Favorite first lines

Can we talk reading and writing—go off-topic for a refreshing few moments by thinking about something other than what we’re all thinking about?

Our enforced isolation has inspired me to think “big thoughts,” to work on something big. For me, “big” is a novel. Judging from past experience, this is a forever project that will keep me occupied for the foreseeable future.

So far, I have a title and a few opening pages. In writing a novel, I usually start out with a title and a page or two. I know the overall arc of the story, and I know how it will end. After I work that out, things move along at their usual turtle pace. I push on, procrastinate, then push on again.

If you write, you know that procrastination is one of the mandatory limbering up exercises for beginning any writing project or, for that matter, any writing day. As I agonize over those first critical pages, I’ve been listing, for inspiration, some first lines that I particularly like. Many of my favorites go back in time. I confess: I love 19th-century novels!

The favorite first lines that follow are in no particular order, except for the first two selections, which are my special favorites. Each is a full sentence–no more, no less.

Take a look and–if you’re so inclined–send me a few of your own favorites.

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.”

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

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

Rebecca
“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”

Moby Dick
“Call me Ishmael.”

Jane Eyre
“There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.”

The Go-Between
“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”

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

The Man of Property
“Those privileged to be present at a family festival of the Forsytes have seen that charming and instructive sight—an upper middle-class family in full plumage.”

A Passage to India
“Except for the Marabar Caves – and they are twenty miles off – the city of Chandrapore presents nothing extraordinary.”

The Razor’s Edge
“I have never begun a novel with more misgiving.”

Far from the Madding Crowd
“When Farmer Oak smiled, the corners of his mouth spread till they were within an unimportant distance of his ears, his eyes were reduced to chinks, and diverging wrinkles appeared round them, extending upon his countenance like the rays in a rudimentary sketch of the rising sun.”

The English Patient
‘She stands up in the garden where she has been working and looks into the distance.”

Wuthering Heights
“I have just returned from a visit to my landlord – the solitary neighbour that I shall be troubled with.”

The Bluest Eye
“Quiet as it’s kept, there were no marigolds in the fall of 1941.”

Mrs. Dalloway
“Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.”

Crossing to Safety
“Floating upward through a confusion of dreams and memory, curving like a trout through the rings of previous risings, I surface.”

Brooklyn
“Eilis Lacey, sitting at the window of the upstairs living room in the house on Friary Street, noticed her sister walking briskly from work.”

them
“One warm evening in August 1937 a girl in love stood before a mirror.”

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

Atonement
“The play – for which Briony had designed the posters, programmes and tickets, constructed the sales booth out of a folding screen tipped on its side, and lined the collection box in red crêpe paper – was written by her in a two-day tempest of composition, causing her to miss breakfast and a lunch.”

Gilead
“I told you last night that I might be gone sometime, and you said, Where, and I said, To be with the Good Lord, and you said, Why, and I said, Because I’m old, and you said, I don’t think you’re old.”

Alice in Wonderland
“Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do: once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, ‘and what is the use of a book,’ thought Alice, ‘without pictures or conversation?”

Sit down for a while

“The more you sense the rareness and value of your own life, the more you realize that how you use it, how you manifest it, is all your responsibility. We face such a big task, so naturally we sit down for a while.”     

~Kobun Chino Otogawa Roshi (1938-2002). Zen “roshi” or master, Kobun was friend, mentor, and spiritual adviser to Steve Jobs.

So often, lately, I’ve had the thought: I have too much to do for one lifetime. What if something untoward happens to me? What if I’m in an accident? What if I have a heart attack? What if the Zika virus finds a way to invade my body? I have an agenda. I have novels I want to publish, stories I want to write, poems I want to imagine onto the page. What if I run out of time?

There’s nothing so anxiety-inducing as looking for trouble. Yet I can’t always push this tendency down to my subconscious. Sometimes it surfaces and I must deal with it, or drown it under the weight of day-to-day tasks and deadlines.

The real solution, as Kobun says, is to “sit down for a while.” In other words, stop. For five minutes or an hour, stop and do nothing. Don’t think. Don’t follow the route of the panic-stricken. Allow the mind, the body, the unifying spirit, to rest. The state of no-thought is a priceless gift we have only to access periodically in order to calm the soul. It’s the gift of meditation.