Mixing Memory

Best Openings

Regular cognitive science posting will resume in the very near future, but for the holiday, I thought I’d go with something a bit lighter. What’s your favorite opening paragraph in a book? I’ve always liked the standards: Notes from the Underground and One Hundred Years of Solitude (and even Love in the Time of Cholera), for example. I’d include the opening of Growth of Soil on that list, too. But I think I’ve found one to add to that list. It’s the opening of Ivan Aleksandrovich Goncharov’s Oblamov, and in David Magarshak’s translation, it goes like this:

Ilya Ilyich Oblomov was lying in bed one morning in his flat in Gorokhovaya Street in one of those large houses which have as many inhabitants as a county.

He was a man of about thirty-two or three, of medium height and pleasant appearance, with dark grey eyes, but with a total absence of any definite idea, any concentration, in his features. Thoughts promenaded freely all over his face, fluttered about in his eyes, reposed on his half-parted lips, concealed themselves in the furrow of his brow, and then vanished completely — and it was at such moments that an expression of serene unconcern spread all over his face. This unconcern passed from his face into the contours of his body and even into the folds of his dressing gown.

So, tell me your favorites. If you have copies nearby, go ahead and type them out.


  1. #1 Dave Munger
    January 1, 2007

    I’ve always been partial to the opening of “Pride and Prejudice”:

    It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.

    However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families that he is considered as the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.

  2. #2 igor eduardo kupfer
    January 1, 2007

    Richard Stark’s Parker novels usually feature some great openings. Here’s one at random, from Firebreak

    When the phone rang, Parker was in the garage, killing a man. His knees pressed down on the interloper’s back, his hands were clasped around his forehead. He heard the phone ring, distantly, in the house, as he jerked his forearms back; heard the neck snap; heard the phone’s second ring, cut off, as Claire answered, somewhere in the house.

  3. #3 Lewis Haupt
    January 1, 2007

    I can’t decide between my two favorite opening paragraphs, both of which are composed of comically long run-on sentences.
    John Barth’s wonderful novel, The Sot-Weed Factor [1 sentence]:
    In the last years of the Seventeenth Century there was to be found among the fops and fools of the London coffeehouses one rangy, gangling flitch called Ebenezer Cooke, more ambitious than talented, and yet more talented than prudent, who, like his friends-in-folly, all of whom were supposed to be educating at Oxford or Cambridge, had found the sound of Mother English more fun to game with than her sense to labor over, and so rather than applying himself to the pains of scholarship, had learned the knack of versifying, and ground out quires of couplets after the fashion of the day, afroth with Joves and Jupiters, aclang with jarring rhymes, and string-taut with similes stretched to the snapping-point.
    Translators’ preface to the King James bible in which they suck up to their boss [2 sentences] (omitted in many editions):
    Great and manifold were the blessings, most dread Sovereign, which Almighty God, the Father of all mercies, bestowed upon us the people of England, when first he sent Your Majesty’s Royal Person to rule and reign over us. For whereas it was the expectation of many, who wished not well unto our Sion, that upon the setting of that bright Occidental Star, Queen Elizabeth of most happy memory, some thick and palpable clouds of darkness should overshadowed this Land, that men should have been in doubt which way they were to walk; and that it should hardly be known, who was to direct the unsettled State; the appearance of Your Majesty, as of the Sun in his strength, instantly dispelled those supposed and surmised mists, and gave unto all that were well affected exceeding cause of comfort; especially when we beheld the Government established in Your Highness, and Your hopeful Seed, by an undoubted Title, and this also accompanied with peace and tranquility at home and abroad.

  4. #4 coturnix
    January 1, 2007

    My favourite is not the opening line of the book, but the opening line of the second chapter of Bulgakov’s “Master and Margarita”:

    “In a white cloak with blood-red lining, with the shuffling gait of a cavalryman, early in the morning of the fourteenth day of the spring month of Nisan, there came out to the covered colonnade between the two wings of the palace of Herod the Great’ the procurator of Judea, Pontius Pilate.

    More than anything in the world the procurator hated the smell of rose oil, and now everything foreboded a bad day, because this smell had been pursuing the procurator since dawn.”

    I know it by heart in Serbian language.

    And, of course, I love the opening lines of Kafka’s “Metamorphosis”:

    As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic bug.

  5. #5 Chris
    January 1, 2007

    Great lines. Bora, I’m a big Bulgakov fan, and M&M is one of my favorite books of all time. Great choice.

    Oh, and I love how Kafka begins works with something pattently absurd. He stole it from Kleist, though. Have you read “The Marquise of O…?”

  6. #6 Mike Kaspari
    January 1, 2007

    “The design of a book is the pattern of a reality controlled and shaped by the mind of the writer. This is completely understood about poetry or fiction, but it is too seldom realized about books of fact. And yet the impulse which drives a man to poetry will send another man into the tide pools and force him to try to report what he finds there. Why is an expedition to Tibet undertaken, or a sea bottom dredged? Why do men, sitting at the microscope, examine the calcareous plates of a sea-cucumber, and, finding a new arrangement and number, feel an exaltation and give the new species a name, and write about it possessively? It would be good to know the impulse truly, not to be confused by the ‘services to science’ platitudes or the other little mazes in which we entice our minds so that they will not know what we are doing.” John Steinbeck The Log from the Sea of Cortez

    There is so much going on in that paragraph. This book is one of the best and truest introductions to the draw of field biology. I like to think that Steinbeck is the only ecologist to win a Nobel prize. Granted, it was in literature, but let’s not quibble.

    Getting things done in Academia
    a guide for graduate students

  7. #7 Imani
    January 1, 2007

    Do opening stanzas count? I love Lattimore’s translation of The Iliad.

    Sing, goddess, the anger of Pelleus’ son Achilleus
    and its devastation, which puts thousandfold upon the
    hurled in their multitudes to the house of Hades strong souls
    of heroes, but gave their bodies to the delicate feasting
    of dogs, of all birds, and the will of Zeus was accomplished
    since that time when first there stood in division of conflict
    Atreus’ son the lord of men and brilliant Achilleus.

    And I don’t know if this is a favourite but I do considerate an outstanding opening: Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red translated by Erdaq M. Gukuar.

    I am nothing but a corpse now, a body at the bottom of a well. Though I drew my last breath long ago and my heart has stopped beating, no one, apart from that vile murderer, knows what’s happened to me. As for that wretch, he felt for my pulse and listened for my breath to be sure I was dead, then kicked me in the midriff, carried me to the edge of the well, raised me up and dropped me below. As I fell, my head, which he’d smashed with a stone, broke apart; my face, my forehead and cheeks, were crushed; my bones shattered, and my mouth filled with blood.

  8. #8 Tree
    January 2, 2007

    If Tolstoy wrote SF:

    Andrej Koscuisko stood at the view-port watching with dread as the ship neared the Station. There was a signal at the talkalert; sighing, he keyed it.

    “Yes, Danitosh.”

    The Station came closer moment by moment, a bleak lifeless piece of galactic debris with a self-contained school for potential Ship’s Surgeons sprawled over its surface. He didn’t like it; but there was no sense in making things harder on the crew of this ship than they already were. It was just their bad luck that the Pride of Place had been going in the same direction as the disgraced son of the head of the Koscuisko familial corporation just at the time they’d been ready to leave.

    “Cleared through to offload, your Excellency. You’re to be met. A Tutor named Chonis expects to be greeting you.”

    “Yes, very good,” Andrej murmured half-heartedly. He was late arriving. He hadn’t wanted to come. He was more frightened of what awaited him than he thought he’d ever been in his life. He couldn’t take his eyes off the viewer-port, consumed with apprehension as the ship neared for landing.

    Ugly piece of rock.

    Ugly Station.

    Grim cold utilitarian dock-port, the ship’s tugs at least eight years old, and all alike. Fleet resources. Fleet Orientation Station, Medical, where potential Ship’s Surgeons all had to come to learn how to Inquire.

    If he’d guessed beforehand what his father would wish, would he have completed his medical training?

    He was here now, and there was no help for it. He would do what was needful. His father had said the word. That was all.

    Susan R. Matthews “An Exchange of Hostages” nominated for a Hugo in 1997.

  9. #9 Michael Anes
    January 2, 2007

    Cool topic, with many interesting choices.

    Here’s a major fave first page (from Don Delillo’s White Noise), with notes on its creation…

  10. #10 w
    January 3, 2007

    Wonderful! I’ve typed up my favorite beginnings over on the Shelf on my site, fyi.

    For now, I’ll recommend anything by W. G. Sebald. And here are three of my very favorite openings:

    Too Loud a Solitude, by Bohumil Hrabal:

    For thirty-five years now I’ve been in wastepaper, and it’s my love story. For thirty-five years I’ve been compacting wastepaper and books, smearing myself with letters until I’ve come to look like my encyclopedias–and a good three tons of them I’ve compacted over the years. I am a jug filled with water both magic and plain; I have only to lean over and a stream of beautiful thoughts flows out of me.

    and Pedro Paramo, by Juan Rulfo:

    I came to Comala because I was told that my father, a certain Pedro Paramo, was living there. My mother told me so, and I promised her I would come to see him as soon as she died. I pressed her hand so that she?d know I would do it, but she was dying and I was in the mood to promise her anything.

    and Jakob von Gunten, by Robert Walser:

    One learns very little here, there is a shortage of teachers, and none of us boys of the Benjamenta Institute will come to anything, that is to say, we shall all be something very small and subordinate later in life.

  11. #11 coturnix
    January 6, 2007

    No, I have not read “The Marquise of O…” Should I?

  12. #12 Chris
    January 6, 2007

    Definitely, if you like Kafka. Kleist was a big influence on Kafka, and was also known for beginning stories with something absurd, with the Marquise of O being the best example.

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