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Wednesday, 09 September 2015 16:15

My favorite literary opening paragraphs

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I don’t like to talk or write about writing — but when forced to do so by, say, an approaching deadline, I will. I am, in fact, doing so right now. But I’ll be concise: have a beginning, have an ending, and don’t worry about the middle.

Endings are treacherous. Only blind luck or the intervention of angels will get you a halfway decent ending. If you don’t have anything else to say, then don’t. Opening paragraphs are tricky, but doable. I’m writing one, for instance, right now. I don’t have a clue where it’s headed, but that doesn’t matter. It’ll stop of its own accord.

You can’t necessarily tell a book by its cover, but you can by its opening paragraph. If the opening doesn’t make your hair stand up on end, and smoke come out of  your ears, forget about it. Having nothing more to say, I’ll close my part down right now with five of my favorite opening paragraphs.      

 Moby Dick (1851) is The coming-of-age story about a young man’s epic voyage with a demented captain in search of a demonic whale. Herman Melville crafted one of the most memorable opening paragraphs in American literature.  

“Call me Ishmael. Some years ago — never mind how long precisely — having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen, and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off — then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship.” 

Even though the main story in Thomas Hardy’s The Return of the Native (1878) focuses on the relationships between Eustacia Vye, Clym Yeobright and others, Egdon Heath — modeled on the Black Heath near Hardy’s childhood home — is the dominating force and central figure of the novel.

“A Saturday afternoon in November was approaching the time of twilight, and the vast tract of unenclosed wild known as Egdon Heath embrowned itself moment by moment. Overhead the hollow stretch of whitish cloud shutting out the sky was as a tent which had the whole heath for its floor.”

When Larry McMurtry is as good as he was in Lonesome Dove (1985) — the best “western” novel of all time — he is very good. The opening lines evoke the humor and sudden tragedy that take place on the long cattle drive from south Texas to Montana.

“When Augustus came out on the porch the blue pigs were eating a rattlesnake — not a very big one. It had probably just been crawling around looking for shade when it ran into the pigs. They were having a fine tug-of-war with it, and its rattling days were over.”

Bruce Chatwin opened The Song Lines (1987), his book about sacred (and profane) quests, with a one-line paragraph that gives the reader a heads-up as to the quirky nature of a trip upon which he or she is about to embark. 

“In Alice Springs — a grid of scorching streets where men in long white socks were forever getting in and out of Land Rovers — I met a Russian who was mapping sacred sites of the Aboriginals.” 

In the late W.G. Sebald’s magnificent semi-autobiographical tour de force The Rings of Saturn (1995), the unnamed main character recalls a walking tour in East Anglia that led to his breakdown and hospitalization.  

“In August 1992, when the dog days were drawing to an end, I set off to walk the county of Suffolk, in the hope of dispelling the emptiness that takes hold of me whenever I have completed a long stint of work. And in fact my hope was realized, up to a point; for I have seldom felt so carefree as I did then, walking for hours in the day through the thinly populated countryside, which stretches inland from the coast. I wonder now, however, whether there might be something in the old superstition that certain ailments of the spirit and of the body are particularly likely to beset us under the sign of the Dog Star. At all events, in retrospect I became preoccupied not only with the unaccustomed sense of freedom but also with the paralyzing horror that had come over me at various times when confronted with the traces of destruction, reaching far back into the past, that were evident even in that remote place. Perhaps it was because of this that, a year to the day after I began my tour, I was taken into hospital in Norwich in a state of almost total immobility. It was then that I began in my thoughts to write these pages.

(George Ellison is a naturalist and writer. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..">This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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