The Atlantic recently asked some writers about their favourite first lines in literature. As Joe Fassler reports, “The opening lines they picked range widely in tone and execution – but in each, you can almost feel the reader’s mind beginning to listen, hear the inward swing of some inviting door.” I especially like the opening of Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White:
“Where’s Papa going with that axe?” said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.
You know right from the start that it’s all going to end in tears, don’t you?
Here are some more of my own favourites. I think it’s good to be told up front exactly what sort of book you’ve picked up:
We think it our duty to warn the public that, in spite of the title of this work and of what the editor says about it in his preface, we cannot guarantee its authenticity as a collection of letters: we have in fact, very good reason to believe it is only a novel.
Les Liaisons Dangereuses, or Letters Collected in One Section of Society and Published for the Edification of Others by Choderlos de Laclos
It’s also nice when an author explains all that we need to know about the protagonist:
The education bestowed on Flora Poste by her parents had been expensive, athletic and prolonged; and when they died within a few weeks of one another during the annual epidemic of the influenza or Spanish Plague which occurred in her twentieth year, she was discovered to possess every art and grace save that of earning her own living.
Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons
Although this can sometimes be done just as effectively in half the words:
I planned my death carefully; unlike my life, which meandered along from one thing to another, despite my feeble attempts to control it.
Lady Oracle, probably Margaret Atwood’s funniest book
Or even fewer words:
I am a man you can trust, is how my customers view me.
A Patchwork Planet by Anne Tyler
And sometimes, an author’s first line not only tells us a lot about the protagonist, but also conveys an essential truth about literature:
Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do: once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, “and what is the use of a book,” thought Alice, “without pictures or conversation?”
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll