I was finally sold on the idea of reading Klay when Nick (in the OE bookstore) recited the opening lines.  I’m only a few stories in, but this book is worth the buzz and well worth the time of reading. 

Along the lines of current war fiction, I just added The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers to my collection and will be starting it soon.  It opens with this sentence:  The war tried to kill us in the spring.  How can I be anything but intrigued?


Tracy Bailey

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