This week I thought I might take a slightly different angle to the question of what my favorite first lines are from books I’ve read and loved. Instead, let’s see how many first lines you can remember from some of my favorite books. Two hints: I taught American literature in high school classes and have always loved the classics. Here are fifteen first lines. How many do you know? I’ll put the answers at the end, but no peeking.
1. “Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,” grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.
2. “You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter.”
3. “In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.”
4. “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”
6. “All children, except one, grow up.”
7. “When Caroline Meeber boarded the afternoon train for Chicago, her total outfit consisted of a small trunk, a cheap imitation alligator-skin satchel, a small lunch in a paper box, and a yellow leather snap purse, containing her ticket, a scrap of paper with her sister’s address in Van Buren Street, and four dollars in money.”
8. “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.”
9. “The cold passed reluctantly from the earth, and the retiring fogs revealed an army stretched out on the hills, resting.”
10. “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
11. “A throng of bearded men, in sad-colored garments and gray, steeple-crowned hats, intermixed with women, some wearing hoods, and others bareheaded, was assembled in front of a wooden edifice, the door of which was heavily timbered with oak, and studded with iron spikes.”
12. “I went back to Devon School not long ago, and found it looking oddly newer than when I was a student there fifteen years before.”
13. “Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were.” [So, I had to throw in an easy one.]
15. “My wound is geography. It is also my anchorage, my port of call.”
Writer’s Note: You will notice I did not add the iconic first line from Moby Dick. As all my former students know, it is my most despised book ever.
Answers: 1. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott 2. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain 3. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald 4. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen 5. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier 6. Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie 7. Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser 8. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck 9. The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane 10. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy 11. The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne 12. A Separate Peace by John Knowles 13. Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell 14. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee 15. The Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy [Okay, not a classic in the old sense, but still one of my favs]
My grading scale: 14-15 Right– “A” You are a classics reader of the first rank. Thank goodness someone is still reading great books. 13 Right– “B” Almost at the top, but everyone is allowed an occasional blank stare at the list on the screen. 11-12 Right– “C” You didn’t go through my American Lit class or you’d know these. 10 Right– “D” So, not everyone recognizes classic American first lines–go into math or computer science perhaps. 0-9 Right–“F” Obviously, your high school English curriculum failed you–or were you playing too many video games?