I recently stumbled upon the American Book Review’s “100 Best First Lines from Novels.” I immediately began to wonder by what standard these lines were judged. It seems to me that many of them were judged based on the novels that were to follow, or on how familiar the line was as belonging to a particular work.
To me this does not seem to me a fair way to judge. Is the first line on the list: “Call me Ishmael,” really such a great line? Or is it great because it is so recognizable as the opening line of Moby Dick? Or how about Marcel Proust’s “For a long time, I went to bed early”? A great first line? One of the 100 greatest? Really? Some of these lines I agree are truly great, for example, 6, 8, 18 and 29. Others are severely wanting.
To me, a great first line is one that compels the reader to read not just the next line, but to the very end, on the strength of that single line. It is a line that tells the reader everything about the novel to follow, and yet nothing. That having been said, here are some of my “best” opening lines of novels:
1. When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a giant insect.-Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis
2. This is a tale of a meeting of two lonesome, skinny, fairly old white men on a planet which was dying fast.-Kurt Vonnegut, Breakfast of Champions
3. If you’re going to read this, don’t bother. –Choke, Chuck Palahniuk
4. Tyler gets me a job as a waiter, after that, Tyler’s pushing a gun in my mouth and saying, the first step to eternal life is you have to die.-Fight Club, Chuck Palahniuk
5. ONCE UPON A TIME, not so long ago, a monster came to the small town of Castle Rock, Maine.-Cujo, Stephen King
6. You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning.-Bright Lights, Big City, Jay McInerney
There are others, but I think you get the idea—C.