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J.A.A. Purves

Best Opening Paragraphs

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Here's a list for a thread that would be of primary interest to writers, but also to readers as well. What are some of your favorite beginning paragraphs of a book? There are many books where the opening paragraph alone has sold me on the entire book, but there are even better opening paragraphs that are simply a pleasure to go back and read again and again just because of the author's use of language and his or her ability to provoke the reader with clear ideas or questions. There is the occasional opening paragraph that I will just never forget. It is like it has been seared into my memory, providing a permanent little outpost in my imagination.

I think my favorite opening paragraph of all time is probably the one from G.K. Chesterton's Manalive -

A wind sprang high in the west, like a wave of unreasonable happiness, and tore eastward across England, trailing with it the frosty scent of forests and the cold intoxication of the sea. In a million holes and corners it refreshed a man like a flagon, and astonished him like a blow. In the inmost chambers of intricate and embowered houses it woke like a domestic explosion, littering the floor with some professor's papers till they seemed as precious as fugitive, or blowing out the candle by which a boy read Treasure Island and wrapping him in roaring dark. But everywhere it bore drama into undramatic lives, and carried the trump of crisis across the world. Many a harassed mother in a mean backyard had looked at five dwarfish shirts on the clothes-line as at some small, sick tragedy; it was as if she had hanged her five children. The wind came, and they were full and kicking as if five fat imps had sprung into them; and far down in her oppressed subconscious she half-remembered those coarse comedies of her fathers when the elves still dwelt in the homes of men. Many an unnoticed girl in a dank walled garden had tossed herself into the hammock with the same intolerant gesture with which she might have tossed herself into the Thames; and that wind rent the waving wall of woods and lifted the hammock like a balloon, and showed her shapes of quaint clouds far beyond, and pictures of bright villages far below, as if she rode heaven in a fairy boat. Many a dusty clerk or cleric, plodding a telescopic road of poplars, thought for the hundredth time that they were like the plumes of a hearse; when this invisible energy caught and swung and clashed them round his head like a wreath or salutation of seraphic wings. There was in it something more inspired and authoritative even than the old wind of the proverb; for this was the good wind that blows nobody harm.

And then, I have other favorites.

From Mark Helprin's Winter's Tale -

There was a white horse, on a quiet winter morning when snow covered the streets gently and was not deep, and the sky was swept with vibrant stars, except in the east, where dawn was beginning in a light blue flood. The air was motionless, but would soon start to move as the sun came up and winds from Canada came charging down the Hudson.

From John Buchan's The Path of the King -

When Biorn was a very little boy in his father's stead at Hightown he had a play of his own making for the long winter nights. At the back end of the hall, where the men sat at ale, was a chamber which the thralls used of a morning - a place which smelt of hams and meal and good provender. There a bed had been made for him when he forsook his cot in the women's quarters. When the door was shut it was black dark, save for a thin crack of light from the wood fire and torches of the hall. The crack made on the earthen floor a line like a golden river. Biorn, cuddled up on a bench in his little bear-skin, was drawn like a moth to that stream of light. With his heart beating fast he would creep to it and stand for a moment with his small body bathed in the radiance. The game was not to come back at once, but to foray into the farther darkness before returning to the sanctuary of bed. That took all the fortitude in Biorn's heart, and not till the thing was dared and done could he go happily to sleep.

From Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas -

We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold. I remember saying something like "I feel a bit lightheaded; maybe you should drive ..." And suddenly there was a terrible roar all around us and the sky was full of what looked like huge bats, all swooping and screeching and diving around the car, which was going about a hundred miles an hour with the top down to Las Vegas. And a voice was screaming: "Holy Jesus! What are these goddamn animals?"

Most recently, from Samantha Harvey's All Is Song -

They've come, they've come, he was thinking, and there they were all around him spinning through the darkness, and lighting the darkness. It was all just an illusion, they said. You weren't ever alone. How happy he was to hear it. He opened his eyes to their bright limbs and was repeating to himself that saying, Nothing happens until something moves. And thinking, therefore, I must move. Lovely formless limbs wrapping around him, or were they just drifts of light? Extraordinary beauty anyhow, extraordinary. Behind him a sound drew on his mind and stole his rest away, a semicircular sound that scooped anxious shapes into this thoughts, and began, though reluctantly, to make sense to him. I know this sound, I must move.

I'm sure I'll kick myself later for not including a few others, but these are five that for me most immediately come to mind. S what are some of your favorites, fiction or nonfiction?

Edited by Persiflage

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Can we take it as a given that just about anything in Dickens counts? "Marley was dead, to begin with...." "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times...." "London. Michaelmas Term lately over...." (that last from Bleak House). Or, to my mind, the best of all--The Mystery of Edwin Drood:

An ancient English Cathedral Tower? How can the ancient English Cathedral tower be here! The well-known massive gray square tower of its old Cathedral? How can that be here! There is no spike of rusty iron in the air, between the eye and it, from any point of the real prospect. What is the spike that intervenes, and who has set it up? Maybe it is set up by the Sultan’s orders for the impaling of a horde of Turkish robbers, one by one. It is so, for cymbals clash, and the Sultan goes by to his palace in long procession. Ten thousand scimitars flash in the sunlight, and thrice ten thousand dancing-girls strew flowers. Then, follow white elephants caparisoned in countless gorgeous colours, and infinite in number and attendants. Still the Cathedral Tower rises in the background, where it cannot be, and still no writhing figure is on the grim spike. Stay! Is the spike so low a thing as the rusty spike on the top of a post of an old bedstead that has tumbled all awry? Some vague period of drowsy laughter must be devoted to the consideration of this possibility.

[Which is then lifted by David Peace to start out 1980]

Or The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy (Laurence Sterne):

I wish either my father or my mother, or indeed both of them, as they were in duty both equally bound to it, had minded what they were about when they begot me; had they duly consider'd how much depended upon what they were then doing;—that not only the production of a rational Being was concerned in it, but that possibly the happy formation and temperature of his body, perhaps his genius and the very cast of his mind;—and, for aught they knew to the contrary, even the fortunes of his whole house might take their turn from the humours and dispositions which were then uppermost;—Had they duly weighed and considered all this, and proceeded accordingly,—I am verily persuaded I should have made a quite different figure in the world, from that in which the reader is likely to see me.—Believe me, good folks, this is not so inconsiderable a thing as many of you may think it;—you have all, I dare say, heard of the animal spirits, as how they are transfused from father to son, &c. &c.—and a great deal to that purpose:—Well, you may take my word, that nine parts in ten of a man's sense or his nonsense, his successes and miscarriages in this world depend upon their motions and activity, and the different tracks and trains you put them into, so that when they are once set a-going, whether right or wrong, 'tis not a half-penny matter,—away they go cluttering like hey-go mad; and by treading the same steps over and over again, they presently make a road of it, as plain and as smooth as a garden-walk, which, when they are once used to, the Devil himself sometimes shall not be able to drive them off it.

Lolita (Vladimir Nabokov):

Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.

Year Zero (David Peace)--though, really, it's more like a line and a paragraph:

IN THE OCCUPIED CITY, you are a writer and you are running--

In the wintertime, papers in your arms, through this January night, down these Tokyo streets, you are running from the scene of the crime; from the snow and from the mud, from the bank and from the bodies; running from the scene of the crime and from the words of the book; words that first enticed and entranced you, then deceived and defeated you, and now have left you in-snared and in-prisoned--

And one more, for the fun of it. Mumbo Jumbo by Ishmael Reed:

A True Sport, the Mayor of New Orleans, spiffy in his patent-leather brown and white shoes, his plaid suit, the Rudolph Valentino parted-down-the-middle hair style, sits in his office. Sprawled upon his knees is Zuzu, local doo-wack-a-doo and voo-doo-dee-odo fizgig. A slatternly floozy, her green, sequined dress quivers.

EDIT: Ach. Two more.

Appointment with Death (Agatha Christie):

"You do see, don't you, that she's got to be killed?"

The question floated out into the still night air, seemed to hang there a moment and then drift away down into the darkness toward the dead sea.

Love in the Ruins (Walker Percy):

Now in these dread latter days of the old violent beloved U.S.A. and of the Christ-forgetting Christ-haunted death-dealing Western world I came to myself in a grove of young pines and the question came to me: has it happened at last?
Edited by NBooth

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I used to read a lot of horror stories. No matter how many times I read Shirley Jackson's opening paragraph for The Haunting of Hill House, it never fails to raise the hairs on the back of my neck....

No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill house, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for 80 years and might for 80 more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.

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Lolita (Vladimir Nabokov):

Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.

This is the first one that came to me. I read it standing in a bookstore and immediately bought the book. Still have read it (though I plan to), but I pull it off the shelf every now and again and read the first page. I also love the second, third, and fourth paragraphs. "Look at this tangle of thorns."

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Can we take it as a given that just about anything in Dickens counts? "Marley was dead, to begin with...." "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times...." "London. Michaelmas Term lately over...." (that last from Bleak House). Or, to my mind, the best of all--The Mystery of Edwin Drood:

Yes!

No matter how many times I read Shirley Jackson's opening paragraph for The Haunting of Hill House, it never fails to raise the hairs on the back of my neck....

No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill house, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for 80 years and might for 80 more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.
I have to read that book now.

A few others ...

The first paragraph of Patrick O'Brian's Master and Commander -

The music-room in the Governor's House in Port Mahon, a tall, handsome, pillared octagon, was filled with the triumphant first movement of Locatelli's C major quartet. The players, Italians pinned against the far wall by rows and rows of little round gilt chairs, where playing with passionate conviction as they mounted towards the penultimate crescendo, towards the tremendous pause and the deep, liberating final chord. And on the little gilt chairs at least some of the audience were following the rise with an equal intensity: there were two in the third row, on the left-hand side; and they happened to be sitting next to one another. The listener farther to the left was a man of between twenty and thirty whose big form overflowed his seat, leaving only a streak of gilt wood to be seen here or there. He was wearing his best uniform - the white-lapelled blue coat, white waistcoat, breeches and stockings of a lieutenant in the Royal Navy, with the silver medal of the Nile in his buttonhole - and the deep white cuff of his gold-buttoned sleeve beat the time, while his bright blue eyes, staring from what would have been a pink-and-white face if it had not been so deeply tanned, gazed fixedly at the bow of the first violin. The high note came, the pause, the resolution; and with the resolution the sailor's fist swept firmly down upon his knee. He leant back in his chair, extinguishing it entirely, sighed happily and turned towards his neighbor with a smile. The words "Very finely played, sir, I believe" were formed in his gullet if not quite in his mouth when he caught the cold and indeed inimical look and heard the whisper, "If you really must beat the measure, sir, let me entreat you to do so in time, and not half a beat ahead."

From Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep -

It was about eleven o'clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved, sober, and I didn't care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars.

As a nonfiction example, I've always loved the first paragraph to G.K. Chesterton's Orthodoxy -

The only possible excuse for this book is that it is an answer to a challenge. Even a bad shot is dignified when he accepts a duel. When some time ago I published a series of hasty but sincere papers, under the name of "Heretics," several critics for whose intellect I have a warm respect (I may mention specially Mr. G.S. Street) said that it was all very well for me to tell everybody to affirm his cosmic theory, but that I had carefully avoided my precepts with example. "I will begin to worry about my philosophy," said Mr. Street, "when Mr. Chesterton has given us his." It was perhaps an incautious suggestion to make to a person only too ready to write books upon the feeblest provocation. But after all, though Mr. Street has inspired and created this book, he need not read it. If he does read it, he will find that in its pages I have attempted in a vague and personal way, in a set of mental pictures rather than in a series of deductions, to state the philosophy in which I have come to believe. I will not call it my philosophy, for I did not make it. God and humanity made it; and it made me.

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No matter how many times I read Shirley Jackson's opening paragraph for The Haunting of Hill House, it never fails to raise the hairs on the back of my neck....

No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill house, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for 80 years and might for 80 more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.

I have to read that book now.

Enjoy it. It's a quick read. Here's another one of my favorites, from Norman Maclean's Young Men and Fire, a book examining the deaths of 12 US Forestry firefighters, who parachuted into Mann Gulch along the Missouri River in Montana, to control what was thought to have been a minor blaze...

In 1949 the Smokejumpers were not far from their origins as parachute jumpers turned stunt performers dropping from the wings of planes at county fairs just for the hell of it plus a few dollars, less hospital expenses. By this time they were also sure they were the best firefighters in the United States Forest Service, and although by now they were very good, especially against certain kinds of fires, they should have stopped to realize that they were newcomers in this ancient business of fighting forest fires. It was 1940 when the first parachute jump on a forest fire was made and a year later that the Smokejumpers were organized, so only for nine years had there been a profession with the aim of taking on at the same time three of the four elements of the universe --- air, earth, and fire --- and in a simple continuous act dropping out of the sky and landing in a treetop or on the face of a cliff in order to make good their boast of digging a trench around every fire they landed on by ten o'clock the next morning. In 1949 the Smokejumpers were still so young that they referred affectionately to all fires they jumped on as "ten o'clock fires," as if they already had them under control before they jumped. They were still so young they hadn't learned to count the odds and to sense they might owe the universe a tragedy.

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Good idea for a thread. :)

"Mabel had known there would be silence. That was the point, after all. No infants cooing or wailing. No neighbor children playfully hollering down the lane. No pad of small feet on wooden stairs worn smooth by generations, or clackety-clack of toys along the kitchen floor. All those sounds of her failure and regret would be left behind, and in their place would be silence." The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey.

"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. At that time Macondo was a village of twenty adobe houses, built on the bank of a river of clear water that ran along a bed of polished stones, which were white and enormous, like prehistoric eggs. The world was so recent that many things lacked names, and in order to indicate them it was necessary to point. Every year during the month of March a family of ragged gypsies would set up their tents near the village, and with a great uproar of pipes and kettledrums they would display new inventions. First they brought the magnet. A heavy gypsy with an untamed beard and sparrow hands, who introduced himself as Melquiades, put on a bold public demonstration of what he himself called the eighth wonder of the learned alchemists of Macedona. He went from house to house dragging two metal ingots and everybody was amazed to see pots, pans, tongs, and braziers tumble down from their places and beams creak from the desperation of nails and screws trying to emerge, and even objects that had been lost for a long time appeared from where they had been searched for most and went dragging along in turbulent confusion behind Melquaides' magical irons." One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. This is only part of the first paragraph. It goes on for another 3/4s of a page. :)

"We started dying before the snow, and like the snow, we continued to fall. It was surprising there were so many of us left to die. For those who survived the spotted sickness from the south, our long fight west to Nadouisssioux land where we signed the treaty, and then a wind from the east, bringing exile in a storm of government papers, what descended from the north in 1912 seemed impossible." Nanapush, an Anishinabe elder, describing the demise of his tribe in Louise Erdrich's novel, Tracks.

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If I may:

John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath is an outstanding one:

To the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth. The plows crossed and recrossed the rivulet marks. The last rains lifted the corn quickly and scattered weed colonies and grass along the sides of the roads so that the gray country and the dark red country began to disappear under a green cover. In the last part of May the sky grew pale and the clouds that had hung in high puffs for so long in the spring were dissipated. The sun flared down on the growing corn day after day until a line of brown spread along the edge of each green bayonet. The clouds appeared, and went away, and in a while they did not try any more. The weeds grew darker green to protect themselves, and they did not spread any more. The surface of the earth crusted, a thin hard crust, and as the sky became pale, so the earth became pale, pink in the red country and white in the gray country.

Alan Patton's Cry, the Beloved Country:

There is a lovely road that runs from Ixopo into the hills. These hills are grass-covered and rolling, and they are lovely beyond any singing of it. The road climbs seven miles into them, to Carisbrooke; and from there, if there is no mist, you look down into one of the fairest valleys of Africa. About you there is grass and bracken and you may hear the forlorn crying of the titihoya, one of the birds of the veld. Below you is the valley of the Umzimkulu, on its journey from the Drakensberg to the sea; and beyond and behind the river, great hill after great hill; and beyond and behind them, the mountains of Ingeli and East Griqualand.

I'd also like to mention Auralia's Colors, though this example is cheating a little. There was some discussion about the opening two paragraphs in the A&F thread on that book, but what made me fall in love with the book was the first paragraph of Chapter 2, especially its first sentence:

The child became twigs and burnt autumn leaves, thin and fisty fingers clutching acorns and seeds as though they were stolen jewels. Her hair hung in tangles, silver and brown like the bark of apple trees. Her smile sealed off secrets. Each day she made a hurried journey to see as much of the world as she could bear and to harvest a small gallery of souvenirs.

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I love this sort of discussion. Here's my contribution, from Hemingway's A Farewell To Arms (I expect everyone knows it well):

"In the later summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterward the road bare and white except for the leaves."

This is the passage that made me fall in love with his writing - it's actually a very mannered and carefully constructed syntax, but it just feels so natural, so vividly immediate.

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Seconding Cry, the Beloved Country and A Farewell to Arms.

At the risk of posting too much in this thread (but I enjoy it too much not to post), here are a few more.

There's the maddening/daunting/never-completed Finnegan's Wake:

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.

I've never gotten even a little of the way into that book, but I do dearly love the opening/closing paragraph.

Another one sitting, waiting forlornly to be read: The Communist Manifesto:

A specter is haunting Europe--the specter of Communism. All the Powers of old Europe have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this specter: Pope and Tsar, Metternich and Guizot, French Radicals and German police spies.

Notes from the Underground

I am a sick man...I am a spiteful man. I am an unattractive man. I believe my liver is diseased. However, I know nothing at all about my disease, and do not know for certain what ails me. I don't consult a doctor for it, and never have, though I have a respect for medicine and doctors. Besides, I am extremely superstitious, sufficiently so to respect medicine, anyway (I am well educated enough not to be superstitious, but I am superstitious). No, I refuse to consult a doctor from spite. That you probably will not understand. Well, I understand it, though. Of course, I can't explain who it is precisely that I am mortifying in this case by my spite: I am perfectly well aware that I cannot "pay out" the doctors by not consulting them; I know better than anyone that by all this I am only injuring myself and no one else. But still, if I don't consult a doctor it is from spite. My liver is bad, well--let it get worse!

Other notables: Don Quixote, Moby-Dick--novels so famous that it really is a given that they're on the list, even if we don't include them. Probably Huckleberry Finn, too. Not to get too highbrow, though, a couple of selections from the unjustly-forgotten (yet not so long as I draw breath, he declaimed melodramatically) Ellery Queen:

Calamity Town:

Ellery Queen stood knee-deep in luggage on the Wrightsville station platform and thought: this makes me an admiral. Admiral Columbus.

Ten Day's Wonder:

In the beginning it was without form, a darkness that kept shifting like dancers. There was music beyond, tiny, cheerful, baffling, and then it would be vast, rushing on you and, as it rushed, losing its music in sounds so big you flowed through the spaces like a gnat in an air stream, and then it was past and dwindling and tiny music again and there was the darkness shifting again.

Edited by NBooth

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I occasionally teach a creative writing seminar where we spend time focusing on beginnings. I've enjoyed discussions inspired by the opening paragraphs -- or sometimes the first and second page -- of A River Runs Through It, Out of Africa, Billy Bathgate, Farhenheit 451, The Tiger Rising, Story of a Girl. I'm especially fond of A River Runs Through It: It sets up the voice, period, and themes of the book so beautifully.

In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing. We lived at the junction of great trout rivers in western Montana, and our father was a Presbyterian minister and a fly fisherman who tied his own flies and taught others. He told us about Christ's disciples being fishermen, and we were left to assume, as my brother and I did, that all first-class fishermen on the Sea of Galilee were fly fishermen and that John, the favorite, was a dry-fly fisherman.

Religion. Fly-fishing. The junction of two rivers. The father, his expertise, his passion. Brothers... and the issue of "favoritism." Biblical allusions. "No clear line..." The art of the fly.

Edited by Overstreet

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Ian Fleming's CASINO ROYALE:

The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning. Then the soul-erosion produced by high gambling -- a compost of greed and fear and nervous tension -- becomes unbearable and the senses awake and revolt from it.

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How could I forget Gone With the Wind?

Scarlett O'Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were. In her face were too sharply blended the delicate features of her mother, a Coast aristocrat of French descent, and the heavy ones of her florid Irish father. But it was an arresting face, pointed of chin, square of jaw. Her eyes were pale green without a touch of hazel, starred with bristly black lashes and slightly tilted at the ends. Above them, her thick black brows slanted upward, cutting a startling oblique line in her magnolia-white skin—that skin so prized by Southern women and so carefully guarded with bonnets, veils, and mittens against hot Georgia suns.

Is it cheating to mention the Gospel of John?

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I just looked up on Amazon the opening paragraph from George Pelecanos' The Sweet Forever, a book I originally read in 1998 and again in 2002. Back then I had not heard of nor ever read the Richard Stark Parker novels, but a decade later the homage is there and so perfect.

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Okay, this is irresistible, and I've just noticed there's no Faulkner, so here's a paragraph that hit me like a thunderbolt:

Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting. They were coming toward where the flag was and I went along the fence. Luster was hunting in the grass by the flower tree. They took the flag out, and they were hitting. Then they put the flag back and they went to the table, and he hit and the other hit. Then they went on, and I went along the fence. Luster came away from the flower tree and we went through the fence and they stopped and we stopped and I looked through the fence while Luster was hunting in the grass.

I was the pretentious teenager taking The Sound And The Fury on holiday when everyone else was reading Harry Potter; I absolutely loved it, in particular the first section which is not only innovative and clever, but also deeply moving.

Has anyone here read L.P.Hartley's 'The Go-Between'? That first line,

The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.

sends a sort of thrill down my spine when I read it - not quite sure why, but something to do with English nostalgia and being a hopeless Romantic.

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These contributions are fantastic and this thread is turning into something quite pleasing to the ear.

I thought of another little elegant opening paragraph that I've loved deeply for almost a decade now.

1689. First paragraph of Book I, Chapter I to John Locke's Two Treatises of Government -

Slavery is so vile and miserable an estate of man, and so directly opposite to the generous temper and courage of our nation; that it is hardly to be conceived, that an Englishman, much less a gentleman, should plead for it. And truly I should have taken Sir Robert Filmer’s Patriarcha, as any other treatise, which would persuade all men, that they are slaves, and ought to be so, for such another exercise of wit, as was his who writ the encomium of Nero; rather than for a serious discourse meant in earnest, had not the gravity of the title and epistle, the picture in the front of the book, and the applause that followed it, required me to believe, that the author and publisher were both in earnest. I therefore took it into my hands with all the expectation, and read it through with all the attention due to a treatise that made such a noise at its coming abroad, and cannot but confess my self mightily surprised, that in a book, which was to provide chains for all mankind, I should find nothing but a rope of sand, useful perhaps to such, whose skill and business it is to raise a dust, and would blind the people, the better to mislead them; but in truth not of any force to draw those into bondage, who have their eyes open, and so much sense about them, as to consider, that chains are but an ill wearing, how much care soever hath been taken to file and polish them.

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I don't have time right now to post paragraphs, but here are more I thought of--not quite opening, but still. :)

One story that I can't get out of my head since I found this thread is The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien. That short story has some of the strongest paragraphs I've ever read.

The last paragraph in Bullet in the Brain by Tobias Wolff.

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I'm awfully fond of Neal Stephenson's The Diamond Age: Or, A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer, which starts as boilerplate cyberpunk before shifting drastically into something else. The intro almost works as cyberpunk parody — it drops the reader into a bunch of tough-guy tech talk and gear fetishing that (thankfully) is just a ruse.

The bells of St. Mark's were ringing changes up on the mountain when Bud skated over to the mod parlor to upgrade his skull gun. Bud had a nice new pair of blades with a top speed of anywhere from a hundred to a hundred and fifty kilometers, depending on how fat you were and whether or not you wore aero. Bud liked wearing skin-tight leather, to show off his muscles. On a previous visit to the mod parlor, two years ago, he had paid to have a bunch of 'sites implanted in his muscles — little critters, too small to see or feel, that twitched Bud's muscle fibers electrically according to a program that was supposed to maximize bulk. Combined with the testosterone pump embedded in his forearm, it was liking working out in a gym night and day, except you didn't have to actually do anything and you never got sweaty. The only drawback was that all the little twitches made him kind of tense and jerky. He'd gotten used to it, but it still made him a little hinky on those skates, especially when he was doing a hundred clicks an hour through a crowded street. But few people hassled Bud, even when he knocked them down in the street, and after today no one would hassle him ever again.

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Hard-boiled detective fiction has its share of gems:

There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot, dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands' necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge.

-- Raymond Chandler, "Red Wind"

When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon.

-- James Crumley, "The Last Good Kiss"

The night of my mother's funeral, Linda Dawson cried on my shoulder, put her tongue in my mouth and asked me to find her husband.

-- Declan Hughes, "The Wrong Kind of Blood"

I was sitting in Tina's Sunset Restaurant, watching the outriggers shuffle lazily through the clear waters of Sabang Bay, when Tomboy took a seat opposite me, ordered a San Miguel from Tina's daughter, and told me someone else had to die. It was five o'clock in the afternoon, there wasn't a cloud in the sky, and up until that point I'd been in a good mood.

-- Simon Kernick, "The Business of Dying"
Edited by Andy Whitman

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Hard-boiled detective fiction has its share of gems:

If we're going there, let's not forget Tracer Bullet:

The dame's scream hit an octave usually reserved for calling dogs, but it meant I had a case, and the sound of greenbacks slapping across my palm is music to my ears any day. After all, I'm not an opera critic. I'm a private eye.

Edited by Rushmore

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Hard-boiled detective fiction has its share of gems:

If we're going there, let's not forget Tracer Bullet:

The dame's scream hit an octave usually reserved for calling dogs, but it meant I had a case, and the sound of greenbacks slapping across my palm is music to my ears any day. After all, I'm not an opera critic. I'm a private eye.

Just wanted to thank you guys for these. Makes me want to dive in to some hard-boiled stories.

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Hard-boiled detective fiction has its share of gems:

If we're going there, let's not forget Tracer Bullet:

The dame's scream hit an octave usually reserved for calling dogs, but it meant I had a case, and the sound of greenbacks slapping across my palm is music to my ears any day. After all, I'm not an opera critic. I'm a private eye.

Just wanted to thank you guys for these. Makes me want to dive in to some hard-boiled stories.

Had someone read that to me cold, I would swear that was a passage from a Guy Noir episode from A Prairie Home Companion.

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Late on a full-mooned Sunday night, the two figures in work clothes appeared on Highway 27, just outside the small college town of Ashton. They were tall, at least seven feet, strongly built, perfectly proportioned. One was dark-haired and sharp-featured, the other blond and powerful. From a half mile away they looked toward the town, regarding the cacophonic sounds of gaiety from the storefronts, streets, and alleys within it. They started walking.

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Anytime anyone mentions an opening paragraph, I think of this:

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.

Perhaps too obvious, but this opened up a whole realm of literary escape for me as a boy and still resonates with me today. I also like that in this paragraph are somewhat foreshadowed all sorts of holes that Bilbo finds himself in that have nothing to do with comfort throughout the course of the story.

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