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First Impressions: Our 30 Favorite Opening Lines in Literature

The Millions recently posted the very Shteyngart-y opening passage of Gary Shteyngart’s forthcoming novel, Super Sad True Love Story.

“Today I’ve made a major decision: I am never going to die. Others will die around me. They will be nullified. Nothing of their personality will remain. The light switch will be turned off.”

It got us thinking about our own favorite beginnings, both recent and classic. Below are some favorites from our bookshelf. Feel free to add your own picks in the comments section.

1. Slumberland by Paul Beatty

Best commentary on “post-blackness” considering Obama wasn’t even president when the book was written:

“You would think they’d be used to me by now. I mean don’t they know that after fourteen hundred years the charade of blackness is over? That we blacks, the once eternally hip, the people who were as right now as Greenwich Mean Time, are, as of today, as yesterday as stone tools, the velocipede, and the paper straw all rolled into one? The Negro is now officially human. Everyone, even the British, says so.”

2. “Me and Miss Mandible” by Donald Barthelme (from Sixty Stories)

Best opening to a story about sexual tension between a schoolteacher and her student who the teacher thinks is a little kid, but is actually an adult who, for some bizarre reason, has been re-assigned to elementary school.

“Miss Mandible wants to make love to me but she hesitates because I am officially a child.”

3. “Sororally” by Gary Lutz (from Stories in the Worst Way)

Most depressing opening to an equally depressing story from an equally depressing book, whose bleak worldview is made palatable only by its triumphantly unique and beautiful sentences:

“What could be worse than having to be seen resorting to your own life.”

4. The Ask by Sam Lipsyte

Best opening passage that’s been excerpted in a zillion places over the past few weeks because the book’s just out (and amazing!) but what the hell, let’s hear it one more time, it’s that good:

“America, said Horace, the office temp, was a run-down and demented pimp. Our republic’s whoremaster days were through. Whither that frost-nerved, diamond-fanged hustler who’d stormed Normandy, dick-smacked the Soviets, turned out such firm emerging market flesh? Now our nation slumped in the corner of the pool hall, some gummy coot with a pint of mad dog and soggy yellow eyes, just another mark for the juvenile wolves.”

5. “Old Souls” by Sam Lipsyte (from Venus Drive)

Best (and only) opening of same author’s first book, a story collection, the first story of which begins in a strip club, and ends with the narrator committing quasi-sexual acts on his coma’d sister before grabbing a beer with his bud and a crack-whore, no big deal:

“You could touch for a couple of bucks. The window of the booth went up and you stuck out the bills. They might tell you not to pinch, but I was a stroke type anyway. Some guys, I guess they want to leave a mark. Me, I just like the feel.”

6. “You Drive” by Christine Schutt (from Nightwork)

Best opening sentence about incest that doesn’t explicitly mention incest, but is, like, totally about incest:

“She brought him what she had promised and they did it in his car, on the top floor of the car park, looking down onto the black flat roofs of buildings, and she said, or she thought she said, ‘I like your skin,’ when what she really liked was the color of her father’s skin, the mottled white of his arms, and the clay color at the roots of the hairs along his arms.”

7. Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger

Best opening to a Salinger book that isn’t the one you’d expect, but is a pretty excellent — if a bit snotty — description of snotty rich college kids:

“Though brilliantly sunny, Saturday morning was overcoat weather again, not just topcoat weather, as it had been all week and as everyone hoped it would stay for the big weekend — the weekend of the Yale game. Of the twenty-some young men who were waiting at the station for their dates to arrive on the ten-fifty-two, no more than six or seven were out on the cold, open platform. The rest were standing around in hatless, smoky little groups of twos and threes and fours inside the heated waiting room, talking in voices that, almost without exception, sounded collegiately dogmatic, as though each young man, in his strident, conversational turn, was clearing up, once and for all, some highly controversial issue, one that the outside, non-matriculating world had been bungling, provocatively or not, for centuries.”

8. Memories of My Melancholy Whores by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Best idea for a birthday gift:

“The year I turned ninety, I wanted to give myself the gift of a night of wild love with an adolescent virgin.”

9. Murphy by Samuel Beckett

Most Beckettian opening to a Beckett novel:

“The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new.”

10. Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris

Best opening written in the first-person plural other than The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark, which we can’t find our copy of, but which we remember as having a pretty great opening:

“We were fractious and overpaid. Our mornings lacked promise. At least those of us who smoked had something to look forward to at ten-fifteen.”

11. Suicide Blonde by Darcey Steinke

Most impressive use of labia in a simile:

“Was it the bourbon or the dye fumes that made the pink walls quiver like vaginal lips?”

12. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain (This edition has a rad introduction by George Saunders.)

Most post-modern opening before the coining of the term “post-modern”:

“You don’t know about me, without you have read a book by the name of ‘The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,’ but that ain’t no matter. That book was made by a Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly.”

13. Still Holding by Bruce Wagner

Best opening sentence that references Drew Barrymore:

“As a girl, Becca hadn’t resembled Drew Barrymore at all. But now, at twenty-five, especially after gaining a few pounds, she had grown used to comments from bartenders and store clerks, and the half-startled looks from passerby.”

14. Sabbath’s Theater by Philip Roth

Best ultimatum as opening sentence:

“Either forswear fucking others or the affair is over.”

15. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

Best opening sentence that’s been basically stripped of meaning by everyone always quoting it, mangling it, using variations on it as voice-over intros to their indie films, but is still pretty great, you’ve got to admit (note: this translation is from a really old Penguin edition):

“All happy families are alike but an unhappy family is unhappy after its own fashion.”

16. Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney

Best opening to a book written in the second person:

“You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning.”

17. Ablutions by Patrick Dewitt

Best opening to a book written in the second person that’s not by Jay McInerney, and that, even if it’s not the best, is still great, and you should read it because this book only came out last year, and no one paid attention to it to the point that you can buy it for like three bucks on Amazon:

“Discuss the regulars. They sit in a line like ugly, huddled birds, eyes wet with alcohol.”

18. The Stranger by Albert Camus

Most exciting first sentence for twelfth grade existentialists, pissed off at those jerks in gym class, or the cute boy who won’t look at her, but at least there’s solace to be found in the writings of dead Frenchmen (and French Algerians):

“Mother died today.”

19. Platform by Michel Houellebecq

Best variation on Camus’ opening line:

“Father died last year. I don’t subscribe to the theory by which we only become truly adult when our parents die; we never become truly adult.”

20. Herzog by Saul Bellow

Best opening to an epistolary novel:

“If I am out of my mind, it’s alright with me, thought Moses Herzog.”

21. Letters to Wendy’s by Joe Wenderoth

Best opening to an epistolary novel that’s not Herzog:

“July 1, 1996

I had such a wonderful meal in every sense of the word. I especially liked the ordering of the food. IT asserts an altogether proper dominance. And how do you manage to hire such attractive people!! Often I visit Wendy’s just to take a gander at your employees. Thank you! (for being there)”

22. Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem

Best opening narration by a character with Tourette’s syndrome:

“Context is everything. Dress me up and see. I’m a carnival barker, an auctioneer, a downtown performance artist, a speaker in tongues, a senator drunk on filibuster. I’ve got Tourette’s. My mouth won’t quit, though mostly I whisper or subvocalize like I’m reading aloud, my Adam’s apple bobbing, jaw muscle beating like a miniature heart under my cheek, the noise suppressed, the words escaping silently, mere ghosts of themselves, husks of empty breath and tone.”

23. Why Did I Ever by Mary Robison

Least annoying/best dream sequence opening:

“I have a dream of working a combination lock that is engraved on its back with the combination. Left 85, right 12, left 66. “Well shit, man,” I say in the dream.”

24. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson

Best opening description of a drug experience:

We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert, when the drugs began to take hold. I remember saying something like “I feel a bit lightheaded; maybe you should drive….” And suddenly there was a terrible roar all around us and the sky was full of what looked like huge bats, all swooping and screeching and diving around the car, which was going about a hundred miles an hour with the top down to Las Vegas. And a voice was screaming: “Holy Jesus! What are these goddamn animals?”

25. “Wants” by Grace Paley (from Enormous Changes at the Last Minute)

Most perfectly economical first lines of a perfectly economical short story:

“I saw my ex-husband in the street. I was sitting on the steps of the new library.
Hello, my life, I said. We had once been married for twenty-seven years, so I felt justified.
He said, What? What life? No life of mine.”

26. What’s Not to Love? by Jonathan Ames

Most TMI opening to a non-fiction book because we see the author wandering around Brooklyn all the time, and have to fight the urge to ask about the late ascension of his left ball:

“I started puberty very late. I was nearly sixteen. And for complicated reasons this late arrival of my puberty caused me to stop playing competitive tennis. But before my puberty problem, I had trouble with my lower back and with my left testicle.”

27. Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon

Best one sentence description of the beginning of blitz bomb apocalypse:

“A screaming comes across the sky.”

28. Moby-Dick by Herman Melville

Opening sentence that could be a stray piece of dialogue from a disturbingly Iraq War-themed porn film:

“Call me Ishmael.”

29. Lolita by Vladimir Nabakov

Best opening that everyone knows is the best opening, so much so that it’s basically become a cliché to put it in a list of best openings, but so what, because it’s actually the best, and we dare you to come up with a better one:

“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palette to tap, at three, the teeth. Lo. Lee Ta.
She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.”

30. The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow

Personal favorite:

“I am an American, Chicago born — Chicago, that somber city — and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record my own way: first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent.”

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