The first paragraph of a novel can tell the reader so much about what to expect from a book.
These interest me for a variety of reasons. Some are very good, some are excellent and at least one is, in my opinion, poor. See if you can tell which one and why...
I collected these together to use in the classroom and they never failed to lead to a vigorous discussion.
Once upon a time, many years ago - when our grandfathers were little children - there was a doctor; and his name was Dolittle - John Dolittle, M.D. "M.D." means that he was a proper doctor and knew a whole lot.
"The Story of Doctor Dolittle" by Hugh Lofting (1922)
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,
we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were
all going to heaven, we were all going direct the other way -
in short, the period was so far like the present period, that
some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received,
for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison
"A Tale of Two Cities" by Charles Dickens (1859)
Cannery Row in Monterey
in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of
light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream. Cannery Row is the
gathered and scattered, tin and iron and rust and splintered wood,
chipped pavement and weedy lots and junk heaps, sardine canneries
of corrugated iron, honky-tonks, restaurants and whore-houses,
and little crowded groceries, and laboratories and flop-houses.
Its inhabitants are, as the man once said, 'whores, pimps, gamblers,
and sons of bitches,' by which he meant Everybody. Had the man
looked through another peep-hole he might have said: 'Saints and
angels and martyrs and holy men,' and he would have meant the
"Cannery Row" by John Steinbeck (1945)
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. In the first
place, that stuff bores me, and in the second place, my parents
would have about two hemorrhages apiece if I told anything pretty
personal about them.
"The Catcher in the Rye" by J. D. Salinger (1951)
The boy with the fair hair
lowered himself down the last few feet of rock and began to pick
his way towards the lagoon,. Though he had taken off his school
sweater and trailed it now from one hand, his grey shirt stuck
to him and his hair was plastered to his forehead. All round him
the long scar smashed among the creepers and broken trunks was
a bath of heat. He was clambering heavily among the creepers when
a bird, a vision of red and yellow, flashed upwards with a witch-like
cry; and this cry was echoed by another.
"Lord of the Flies" by William Golding (1954)
I was born in 1927, the
only child of middle-class parents, both English, and themselves
born in the grotesquely elongated shadow, which they never rose
sufficiently above history to leave, of that monstrous dwarf Queen
Victoria. I was sent to a public school, I wasted two years doing
my national service, I went to Oxford; and there I began to discover
I was not the person I wanted to be.
"The Magus" by John Fowles (1966-1977)
Frenchman's Bend was a section
of rich river-bottom country lying twenty miles southeast of Jefferson.
Hill-cradled and remote, definite yet without boundaries, straddling
into two counties and owning allegiance to neither, it had been
the original grant and site of a tremendous pre-Civil War plantation,
the ruins of which---the gutted shell of an enormous house with
its fallen stables and slave quarters and overgrown gardens and
brick terraces and promenades---were still known as the Old Frenchman's
place, although the original boundaries now existed only on old
faded records in the Chancery Clerks office in the county courthouse
in Jefferson, and even some of the once-fertile fields had long
since reverted to the cane-and-cypress jungle from which their
first master had hewed them.
"The Hamlet" by William Faulkner (1931)
There was a lark singing
somewhere high above. Light fell dazzling against my closed eyelids,
and with it the song, like a distant dance of water. I opened
my eyes. Above me arched the sky, with its invisible singer lost
somewhere in the light and floating blue of a spring day. Everywhere
was a sweet, nutty smell which made me think of gold, and candle
flames, and young lovers. Something, smelling not so sweet, stirred
beside me, and a rough young voice said: "Sir?"
"The Hollow Hills" by Mary Stewart (1973)
Our coal-bunker is old,
and it stands beneath an ivy hedge, so that when I go to it in
wet weather, I catch the combined smells of damp earth and decaying
vegetation, And I can close my eyes and be thousands of miles
away, up to my middle in a monsoon ditch in India, with my face
pressed against the tall slats of a bamboo fence, and Martin-Duggan
standing on my shoulders, swearing at me while the rain pelts
down and soaks us. And all around there is mud, and mud, and more
mud, until I quit dreaming and come back to the mundane business
of getting a shovelful of coal for the sitting-room fire.
"The General Danced at Dawn" by George Macdonald Fraser (1970)
The storm-force wind was
blasting squalls of incredibly wet and heavy rain across the loch,
blotting out the hills and the sky and flaying the rusty grass
of the crofts until it cringed back into the ground from which
it had sprung so ebulliently only a few short months earlier.
All day there had been semi-dusk and when I had returned soaked
and shivering from the moors that morning after a long hunt to
give Bonny her morning hay, I had promised myself I would do nothing
but change into dry clothes, put some food on a tray and then
sit by the fire with a book. Nothing, that is, until it was time
for me to don my sticky oilskins and my coldly damp sou'wester,
strain on wet gumboots and go seeking Bonny again with her evening
"The Loud Halo" by Lillian Beckwith (1964)
It was very still in the
house. The sweet and solemn dusk was falling after one of the
loveliest of September days, and high above the smoke of town
and city the harvest moon was making for herself a silvered pathway
through the stars.
"The Better Part" by Annie S. Swan (c. 1892)
Ours is essentially a tragic
age, so we refuse to take it tragically. The cataclysm has happened,
we are among the ruins, we start to build up new little habitats,
to have new little hopes. It is rather hard work: there is now
no smooth road into the future: but we go round, or scramble over
the obstacles. We've got to live, no matter how many skies have
"Lady Chatterley's Lover" by D. H. Lawrence (1928)
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 knocking peoples 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. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings toward the ocean with me.
"Moby Dick" by Herman Melville (1851)
Call me Jonah. My parents
did, or nearly did. They called me John.
"Cat's Cradle" by Kurt Vonnegut (1974)
Yesterday I was fifty-nine,
and in a year I shall be sixty --"getting on for seventy,"
as the unpleasant old phrase goes. I was born in November, 1865,
and this is November, 1924. The average duration of life in England
is fifty-one and a half, so I am already eight years and a half
beyond the common lot. The percentage of people who live beyond
sixty is forty-seven. Beyond seventy it is thirty. Only one in
five thousand lives beyond one hundred, and of this small body
of centenarians two-thirds are women. My expectation of life,
says the table in the almanac, is fourteen years and four months.
That table in the Almanac is not a mathematical marvel, but it
is close enough to the truth to serve my purpose here.
"The World of William Clissold" by H. G. Wells (1933)
Through the fence, between
the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting. They were
coming toward where the flag was and I went along the fence. Luster
was hunting in the grass by the flower tree. They put the flag
back and they went to the table, and he hit and the other hit.
Then they went on, and I went along the fence. Luster came away
from the flower tree and we went along the fence and they stopped
and we stopped and I looked through the fence while Luster was
hunting in the grass.
"The Sound and the Fury" by William Faulkner (1929)
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