The opening line of a novel sets the tone of the whole thing. At least that’s the way I see it. The author knows it will be the first thing the reader reads, I reason, and they should try to make it the best line in the book. The theory follows on, then, that if the first line is crap the rest of the book will be crapper. Of course that isn’t always the case but it’s a nice rule of thumb and I always read the first couple of lines of any book I buy because the plunging disappointment of starting a new book and being immediately turned off in the first ten words is terrible.
By contrast the sensation of sitting down to read a brand new book and reading “Mother died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don’t know” is a fabulous one. That particular start, from Albert Camus’ The Outsider, is a personal favourite of mine but there are plenty more.
What about Anthony Burgess’ Earthly Powers: "It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me."
Or the wonderful “It was a pleasure to burn” from Farenheit 451 (Ray Bradbury).
Traditionalists who like that sort of thing might think the whole thing starts and ends with “Call me Ishmael” (Melville's Moby Dick of course) or think Dickens had it right with A Tale of Two Cities - "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair”.
Certainly the latter is a mood setter but I prefer Steinbeck’s equally evocative opener from The Grapes of Wrath - “To the red country and party of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth.” - Plath’s Bell Jar - "It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn't know what I was doing in New York” - or Orwell's 1984 “It was a bright cold day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen?”
But what do I know - I’m just one stupid reader. So I shall turn it over to you book readers out there - favourite opening line for a novel ever? There's no need to be shy...