As I begin writing this it’s midnight, April 4-5, 2011. When insomnia strikes I always look for something to read. At times I just rummage around in various books rereading and studying familiar passages. Some were encountered in recent years — others have been with me for the better part of a lifetime. Having nothing better to do, I’ll share several them with you.
Long ago a very good teacher remarked: “You can tell a book by its opening lines.” The novelist-philosopher Walker Percy remarked in an interview that the opening of A Canticle for Leibowitz (1960), the post-apocalyptic science fiction novel by American writer Warren M. Miller, made the hair stand up on the back of his neck in anticipation.
My favorite story opens: “Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns / driven time and again off course … / Launch out on his story … / start from where you will — sing for our time too.”
James Joyce, of course, had The Odyssey in mind when he wrote the opening lines of Ulysses (1922): “Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed. A yellow dressinggown, ungirdled, was sustained gently behind him on the mild morning air. He held the bowl aloft and intoned: ‘Introibo ad altare Dei.’”
Thomas Hardy opens The Return of the Native (1878) with foreboding words: “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 … The distant rims of the world and of the firmament seemed to be a division in time no less than a division in matter … The place became full of a watchful intentness now; for when other things sank brooding to sleep the heath appeared slowly to awake and listen.”
And then, of course, the greatest opening in American literature is but three words: “Call me Ishmael.” Five hundred and twenty-six pages later, Herman Melville brings Moby Dick (1851) to closure: “A sky-hawk … folded in the flag of Ahab, went down with his ship, which, like Satan, would not sink to hell till she had dragged a living part of heaven along with her”
James Joyce was also good at closure. His long story “The Dead” (from Dubliners, 1914) concludes with sentences that are almost magical: “It had begun to snow again ... falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills [and] upon every part of the lonely churchyard … It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones … He heard the snow faintly falling through the universe … upon all the living and the dead.”
Similar but more ornate sentiments are found in Sir Thomas Browne’s Urn-Burial (1658): “Oblivion is not to be hired: the greater part must be content to be as though they had not been, to be found in the register of God, not in the record of man … And since death must be [the deliverance] of life, and even pagans could doubt whether thus to live were to die … therefore it cannot be long before we lie down in darkness.”
On a lighter note, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings opens The Yearling (1938) in this manner: “A column of smoke rose thin and straight from the cabin chimney. The smoke was blue where it left the red of the clay. It trailed into the blue of the April sky and was no longer blue but gray. The boy Jody watched it speculating. The fire on the kitchen hearth was dying down. His mother was hanging up pots and pans after the noon dinner … The day was Friday. If she scrubbed the floor she would not miss him until he reached the Glen [where] a spring as clear as well water bubbled up from nowhere in the sand … It excited Jody to watch the beginnings of the ocean. There were other beginnings, true, but this one was his own. He liked to think that no one came here but himself and the wild animals and the thirsty birds.”
Thoreau’s journal entries can be stimulating in small doses, but they are often too acerbic for my taste. More to my liking are those informed by quiet observation by writers like Edwin Way Teal. The following entry appeared in his Circle of the Seasons (1953): “William T. Davis once showed me some of the unpublished things he had written. I remember two eloquent sentences that express the whole outlook of his life: `There is no need of a faraway fairyland for the earth is a mystery before us. The cow paths lead to mysterious fields.’”
Gilbert White was the first great British naturalist. Although he and William T. Davis were separated in time and space, they were on the same wavelength. In The Natural History of Selborne (1789), White published a letter written on October 8, 1768, in which he expressed his conviction (which I share) that: “It is, I find, in zoology as it is in botany: all nature is so full, that that district produces the greatest variety which is the most examined.” In other words, White and Davis, like the Chinese sages, were admonishing us to “Study the familiar.”