I’ve already read a bunch of year-end roundups of the best books and movies. And I love ‘em! I shall read some of those books, and probably watch some of those movies. But I figured I’d try something different.
Below are my favorite openings from books (and one article, and two speeches) that I read this year. That doesn’t mean they were published this year — most were not — but I read (or reread) them this year.
The awards envelope, please. (This is high-stakes stuff, people; careers are made and lost here.) And the winners are…
Thus begins D.H. Lawrence’s travel book Sea and Sardinia. It’s so abrupt and so unusual that it grabbed me. Instantly, I felt in my bones the sensation he was sharing. The drive to move, to go somewhere and see something different.
It also reminded me of the opening paragraph of The Narrow Road to Oku. Written by 17th century Japanese poet and travel writer Matsuo Basho, it’s probably the most famous paragraph in Japanese literature. I’m going to type it below rather than copy and paste — which I like to do sometimes just to feel great writing (translation by Donald Keene):
The long opening sentence of Paul Auster’s new biography of Stephen Crane, author of The Red Badge of Courage:
Don’t try 105-word sentences at home, kids, unless you can write like Paul Auster, in which case do whatcha want.
Yes, I’m just making up convenient categories. It’s my awards show! Check out these opening lines from Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington, by Terry Teachout:
The magisterial opening lines of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Rousseau and Revolution, by Ariel and Will Durant:
When I played basketball in high school, we’d tumble off the bench in a tizzy like a revivalist congregation when one of our guys dunked. I didn’t jump off my chair yelling when I read that opening, because that would be weird. (Albeit awesome. Maybe next time.) But I did feel pretty amped in my writer-heart.
Remember what I said about Auster? The Durants’ first sentence is practically a Twitter thread; it’s 172 words! When it works, it works.
The opening line of the young adult sci-fi novel, The Pool of Fire, by John Christopher:
Simple, I know; even ordinary. But it reminded me of something one of my favorite writers, Sebastian Junger (author of Tribe and The Perfect Storm), said in an interview: “ ‘The rain pounded down’—fine… Good writing is good rhythm. Period. End of sentence.”
Nobel Lecture/Acceptance Speech
Russian journalist Dmitry Muratov, who with Filipino-American journalist Maria Ressa won the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize, began his Nobel lecture this way:
And here is how Tanzanian-born British novelist Abdulrazak Gurnah, who won the literature Nobel, opened his lecture:
This Atlantic piece — “The Dark Power of Fraternities,” by Caitlin Flanagan — is a serious piece of investigative reporting. But the lead is an incredible mix of horror and humor:
Yeah, he gets his own category. For whatever reason, I’m always curious to see how different translations of Inferno cast the opening lines.
This year, I read one of the very few English translations (by Laurence Binyon) that preserves Dante’s original terza rima rhyme scheme (aba bcb cdc etc.).
English doesn’t have as many rhymes as Italian, so that’s a bold project. But I loved the foreboding opening lines:
Also this year, I started a newer translation, by Mary Jo Bang. It’s wordier, with more contemporary language and references. Overall it’s audacious and invigorating, although I didn’t like the opening lines quite as much. But here they are for comparison:
That’s the opening line of physicist Brian Greene’s Until the End of Time. What I think makes it particularly poignant is that, pretty soon, you realize that he’s talking not just about himself, and you, the reader, and everyone both of you know, but about the very spark of consciousness in the universe, whether on this planet or any others that might host it.
Happy new year?
2022, and Beyond!
That’s it for Range Widely for this year. This newsletter started as an experiment back in September, and I’ve enjoyed writing it. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading. The wonderfully thoughtful comments have been a very pleasant surprise.
Thanks for helping to make 2021 rewarding, and I hope to range widely with you in 2022.