29 comments for “The Top 100 Opening Lines in Literature.

  1. mothworm
    January 30, 2006 at 1:46 pm

    Are you familiar with the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest? A yearly award for the worst opening sentence to an imaginary novel.

  2. January 30, 2006 at 1:50 pm

    What? No Master and Margarita by Bulgakov?

  3. January 30, 2006 at 1:51 pm

    They left out my favorite opening line ever:

    “I, Badra bent Salah ben Hassan el-Fergani, born in Imchouk under the sign of Scorpio, shoe size thirty-eight, and soon to reach my fiftieth year, make the following declaration: I don’t give a damn that Black women have delectable cunts and offer total obedience; that Babylonian women are the most desirable and women from Damascus the most tender to men; that Arab and Persian women are the most fertile and faithful; that Nubian women have the roundest buttocks, the softest skin, and passion that burns like a tongue of fire; that Turkish women have the coldest wombs, the most cantankerous temperament, the most rancorous heart, and the most radiant acumen; and that Egyptian women are soft-spoken, offer kind-hearted friendship, and are fickle in their constancy.”

    That said, I’m a fan of 14 and 24.

  4. mothworm
    January 30, 2006 at 2:01 pm

    You know, a lot of these seem more like “opening lines of great books” as opposed to “great opening lines”.

    #50 is excellent, and from an excellent book, but #40 is just from a great book. #59, although still from a great book, could just as easily be the opening line of a teen romance.

  5. January 30, 2006 at 2:03 pm


    “Dear Penthouse: I had always thought that the letters you printed just had to be made up, but that was before I spent the summer at my aunt’s suntanning parlor in Aspen.”

  6. mothworm
    January 30, 2006 at 2:37 pm

    I also rather like (from other’s they left out):

    I am not a drop-out; I was never in.—Quentin Crisp, How to Become a Virgin

    Prisoners of drops of water, we are but everlasting animals.—Andre Breton and Philippe Soupault, The Magnetic Fields

  7. January 30, 2006 at 2:47 pm

    #4 Mothworm

    I think you’re on to something. Some of those lines are not the “grabbers” I expect from a great opening line.

    My own faves to add

    “No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream.” Shirley Jackson, The Haunting of Hill House

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

  8. piny
    January 30, 2006 at 2:51 pm

    Don’t forget the opening line from Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? by Lorrie Moore:

    “In Paris, we eat brains every night.”

  9. January 30, 2006 at 3:29 pm

    I did the happy dance to see that #39 actually made the list. Definitely a controversial line to some folks.

  10. another lynne
    January 30, 2006 at 3:37 pm

    Big apologies – I *know* this is hugely OT, but bitch issue 31 is out, celebrating 10 years. Right smack in the middle of it is a *fabulous* primer/short history on feminism. I seriously recommend y’all read it, and make copies for everyone.

    Oh, and my personal fave is #30….mostly because Molly kicks serious ass.

  11. Marksman2000
    January 30, 2006 at 3:48 pm

    Ah, William Gibson made it on the list. Honestly, that one I didn’t expect. So many academics discount works of science fiction/fantasy when it comes to what should be considered “great.”

  12. January 30, 2006 at 4:02 pm

    The funniest thing about that Gibson quote is that now that we’re here in the future, it’s changed meaning:

    30. The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel. —William Gibson, Neuromancer (1984)

    When he wrote that, he was talking about snow. Grey static. Now, when your television is tuned to a dead channel, it detects the static and shows you pure blue. Not quite sky blue, but certainly not clouds.

  13. Thomas
    January 30, 2006 at 5:39 pm

    “What’s it going to be then, eh?”
    There was me, that is Alex, and my three droogs, that is Pete, Georgie, and Dim, Dim being really dim, and we sat in the Korova Milkbar making up our rassoodocks what to do with the evening, a flip dark chill winter basard though dry.”

    Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange

  14. January 30, 2006 at 6:20 pm

    Never thought about how that’s changed, Ben. Glad it’s on there, though. That and Gravity’s Rainbow.

  15. January 30, 2006 at 9:31 pm

    I swear to God, I just quoted #39 to someone at work today. Creepy.

    That, and I am such a huge geek that I once had #30–and the next few lines as well–committed to memory.

  16. Sjofn
    January 30, 2006 at 11:03 pm

    I’m a little surprised they left out this one:

    “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”

    Or was it hidden somewhere under the giant block of text of the opening of the Sot-weed Factor? It gave me a headache all over again.

  17. January 30, 2006 at 11:52 pm

    I loved #39 and the other one from Beloved, “124 was spiteful.” And I wasn’t surprised that Virginia Woolf made it onto that list.

    Also, I did love the first line from The Handmaid’s Tale, “We slept in what had once been the gymnasium.” Seriously, I had forgotten how many commas Atwood used. She’s the Emily Dickinson of commas!

    another lynn: thanks, that means I’m gonna have to buy one this weekend then.

  18. Kat
    January 30, 2006 at 11:58 pm

    I second the #47 love, although I wish they’d have put in the first sentence of Watership Down:

    The primroses were over.

    It’s so simple, and yet so pretty.

  19. karpad
    January 31, 2006 at 1:29 am

    “The train came out of the long border tunnel – and there was the snow country.” Yasunari Kawabata, Snow Country

    You know, I HATED that book. It’s like Gatsby, but more depressing, and the characters are even more unlikeable. But it’s possibly the best opening line I’ve ever read (more poetic in Japanese, but meh.)

    although yeah, I’m a big fan of 47.

  20. Marksman2000
    January 31, 2006 at 1:51 am

    “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”

    Don’t let Jill catch you saying that. She stomps hobbits.

    When he wrote that, he was talking about snow. Grey static.

    It’s interesting that you said that, Ben Donley, because I took something completely different from it. But I guess that’s the great thing about literature: no one reads the same book.

  21. Bob Smith
    January 31, 2006 at 1:55 am

    Somebody please tell me #96 is a joke.

    I haven’t read the book but unless opening a book with a cliche as hoary as that one was somehow necessary to the story this should only be on a list of 100 worst opening lines to a book.

  22. January 31, 2006 at 11:09 am

    I think the most evocative is actually their # 100, perhaps because of current events, or because I remember our country’s “adventures” in S.E. Asia –

    The cold passed reluctantly from the earth, and the retiring fogs revealed an army stretched out on the hills, resting.

    The Gibson (# 30) is a nice opening line — though some “academics” maintain that Gibson himself doesn’t regard the Sprawl cycle as “SF” he himself regards them as being full of themselves.

    I rather like the first Pynchon (# 3) and some day I will *finish” Gravity’s Rainbow

    But of that group, my all-time favorite is the Getrude Stein (# 33), and now I’ll have to buy a copy of The Making of Americans.

    For opener’s not on the list, I also like

    Brother Francis Gerard of Utah might never have discovered the blessed documents, had it not been for the pilgrim with the girded loins who appeared during that young novice’s Lenten fast in the desert

    . from Canticle for Leibowitz, Walter M. Miller, Jr. Yes, it started out as a novelella, but it *was* expanded to novel-length in 1959, so there!

  23. HouseofMayhem
    January 31, 2006 at 11:26 am

    “Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charms as the Tarleton Twins were.”

    Gone With The Wind, Margaret Mitchell

    “We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold. I remember saying something like ‘feel a bit lightheaded; maybe you should drive …’ And suddenly there was a terrible roar all around us and the sky was full of what looked like huge bats, all swooping and screeching and diving around the car, which was going about a hundred miles an hour with the top down to Las Vegas.”

    Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Hunter S. Thompson

  24. Michael
    January 31, 2006 at 11:52 am

    I was glad to see Paul Auster on the list. However, it is his opening line in Leviathan that ranks among my favorites: “Six days ago, a man blew himself up by the side of a road in northern Wisconsin.” So matter-of-fact, yet so compelling.

  25. Antigone
    January 31, 2006 at 1:07 pm

    Why on earth is “Call me Ishmeal” number one? Not only is it a bad opening line, the book was hideously dull.

  26. January 31, 2006 at 3:32 pm

    All this happened, more or less. —Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five (1969)

    very appropriate to This Month In Literary Scandal, don’t you think?

  27. Conchita the Mermaid
    February 1, 2006 at 12:11 pm

    Perhaps it is not surprising that of the 100 opening lines listed only 20 were written by women (with Virginia Wolf and Toni Morrison tagged twice).
    What happened to Arundhati Roy, Jamaica Kincaid, Octavia Butler?
    Not even a Bronte on the list.
    Why is writing still a male-dominated field? Especially when popular culture portrays women as more verbal, more in touch with feelings. Wouldn’t those traditional feminine virtues make great writers?
    Mujeres, we must do our best to create parity in the publishing world. Write a novel. Write reviews. Write poetry. Write letters to the editor. Start a feminist press.
    con carino,
    La Sirenita

  28. February 2, 2006 at 12:37 pm

    Hmm. Marksman2000, how did you read that Gibson line if it waren’t snow? I’d love to know another interpretation.

Comments are closed.