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11 Unforgettable First Lines in Literature

Sarah Jane Abbott is an assistant editor for Paula Wiseman Books and Beach Lane Books, imprints of Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing.  She grew up having NANCY DREW books read to her by her father, and is now an avid reader of mystery, thriller, and horror, along with everything from literary fiction to poetry to personal essays.  She graduated from Bucknell University with a degree in English and a concentration in creative writing.  Sarah Jane is an advocate of quasi-destructive book love—her best-loved volumes are highlighted, scribbled in, dog-eared, and wavy from being dropped in the bath tub.  

If the eyes are the windows to the soul, then the first line is the window to the book. A first line can drag you in, shock you, confuse you, or touch you. A first line is what makes you read on. Here are some of our favorite first lines that set the tone for some incredible books.


Post Office
Charles Bukowski

“It began as a mistake.”

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Beloved
Toni Morrison

Staring unflinchingly into the abyss of slavery, this spellbinding novel transforms history into a story as powerful as Exodus and as intimate as a lullaby. Filled with bitter poetry, Beloved is a towering achievement.

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Nervous Conditions
Tsitsi Dangarembga

“I was not sorry when my brother died.”

MENTIONED IN:

11 Unforgettable First Lines in Literature

By Sarah Jane Abbott | April 2, 2015

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A Heart So White
by Javiar Marías

“I did not want to know but I have since come to know that one of the girls, when she wasn’t a girl anymore and hadn’t long been back from her honeymoon, went into the bathroom, stood in front of the mirror, unbuttoned her blouse, took off her bra and aimed her own father’s gun at her heart, her father at the time was in the dining room with other members of the family and three guests.”

A Heart So White
Javiar Marías

“I did not want to know but I have since come to know that one of the girls, when she wasn’t a girl anymore and hadn’t long been back from her honeymoon, went into the bathroom, stood in front of the mirror, unbuttoned her blouse, took off her bra and aimed her own father’s gun at her heart, her father at the time was in the dining room with other members of the family and three guests.”

MENTIONED IN:

11 Unforgettable First Lines in Literature

By Sarah Jane Abbott | April 2, 2015

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The Night Circus
by Erin Morgenstern

“The man billed as Prospero the Enchanter receives a fair amount of correspondence via the theater office, but this is the first envelope addressed to him that contains a suicide note, and it is also the first to arrive carefully pinned to the coat of a five-year-old girl.”

The Night Circus
Erin Morgenstern

“The man billed as Prospero the Enchanter receives a fair amount of correspondence via the theater office, but this is the first envelope addressed to him that contains a suicide note, and it is also the first to arrive carefully pinned to the coat of a five-year-old girl.”

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Peter Pan
by J.M. Barrie

“All children, except one, grow up.”

Peter Pan
J.M. Barrie

“All children, except one, grow up.”

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One Hundred Years of Solitude
by Gabriel García Márquez

“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.”

One Hundred Years of Solitude
Gabriel García Márquez

“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.”

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A Christmas Carol
Charles Dickens

Ebenezer Scrooge, a selfish, crotchety skinflint, spends his days counting money and grousing, “Bah Humbug!” Scrooge doesn’t care for anyone other than himself. However, on Christmas Eve, he is visited by his partner Marley, and the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Christmas Present, and Christmas Yet to Come, who teach him about benevolence, charity, and goodwill.

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By Kevin Myers | December 18, 2014

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The Year of Magical Thinking
Joan Didion

“Life changes fast.”

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Love in the Time of Cholera
by Gabriel García Márquez

“It was inevitable: the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love.”

Love in the Time of Cholera
Gabriel García Márquez

“It was inevitable: the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love.”

MENTIONED IN:

11 Unforgettable First Lines in Literature

By Sarah Jane Abbott | April 2, 2015

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If on a Winter's Night a Traveler
by Italo Calvino

“You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler.”

If on a Winter's Night a Traveler
Italo Calvino

“You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler.”

MENTIONED IN:

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