You probably already know many of these lines (and words) by heart! They are the first moments of the grandest experiences in our lives. They’ve taken me to places around the world, captured my imagination, and helped me to imagine (and re-imagine) life from different perspectives.

Memorize these lines. Hold them dear. Understand the importance of each word. Then, share them with their friends. (If you’ve not read the books that follow these famous lines, I hope you’ll make time to do that as well! Here are some of the greatest books you’ll ever hope to devour–cover-to-cover…)

After you read these first lines, try closing your eyes and imagining what story the author is about to unfold in the following pages…

  1. “124 was spiteful.” – Toni Morrison, Beloved (1987)
  2. “A screaming comes across the sky.” – Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow (1973)
  3. “All this happened, more or less.” – Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five (1969)
  4. “Call me Ishmael.” – Herman Melville, Moby Dick (1851)
  5. “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” – Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina (1877)
  6. “He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.” – Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea (1952)
  7. “I am a sick man… I am a spiteful man.” – Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Notes from Underground (1864)
  8. “I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids — and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.” – Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (1952)
  9. “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)
  10. “I was the shadow of the waxwing slain By the false azure in the windowpane” – Vladimir Nabokov, Pale Fire (1962)
  11. “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)
  12. “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)
  13. “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” – George Orwell, 1984 (1949)
  14. “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)
  15. Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.” – Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita (1955)
  16. “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” – Gabriel Garcia Marquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967)
  17. “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.” – Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway (1925)
  18. “Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo.” – James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916)
  19. “One summer afternoon Mrs. Oedipa Maas came home from a Tupperware party whose hostess had put perhaps too much kirsch in the fondue to find that she, Oedipa, had been named executor, or she supposed executrix, of the estate of one Pierce Inverarity, a California real estate mogul who had once lost two million dollars in his spare time but still had assets numerous and tangled enough to make the job of sorting it all out more than honorary.” – Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49 (1966)
  20. “riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodious vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.” – James Joyce, Finnegans Wake (1939)
  21. “Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board.” – Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937)
  22. “Someone must have slandered Josef K., for one morning, without having done anything truly wrong, he was arrested.” – Franz Kafka, The Trial (1925)
  23. “Somewhere in la Mancha, in a place whose name I do not care to remember, a gentleman lived not long ago, one of those who has a lance and ancient shield on a shelf and keeps a skinny nag and a greyhound for racing.” – Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote (1605)
  24. “Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.” – James Joyce, Ulysses (1922)
  25. “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)
  26. “There is a lovely road that runs from Ixopo into the hills. These hills are grass-covered and rolling, and they are lovely beyond any singing of it.” – Alan Paton, Cry, the Beloved Country (1948)
  27. “This is the saddest story I have ever heard.” – Ford Madox Ford, The Good Soldier (1915)
  28. “Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting.” – William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury (1929)
  29. “When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow.” – Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird (1960)
  30. “When Mr Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton.” – J.R.R. Tolkien (John Ronald Reuel Tolkien), The Lord of the Rings (1954-1955)
  31. “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)
  32. “You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter.” – Mark Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885)
  33. “Mother died today. Or, maybe, yesterday; I can’t be sure. The telegram from the Home says: Your mother passed away. Funeral tomorrow. Deep sympathy. Which leaves the matter doubtful; it could have been yesterday.” – Albert Camus, The Stranger, or The Outsider (1942)
  34. “The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.” – William Gibson, Neuromancer (1984)
  35. “Where now? Who now? When now?” – Samuel Beckett, The Unnamable (1953)

What are your favorite opening passage (first lines or words) in literature? Why do you love them, and why do they stay with you all these years?


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