Authors realise the importance of those first few words.
If an author were to spend proportionally as much time on the remainder of the novel as on the opening lines, Franzen’s Freedom would probably seem like a rushed job. This care and attention is understandable; those first few sentences may well determine if the book is taken to the cash desk or put back on the shelf.
But an eye-catching opening is not in itself enough; it must be both compelling and credible. For the author a first stepping stone on a path already determined; for the reader the beginning of a journey into an unknown world.
So whether discussing universally acknowledged truths, reflecting on time passing, or just introducing the hero, those first lines will have an underlying purpose, and set the tone from which all else flows.
Here then are three centuries of novel beginnings, to be viewed and judged by themselves or alongside the efforts of others.
The original intention was a collection of opening lines from “literary” novels. To this end, and with the help of the Oxford Companion to English Literature, a working list was compiled. However this was subsequently augmented with additional titles.
So writers such as Rankin and Le Carre are here. They must at times feel irked by their exclusion from the literary pantheon. To redress this apartheid a selection of genre fiction – westerns/ crime/SF/thrillers/etc. has been included. An expansion of this category is under consideration.
It would also have been remiss to include only novels written in English. You’ll find a selection of international classics which, in translation, sit comfortably on all our bookshelves – Camus beside Carroll, Dostoevsky beside Dickens, Tolstoy alongside Trollop etc.
Likewise the inclusion of first lines from seminal works of non-fiction seemed in order. Scattered throughout are scientific works that have crossed boundaries (Darwin Origin of the Species**) and graced coffee tables (S Hawking Brief History of Time**); philosophical blockbusters (L Wittgenstein Tractatus**) so dense that I admit to turning only a few pages; books indispensable (the Bible**) others to be read only in desperation on desert islands (Beowulf**); works by the good (St John of the Cross Dark Night of the Soul**) and not-so-good (Hitler Mein Kampf**).
The very occasional short story gets an honourable mention even if mostly to accommodate Chekhov.
A sporadic idiosyncratic entry may well perplex. (Kenneth Patchen – Journal of Albion Moonlight, Gil Orlovitz – Milkbottle H)** Indulge me. In my youth / hippy days the bookshops of Charing Cross Road were (and perhaps remain) a world apart from the Waterstones’ supermarkets. Recommended New Directions and Calder and Boyars paperbacks were bought (hopefully), then no doubt ostentatiously left on view and sometimes even read in the nearby Bunji’s coffee shop.
Obviously there are many thousands of books of dubious literary merit but with killer first lines; you probably won’t find them here. Conversely some, maybe too many, essential classics have openings so banal their inclusion was justified only by the author’s pedigree.
The O/L s themselves were acquired firstly from my own collection of books then, and in no particular order, from friends, libraries and bookshops; Project Gutenberg was invaluable for those OOC/OOP titles otherwise existing only behind the glass doors of old mahogany bookcases.