The Guardian’s Ten Best First Lines in Fiction

Here’s a list with ample room for debate: The Guardian, “The 10 best first lines in fiction” — although I suppose a debatable list is much more interesting than absolute, unequivocal lists.

But, the list is a slideshow. How I loathe slideshows, with their neediness for extra clicking of tiny arrows. So, I am including the list below instead.

James Joyce
Ulysses (1922)
“Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.”

Jane Austen
Pride and Prejudice (1813)
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

Charlotte Brontë
Jane Eyre (1847)
“There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.”

Mark Twain
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884)
“You don’t know about me, without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, but that ain’t no matter. That book was made by a Mr Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly.”

PG Wodehouse
The Luck of the Bodkins (1935)
“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 French.”

Anthony Burgess
Earthly Powers (1980)
“It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me.”

Dodie Smith
I Capture the Castle (1948)
“I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.”

Sylvia Plath
The Bell Jar (1963)
“It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.”

Donna Tartt
The Secret History (1992)
“The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation.”

Robert Louis Stevenson
Treasure Island (1883)
“Squire Trelawnay, Dr Livesey, and the rest of these gentlemen having asked me to write down the whole particulars about Treasure Island, from the beginning to the end, keeping nothing back but the bearings of the island, and that only because there is still treasure not yet lifted, I take up my pen in the year of grace 17 — and go back to the time when my father kept the Admiral Benbow inn and the brown old seaman with the sabre cut first took up his lodging under our roof.”

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Once you’ve seen the Guardian list, check out American Book Review’s 100 Best First Lines from Novels. They probably won me over for including If on a winter’s night a traveler (“You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler.”)


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I run the ThinkLab at the University of Cambridge, and research digital habits, productivity, and wellbeing.

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