The 10 Best First Lines of Novels

I am a sucker for a good first line in a novel. It’s really easy to fail to write a good one. And the pressure! No one wants to have another “It was a dark and stormy night.” I’ve only read a few of these first lines in context but I don’t plan on leaving it that way. Makes sense that good books would have good first sentence, doesn’t it?

I am an invisible man. – Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man

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 bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. – George Orwell, 1984

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 Finnegans Wake

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. – Leo Tolstoy (trans. Constance Garnett), Anna Karenina

Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. – Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita

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 (trans. Gregory Rabassa), One Hundred Years of Solitude

A screaming comes across the sky. – Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow

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

Call me Ishmael.– Herman Melville, Moby-Dick

From 100 Best First Lines of Novels – As chosen by the editors of American Book Review and Ian Stewart, too sleepy to be amusing. Wait, does that count?

9 responses to “The 10 Best First Lines of Novels”

  1. I was actually surprised to see one of my “guilty pleasures”, Geek Love, on this list. I didn’t know it kept such esteemed company.

  2. Geek Love isn’t that guilty of a guilty pleasure. At least not in my opinion. Wasn’t there supposed to be a movie adaptation coming?

  3. Is that the Katherine Dunn book? Definitely not a guilty pleasure — a lot of people are rejoicing about Dunn’s return with a second novel this year. If it’s that book, if not nevermind.

    I think Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red could kick one or two (or three) off that list.

    I am nothing but a corpse now, a body at the bottom of a well.

    It gets better after that.

  4. Glad to know it’s not just me that loved Geek Love then.

    Last I read, Terry Gilliam had the film rights (after Tim Burton let them go), so who knows, maybe we’ll see it in ten or twenty years.

  5. Great list. Brings me back to school. Thanks for nostalgic trip! Ya da man!

  6. hey Ian.. I am so glad I found your blog when you commented on mine, I am hooked on reading new and wonderful stuff here.. 🙂

    this is a great list – first lines are all that matter sometimes!!

    tc and kit..

  7. You know, Eeagah, it’s probably for the best that our favorite books don’t get turned into movies. They’re usually terrible (of course, terrible movies can still be fodder for a great blog, right?). I still always look forward to them, though.

    Hey, Antman, welcome to Upper Fort Stewart. And you’re welcome. Hmm, I like being da man. Antman, you’ve got to come around more often.

    Pearl, that’s awesome. Thanks. You know, I’ve been lurking around your blog too. It’s great reading a “fresh perspective”.

  8. oh really? thats really nice! although I haven’t the foggiest of ideas which direction I wanna take that blog to..

    you know I am finally moving to wordpress and am looking for a nice clean theme – i love the one you are using! seems like you designed it yourself? wanna suggest some good place? …

  9. This theme is Sandbox, the theme with no theme. You’ve got to style it yourself – until the big contest is over, that is. Then there should be a few good, award-winning, styles to choose from.

    I’d also recommend Chris Pearson’s Cutline and Copyblogger themes. I’d be using one of those two if I wasn’t so bloody independent and curious.

    And check out these 6 Hot New WordPress Themes found by J. David Macor. You can trust in his taste.

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