Sippican Cottage

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A Man Who Has Nothing In Particular To Recommend Him Discusses All Sorts of Subjects at Random as Though He Knew Everything

The Dirty Dozen Best First Lines In Literature

I Just Read Death of a Salesman, and Boy, Are My Lips Tired

I’m sorry to be the one to break this to you, but you like bad books.

It’s not your fault. You’re pummeled with bad books in school like some vicious textual version of dodgeball. You’re required to read bad books. You couldn’t help noticing that bad books are given trophies and medals and their authors sleep on velvet-ticked mattresses stuffed with the souls of good writers and banknotes. You just went with the flow. I hereby absolve you of guilt.

Absolution comes with fine print, you know: Go and sin no more. So knock it off. Stop trying to make Harry Potter happen in adult company. Stop reading books by girls that kill themselves as a career move. And in the name of all that is right and holy, stop publishing lists of the Greatest First Lines in Fiction. And stop starting sentences with and.

In the Beginning, All Books Were Great

First of all, let’s go over the greatest first line in any book, ever:

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.
The Bible

Now, if you got your English degree at UNLV unironically, you’re dying to put a comma in there, aren’t you? You know more about dependent clauses than Santa’s pediatrician, but your instincts are all bad. You know rules, but not enough of them to make you of any use, coming or going, writing or reading. Stop publishing lists.

Of course, The Bible is cheating. If you wear a fedora and call fat girls M’Lady, like to visit bookstores to put the Bible in the fiction section while you’re on the way to the Hobbit section, you should give lists of great books a pass.

Good Books, Not the Good Book

We’re talking fiction here, more or less. Litchah. Good books, not the Good Book. Great writers often try to concoct an opening sentence that insists upon itself. Since authors are usually running a tab at a distillery, not just a pub like you do, they desperately need you to pick up the book, open to page one, and then reach for your wallet immediately. So we’re going to judge how they did, right now.

The Twelve Greatest First Lines I Ever Read:

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…
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man — James Joyce

By gad, you’re always putting Ulysses in your lists. Ulysses is like a postcard from home for a drunken Druid drudge like me, but you should admit you have no idea what’s going on in it, and learn to love his book about wetting the bed, instead.

At an age when most young Scotsmen were lifting skirts, plowing furrows
and spreading seed, Mungo Park was displaying his bare buttocks to
al-haj’ Ali Ibn Fatoudi, Emir of Ludamar.

Water Music — T. Coraghessan Boyle

It’s T.C. Boyle’s first book, I think, and the only one really worth reading. It’s the greatest picaresque novel since Fielding lost interest. They put that sentence, in big letters, on the cover of the edition I have. That publisher knows his arse from his elbow.

Imagine that you have to break someone’s arm.
The Gun Seller — Hugh Laurie 

Yes, it’s that Hugh Laurie. His book is a blast. It’s better than any potboiler you could name. The Day of the Maltese Bourne Majestyk Sanction sorta thing. If you know him solely from an American television show, you should be reading Highlights magazine, not this essay. If you know him from Jeeves and Wooster…

Into the face of the young man who sat on the terrace of the Hotel
Magnifique at Cannes there had crept a look of furtive shame, the shifty
hangdog look which announces that an Englishman is about to talk

Pelham Grenville Wodehouse — The Luck of the Bodkins

This one is like cheating. You can open up anything by PG and paste the first line into your WYSIWYG if you’re on deadline and your employer needs their literary listicle by close of business. The Greatest comic writer that ever lived, but one…

This last summer, when I was on my way back to Vienna from the Appetite-Cure in the mountains, I fell over a cliff in the twilight, and broke
some arms and legs and one thing or another, and by good luck was found
by some peasants who had lost an ass, and they carried me to the nearest
habitation, which was one of those large, low, thatch-roofed farm-houses,
with apartments in the garret for the family, and a cunning little porch
under the deep gable decorated with boxes of bright colored flowers and
cats; on the ground floor a large and light sitting-room, separated from
the milch-cattle apartment by a partition; and in the front yard rose
stately and fine the wealth and pride of the house, the manure-pile.

Christian Science — Mark Twain

I read this aloud to my eleven-year-old at dinner a month ago. He asks me to read it again every night. The second sentence in the book is just as funny, but you knew that, because you looked it up immediately, didn’t you?

Once upon a time…
Grimm’s Fairy Tales — Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm

Every writer knows he’s a piker compared to those two guys. They got more mileage out of those four words than Seinfeld re-runs.

Call me Ishmael.
Moby Dick –Herman Melville 

Whoops, Melville pared it down to three words. It’s useful to remember that old Herm died penniless, and no one gave a shiny shite about his book until he was room temperature. Now he’s on lists.

Marley was dead: to begin with.
A Christmas Carol — Charles Dickens
Everyone wants to put A Tale of Two Cities on these lists, but admit it, it sounds like Chuck is foaming at the mouth halfway through that Cities sentence, and he got a deal at the Typesetter Depot on semicolons and was still trying to use them up. His one great sentence is right there. It’s got a colon in it! That’s brass.

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.
The Old Man and the Sea — Ernest Hemingway

I understand Hemingway more than I like him, but no matter. He won a Nobel Prize for that sentence, and if you ask me, no one has any idea what he was driving at in that book. I do.

Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the
Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy — Douglas Adams

I tossed this in here to satisfy people who think George RR Martin needs to be knighted while being given a handy by Sylvia Plath. Douglas Adams invented very good bad writing in the seventies, and he needs his due.

Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York;
And all the clouds that lour’d upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.

Richard III — William Shakespeare

Now imagine Olivier delivering that line. Shakey Bill’s Richard the Third makes Hannibal Lecter look like Mr. Green Jeans, and that sentence nails his colors to his bent mast right off.

I told that boy, I told him.
The Devil’s in the Cows — Sippican Cottage

Yeah, I went there. 


22 Responses

  1. i don't write like sippican because i don't read like sippican.

    i've read 3 and and had one read to me. i did expect the best of worst of just because it's famous.

    1. It’s Alive! It’s Alive! The Dark and Stormy Night writing contest, that is. Otherwise known as the Bulwar-Lytton Fiction Contest which requires that you write the WORST opening sentence to a novel. Check it out.

  2. From a lifetime long ago, I nominate (anonymously from a Chinese restaurant): “We were somewhere around Barstow, on the edge of the desert, when the drugs began to take hold.”

  3. The room was dark, except for the light coming thru the bullet holes in the wall.

    Yeah, Mr. Sippi made some fine picks, here.

  4. I know it's a poem and not a book but
    "T'was brillig and the slythey toves did gyre and gimbal in the wabe"
    is my all-time favorite.

    Shows what math can do to one's brain…

  5. Ol' Bill S. was constantly quotable, of course. I am, I confess, more partial to the opening of Henry V: "O for a Muse of Fire to ascend the brightest heaven of invention; a kingdom for a stage, princes to act, and monarchs to behold the swelling scene…" But one can hardly go wrong considering how many of the idioms in English come from him.

    Another favorite of mine – CS Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader – "There once was a boy named Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it."

  6. "Stanley Ketchel was twenty-four years old when he was fatally shot in the back by the common-law husband of the lady who was cooking his breakfast."

    – John Lardner, True magazine, 1954

  7. Lovely list. I can't believe I've never read some of them.

    Right now I'm basking in the lovely passage that Ann Barnhardt posted from, The Little Prince and am sorry to have also missed that one.

    It's funny, I haven't written a book, but I have written just one sentence.

  8. Theodore Sturgeon wrote that Robert Heinlein offered him a succession of helpful suggestions to get him past a bad case of writers block that included: 'Ghost of a little cat patting around eternity looking for a familiar lap to sit in.'
    Heinlein also wrote the best opening paragraph I can remember: 'As I left the Kenya Beanstalk capsule he was right on my heels. He followed me through the door
    leading to Customs, Health, and Immigration. As the door contracted behind him I killed him.' But I have low tastes.

  9. If your ears were burning last week, you might need to know I was quoting your lines at dinner parties from NYC to Cape May.

    You're welcome. This is my greatest enjoyment read today. Thank you.

  10. Casey! Many thanks for the compliment.

    I enjoy looking at your blog regularly. I saw the photos of a group gathered around your easel while you showed them what's what. What rapt faces they exhibited. I knew just from their expressions that they were experiencing one of the rarest things in this world: someone that knows what they're doing and who is willing to explain it. That generosity of spirit is near non-existent on this orb. The money involved doesn't enter into it. Colleges are full of incompetents that cash checks and offer nothing.

  11. Good listicle.

    I'm with Anonymous on the HST quote. Others I thought of:

    "It was love at first sight." – Joseph Heller, "Catch-22"

    "A screaming comes across the sky." – Thomas Pynchon, "Gravity's Rainbow"

    I was going to nominate Hammett's "The Thin Man," but upon looking it up, I realized I've always liked the second line:

    "She was small and blonde, and whether you looked at her face or at her body in powder-blue sports clothes, the result was satisfactory."

  12. "Now if you got your English Degree at UNLV unironically…"

    So help me, that's the best thing I've read all week.

  13. "When Kleon heard the news from Capua, he rose early one morning, being a literatus and unchained, crept to the room of his Master, stabbed him in the throat, mutilated that Master's body even as his own had been mutilated: and so fled from Rome with a stained dagger in his sleeve and a copy of The Republic of Plato hidden in his breast." – Spartacus, Lewis Grassic Gibbon

  14. “Not to every young girl is it given to enter the harem of the Sultan of Turkey and return to her homeland a virgin.”

    ― Dorothy Dunnett, The Ringed Castle

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