Books and Lovers
First lines of our favorite books have something in common with the first words of our lovers. Writers have less and less opportunity to hook a reader’s attention, some might argue, a page, a mere paragraph even. (Average adult attention span-8 seconds) In the old days you could bury a gem deep in the body of a work of art, leading your reader through a painful and patient labyrinth, but not anymore. Lovers have it hard too, a catchy spin on Tinder, or Bumble, an iconic photo struggling to carry a thousand words on our profile site. The pressure is almost not worth the effort, but alas, when we find that first line, or recall a first impression, a moment where we connect in romantic magic, with a book or a being, it becomes a foundation for lifetimes to come. It becomes part of the fabric of collective consciousness.
I made my boyfriend giggle the first night we indulged our attraction. It’s not a proud recollection, nothing sexy, nor profound, actually morbid. But have we gotten mileage out of that memory! I’m sure he has recalled it plenty when he would otherwise have been upset with me. Want to know what I said? We were having dinner with friends and their bathroom was right off the kitchen. I asked the host if she had any lotion for my hands. She said, “It’s in the basket.” Here is a test. How would you have responded? If you have a sick mind like mine you would have said, under your breath, but audibly enough and while mimicking Buffalo Bill, “It puts the lotion in the basket.” Lee roared with laughter. Lee has never forgotten it. Lines are important. The best demonstrate a nakedness, a vulnerability to risk being ourselves and to risk being seen, even adored. I exposed the quirkiness of my personality and he happened to like it.
The very first line of my recently completed memoir, Keepers of The Story: Some days he walks with me, but you will never see him. He points out fallen feathers, foxes, the smell of cedar and suspended smoke…
I like it. I would read this even if I had not written it. It is as unique and compelling as lotion in a basket, don’t you think? I’m not boasting. I worked stupidly hard for it. I re-wrote it several times, even in my sleep. Now, it is more like a prayer, I know it so well. For me a good first line should elicit the desire to re-read it after we’ve finished the book, and there we should glimpse the soul of that book.
Consider the first lines or two of your most memorable books. It’s a fun pastime to revisit the classics, flipping from one to another, some cosy Sunday afternoon. Read them to one another and recall the magic they portend.
Here are a few favorites:
“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina
“I first heard of Antonia on what seemed to me an interminable journey across the great midland plains of North America.” Willa Cather, My Antonia
“Why is the measure of love loss?” Jeanette Winterson, Written on the Body
“In the old country in South America, Carlotta’s grandmother, Zedé, had been a seamstress, but really more of a sewing magician.” Alice Walker, The Temple of My Familiar (What a title!)
“The alchemist picked up a book that someone in the caravan had brought.” Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist
And these, wow! “My dear sir, Your letter only reached me a few days ago. I want to thank you for its great and kind confidence. I can hardly do more. I cannot go into the nature of your verses; for all critical intentions are too far from me. With nothing can one approach a work of art so little as with critical words: they always come down to more or less happy misunderstandings. Things are not all so comprehensible and expressible as one would mostly have us believe; most events are inexpressible, taking place in a realm which no word has ever entered, and more inexpressible than all else are works of art, mysterious existences, the life of which, while ours passes away, endures.” Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters To A Young Poet.