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Beginnings...

  • Jan 3, 2011
Over the past couple years I've been re-reading some of my favorite books and noticed a certain recurring factor; Most of the books all feature wonderful openings to the story. Here I have compiled a list with some, but not all, of the books which seemed to possess a beginning that not only piqued the interest of the reader but also makes for a very memorable work of literature.
In some cases, these stories stood out because of a great first sentence, paragraph, or page. I hope you enjoy...
1
Bible
Whether or not you're a religious person, it is hard to deny the beautiful, lyrical simplicity and eloquence of The Book of Genesis. As an opening to a greater story, it manages to conjure up grandiose images that are truly humbling and unforgettable. It's also remarkable how so many passages of the creation story have become part of our modern lexicon even in languages other than English.

(taken from The King James Version of the Bible)

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God said, "Let there be light"; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, one day.

And God sais, "Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters." And God made the firmament and separated the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament. And it was so. And God called the firmament Heaven. And there was evening and there was morning, a second day.

And God said, "Let the waters under the heavens to be gathered together in one place, and let the dry land appear." And it was so. God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas. And God saw that it was good. And Gos said, "Let the earth put forth vegetation, plants yielding seed, and fruit trees bearing fruit in which is their seed, each according to its kind, upon the earth." And it was so. The earth brought forth vegetation, plants yielding seed according to their own kinds, and trees bearing fruit in which is their seed, each according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening and there was morning, a third day.

And God said, "Let there be lights in the firmament of the heavens to separate the day from the night; and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years, and let them be lights in the firmament of the heavens to give light upon the earth." And it was so. And God made the two great lights, the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night; he made the stars also. And God set them in the firmament of the heavens to give light upon the earth, to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from darkness. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening and there was morning, a fourth day.

And God said, "Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the firmament of the heavens." So God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, with which the waters swarm, according to their kinds, and every winged bird according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. And God blessed them,  saying, " Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth." And there was evening and a fifth day.


...
2
A Tale of Two Cities
Charles Dickens had an innate talent for creating stirring and believable environs for his characters to coexist in. His ability to "set the scene" and create an atmosphere suitable for his narrative is beyond superb and I think that A Tale of Two Cities is a great example of that. While the scope of the text is grandiose and epic, Dickens never loses track of his characters' emotional conflicts within the context of the narrative.

(taken from A Tale of Two Cities by 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.

...

3
The Metamorphosis (original edition)
Kafka's Metamorphosis is so unique, bizarre, humorous, and tragic, that despite its unusual premise, we immediately find ourselves drawn to and empathizing with the unfortunate protagonist. As far as creating an expressionistic fable, I can think of no other book that is its equal and the first sentence alone is iconic.

(taken from The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka and translated by Joachim Neugroschel)

One morning, upon awakening from agitated dreams, Gregor Samsa found himself, in his bed, transformed into a monstrous vermin. He lay on his hard, armorlike back, and when lifting his head slightly, he could view his brown, vaulted belly partitioned by arching ridges, while on top of it, the blanket, about to slide off altogether, could barely hold. His many legs, wretchedly thin compared with his overall girth, danced hopelessly before his eyes.

"What's happened to me?" he wondered. It was no dream. His room, a normal if somewhat tiny human room, lay quietly between the four familiar walls. Above the table, on which a line of fabric samples had been unpacked and spread out (Samsa was a traveling salesman), hung the picture that he had recently clipped from an illustrated magazine and inserted in a pretty gilt frame. The picture showed a lady sitting there upright, bedizened in a fur hat and fur boa, with her entire forearm vanishing inside a heavy fur muff that she held out toward the viewer.

Gregor's eyes then focused on the window, and the dismal weather -- raindrops could be heard splattering on the metal ledge -- made him feel quite melancholy.

"What if I slept a little more and forgot all about this nonsense," he thought. But his idea was impossible to carry out, for while he was accustomed to sleeping on his right side, his current state prevented him from getting into that position. No matter how forcefully he attempted to wrench himself over on his right side, he kept rocking back into his supine state. He must have tried it a hundred times, closing his eyes to avoid having to look at those wriggling legs, and he gave up only when he started feeling a mild, dull ache in his side such as he had never felt before.


...
4
The Hobbit- First Edition
What J.R.R. Tolkien does with The Hobbit is quite different than what he does with The Lord of the Rings. First of all, he gives readers a more characteristically colorful, quaint, and personal narrative style in The Hobbit. His use of language is more parochial and less epic in its scope, but by no means does this hurt the impact of the story. On the contrary, it only enhances the richness of the text and the believability of the characters. The first sentence has become legendary.

(taken from The Hobbit, or There and Back Again by John Ronald Reuel 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 on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.

It had a perfectly round door like a porthole, painted green, with a shiny yellow brass knob in the exact middle. The door opened on to a tube-shaped hall like a tunnel: a very comfortable tunnel without smoke, with panelled walls, and floors tiled and carpeted, provided with polished chairs, and lots and lots of pegs for hats and coats -- the hobbit was fond of visitors. The tunnel wound on and on, going  fairly but not quite straight into the side of The Hill -- and many little round doors opened out of it, first on one side and then on another. No going upstairs for the hobbit: bedrooms, bathrooms, cellars, pantries (lots of these), kitchens, dining-rooms, all were on the same floor, and indeed on the same passage. The best rooms were all on the lefthand side (going in), for these were the only ones to have windows, deep-set round windows looking over his garden and the meadows beyond, sloping down to the river.

This hobbit was a very well-to-do hobbit, and his name was Baggins. The Bagginses had lived in the neighbourhood of The Hill for time out of mind, and people considered them very respectable, not only because most of them were rich, but also because they never had any adventures or did anything unexpected: you could tell what a Baggins would say on any question without the bother of asking him. This is the story of how a Baggins had an adventure, and found himself doing and saying things altogether unexpected. He may have lost the neighbours' respect, but he gained -- well, you will see whether he gained anything in the end.


...
5
The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold
Alice Sebold's opening to The Lovely Bones is so astonishingly full of character that for most readers it is almost impossible to not imagine the characters in their rich diversity and eccentricities. The first paragraph alone practically guarantees her novel a place in the canon of classic contemporary literature. The words here are simplistic, the prose stylized, and yet the story retains that timeless quality.

(taken from The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold)

My name is Salmon, like the fish; first name, Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973. In newspaper photos of missing girls from the seventies, most looked like me: white girls with mousy brown hair. This was before kids of all races and genders started appearing on milk cartons or in the daily mail. It was still back when people believed things like that didn't happen.

In my junior high yearbook I had a quote from a Spanish poet my sister had turned me on to, Juan Ramón Jiménez. It went like this: "If they gave you a ruled paper, write the other way." I chose it because it expressed my contempt for my structured surroundings à la the classroom and because, not being some dope quote from a rock group, I thought it marked me as literary. I was a member of the Chess Club and the Chem Club and burned everything I tried to make in Mrs. Delminico's home ec class. My favorite teacher was Mr. Botte, who taught biology and liked to animate the frogs and crawfish we had to dissect by making them dance in their waxed pans.

I wasn't killed by Mr. Botte, by the way. Don't think every person you're going to meet in here is suspect. That's the problem. You never know. Mr. Botte came to my memorial (as, may I add, did almost the entire junior high school -- I was never so popular) and cried quite a bit. He had a sick kid. We all knew this, so when he laughed at his own jokes, which were rusty way before I had him, we laughed too, forcing it sometimes just to make him happy. His daughter died a year and a half after I did. She had leukemia, but I never saw her in my heaven.

My murderer was a man from from our neighborhood. My mother liked his border flowers, and my father talked to him once about fertilizer. My murderer believed in old-fashioned things like eggshells and coffee grounds, which he said his own mother had used. My father came home smiling, making jokes about how the man's garden might be beautiful but it would stink to high heaven once a heat wave hit.


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What did you think of this list?

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Post a Comment
January 12, 2011
This is a really cool list, Sean! I have one book that has one of my very favorite starting line's in it -- Their Eyes Were Watching God -- "Ships at a distance have every man's wish on board". I'll try to think of more to compile a list. Thanks for sharing!
January 13, 2011
Thanks and that's a great line.
 
January 11, 2011
Awesome list, Sean! What a great idea!
January 11, 2011
Thanks.
 
January 10, 2011
Excellent beginnings... ENCORE!!! :D
January 10, 2011
I thought you might like this one. : )
January 10, 2011
All I can say is I don't read enough ;-)
January 10, 2011
I've been feeling like that lately. There's just so much going on with myself, friends, and family it's been hard to focus on books. Short stories seem to be my current reading material since they require little and time and less attention than novels.
January 10, 2011
Yep, too much distractions, LOL... I haven't been reading much fiction since I left university! I did better with business books though...
 
January 06, 2011
I say unto thee, young man, that this here list be truly inspired, filled with wisdom and care; of meticulous and gentle approach that it can only be that the son of waffles hath giveth thee thine inspirations. So be it! A list truly worthy of the full three spread! I have spoken!!
January 06, 2011
LMAO! I don't even know what to say to that.
 
January 06, 2011
Very good list. The Bible entry was inspired. I like the poetry of the Song of Songs myself.
January 06, 2011
I actually find "The Song of Songs" really fascinating. If I ever did a list on ancient poetry, I'd include it.
January 06, 2011
Yes, it's quite striking. Thanks for the reminder to read these epic pieces of literature.
 
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