First Lines

This got started at our friends’ apartment one night after dinner whereupon we amused ourselves by ransacking Brad and Shanti’s sizable book collection looking for and reading out loud really excellent first lines. This, actually, is not atypical of an evening spent with Brad and Shanti. Here is a list, in no particular order, of a lot of good ones.

“The time traveler (for so it will be convenient to speak of him) was exponding a recondite mater to us.”
    H. G. Wells The Time Machine

“I didn’t know that afternoon that the ground was waiting to become another grave in just a few short days.”
    Richard Brautigan So the Wind Won’t Blow It All Away

“An easterly is the most disagreeable wind in Lyme Bay–Lyme Bay being that largest bite from the underside of England’s outstretched southwestern leg–and a person of curiosity could at once have deduced several strong probabilities about the pair who began to walk down the quay at Lyme Regis, the small but ancient eponym of the inbite, one incisively sharp and blustery morning in the late March of 1867.”
    John Fowles The French Lieutenant’s Woman

“Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun.”
    Douglas Adams Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

“A screaming comes across the sky. It has happened before, but there is nothing to compare it to now.”
    Thomas Pynchon Gravity’s Rainbow

“Ours is essentially a tragic age, so we refuse to take it tragically.”
    D. H. Lawrence Lady Chatterley’s Lover

“His head unnaturally aching, Barney Mayerson woke to find himself in an unfamiliar bedroom in an unfamiliar conapt building.”
    Philip K. Dick The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch

“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
    Leo Tolstoy Anna Karenina

“I am a sick man… I am a spiteful man. An unattractive man. I think that my liver hurts.”
    Fyodor Dostoevsky Notes from Underground

“It was a pleasure to burn.”
    Ray Bradbury Fahrenheit 451

“I am made out of water. You wouldn’t know it, because I have it bound in. My friends are made out of water, too. All of them. The problem for us is that not only do we have to walk around without being absorbed by the ground but we also have to earn our livings.”
    Philip K. Dick Confessions of a Crap Artist

“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.”
    Vladimir Nabokov Lolita

“Gormenghast, that is, the main massing of the original stone, taken by itself would have displayed a certain ponderous quality were it possible to have ignored the circumfusion of those mean dwellings that swarmed like an epidemic around its Outer Walls.”
    Mervyn Peake Titus Groan

“One summer afternoon Mrs. Oedipa Maas came home from a Tupperware party whose hostess had put perhaps too much kirsch in the fondue… ”
    Thomas Pynchon The Crying of Lot 49

“I can feel the heat closing in, feel them out there making their moves, setting up their devil doll stool pigeons, crooning over my spoon and dropper I throw away at Washington Square Station, vault a turnstile and two flights down the iron stairs, catch an uptown A train…”
    William S. Burroughs Naked Lunch

“Once when I was six years old I saw a magnificent picture in a book, called True Stories from Nature, about the primeval forest.”
    Antoine de Saint Exupery The Little Prince

“It was a quiet morning, the town covered over with darkness and at ease in bed. Summer gathered in the weather, the wind had the proper touch, the breathing of the world was long and warm and slow. You had only to rise, lean from your window, and know that this indeed was the first real time of freedom and living, this was the first morning of summer.”
    Ray Bradbury Dandelion Wine

“There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.”
    C. S. Lewis The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

“It was love at first sight.”
    Joseph Heller Catch-22

“Mother died today. Or, maybe, yesterday; I can’t be sure.”
    Albert Camus The Stranger

“He was an inch, perhaps two, under six feet, powerfully built, and he advanced straight at you with a slight stoop of the shoulders, head forward, and a fixed from-under stare which made you think of a charging bull.”
    Joseph Conrad Lord Jim

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
    Jane Austin Pride and Prejudice

“Dr. Sarvis with his bald mottled dome and savage visage, grim and noble as Sibelius, was out night-riding on a routine neighborhood beautification project, burning billboards along the highway-US 66, later to be devoured by the superstate’s interstate autobahn.”
    Edward Abbey The Monkey Wrench Gang

“I was born in 1927, the only child of middle-class parents, both English, and themselves born in the grotesquely elongated shadow, which they never rose sufficiently above history to leave, of that monstrous dwarf Queen Victoria.”
    John Fowles The Magus

“When I first heard about Big Sur I didn’t know it was a member of the Confederate States of America.”
    Richard Brautigan A Confederate General of Big Sur

“We were about to give up and call it a night when somebody dropped the girl off the bridge.”
    John D. McDonald Darker than Amber

“Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank.”
    Lewis Carroll Through the Looking Glass

“Once a guy stood all day shaking bugs from his hair. The doctor told him there were no bugs in his hair. After he had taken a shower for eight hours, standing under hot water hour after hour suffering the pain of the bugs, he got out and dried himself, and he still had bugs in his hair; in fact, he had bugs all over him. A month later he had bugs in his lungs.”
    Philip K. Dick A Scanner Darkly

“In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.”
    F. Scott Fitzgerald The Great Gatsby

“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”
    George Orwell 1984

“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap. . .”
    J. D. Salinger Catcher in the Rye

“It was a dark and stormy night.”
    Madeleine L’Engle A Wrinkle in Time (er, among others)

“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”
    J. R. R. Tolkien The Hobbit

“The primroses were over.”
    Richard Adams Watership Down

“The Nellie, a cruising yawl, swung to her anchor without a flutter of the sails, and was at rest.”
    Joseph Conrad Heart of Darkness

“They’re out there.”
    Ken Kesey One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

“There was once a velveteen rabbit, and in the beginning he was really splendid.”
    Margery Williams The Velveteen Rabbit

“Call me Jonah.”
    Kurt Vonnegut Cat’s Cradle

“Once upon a time there was a Martian named Valentine Michael Smith.”
    Robert A. Heinlein Stranger in a Strange Land

“In watermelon sugar the deeds were done and done again as my life is done in watermelon sugar.”
    Richard Brautigan In Watermelon Sugar

“Once upon a time in Spain there was a little bull and his name was Ferdinand.”
    Munro Leaf The Story of Ferdinand

“When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself changed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.”
    Franz Kafka Metamorphosis

“All children, except one, grow up.”
    J. M. Barrie Peter Pan

“The year 1866 was signalised by a remarkable incident, a mysterious and puzzling phenomenon, which doubtless no one has yet forgotten.”
    Jules Verne 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

“Call me Ishmael. Some years ago-never mind how long precisely-having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world.”
    Herman Melville Moby Dick

“The woman pushed on the baby’s stomach and sucked its penis into her mouth; it was thinner than the American menthols she smoked and a bit slimy, like raw fish.”
    Ryu Murakami Coin Locker Babies

“Attend! We have heard of the thriving of the throne of Denmark, how the folk-kings flourished in former days, how those royal athelings earned that glory.”

“The first sound in the mornings was the clumping of the mill-girls’ clogs down the cobbled street.”
    George Orwell The Road to Wigan Pier

“The most beautiful women in the world were African.”
    Martin Cruz Smith Rose

“It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenburgs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.”
    Sylvia Plath The Bell Jar

“We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.”
    Hunter S. Thomson Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

“The reason I was awake at 4 A.M. when the bomb that killed Jimmy Darroux exploded was that my friend Tomlinson and I were on the dock taking turns squinting through a telescope, inviting – or so said Tomlinson – “ocular confirmation” that telepathic messages he believed he had received were, indeed, being transmitted by space creatures.”
    Randy Wayne Wright Captiva

“It’s freezing – an extraordinary 0° fahrenheit – and it’s snowing, and in the language that is no longer mine the snow is qanik – big almost weightless crystals falling in clumps and covering the ground with a layer of pulverized white frost”
    Peter Hoeg Smilla’s Sense of Snow

“James Bond, with two double bourbons inside him, sat back in the final departure lounge of Miami Airport and thought about life and death.”
    Ian Fleming Goldfinger

“August 1985. Percocet. The 5 mg tablets were identical to the 325 mg tablets which were identical to the generic laxatives. I was in no shape for fine print.”
    Craig Clevenger The Contortionists Handbook

“At Tom Baker’s wake, quite well attended, as the wakes and funerals of misunderstood people usually are, I sang ‘Ride’em Jewboy.'”
    Kinky Friedman Elvis Jesus and Coca-Cola

“I have an ingrained fear of auctions dating back to the third year of my life.”
    Farley Mowat The Boat Who Wouldn’t Float

“It was a knockout blow–a punch so overwhelming that I didn’t get back on my feet for fourteen years.”
    Henri Charriere Papillon

“It had been a bad night, and when he tried to drive home he had a terrible argument with his car.”
    Philip K. Dick The Game-Players of Titan

7 Comments on “First Lines”

  1. rob says:

    How about!

    Ardie awakened to find that he had been made redundant from his current work place. He pondered, deciding that as an employer in a former life where he wrote “redundancy is the enema of industry” he had now changed his mind.

    Ardie :- First thoughts of business significance

  2. cheyenne says:

    Cool! Thanks!

  3. Sundi says:

    Greetings from Texas. Here is one from a book I really enjoyed:

    The Young Man came to the Old Man seeking counsel.

    I broke something, Old Man.

    How badly is it broken?

    It’s in a million little pieces.

    I’m afraid I can’t help you.


    There’s nothing you can do.


    It can’t be fixed.


    It’s broken beyond repair. It’s in a million little pieces.

    James Frey ‘A Million Little Pieces’

  4. Jan Leonard says:

    My all-time favorite first line is from Joseph Heller’s “Something Happened,” a thinly veiled account of his hellish days working at IBM:

    I get the willies when I see closed doors.

  5. melissa says:

    How about Charlotte’s Web?

    “Where’s Pa goin’ with that ax?”

  6. TimeMachine – Slowly exploring the future » First Lines | big ape says:

    […] Source: TimeMachine – Slowly exploring the future » First Lines […]

  7. tom donald says:

    that last one’s always been my first choice, Philip K Dick’s wonderful “It had been a bad night, and when he tried to drive home he had a terrible argument with his car.”
    Reading that in the 1990s really set up the world that this story was to occupy. Also, it’s a line worthy of Raymond Chandler, for its brevity and wit.

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Cheyenne Weil, Joshua Coxwell