This is a thing that we did once to accompany that article we wrote that one time and it was really nifty, so why not do it again? Exactly. So here are some first lines (often more than just the very first one) that blow us away.

1. If on a winter’s night a traveler by Italo Calvino

You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade.

So you might think that this is the beginning of a preface or something, but no, that’s how the book starts. Something like that is just so wild that you have to keep going. It eases you in and talks to you about you reading a story. It addresses your actual reading experience. You want to know when the narrator is going to knock this off and when the story is going to begin, but you’re forced to pay attention to the fact that you are reading a few opening statements. Soon enough, however, nothing else seems nearly as important as starting Italo Calvino’s new novel. It achieves the desired effect.

2. “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” by Raymond Carver

My friend Mel McGinnis was talking. Mel McGinnis is a cardiologist, and sometimes that gives him the right. The four of us were sitting around his kitchen table drinking gin.

We get a couple of impressions right away: the narrator is sarcastic and cynical, based on the comment about cardiology, and that Mel is probably full of it, if being a cardiologist makes him think so much of himself, especially if he’s been drinking. Despite this, Mel is still the narrator’s friend. Carver’s done a lot of characterization and scene-setting in these three sentences without actually talking about much. All we really know for sure is that Mel is a cardiologist and there are four people drinking and Mel is talking, but these lines give you so much more than that.

3. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce

Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow that was coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo.

What. That doesn’t make any sense. At all. How could this book that serious people read possibly be about a moocow? And what in the name of Dedalus do tuckoo and nicens mean? Something very strange is going on here. This sentence reads like a poorly written kid’s book. The words repeat, the subject matter is childish, and it begins with the quintessential children’s book opening, “Once Upon a Time”. Portrait is a book about growing up, and it begins in the main character’s earliest days. There is then no better way to begin than with an opening that sounds like a child’s stream of consciousness.

4. “After the Stations of the Cross” by Peter Tysver

I was the definition of toast in the aisle with all the cereals and I had my fixing goggles on the sweet ones when I heard some dude go, Robbie. This is my name, so I of course checked it out, but all that was there was this one dude stamping price tags on boxes of Cheerios, so I was ready to just bag it and think it was just my brutal toastedness…

This one doesn’t make much sense either. There are a lot of words that are out of context (“toast,” “fixing goggles,” “bag,”) that suggest a very specific slang with which the reader probably unfamiliar. The lack of quotation marks when the dude goes Robbie shows some extreme casualness and only adds to the confusion. The joy in reading this section is figuring out what’s actually going on and getting into Robbie’s narration, which is in a pretty remarkable voice. And of course, you want to know what “brutal toastedness” is. That’s just a given.

SUBMIT A FIRST LINE AND YOUR COMMENTARY ON IT HERE! We would like to include your favorite first lines in these segments as well. We also accept first lines from your work, so don’t be shy!

- O


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