Favourite First Lines in Books

A while ago, I stumbled somewhere in the depths of Youtube upon people sharing their favourite first lines in books. I was intrigued and started to wonder about my favourite first lines. What makes a first line great? Why do we memorize some first lines forever and forget others? To me, a good first line is a combination of poetic beauty of words and a clever introduction of the world within the book. There are, of course, countless books with great first lines, but today I want to share with you four books with my favourite first lines.

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The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.”

Of course, I had to start with The Hobbit. Apart from my obvious obsession with Tolkien’s Middle-earth, The Hobbit’s first lines are just beautifully written. The first line is simple, yet intriguing. It immediately makes you wonder who or what a hobbit is (assuming you never heard of them before). The second line tells you a great deal about what hobbits are. At this point, the reader may still doesn’t know what a hobbit is, but the reader does know already that hobbits love comfort and that food plays an important role in their lives. The simple sentence structure draws you in and before you know, you’ve already finished reading the first chapter.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J.K. Rowling

“Mr and Mrs Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you’d expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn’t hold with such nonesense.”

Similar to The Hobbit, the simple sentence structure of Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone makes you jump from sentence to sentence until you reached the end of the first chapter without knowing it. An interesting aspect about Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is that it doesn’t start with its main character. When reading the book title, you’d expect anything, but to start with the most non-magical characters in the novel. Instead of introducing the readers to the wizarding world of Harry Potter, the novel takes the readers by the hand and allows them to experience the wonders of magic through Harry gradually.

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.”

If it weren’t for Nabokov’s beautiful poetic style, Lolita would’ve probably not be as controversial as it is. Let me explain. If Lolita were written by a less talented author, it may have received temporary attention but would’ve been put off as ‘disgusting trash’ and eventually forgotten. However, because of Nabokov’s talent, the reader cannot help, but feel drawn into the mindset of Humbert Humbert. The reader is torn between the reality of an, mildly put, “inappropriate relationship” and the poetic beauty of the novel. Only because the reader is able to relate to Humbert to a certain degree (however small that degree may be), has Lolita become so controversial.

In addition to the poetic beauty of those lines, this short passage reveals a lot about the narrator. First of all, the reader learns that this is a first person narrator. This is insofar significant because it already tells you not to believe everything unquestioned as first person narrators are always very unreliable. Secondly, this passage, explaining in great depth how the name Lolita is formed when speaking, indicates that the yet unnamed narrator not only love Lolita, but that he is unhealthily obsessed with her. Lastly, it also reveals that the narrator is aware that his love or obsession with Lolita is inappropriate by explaining that she is his sin.

The Bone People by Keri Hulme

“He walks down the street. The asphalt reels by him.
It is all silence.
The silence is music.
He is the singer.
The people passing smile and shake their heads.
He holds a hand out to them.
They open their hands like flowers, shyly.
He smiles with them.
The light is blinding: he loves the light.
They are the light.”

I started to read The Bone People a while ago, but I still haven’t managed to finish it. Not because I don’t like it. Quite the contrary, this novel is one of those you have to put down once in a while to appreciate the words you just read. As beautiful these first lines are, as unable I’m able to express my feelings for them. Hulme’s usage of metaphors is stunning. The reader has no idea who this character is and what this is all about, but the reader is drawn into the novel nonetheless.

As said earlier, there are countless other books with great first lines such as Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, or Barry’s Peter Pan, but these four are my absolute favourites. Each of these four entries mesmerized me and let me forget my surroundings as early as the first sentence.

What are your fist lines in books? Do you agree with my analysis of these entries? Leave a comment down below!

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2 thoughts on “Favourite First Lines in Books

  1. Olga says:

    You’ve got some great choices here! I also love the beginnings for The Hobbit and Harry Potter. Simply, but effective.
    Among my other favourites are the beginning of “The Silmarillion”. It’s majestic and intriguing, makes you read on to learn more about Eru, the Ainur.
    Hope Mirrlees’s “Lud-in-the-mist” also throws you straight away into the story of relationship between two bordering states, one of them being Faery.
    Poul Anderson’s “Broken Sword” starts off in the style of a myth and thus created the mood right from the beginning.

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  2. gekitsu says:

    very cool choices! i also highly agree with olga’s mention of lud-in-the-mist. here are a few of mine:

    ‘he was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the gulf stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.’ —ernest hemingway, the old man and the sea

    there is something about hemingway making very simple sentences sing beyond what they should be able to do. the following few sentences illustrate further how bad his situation is, but the kernel of it is fully formed in this first sentence.

    ‘veldt to scrub to fields to farms to these first tumbling houses that rise from the earth. it has been night for a long time. the hovels that encrust the river’s edge have grown like mushrooms around me in the dark.’ —china miéville, perdido street station

    this one i like because it tells you nothing. the first sentence barely is a sentence at all, just a sequence of things, with the last one getting the tiniest relative clause. the second sentence could mean anything, and certainly doesn’t expand on anything from the first. the third at least offers that we are on a river and that this, in fact, from a person’t perspective. and yet, there is such a tangible athmosphere in this beginning, of weirdness and darkness and everything feeling not entirely wholesome.

    ‘it was only a duck pond, out at the back of the farm. it wasn’t very big. lettie hempstock said it was an ocean, but i knew that was silly. she said they’d come here across the ocean from the old country. her mother said that lettie didn’t remember properly, and it was a long time ago, and anyway, the old country had sunk. old mrs. hempstock, lettie’s grandmother, said they were both wrong, and that the place that had sunk wasn’t the really old country.’ —neil gaiman, the ocean at the end of the lane

    neil’s subtly magic way with words needs no introduction, but i like how much each step into the story throws over what you thought you figured out from what you read.

    regarding nabokov’s skill and lolita’s controversy: i absolutely agree – it’s easy and welcome to be able to label those we deem monsters as such. us vs them is a powerful thing. but for someone to remind us of our kinship with them is most uncomfortable. and when the argument is not one of reason and deduction that we can argue against, but one of poetry, so that at the end of the day we are left alone with the feeling of it ringing true against who we, as humans, are, it becomes unsettling and scandalous.

    Like

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