Monday, February 8, 2010

Is That Just a Line You're Giving Me?...great first lines from literature

February 8, 2010

Is That Just a Line You’re Giving Me?

Chances are if you’re writer, then you’re a voracious reader as well. Though many of us can rattle off movie quotes in response to most any situation, faster than you can say, “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn” it’s good ‘ole literature that is my soft spot for such fodder.

Some of our best lines, allusions, asides and points well taken have been borrowed from great literature. As I’ve read more and more works by Shakespeare and others of note it’s amazing to discover how many of the phrases we utilize in our modern language are actually pulled from texts that originated some time around the period when Joan of Arc was attempting to reason with her captors, “No, really, I’m a good person. Hey, I’m getting a heat rash. Change is good. Can’t we talk about this?”

Shakespeare is a particularly rich font from which our current commentary emanates. From Hamlet’s advice, "This above all: to thine own self be true," to Macbeth’s pragmatic “what’s done is done,” to Julius Caesar’s warning, “Beware the ides of March,” we still recognize these in our current lexicon. Though these types of writings are often attributed to Ben Franklin as one of his axioms or as quotes from the bible, oftentimes, the utterances are Will’s doing or someone Will-like.

It’s literature that provides us with a texturized richness of language that we can all draw from and maybe even aspire to, but be forewarned that if you speak like some of these folks, your social circle may shrink radically. Not to be negative, but another downside may be that if you’re a literary wonk who enjoys making scholarly references in normal conversations, you run the risk of encountering many a blank look because, let’s be honest, not everyone is so dorky as we worshipful lifetime devotees of all things booky. Just remember this simple rule that I learned when I was doing stand-up comedy. If you have to explain it, it’s not working. Move on! Next slide! Check, please!

Along the lines of famous literary references is today’s blog which provides you with a gathering of famous first lines from novels, of which there are scads of “Top 100” lists that you can gather up from many a cyberspace drawer. I’ve just included a random smattering, but if you’re into more than a smatter, then you can trawl on over to for the full meal deal.

100 Best First Lines of Novels
As chosen by the editors of American Book Review
(Sample of 10 of ‘em)

1. "Call me Ishmael." Herman Melville. Moby-Dick. (1851)
2. "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)
3. "A screaming comes across the sky." Thomas Pynchon. Gravity's Rainbow. (1973)
4. "Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice."
Gabriel García Márquez (trans. Gregory Rabassa) One Hundred Years of Solitude. (1967)
5."It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen."George Orwell.
6. "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)
7. "I am an invisible man." Ralph Ellison. Invisible Man. (1952)
8. "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 how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth." J. D. Salinger. The Catcher in the Rye (1951)
9. "Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting."
William Faulkner. The Sound and the Fury (1929)
10. "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)

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