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Beginnings at the Talbot County Free Library

by Bill Peak

Several years ago, at a writers' conference, I attended a presentation on the best opening lines in English literature. The conference program asked those planning to attend the session to bring with them examples of their own favorite openings. The beginning of Shirley Jackson's We Have Always Lived in the Castle immediately occurred to me; but I was sure those famous lines would occur to others as well and—as I don't particularly enjoy speaking up at conferences—decided to pass on the opportunity and let someone else recite Jackson's opening.

As it turned out, perhaps unsurprisingly for a presentation put on as part of a writers' conference, the attendees that did bring examples with them, without exception, read an opening line from their own work. No one ever said writers lack ego. And to this day I have regretted not sharing with that crowd what a truly great opening sounds like.

But I hope to rectify that omission by transcribing for you Jackson's opening paragraph here. What follows, in my opinion, ranks among the best first lines of a novel ever written:

My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead.

Of course there are any number of famous openings in English literature. Herman Melville's “Call me Ishmael …” James Joyce's “Stately, plump Buck Mulligan …” and Thomas Pynchon's “A screaming comes across the sky …” arise immediately to mind. But few can compete with Jackson's for economy, creating a sense of drama and suspense with five short, superficially unrelated sentences.

Thinking about it, another example of an excellent opening—not quite as good perhaps as Jackson's, but still subtly seductive—is the first paragraph of C. S. Lewis's final (and undeservedly less-well-known) novel Till We Have Faces:

I am old now and have not much to fear from the anger of gods. I have no husband nor child, nor hardly a friend, through whom they can hurt me. My body, this lean carrion that still has to be washed and fed and have clothes hung about it daily with so many changes, they may kill as soon as they please. The succession is provided for. My crown passes to my nephew.

Actually, now that I can look at them side by side, I see that these openings do share certain similarities. They are, for instance, both written in the first person, and both in the present tense. But many openings are. Here, however, in addition, there is an underlying sense of elegy, of the book's narrator looking back toward some unnamed and possibly unforgivable event. And then, too, there is a significant leap from the type of information provided in the first lines of the paragraph to that provided in the last.

So what does all of this mean? It is, I think, a sort of duty all writers take on when they start a book, or even a short story, the task of eliciting not just their readers' interest but their absorption. They must captivate them, with all the associations of “holding captive” that that word implies.

Jackson's We Have Always Lived in the Castle and Lewis's Till We Have Faces have so successfully performed their authors' duty that I have now read and reread them numerous times over the course of my life. And writing this column, I've decided to read them again. Tomorrow I'll visit the most captivating structure in all of Talbot County, the Talbot County Free Library, where, through the generosity of our community, I will be able to check both books out, take them home, and read them at my leisure … all without charge. It is a remarkable privilege, and I thank you for it.

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