Top 10 Fiction Opening Lines

Pride and PrejudiceTop 10 lists are controversial, guaranteed to please some people and attract the ire of others, while ultimately proving utterly irresistible. I don’t know why we need to come up with top-10 lists. Try as I might to refuse to click on links to them, my twitching mouse finger and my need to know overcome me every. single. time.

The Guardian’s 10 Best First Lines in Fiction proved particularly irresistible, and my thoughts ran rampant before I’d even called up my fine motor skills to hover the mouse above the hyperlink and depress the button.

I immediately thought Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice: ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.’ If that’s not in there, I thought, I’m going to start a riot.

A one-person riot was thankfully avoided, with Austen’s esteemed, oft-co-opted opener making the cut. Or, as The Guardian more silkily put it: ‘The one everyone knows (and quotes). Parodied, spoofed, and misremembered, Austen’s celebrated zinger remains the archetypal First Line for an archetypal tale.’

The Guardian arguably cheated, giving a secondary option for every one that made the list. That technically takes the opening-lines tally to 20, but I’m not complaining.

The Secret HistoryThey include Mark Twain there, but I much rather the secondary option in his case, which is JD Salinger’s opening for The Catcher in the Rye: ‘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 all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.’

Call me slow, but I still don’t hugely get this confusingly long first sentence by James Joyce: ‘Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.’ It may explain also why I’ve never been able to tackle any of his great tomes.

Charlotte Bronte’s ‘There was no possibility of taking a walk that day’ is much more my preferred style: concise, direct, curiosity-piquing and, subsequently, impossible to ignore.

Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar makes an appearance with: ‘It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.’ I have to admit I hadn’t thought of it for the list, but think it’s inclusion is definitely warranted—marrying the lightness of summer with the darkness of death in an off-hand, understated manner is genius on the page.

The Bell JarNor had I thought of Donna Tartt’s: ‘The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation.’ But I did a metaphorical high-five when I saw it—The Secret History is, for fear of sounding trite and hyperbolic, one of those books that changes your life.

I must confess that I’ve read nought of PG Wodehouse’s books and know next to nothing about them (mostly because I’ve always, clearly wrongly, assumed that with a name like ‘PG Wodehouse’, his books were likely to be serious and stuffy). But I plan to change that based on this masterpiece: ‘Into the face of the young man who sat on the terrace of the Hotel Magnifique at Cannes there had crept a look of furtive shame, the shifty, hangdog look which announces that an Englishman is about to talk French.’

I’ve got to say that some of these top-10 openers are indeed a bit old and (in my humble opinion) a bit wanky. But I also recognise that I’m not perhaps The Guardian’s primary reading demographic and that not every list has to please me every time. I wouldn’t mind seeing The Guardian’s list of 10 best modern literary opening lines, though. If I had to hazard a guess at an entry, I’d say that Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood would surely be in there …

101 Reading Dalmations

I suspected that my 101st Book Burglar Blog would involve bemoaning the completion of Richelle Mead’s Vampire Academy series. While I will sorrily subject you to that at some stage, I thought it worth featuring something a little happier: dogs who listen to us read.

Dogs who what? Yeah, the same words popped into my head and out of my mouth. At first I thought the dogs did the reading. Then I realised they do the listening. Or rather, accompanying. Non-judgemental accompanying.

Basically they lie next to kids reading aloud as gentle encouragement and a confidence booster. Dogs don’t mock like kids or correct like adults do, enabling less-confident readers to find their reading feet in front of a supportive audience. And maybe let the kids dish out some pats too.

Now, I’m not entirely convinced that the dogs are listening—I have a healthy suspicion that there’s some doggy dreaming or daydreaming going on—but company is company and I think it’s a great idea. Especially as the dogs probably enjoy the attention. Dogs already help guide our society’s visually challenged and bring joy to the elderly when they visit them in hospital or nursing homes, and many of us already talk to our dogs, so helping kids read is a natural progression. As a side note, I think the kids would be plenty amused if/when the dogs fart and clear the room (which, c’mon, we all know they will).

I also particularly love this article about listening dogs from The Guardian, which include these gems of quotes:

  • ‘It helps with their self-esteem in reading out loud because he is non-judgmental,’ says the dog’s owner, Tony Nevett, who has a degree in animal-assisted therapy. (I included this one because the first time I read it, I thought it was the dog who had the degree in animal-assisted therapy and was suitably impressed!)
  • ‘He doesn’t judge them and he doesn’t laugh at them. He’s just a tool […]’ (Um, pretty sure the dog wouldn’t appreciate being called that)
  • ‘When Danny goes to sleep I tell the children that he’s dreaming about their story.’ (All together now: awwww.)

The Problem with Pink

Remember a couple of years back, when pink shirts became mainstream for blokes? It was a fashion revolution. Mainly because previous to that fateful day (when the Aussie ocker braved his mate’s bbq and they didn’t beat him to a pulp on sight), pink shirts were the avenue of metrosexuals and guys who didn’t know to separate the colours from the whites in the wash cycle (“it’s red, I tell you”)…

As this isn’t a fashion blog, I won’t be detailing the rise and fall of the empire of Pink Shirt.

Mainly because with the exception of the black, red and white that currently frequents every paranormal series, most covers in the book world seem to be on pretty even rotation through the ages. Or are they? There’s a whole lot of hullabaloo going on at the moment in certain literary media circles, stemming from this article. Apparently, pink book covers are a little too sweet to the stomach for some. I felt a little affronted when I first read the article…like raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens, pink is one of my favourite things. It’s the colour of romance and cotton candy; if your kids aren’t eating their vegetables then your best bet is to paint the kitchen pink; and pink is the perfect deterrent for car thieves.

But also, in the book world at least, pink is the safe haven for petticoated Chick Lit, Mills and Boon-style romances and domestic YA fiction for girls.

It seems (as much as I hate to admit it) that the problem with pink is that it’s too brash for the bookshelf, too unreasonable when prose is wanting to be serious, too gender-specific when publishers want to appeal to both sides of the audience.

Looking to my own shelves, even though I love the colour pink and am shamelessly drawn to cover art I don’t have much on the pink shelf.

Yes I colour-code my bookshelves. And yes, one of the books is named Princess Academy. But there’s also a David Mitchell and a veritable feast of books with middle-eastern characters.

And, one of the books is also The Best Australian Essays 2008. But when I search it online? The cover comes up as a no-holds-barred royal purple. Mine on the bookshelf is at least a magenta in the flesh. Harrumph. But seriously, does it really matter what colour a book is?

I guess, yes. I don’t like Chick Lit in the slightest as a genre, and (with the exception of Lili Wilkinson’s Pink)  pink YA covers make me think they’re trying to “femme up” the cover because the writing doesn’t speak for itself.

So I’m throwing it out there if you’ve got a possible answer for me: is pink itself superficial? Can it ever be taken seriously?

 Or am I being superficial by judging it prematurely?

A Feature, Not a Bug

Excellent article in the Guardian this week about the internet. It seems almost laughable that someone could write a four thousand word essay about the internet these days, so central is it to the way we live our lives. But John Naughton has, and it’s excellent. He makes an excellent point about disruption being an essential part of the internet – a feature, not a bug:

One of the things that most baffles (and troubles) people about the net is its capacity for disruption. One moment you’ve got a stable, profitable business – say, as the CEO of a music label; the next minute your industry is struggling for survival, and you’re paying a king’s ransom to intellectual property lawyers in a losing struggle to stem the tide. Or you’re a newspaper group, wondering how a solid revenue stream from classified ads could suddenly have vaporised; or a university librarian wondering why students use only Google nowadays. How can this stuff happen? And how does it happen so fast?

Naughton argues that we are currently in the midst of a revolution (an actual revolution, rather than an evolution) the outcome of which is not by any means clear. He says that in the future, it’s likely we will look back on the internet in the way we look back at the Gutenberg press – tracing a clear line of consequence between movable type and such massive cultural shifts as the rise of modern science, entirely new social classes and professions and the collapse of the universal power of the Catholic church.

Of course, without the benefit of hindsight, it’s impossible to know whether the changes the internet and the age of digitisation will bring will be good or bad. It’s very likely they’ll be a combination of both. But nonetheless there is a certain inevitability about it – whether we want it to or not, change is coming.

What has this got to do with books and book technology? Quite a lot. Movable type and the Gutenberg press were at the centre of the communications revolution of the last millennium. The press allowed all sorts of new kinds of communication, and it allowed the rapid distribution and dissemination of books. Will the new communications revolution leave books behind altogether in its race to transfer information ever faster, or are books still a relevant means of communicating ideas in this new age? The answer, according to Naughton, will come to those who wait. In the meantime, of course, we can always speculate. What do you think? Will the book as a medium survive the next four hundred years? If so, why? What does it have to offer that no other medium has?