Maybe you don't have time (or the will) to finish them, but these first sentences alone are pretty good.
Many people love to repeat the old saying: “do not judge a book by its cover,” but in my experience as a lifelong reader, this applies to everything except for books. When it comes to choosing a new read, you should take into account every little piece of information you can get about it (after all, it’s a pretty big commitment) and the cover is your first impression of the story, so of course, it matters. However, even more important than the cover, it’s the first sentence. A book’s first sentence is like a first kiss or the first time you lock eyes with the person you love. It’s brief and sometimes a little strange, but if you like it, it’s the start of something great.
With this in mind, here are fifteen of the greatest first sentences in the history literature, spanning a couple of centuries, and covering everything from the classics to more recent literature you might not know about. The criteria behind the list aren’t how popular the books were, or how iconic these first sentences are: they are here because in only a few lines they introduce an entire world to the reader and leave us wanting more.
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (1873)
“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
The Stranger by Albert Camus (1942)
“Mama died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don’t know. I got a telegram from the home: ‘Mother deceased. Funeral tomorrow. Faithfully yours.’ That doesn’t mean anything. Maybe it was yesterday.”
The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka (1915)
“When Gregor Samsa woke up one day from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed right there in his bed into some sort of monstrous insect.”
Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison (1952)
“I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of fiber and liquids--and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.”
The Hour of the Star by Clarice Lispector (1977)
“Everything in the world began with a yes. One molecule said yes to another molecule and life was born. But before prehistory there was the prehistory of prehistory and there was the never and there was the yes. It was ever so. I do not know why, but the universe never began.”
Murphy by Samuel Beckett (1938)
“The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new.”
A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens (1859)
"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 direct 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 only."
Suddenly in the Depths of the Forest by Amos Oz (2005)
“Emanuella the Teacher described to the class what a bear looks like, how fish breathe, and the kind of sounds a hyena makes at night. She also hung pictures of animals and birds on the classroom walls. Most of the children made fun of her, because they’d never seen an animal in their lives.”
Swann’s Way: In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust (1913)
“For a long time, I went to bed early.”
The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison (1970)
“Quiet as it’s kept, there were no marigolds in the fall of 1941.”
Aura by Carlos Fuentes (1962)
“You’re reading the advertisement: an offer like this isn’t made every day. You read it and reread it. It seems to be addressed to you and nobody else.”
Spilt Milk by Chico Buarque (2009)
“When I get out of here, we’ll get married on the farm where I spent my happy childhood, over at the foot of the mountains. You’ll wear my mother’s dress and veil, and I’m not saying this because I’m feeling sentimental, it’s not the morphine speaking.”
Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys (1966)
“They say when trouble comes close ranks, and so the white people did. But we were not in their ranks.”
Espergesia by César Vallejo (1918)
“I was born on a day
when God was sick.”
One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez (1967)
“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.”
First impressions aren't everything, I know, and the actual book is much more important than its first sentence, but isn't it such a good sign when that sentence is a work of art all on its own?