Everyone knows that you’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover. But no one said anything about the first line. In fact, we think that the first line of a book is often the most revealing. When done right, it should tantalize, intrigue and tell you something fundamental about the pages to follow. Here are ten of the very best.
10 Books That Hooked Us at the Very First Sentence
“anna Karenina” By Leo Tolstoy
“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
The first line to Tolstoy’s epic tragedy is famous for good reason: It’s full of wisdom, and it lets readers know that they’re in for some serious family drama. And what’s better than family drama (as long as it's not your own)?
“the Color Purple” By Alice Walker
“You better not tell nobody but God.”
Celie, the narrator of Alice Walker’s masterpiece, is a poor, uneducated black girl living in the South in the 1930s. She tells her secrets to God, because she has no one else. Here, in just a few words, we get a taste of Celie’s strong voice and her terrible heartbreak.
“the Martian” By Andy Weir
“I’m pretty much fucked.”
If you saw the movie, you already know that astronaut Mark Watney is a pretty funny guy, even when he’s been abandoned on Mars. There’s plenty of tension (and math) in Andy Weir’s novel, but we love it as much for the warm humor, which is evident from the very first line.
“middlesex” By Jeffrey Eugenides
“I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day of January 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.”
The first line to Eugenides’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is a textbook example of efficient writing. In a single sentence, he manages to set up the novel’s oh-so-intriguing premise (ICYMI, the book is about a hermaphrodite), as well as the time period and place.
“moby Dick” By Herman Melville
“Call me Ishmael.”
And call us predictable. It’s probably the most famous first line in literary history. We included it because it’s got panache. Novels at the time were not exactly into succinct sentences (see: all of Dickens) and Moby Dick continues with some equally flowery prose pretty quickly. But with this short, mysterious declaration, Melville shows that he knows how to make an entrance.
“the Secret History” By Donna Tartt
“The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we understood the gravity of our situation.”
OK, who is Bunny and why is he dead? We’re only one line in and we have an almost physical need to keep reading. Donna Tartt’s addictive debut, about an obsessive clique embroiled in a murder mystery, hits the ground running (and with gorgeous prose, to boot).
“pride And Prejudice” By Jane Austen
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
Another oft-quoted oldie-but-goodie. Jane Austen’s first line gets us right in the thick of the complicated world of 19th-century social life, and introduces us right away to her slightly cheeky tone.
“lolita” By Vladimir Nabokov
“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul.”
We never thought that the (fictional) jailhouse memoir of a creepy pedophile would end up being one our of favorite books of all time. But damn, the man can write.
“a Visit From The Goon Squad” By Jennifer Egan
“It began in the usual way, in the bathroom of the Lassimo Hotel.”
We love the idea of anything beginning “in the usual way” in a hotel bathroom. The first line of Jennifer Egan’s Pulitzer Prize-winning collection of linked stories is, like the rest of the book, quirky and totally unique.
“the Handmaid’s Tale” By Margaret Atwood
“We slept in what had once been the gymnasium.”
Though the first line of Margaret Atwood’s dystopia is simple, there’s an undeniably ominous tone, and it raises many more questions than it answers—an ideal start to a terrifying, mind-bending book.