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Great Opening Lines

By Anthony Anderson

17 April 2018

Recently the Times newspaper ran an article with what it thought to be the best 25 first lines from all novels ever written. Notwithstanding the subjectivity of such a list (‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…’ was conspicuous by its absence), this provided a bit of ‘spot the book’ fun for those of us who like to think we are well read. The Times’ list contained the opening lines of books which are undoubtedly great – whether the first words are amongst the greatest ever is more open to debate. For example, the article included Roald Dahl’s ‘Until he was four years old, James Henry Trotter had a happy life’ (James and the Giant Peach).

The opening is also the introduction of the performer’s voice, which will be with the reader for many hours

It is obvious that any selection will contain a large element of personal choice, but how important is a strong opening to a book, and does this differ in any way in the case of spoken word? Most obviously, an author wants to keep the reader’s attention and pique the interest so that they continue to read the book. My personal view is that the strongest first lines not only grab the reader’s attention but give a flavour of what is to come – good examples of that are George Orwell’s ‘ It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen’ (1984) or James Joyce’s ‘Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed’ (Ulysses). In this respect good openings in literature are not unlike those in classical music – obvious examples include the openings of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony or Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1, which grab the listener from the very outset.

In books there are simply the words of the author and the reader (or, rather, the reader’s ‘brain voice’), whereas in audiobooks there is the additional element of the voice that is actually reading the words out loud (which also means, with an intelligent interpreter, shaping phrases and teasing out the meaning). A bad reader can flatten the very finest of openings whereas a good reader will infuse the beginning with life and character and entice the listener to go further. In truth, few people will give up reading or listening to a book after only the first few words, but the aim is to immediately bring the listener into the world of the particular book – and to keep them there. The opening is also the introduction of the performer’s voice, which will be with the reader for many hours – in the case of longer audiobooks, possibly ten, twenty or even more. It is vital that the voice not only sounds pleasant, but that it is in sympathy with the book itself. Listen, for example, to Sean Barrett reading the poignant opening lines of The Go-Between (‘The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there’) or Anton Lesser, in Gradgrindian mode, reading Hard Times (‘Now what I want is Facts’).

While a book can never be wholly judged by its first lines any more than by its cover, a strong beginning well read is of considerable importance in getting the audiobook off to a powerful start and drawing in the listener from the outset.

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