This week those crazy cats over at Goodreads have issued the following challenge to the world of Top 5 Wednesday writers – put together a list of your top five favorite first sentences. Sounds intriguing right?? It is! However, once I considered it, I realized this would end up being trickier than I thought. I am excellent at quoting films or shows I love – and even certain lines in literature. But, with the exception of a few classic lines, I don’t tend to remember the first sentence of even the books that are most beloved to me. But I didn’t let that stop me! So here you have it folks, my list of five favorite first sentences!
What I ended up doing was to look at books that have always resonated with me, the ones that have moved me, touched me, and informed me the most. From there I picked five books and five opening sentences. My rationale was if a book is truly memorable to me, if a book truly becomes a part of who I am, it’s because the whole thing speaks to me. And its first sentence was naturally the doorway into that world! So, with that framework in mind, here are my top five favorite sentences.
5) “All this happened, more or less.” – from Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. I absolutely adore Kurt Vonnegut. I first encountered him in college, reading Slaughterhouse-Five for fun because I felt he was an author I should know. I quickly fell in love with his writing and the ethical vision that guides his work. He’s one of those authors who’s language is so simple to read…but his ideas never leave your mind, always challenging your perception of the world. And you’re the better for it! I remember returning to Borders (ahhhh Borders…I miss you!) again and again with my Borders card and weekly coupon, picking up more and more of his works. Mom also selected several of his titles through the years for birthday and Christmas presents. Eventually I got to the point where I can proudly say I’ve read everything he’s published!
He’s certainly helped support and, to a degree, shape ideas I have in regard to social justice, the world, and human nature. Perhaps my favorite thing about Vonnegut is how cynical he is in regard to humanity and our ability save ourselves and our world. Yet, through all the cynicism there was always a glimmer of hope – no matter how slight. I often felt the sentiment, “Yep, we’ve fucked everything up and we’re sure to destroy the world…but just maybe the next generation can be better” ringing through his work. It’s a special talent to be so realistic in your appraisal of humanity yet still so inspiring.
4) “He wished the phone would stop ringing.” – from Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun. This was the last book written about World War I before World War II broke out….and after reading it I would never look at the world the same way again. Long before I had really read or understood the Bible, long before I was aware of the reality of Jesus’ Kingdom of God message, long before I was as anchored in the global awareness I have now, this book made me realize that war is never okay. It forever changed my perspective. War could be, at best, a necessary evil. This novel clearly illustrated how horrible the reality of people killing people for nations’ games really is. I still vividly remember the experience of reading it – from that first haunting line. “Nothing,” I thought as I read it, “no cause can be worth doing this to a human being.” Now, thankfully, I am anchored in my adult faith, my understanding of Jesus and the Kingdom of God, and Catholic Social teaching – all of which support Dalton Trumbo’s critique of violence. War is evil. Violence can never truly solve anything. And I learned all this first from Johnny Got His Gun.
3) “It was an odd-looking vine.” – from Terry Goodkind’s Wizard’s First Rule. This was my first real experience of diving into the world of a fantasy series. Wizard’s First Rule was recommended to me by Missy, my best friend in high school’s sister Maggie. She said I had to read it. I was intimidated by the INSANE size of the book but, in the waning days of the summer of 2001, I had just graduated high school and I jumped in. I loved it. Richard and Kahlan grabbed hold of my imagination (and my heart!) and wouldn’t let go. I read the first six books in The Sword Of Truth series back to back – a somewhat challenging feat as I was starting college at the same time. I would buy every other novel Terry Goodkind would release after that the week it came out and read it immediately, just having re-read the book before it first. I had never had a reading experience before where I found myself so emotionally tied to the characters. If I’d close the book for the night and they were in a good place, I was happy, smiling, and loving life all through the next day. But if they were in peril…I was dark and depressed until I could return to the book to see what happened to everyone! That is a special sort of connection with fiction! I still often use this series as the (unconscious) measure by which I judge other fantasy series.
2) “It wasn’t a very likely place for disappearances, at least at first glance.” – from Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander. It’s hard to remember a time I wasn’t wrapped up in the world of Outlander. I know that sounds hyperbolic but I love to read and I’ve never found fiction like THIS, either in the gorgeous quality of the writing or the completely engrossing quality of the narrative. I talk about Outlander ALL THE TIME. I read it. My best friend Kelly reads it. Mom reads it. And we can’t stop speculating about where the plot will go or what will happen of how mind-blowingly incredibly the books we’ve already read have been!!!! Once the cast of Outlander enters your heart and mind they don’t leave. Nor would you want them too! My friend Lauren (who, ironically has only ever read the first book in the series) recommended the book to me. I picked it up – admittedly not relishing the idea of jumping into a looooong series of super long books – and gave it a try. Can you guess what happened? I LOVED IT. My reading world STOPPED when I first found Outlander. And, when I took a break from the series, for some time all other books I tried to read honestly felt flat and boring by comparison.
I read Outlander as August was drawing to a close, unsure about starting such a hefty tome so close to school resuming (and with it planning, grading, and teaching). It turned out the conflict with school wasn’t a real worry as I finished the novel in twelve days. That was with inservices and classroom setup! It was one of the best novels I’ve ever read. Period. The drama/tension/action was all so expertly crafted. The plot was so layered and intricate yet completely connected. And I loved the characters! I lived for and with these characters as intently as I did with Terry Goodkind’s (if not more so, given I’m older and able to invest more emotionally in a story like this). It was beautifully written and so much fun to read. It was one of those paradoxical books where I couldn’t put it down but I was so sad to see it finally come to an end. I wished it could go on forever! I immediately turned my attention to the rest of the series, following Outlander with Dragonfly In Amber, Voyager, Drums Of Autumn, The Fiery Cross, and Breath Of Snow And Ashes. I eventually put the series on hold because, otherwise, none of my students would have had a single graded assignment all year which – while they might not have complained – I would have felt bad about :).
1) “The boy’s name was Santiago.” – from Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist. This one shouldn’t be a surprise. Coelho often shows up on these lists because his work has come to mean so very much to me. I can’t imagine my life without Paulo Coelho’s beautiful writing. And, for me, it all began here. The Alchemist is, without question, my favorite novel of all time. I first read it, sitting in my Grandma’s living room. My family always spends Friday night hanging out at Grandma’s for dinner and banter. I settled down to peruse this new book I’d gotten that day at Borders and, before I knew it, the sun had set and I’d finished the book. I couldn’t put it down!
As a fun little aside, I actually met Kalie because of The Alchemist. I was grading at Coffee Culture one night when I happened to look up and notice a girl sitting at the table across from me reading The Alchemist. Given the fact that this is my FAVORITE BOOK OF ALL TIME I knew I had to talk to her. So (forty minutes later) I’d come up with the plan of “casually” walking my trash over to the garbage, “noticing” she was reading the book, and striking up a conversation. Thankfully she was up for talking too and the rest, as they say, is history :).
For me, Coelho has the incredible ability to express the Divine in a way that resonates deeply. (Obviously, he does this for millions, given his popularity as an author, but since art is a subjective experience and Coelho so personal to me, I only feel comfortable discussing how the book affects me. I don’t want to co-opt someone else’s experience.) There is a wisdom in his words. Reading Coelho is good for the soul and I often find joy, strength, guidance, and insight from his works. I seek (and value when I find it) ways of experiencing the Divine in my daily life. I hear God whispering to me through these pages, using Coelho’s words to offer me insight. I return to his novels often. I’ve regularly given The Alchemist as a present, teach it to my seniors whenever the curriculum offers the time to do so, and I’ve read it at least once a year, every year, since I first encountered it. I take more from it with each reading. There is a vitally important message in its pages. If you haven’t read it, I really think you should. If you have read it, read it again. For me, there’s nothing like this novel.
I…well what is there really left to say after urging you to read (or re-read) The Alchemist?? Not much. At least nothing of real value. So we’ll wrap it up here. Enjoy your day!