For the geeky list-lovers among us, the University of Illinois’s American Book Review has on its website what it calls the “100 Best First Lines from Novels.” The list is filled with the usual suspects — Dickens, Joyce, Kafka, Hemingway, etc. — but there is some variety. At #14, we see the po-mo stylings of Italo Calvino, who opened his novel, “You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveller.” That sentence follows an enigmatic, and, yes, Kafkaesque first sentence; this one from The Trial. Many sentences are instantly recognizable, like the J.D. Salinger line that begins, “If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born…” Others by Thomas Pynchon and David Foster Wallace are bewildering and wonderful. Sentences are short and declarative, like Melville’s list-topping “Call me Ishmael,” or rambling, like Laurence Stern’s opener for Tristram Shandy (too boring to be rendered here). Some defy all current rules of grammar as we know them (see all three James Joyce lines included on the list, as well as the four-lines long, comma-splice filled “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” that begins Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities“). Some, like Nabokov’s — “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.” — are, by definition, not even sentences.
But the books on the list are almost exclusively American and European in origin. The one non-American, non-European line (other than the one that starts Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye (#96!)) is from Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. Could it be that the long histories of the world’s most populous continents have yet to yield a single author of note? Or did some not-too-learned professors in Illinois skip a few too many world literature classes as undergrads?
Click here for the list