Following is a list of the 100 best first lines from novels, as decided by the American Book Review, a nonprofit journal published at the Unit for Contemporary Literature at Illinois State University:
1. Call me Ishmael. – Herman Melville, Moby-Dick (1851)
2. It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. – Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (1813)
3. A screaming comes across the sky. – Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow (1973)
4. Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice. – Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967; trans. Gregory Rabassa)
5. Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. – Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita (1955)
6. Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. – Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina (1877; trans. Constance Garnett)
7. riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs. – James Joyce, Finnegans Wake (1939)
J.K. Rowling’s spreadsheet plan for Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.
Joseph Heller’s chart outline for Catch-22.
The universe is huge. Time is impossibly vast. Trillions of creatures crawl and swim and fly through our planet. Billions of people live, billions came before us, and billions will come after. We cannot count, cannot even properly imagine, the number of perspectives and variety of experiences offered by existence.
We sip all of this richness through the very narrowest of straws: one lifetime, one consciousness, one perspective, one set of experiences. Of all the universe has, has had, and will have to offer, we can know only the tiniest fraction. We are alone and minuscule and our lives are over in a blink.
All of this strikes me as terribly sad, and if I believed Someone were in charge, I could muster an argument that our awareness of vastness makes our tininess unfair.
But here’s the thing. Literature lets us experience life through a second consciousness. For a time we share the perspective and experience of the author and his imagination. Our experience of the universe is broadened, multiplied.
Without literature, we are all limited to our own lives. With it, we can know something of what it is to be other people, to walk in their shoes, to see the world their way.
Literature needs no further defense than this, I would say. It is our species’s most advanced and successful technology for cheating dismal fate out of the abstract aloneness it would otherwise impose on us.
If we’re lucky, Catcher in the Rye will never be made into a movie. It’s managed to avoid that fate for over sixty years, and hopefully it will continue to do so. Not everything needs to be a movie, and I say that as someone who loves movies. We live in an age where something always had to be translated into other things, and whoever owns the rights happily takes the money that translation provides. J.D. Salinger was not one of those people and he never sold the rights for Catcher in the Rye. Producers will continue to hunger for the opportunity to turn one of the greatest novels of all-time into something that can be viewed in under two hours, but Salinger wasn’t just being stodgy when he refused to give up the rights. In a letter he wrote in 1957, he listed his reasons for why he couldn’t see Catcher in the Rye as a play or a motion picture.