Call me Ishmael.
It is perhaps the most recognized opening line in American literature, conjuring images of Melville’s Ahab, the whale, and the search for the unattainable.
Over the years I have focused on opening lines of all types of novels and found many surprisingly memorable, even if the stories themselves sometimes fell short of the initial promise. Here, in no particular order, are ten opening lines that stand out – the list is far from exclusive and includes one translation of a work written in a language other than English:
1. “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.” Gabriel Garcia Marquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude.
2. “People go to Key West for many different reasons. Joey Goldman went there to be a gangster.” Laurence Shames, Florida Straits.
3. “He always shot up by TV light.” James Ellroy, American Tabloid.
4. “‘I know a story,’ said Trick the Dwarf, and the rest of them leaned in close: Nanook the Esquimau, and Ota Benga the Pygmy, and Yolanda, the Wild Queen of the Amazon.” Kevin Baker, Dreamland.
5. “When I was nine, I fell in love with a girl of twenty named Barbara, who killed herself.” Peter Lovesey, Rough Cider.
6. “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.” Michael Chabon, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.
7. “The sweat wis lashing oafay Sick Boy; he wis trembling.” Irvine Welsch, Trainspotting.
8. “All this happened, more or less.” Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse Five.
9. “My desert island, all-time, top five most memorable split-ups, in chronological order: 1. Alison Ashworth, 2. Penny Hardwick, 3. Jackie Allen, 4. Charlie Nicholson, 5. Sarah Kendrew.” Nick Hornby, High Fidelity.
10. “Call me Smitty.” Philip Roth, The Great American Novel.