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 …

2010’s Top 10 Most Complained About Books

Brave New WorldI’m a fan of top-10 lists at the best of times, but even more so when it’s the list of top-10 most complained about books. Emanating from America (where else?), this annual list ranks the books that most offended conservative sensibilities and, frankly, inspires my next years’ reading list.

When will the self-appointed gatekeepers of our moral chastity learn that there’s no such thing as bad publicity and vocally, publicly calling for the ban of a book causes us not to shun the book with moral indignation but rather run towards with open eyes and arms?

And when will they realise that they might be complaining not because books are bad, but because they hold up a mirror to the less-desirable aspects of our lives; that they contain and force us to acknowledge and address some uncomfortable truths?

I like to think I’m across most new releases and books earning others’ ire, but I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I know just two of the books on the 2010 list.

Aldus Huxley’s Brave New World came in at third for insensitivity, offensive language, racism, and sexual Lord of the Fliesthemes. I’m scratching my head about what’s so overwhelmingly, ban-worthy offensive of any of those aspects, but particularly the ‘insensitivity’ one. Insensitivity? What kind of offence is that?

Brave New World has always felt like a book that had to be read during school—everyone else seemed to do it, but it wasn’t on my school’s reading list—and the book seems to have passed my reading habits by. About a year ago I even bought a copy, but it’s gotten no further than staring down accusingly from my bookcase.

Its inclusion on the Won’t Somebody Think of the Innocent Children list (or something equally moral-panic appropriate), however, has snapped me to attention. Enough fiddle farting around: You try to ban it? I’m inspired to down tools and read the book immediately.

Clearly I’m not the only one who finds this list inspiring. There’s an annual Banned Books Week (running from 24 September – 1 October 2011), which supports and celebrates the freedom to write and read what we like (or sometimes what we don’t like but can learn from). Moreover, the list of most-moaned-about books of all time actually reads like a what’s what of our great literary works: The Catcher in the Rye, To Kill A Mockingbird, The Lord of the Flies, 1984, Catch 22, Animal Farm, Slaughterhouse Five, and The Lord of the Rings to name but a few.

Catch 22Whether the complaints helped catapult these books into popular consciousness and popularity or whether one person’s ban-worthy book is another’s treasure, I don’t know. Admittedly, not everything that’s on the 2010 list is going to be heralded as great writing in years to come.

Speaking of which … Twilight (the only other book I recognised) rounded out the top 10. I’m not surprised that there were complaints about it, although for most people those would be confined not to if-you-read-it-backwards Satan-laden messages, but to the fact that it’s so very badly written and so incredibly, clunker-laden clichéd.

Besides, it’s largely sex-less, with characters adhering to old-fashioned Mormon values like their author. It’s amusing to me, then, that the complaints camp are essentially trying to ban a book by one of their own.

My friend and fellow writer Ben told me he once had a teacher who asked everyone to point out the naughty parts of the book. This sent the students scurrying to not only absolutely devour the book, but to pay very close attention to it. It was a win for all parties and a reading equivalent of sneaking the vegetables past the fussy eaters—something that I think should be applauded. If it takes a couple of swear words to do so? That’s ok with me.

Slaughterhouse FiveMe? I’m adding the 2010 books on this list to my to-be-read pile (that is, after I add them to my how-did-I-not-know-about-them one). And for the record: if I ever get a book published, I’ll be hoping, wishing, praying, and anything else in between that someone tries to ban it.