A few weeks ago I stumbled across an article about a study carried out in 2006 on how do people read on the internet. It turns out that the resulting pattern looks very much like a letter F: people read the first paragraph in full, the second with a slightly shorter span and then simply scan the rest of the text vertically. The upshot of this is that, at least on the internet, if you want people actually read your point you better make it straight away.
Now, with books you’d expect that readers would have a bit more of a patience – but this is something that you really can’t always count on. I’d venture a guess that most of the books are purchased (or left unpurchased) without opening them, solely on the basis of the back cover publisher blurbs. And if those aren’t enough, you will read the first page. This is especially true when buying books from amazon where, in case of most books, it is only the few first pages that are available.
So this will lead to an important if rather unsurprising conclusion that beginnings do matter, even off-line.
Last week in London at Picadilly Waterstone’s I ended up with a pile of nine books that was certainly too much, considering that I will have to carry everything I buy along with me. One of the books that I had to decide upon was a collection by Evelyn Waugh, titled Work Suspended and Other Stories where the first story happened to be Mr. Loveday’s Little Outing that begins with one of the most celebrated first sentences of in British literature:
‘You will not find your father greatly changed,’ remarked Lady Moping, as the car turned into the gates of the County Asylum.
To think of it, it is quite amazing how much punch does this hilarious and deceptively simple line pack. In addition to leading us into the story that follows, it also sets the mood and tells us a great deal about Lady Moping and her husband, Lord Moping, as well as their relationship. It also implies the presence of two more persons – a child to whom the sentence is directed plus a silent driver. With one short sentence, Waugh has managed to sketch two characters and tell us a whole story of their past. And this kind of an economy is something that most, if not all, of the great opening lines share.
For instance, consider this:
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.
– another stellar example of opening a novel, this time from Earthly Powers by Anthony Burgess. Like in previous quote, here as well a great deal has been left unsaid but is nonetheless understood by a reader. Archbishops do not simply walk from door to door in afternoons, and even without this unexpected visit it is obvious that the person telling the story is quite peculiar. Many readers (that also included me) will have to look up the word “catamite” in order to fully appreciate that – and this will make the situation (i.e. the bishop’s visit) even more curious.
Yet another writer justly famous for his ability to completely capture the attention and imagination of his readers with a single first sentence is Gabriel García Márquez. His One Hundred Years of Solitude opens in an incredibly many-layered way:
Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.
First, there is the delicate temporal structure – it meshes the past, present and future all into seamless one. In the sentence Márquez doesn’t describe the heat nor the calmness of the Colonel when facing his death, he only has to mention ice. Again, like in Waugh and Burgess, one sentence can branch out into many different directions, create tensions and set up questions – and as a result we’re hooked without even noticing it.
By the way, here it is interesting to take a different kind of a approach to beginnings – if you look hard enough, you can find whole chains of first sentences, linked with each other over what can sometimes be decades and different continents. For instance, the line by Márquez is a continuation on the theme set by early Latin American classic Machado de Assis in 1881 book The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas (which is itself heavily indebted to Life & Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne, dated 1759 – but let’s leave it there for now)
The Death of the Author: I hesitated some time, not knowing whether to open these memoirs at the beginning or at the end, i.e., whether to start with my birth or with my death.
Machado de Assis has been a hugely influential writer, first and foremost in his native Brazil but also in the whole Latin America, and it is virtually certain that Márquez was familiar with his works. But there is more. Read this:
In Santiago, the capital of the kingdom of Chile, at the very moment of the great earthquake of 1647 in which many thousands of lives were lost, a young Spaniard by the name of Jeronimo Rugera, who had been locked up on a criminal charge, was standing against a prison pillar, about to hang himself.
What do you think when and where might have this sentence been written? If you guessed 20th century and Latin America then you’re pretty far off – it’s an opening sentence from a story called The Earthquake in Chile, from the collection The Marquise of O and Other Stories by a German romantic writer Heinrich von Kleist, who died in 1811.
And now, two hundread years later, take a look at the beginning of a Pulizer-winning novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon, published in 2000
In later years, holding forth to an interviewer or to an audience of aging fans at a comic book convention, Sam Clay liked to declare, apropos of his and Joe Kavalier’s greatest creation, that back when he was a boy, sealed and hog-tied inside the airtight vessel known as Brooklyn, New York, he had been haunted by dreams of Harry Houdini.
The One Hundred Years of Solitude echoes right through that sentence, to the extent that it can be considered a homage. And there are yet another kinds of links – Kafka, for instance, has linked his novella The Metamorphosis
One morning, when Gregor Samsa woke from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a horrible vermin.
with his own The Trial:
Someone must have been telling lies about Joseph K., for without having done anything wrong he was arrested one fine morning.
And finally something different and altogether more subtle – Daphne du Maurier and her truly sublime, magical and lingering opening line of Rebecca
Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.
Although I haven’t actually read the book – and I have a sneaking suspicion that I even wouldn’t like it if I did – I have picked up Rebecca in bookstores for countless of times simply to open the first page and read this line, like reading a poem. In fact, it IS poetry – it’s a perfect iambic hexameter with a dibrach in fifth foot.
Today at the New York Public Library I spent again about an hour and half among the shelves, opening books, reading their first pages and then putting them back. In London I ended up reading the first sentence of Mr. Loveday’s Little Outing and then all the subsequent sentences of the story until the last one – it was a great story. And then I put it back on the shelf. For the next reader.