A literary list of lists: best sentences, opening and closing lines
March 27, 2014 7:55 AM   Subscribe

It was the best of times, it was the blurst of times.
posted by Fizz at 7:56 AM on March 27, 2014 [10 favorites]

And if you're worried, none of these are multi-page lists or slideshows with one sentence or quote per page.

The American Scholar link is being finicky, as I had trouble loading it when first writing up this post, then it worked, and on re-reviewing the link, it's giving me sass again.
posted by filthy light thief at 7:58 AM on March 27, 2014

"Error establishing a database connection"

I still get the same chills reading it now as I did the very first time. The imagery is so evocative!
posted by Freon at 7:59 AM on March 27, 2014 [29 favorites]

Error establishing a database connection.

Yep, that is a beautiful line.
posted by saslett at 7:59 AM on March 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

That first link doesn't work in some browsers without the "www."
posted by aught at 7:59 AM on March 27, 2014

Actually it's not working at all for me now, so I guess it's not the url.
posted by aught at 8:00 AM on March 27, 2014

Because the first site is being a pain, here's the top 10 + 1 bonus line:
Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.

—F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.

—James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

This private estate was far enough away from the explosion so that its bamboos, pines, laurel, and maples were still alive, and the green place invited refugees—partly because they believed that if the Americans came back, they would bomb only buildings; partly because the foliage seemed a center of coolness and life, and the estate’s exquisitely precise rock gardens, with their quiet pools and arching bridges, were very Japanese, normal, secure; and also partly (according to some who were there) because of an irresistible, atavistic urge to hide under leaves.

—John Hersey, Hiroshima

It was a fine cry—loud and long—but it had no bottom and it had no top, just circles and circles of sorrow.

—Toni Morrison, Sula

For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbors, and laugh at them in our turn?

—Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

It was the United States of America in the cold late spring of 1967, and the market was steady and the G.N.P. high and a great many articulate people seemed to have a sense of high social purpose and it might have been a spring of brave hopes and national promise, but it was not, and more and more people had the uneasy apprehension that it was not.

—Joan Didion, Slouching Towards Bethlehem

Anger was washed away in the river along with any obligation.

—Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms

There are many pleasant fictions of the law in constant operation, but there is not one so pleasant or practically humorous as that which supposes every man to be of equal value in its impartial eye, and the benefits of all laws to be equally attainable by all men, without the smallest reference to the furniture of their pockets.

—Charles Dickens, Nicholas Nickleby

In many ways he was like America itself, big and strong, full of good intentions, a roll of fat jiggling at his belly, slow of foot but always plodding along, always there when you needed him, a believer in the virtues of simplicity and directness and hard labor.

—Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried

There is nothing more atrociously cruel than an adored child.

—Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita

And a bonus:

Like the waters of the river, like the motorists on the highway, and like the yellow trains streaking down the Santa Fe tracks, drama, in the shape of exceptional happenings, had never stopped there.

—Truman Capote, In Cold Blood
If/once the site is back/reliable, mods can delete this comment.
posted by filthy light thief at 8:02 AM on March 27, 2014 [10 favorites]

(Snark about theamericanscholar.org's web hosting skills aside, This is Good™)
posted by Freon at 8:04 AM on March 27, 2014

He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad. -- Scaramouche, Rafael Sabatini
posted by Chrysostom at 8:04 AM on March 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

"Error establishing a database connection"

"Only Connect"
posted by Obscure Reference at 8:12 AM on March 27, 2014 [4 favorites]

I've always enjoyed "Metafilter: Community weblog" as the first sentence to read every morning.
posted by Pyrogenesis at 8:14 AM on March 27, 2014

I also nominate this as the best sentence ever.
posted by Pyrogenesis at 8:17 AM on March 27, 2014 [2 favorites]

My favorite last line is in there! It stuck in my head when I read it, and thirty years later I still find it every bit as delightfully, creepy. I get goose bumps when I think of it. John Gardener's last sentence from Grendel.

"Poor Grendel 's had an accident, I whisper. So may you all. "
posted by WalkerWestridge at 8:22 AM on March 27, 2014 [3 favorites]

No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man's and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. -- H.G. Wells, The War of the Worlds
posted by Chrysostom at 8:24 AM on March 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

"It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents — except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness." - Edward Bullwer-Lytton, Paul Clifford

I can't think of another way to embellish that sentence without becoming repetitive.
posted by graymouser at 8:26 AM on March 27, 2014 [3 favorites]

On the philosophy front, absolutely nothing tops the last line of "...one can certainly wager that man would be erased, like a face drawn in sand at the edge of the sea."
posted by Pyrogenesis at 8:32 AM on March 27, 2014

Yeah I was surprised to see Bullwer-Lytton on a list of best openers, given that there is a prize for worst opening lines dedicated to him because of this very line.
posted by teh_boy at 8:33 AM on March 27, 2014

Is it really considered that dreadfull? Why? I have read much, much worse, even excluding the globe-trotting art historian detectives and such.
posted by Dr Dracator at 8:39 AM on March 27, 2014

So... I was writing an emo post on LJ the other day and a copule of the lines I was quite proud of were:

"...just like too much rope to hang myself with, having a vast limitless ocean of Love doesn't mean anything more than, I have too much water to drown myself in."


"But I don't want us to stop saying "I Love You" because it's a lifesaver for me. But it's also the ocean from which it is trying to save me."
posted by symbioid at 8:39 AM on March 27, 2014

Wow, some of the stuff at the 3rd party commentary link.... At the very least, it seems like a misreading of Chesterton.
posted by Chrysostom at 8:40 AM on March 27, 2014

This is exactly why, when I sat down to write my novel, I spent two hours staring at a blank waiting for the immortal first sentence to form in my mind; gradually began to tremble, then sweat, then quietly moan; and finally broke away convulsively, ran into the street, and swore to be an ordinary alcoholic instead.
posted by Segundus at 8:53 AM on March 27, 2014 [12 favorites]

Yeah I was surprised to see Bullwer-Lytton on a list of best openers, given that there is a prize for worst opening lines dedicated to him because of this very line.

A friend of mine is a moderately successful novelist (enough to make a living at it, anyway) and a few years ago he won with his submission to the Bulwer-Lytton contest. I recall asking him how it felt to know that after a decade and a half of producing earnest prose, a single purposely bad sentence was the thing that netted him the most recognition and would probably be in the first paragraph of his obituary. He declared that he was more motivated than ever to produce good novels to avoid that.

And as I have remarked on the blue before, I am not sure any string of thirteen words is more perfectly crafted than one line by Alice Thomas Ellis (I cannot recall if it is four terse sentences or four clauses set off by semicolons, but I present it here in the latter format):

"Men love women; women love children; children love hamsters; hamsters don't love anybody."
posted by ricochet biscuit at 9:12 AM on March 27, 2014 [5 favorites]

I'm a sort of aficionado of great sentences. I've had one essay published on the subject and I've just sent out another. Here is a favorite opening sentence that doesn't get included in these collections:

As she lay in her berth, staring at the shadows overhead, the rush of the wheels was in her brain, driving her deeper and deeper into circles of wakeful lucidity. (Edith Wharton, A Journey)

This next one does get included often:

Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream. (Cannery Row, John Steinbeck)
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 9:12 AM on March 27, 2014

I'm kind of partial to Stephen King's opening line to his novella "The Mist." He freely acknowledges he stole if from Douglas Fairbairn's novel, Shoot:

"This is what happened."

Stephen King on opening lines.
posted by marxchivist at 9:14 AM on March 27, 2014

Don't know about best, but it's certainly a great opener (mentioned in the 25 openers link)...
"It was the day my grandmother exploded." (The Crow Road, Iain Banks)
posted by kokaku at 9:20 AM on March 27, 2014 [2 favorites]

"It is not easy to cut open a human head with a hacksaw."
- Michael Crichton, Travels
posted by Flannery Culp at 9:21 AM on March 27, 2014

I am not sure any string of thirteen words is more perfectly crafted [...]

Along these lines, a favourite of mine from Omensetter's Luck by William Gass: "Truth is the father of lies; nothing survives, nothing dies; only the wicked can afford the wise."

Not having a great ear, I think I tend to note sentences for what they say more than how they say it, but here's Gass again—this time from The Tunnel—sing-songing the utterly mundane:

"There were pocks in my lip and cheek, and a crease sleep made across my forehead, but below me I could see a lemon-yellow sweater trimmed in green, gray hair like a cloth cap, and a coarse gray lap robe at whose knotty bottom edge two scraps of green slack showed, while store-new yellow canvas shoes dangled from each trouser end. "
posted by Lorin at 9:38 AM on March 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

If the links have convinced me of anything, it's that it's much harder to write an ending line that stands on its own than an opening line. But the ending line doesn't have as much need to stand alone, because it's perfectly fair for an ending line to reveal its full meaning only to those who have read the entire work. That said:
Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world's great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.

I am haunted by waters.

— Norman Maclean, A River Runs through It
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 9:45 AM on March 27, 2014 [5 favorites]

Miler, like many authors, knew that a first or first few lines necessary to draw in a reader. For me, a poke into a book and reading a random paragraph gives me a better sense of craftsmanship.
I note that the bible has a few nifty lines
posted by Postroad at 9:50 AM on March 27, 2014

I love this. Though I would love to see just more great lines (as in the first link), full stop. Opening and closing lines are famous and I've read most of them, but I always like to see undiscovered gems from throughout books that I either haven't seen before or I missed when I read them.

One of the closing lines that has always stuck with me for being so starkly devastating is the last line from the short story Death Constant Beyond Love by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. It may be necessary to read the full story to get the full effect, so don't read anything beyond this point if you don't want the spoiler:
The she laid his head on her shoulder with her eyes fixed on the rose. The senator held her about the waist, sank his face into woods‐animal armpit, and gave in to terror. Six months and eleven days later he would die in that same position, debased and repudiated because of the public scandal with Laura Farina and weeping with rage at dying without her.
posted by triggerfinger at 10:04 AM on March 27, 2014

"There was a wall. It did not look important." One of my favourite first lines (okay, two, but they work together).
posted by jokeefe at 10:31 AM on March 27, 2014 [3 favorites]

triggerfinger: I love this. Though I would love to see just more great lines (as in the first link), full stop. Opening and closing lines are famous and I've read most of them, but I always like to see undiscovered gems from throughout books that I either haven't seen before or I missed when I read them.

The trick here is that lists of these are harder to compile, as you have to mark the exact line in the book, compared to opening and ending lines, where you can just remember the book title and say "check out the first/last line."
posted by filthy light thief at 10:31 AM on March 27, 2014

The first line of Iain Banks' The Wasp Factory pulled me in and never really let go:
"I had been making the rounds of the Sacrifice Poles the day we heard my brother had escaped. I already knew something was going to happen; the Factory told me."
posted by Fizz at 10:40 AM on March 27, 2014

The opening to the first Red Dwarf book has always been my favourite.
"Describe, using diagrams where appropriate, the exact circumstances leading to your death."
posted by drnick at 10:59 AM on March 27, 2014

kokaku: "Don't know about best, but it's certainly a great opener (mentioned in the 25 openers link)...
"It was the day my grandmother exploded." (The Crow Road, Iain Banks)

This line always makes me think of Better Off Dead: "Gee, I'm real sorry your mom blew up, Ricky."
posted by Chrysostom at 11:00 AM on March 27, 2014

My favourite last lines of a novel are from Robertson Davies' final work, The Cunning Man, which was published a year before his death. Just a perfect end to everything.

"This is the Great Theatre of Life. Admission is free but the taxation is mortal. You come when you can, and leave when you must. The show is continuous. Good Night."
posted by ilana at 11:05 AM on March 27, 2014 [2 favorites]

"In five years, the penis will be obsolete," said the salesman.
—John Varley, Steel Beach (mentioned in the comments in one of the links)
posted by Wolfdog at 11:08 AM on March 27, 2014

That American Scholar list has the odor of the syllabus about it. It's almost as if the editors haven't read a book since high school, which is entirely possible I guess.

I'm also bemused by all the preciousness about sentences these days. Yes, wonderful things can be done in a sentence, but sometimes it takes a writer two or three of them to get something across.

But I like a good line as much as the next guy. Here's one of my favorites from Edward Dahlberg's autobiography:

"We are as dead as Lazarus, and we wear our mediocre conceptions as Lazarus did his cerements."
posted by otio at 11:32 AM on March 27, 2014

ersatz quoted this in the thread a few weeks ago on ice harvesting:

Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.

....which is on my top 20 list, if not TFA's
posted by thelonius at 11:38 AM on March 27, 2014 [3 favorites]

DevilsAdvocate, I haven't read A River Runs Through It yet, but those final lines have long been some of my favorites.

And it reminds me of the final line of The Book Thief, narrated by Death, "I am haunted by humans," which is one of those final lines that doesn't stand on its own super well, but which, coming after an ending that has done its best to completely wreck you and has given you a crying hangover, is sort of the perfect sentence to end with.
posted by yasaman at 11:48 AM on March 27, 2014 [2 favorites]

I gotta go with Shirley Jackson's opening to Hill House:

“No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.

I must also confess a weakness for Roger Zelazny's opening to Lord of Light:

"His followers called him Mahasamatman and said he was a god. He preferred to drop the Maha- and the -atman, however, and called himself Sam. He never claimed to be a god. But then, he never claimed not to be a god."
posted by Ber at 11:48 AM on March 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

Here's a more specialized one from Crooked Timber, on "great academic first paragraphs." An excellent one:
“Ludwig Boltzmann, who spent much of his life studying statistical mechanics, died in 1906, by his own hand. Paul Ehrenfest, carrying on the work, died similarly in 1933. Now it is our turn to study statistical mechanics.”

David L. Goodstein, States of Matter
posted by languagehat at 12:11 PM on March 27, 2014 [21 favorites]

How could I have forgotten!

"My lifelong involvement with Mrs Dempster began at 5:58 o'clock p.m. on 27 December 1908, at which time I was ten years and seven months old."
posted by jokeefe at 12:16 PM on March 27, 2014

When I teach graduate students about science writing I like to cite this all-time worst opening sentence (from a textbook):

Sex has probably gone on from the beginning of mankind.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 12:16 PM on March 27, 2014 [3 favorites]

The final paragraph of The Road:

"Once there were brook trout in the streams in the mountains. You could see them standing in the amber current where the white edges of their fins wimpled softly in the flow. They smelled of moss in your hand. Polished and muscular and torsional. On their backs were vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming. Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be put back. Not be made right again. In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery."
posted by the duck by the oboe at 12:16 PM on March 27, 2014 [2 favorites]

In the week before their departure to Arrakis, when all the final scurrying about had reached a nearly unbearable frenzy, an old crone came to visit the mother of the boy, Paul.
posted by Chrysostom at 12:26 PM on March 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'm partial to those of everyone's favorite underappreciated midwestern author and winner of not one but two national book awards, Wright Morris.

In the dry places, men begin to dream. -The Works of Love

The seat in the shady side of the bullring made McKee cold. -The Field of Vision

And an opening paragraph for good measure.

Come to the window. The one at the rear of the Lone Tree Hotel. The view is to the west. There is no obstruction but the sky. Although there is no one outside to look in, the yellow blind is drawn low at the window, and between it and the pane a fly is trapped. He has stopped buzzing. Only the crawling shadow can be seen. Before the whistle of the train is heard, as if pressed by a hand, as the train goes past. The blind sucks inward and the dangling cord drags in the dust on the sill. -Ceremony in Lone Tree
posted by holmesian at 12:34 PM on March 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

I note that the bible has a few nifty lines

Well, yes. I am as irreligious as they come, but the Good Book is not infrequently a good read. I would note, though, that the King James is where you have to go in English for the gems.

Ecclesiastes 9:11 in the KJV:
I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.
Ecclesiastes 9:11 in the Contemporary English Version:
Here is something else I have learned:

The fastest runners
and the greatest heroes
don’t always win races
and battles.
Wisdom, intelligence, and skill
don’t always make you healthy,
rich, or popular.
We each have our share
of bad luck.

posted by ricochet biscuit at 12:39 PM on March 27, 2014

Although perhaps not great literature but certainly compelling is the start of Follet's Pillars of the Earth :

"The small boys came early to the hanging."
posted by bz at 12:44 PM on March 27, 2014

I can't remember who said it but this one sticks with me.

Paraphrased ...

"Writers worry way too much about their opening sentences. They only have one real purpose. To get the reader to read the second sentence, which has the purpose of getting the reader to read the third sentence. And so on. Probably the most important sentence is the eleventh or the seventeenth, depending on how long the sentences are. If you haven't really hooked the reader by the end of the first page, you're blown it."
posted by philip-random at 1:05 PM on March 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

In the second century of the Christian Era, the empire of Rome comprehended the fairest part of the earth, and the most civilized portion of mankind.
posted by Chrysostom at 1:37 PM on March 27, 2014

"His followers called him Mahasamatman and said he was a god. He preferred to drop the Maha- and the -atman, however, and called himself Sam. He never claimed to be a god, but then he never claimed not to be a god." - Roger Zelazny, Lord of Light
posted by JohnFromGR at 1:48 PM on March 27, 2014

I've always like this one...

“Suddenly for no earthly reason I felt immensely sorry for him and longed to say something real, something with wings and a heart, but the birds I wanted settled on my shoulders and head only later when I was alone and not in need of words.”

― Vladimir Nabokov, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight
posted by blaneyphoto at 1:51 PM on March 27, 2014 [2 favorites]

"It started in mud, as many things do."
- Tad Williams, Otherland
posted by Paragon at 2:18 PM on March 27, 2014 [3 favorites]

The first line of Lolita:
"Lolita, or the Confession of a White Widowed Male," such were the two titles under which the writer of the present note received the strange paper it preambulates.
The line "There is nothing more atrociously cruel than an adored child." is from deep in the book.
Likewise, Pale Fire begins:
Pale Fire, a poem in heroic couplets, of nine hundred ninety-nine lines, divided into four cantos, was composed by John Francis Shade (born July 5, 1898, died July 21, 1959) during the last twenty days of his life, at his residence in New Wye, Appalachia, U.S.A.
These opening sections are important for interpreting the books.

My pick as best first sentence of a novel:
Not everybody knows how I killed old Phillip Mathers, smashing his jaw inwith my spade; but first it is better to speak of my friendship with John Divney because it was he who first knocked old Mathers down by giving him a great blow in the neck with a special bicycle-pump which he had manufactured himself out of an iron bar.
Flann O'Brien, The Third Policeman
posted by CCBC at 5:23 PM on March 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

My Ten Favourite, from the inside:

1) The zipless fuck is absolutely pure. Erica Jong Fear of Flying
2) Long flowering branches of beautifully coloured wistaria entwined about a pine tree. The Pillow Book of Shei Shonegran
3) The sitting room is subdued, symmetrical; it’s one of the shapes money takes when it freezes. Atwood, Handmaidens Tale.
4) California is a tragic country — like Palestine, like every Promised Land. Its short history is a fever-chart of migrations — the land rush, the gold rush, the oil rush, the movie rush, the Okie fruit-picking rush, the wartime rush to the aircraft factories — followed, in each instance, by counter-migrations of the disappointed and unsuccessful, moving sorrowfully homeward. Isherwood
"Los Angeles" from Exhumations
5) His designs were strictly honorable, as the phrase is; that is, to rob a lady of her fortune by way of marriage. Fielding, Tom Jones
6) When I put my hands on your body on your flesh I feel the history of that body. David Wojnarowicz
7) A place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest, remembers it most obsessively, wrenches it from itself, shapes it, renders it, loves it so radically that he remakes it in his image.”
― Joan Didion, The White Album
8) “The first thing a proprietor learns, and painfully at that, is: Trust is fine, but control is better.”
― Elfriede Jelinek, The Piano Teacher
9)The deliberate punctuated weakening of paper and cardboard so that it will tear along an intended path, leaving a row of fine-haired pills or tuftlets on each new edge Nicholoson Baker, Mezzaine
10) “ABSTRACT THOUGHTS in a blue room; Nominative, genitive, etative, accusative one, accusative two, ablative, partitive, illative, instructive, abessive, adessive, inessive, essive, allative, translative, comitative. Delaney, Babel 17.
posted by PinkMoose at 5:56 PM on March 27, 2014

Yes to someone mentioning The Haunting of Hill House! Excellent.

Lately I've been digging, "The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there." From The Go-Between.

Not a single sentence but Raymond Chandler is pretty slick too.

"It was about eleven o'clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved, and sober, and I didn't care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars."

And Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey.

"No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her born to be an heroine."
posted by quincunx at 7:00 PM on March 27, 2014

Are they all Cormac McCarthy sentences? Because this page is taking a long time to load.
posted by turbid dahlia at 7:59 PM on March 27, 2014

Not a McCarthy among them.
posted by notyou at 8:25 PM on March 27, 2014

Speaking of Cormac McCarthy, not a first or last line, but I recently started Blood Meridian, so this great (imo) passage is still fresh in my head:

It's a mystery. A man's at odds to know his mind cause his mind is aught he has to know it with. He can know his heart, but he dont want to. Rightly so. Best not to look in there. It aint the heart of a creature that is bound in the way that God has set for it. You can find meanness in the least of creatures, but when God made man the devil was at his elbow. A creature that can do anything. Make a machine. And a machine to make the machine. And evil that can run itself a thousand years, no need to tend it.

Also, Fuck yeah, literary quotes
posted by triggerfinger at 9:00 PM on March 27, 2014 [3 favorites]

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