Whilst the cover or even title of a book might initially gain your attention, in truth it’s the opening sentence that has the power to inspire, compel, entertaint and fascinate.
The Department for Contemporary Literature at Illinois State University, has traversed the wide spectrum of the literary world to come up with a list of the 100 best lines ever written. Whilst you might not not agree with all 100, there any many that are unquestionably some of the most engaging prose ever committed to print.
We’ve taken 20 of our personal favorites from their collection, you can see their full list right here.
Is there anything you think we’ve collectively missed?
1. A screaming comes across the sky. – Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow (1973)
2. It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. – George Orwell, 1984 (1949)
3. The cold passed reluctantly from the earth, and the retiring fogs revealed an army stretched out on the hills, resting. – Stephen Crane, The Red Badge of Courage (1895)
4. The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new. – Samuel Beckett, Murphy (1938)
5. It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. – Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (1813)
6. It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents, except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the house-tops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness. – Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, Paul Clifford (1830)
7. Ages ago, Alex, Allen and Alva arrived at Antibes, and Alva allowing all, allowing anyone, against Alex’s admonition, against Allen’s angry assertion: another African amusement . . . anyhow, as all argued, an awesome African army assembled and arduously advanced against an African anthill, assiduously annihilating ant after ant, and afterward, Alex astonishingly accuses Albert as also accepting Africa’s antipodal ant annexation. – Walter Abish, Alphabetical Africa (1974)
8. The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel. – William Gibson, Neuromancer (1984)
9. I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974. – Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex (2002)
10. We started dying before the snow, and like the snow, we continued to fall. – Louise Erdrich, Tracks (1988)
11. Having placed in my mouth sufficient bread for three minutes’ chewing, I withdrew my powers of sensual perception and retired into the privacy of my mind, my eyes and face assuming a vacant and preoccupied expression. – Flann O’Brien, At Swim-Two-Birds (1939)
12. What if this young woman, who writes such bad poems, in competition with her husband, whose poems are equally bad, should stretch her remarkably long and well-made legs out before you, so that her skirt slips up to the tops of her stockings? – Gilbert Sorrentino, Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things (1971)
13. When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon. – James Crumley, The Last Good Kiss (1978)
14. High, high above the North Pole, on the first day of 1969, two professors of English Literature approached each other at a combined velocity of 1200 miles per hour. – David Lodge, Changing Places (1975)
15. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair. – Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities (1859)
16. I had the story, bit by bit, from various people, and, as generally happens in such cases, each time it was a different story. – Edith Wharton, Ethan Frome (1911)
17. The Miss Lonelyhearts of the New York Post-Dispatch (Are you in trouble? Do-you-need-advice? Write-to-Miss-Lonelyhearts-and-she-will-help-you) sat at his desk and stared at a piece of white cardboard. – Nathanael West, Miss Lonelyhearts (1933)
18. The human race, to which so many of my readers belong, has been playing at children’s games from the beginning, and will probably do it till the end, which is a nuisance for the few people who grow up. – G. K. Chesterton, The Napoleon of Notting Hill (1904)
19. Granted: I am an inmate of a mental hospital; my keeper is watching me, he never lets me out of his sight; there’s a peephole in the door, and my keeper’s eye is the shade of brown that can never see through a blue-eyed type like me. – Gnter Grass, The Tin Drum (1959)
20. Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show. – Charles Dickens, David Copperfield (1850)