“Call me Ishmael” and Other Favorite First Lines in Literature

Happy birthday, Moby-Dick! On this day in 1851, Herman Melville’s classic novel was first published in the United States. Even if you’ve never read the book, odds are you’re still somewhat familiar with Captain Ahab’s maniacal hunt for the albino sperm whale that ate his leg. You’re probably also familiar with the first sentence, because it’s one of the most well known in the literature world: “Call me Ishmael.” That’s a damn fine opening, especially for a novel that otherwise is infamous for being a long slog of a read. (If you can get through the tedious chapters detailing 19th century whaling practices, it’s a totally rewarding experience.)

In honor of Melville’s classic opening line, I’ve listed my favorite first sentences in fiction. What makes them so great? Brevity, a beautiful turn of phrase, maybe some attention grabbing shock value – yes, please, to all of the above.

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Charlotte’s Web, E.B. White

“Where’s Papa going with that ax?” said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.

Thank you, Mr. White, for introducing us city kids to a sad reality of farm life: the runt gets axed. And so with this perfectly unsettling sentence begins one of the loveliest stories of friendship in children’s literature.

Ulysses, James Joyce

Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.

Such a strangely beautiful combination of words. The best way to read Joyce outside of a classroom is to ignore the challenging literary analysis and just enjoy his badass command of the English language.

“Spicy Little Curses Such As These”, Laini Taylor (short story from the collection Lips Touch Three Times)

Down in Hell, the Englishwoman known around Jaipur as “the old bitch” was taking tea with a demon.

I love Laini Taylor’s storytelling.

Emma, Jane Austen

Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.

Pride and Prejudice probably has the most well known Jane Austen opening line (“It is a truth universally acknowledged…”), but Emma‘s is my personal favorite. Right from the start, readers expect the privileged, carefree Emma Woodhouse to be a delightfully irritating character.

The Diamond Age, Neal Stephenson

The bells of St. Marks were ringing changes up on the mountain when Bud skated over to the mod parlor to upgrade his skull gun.

My favorite science fiction novel, with an opening line that tells you everything you need to know about the tone and style of the rest of the book.

One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez (translated by Gregory Rabassa)

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.

A lot of information is packed into one whimsical, wonderful, deadpan sentence, and the reader can’t help but continue on to find out what else this book has to offer.

No Good Duke Goes Unpunished, Sarah MacLean

He woke with a splitting head and a hard cock.

Alrighty, then! Say what you will about my level of maturity, but you must admit, it’s a memorable opening.

The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.

Short, sweet and ostensibly simple, just like a hobbit.

Recognize any of your favorite first sentences here? If not, list some of yours in the comments!

One comment

  1. I LOVE this list. I’ve got to leave an honorable mention to one of my favorites:

    “Harry Potter was a highly unusual boy in many ways.” – Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.

    Arguably the best book in the series! That first line just bursts with nostalgia.

    Like

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