Saturday, March 28, 2009

First Paragraphs

I became what I am today at the age of twelve, on a frigid overcast day in the winter of 1975. I remember the precise moment, crouching behind a crumbling mud wall, peeking into the alley near the frozen creek. That was a long time ago, but it's wrong what they say about the past, I've learned, about how you can bury it. Because the past claws its way out. Looking back now, I realize I have been peeking into that deserted alley for the last twenty-six years.
- The Kite Runner, Khaled Hosseini
Based upon a recommendation from both my mother and a dear friend, I recently acquired a copy of the book quoted above, and was, as I often am, sold by the first paragraph. Mr. Hosseini's simple, elegant prose tells of who this central figure in the story was and who he was to become, hinting at the whole of his character in a single sentence: "...I realize I have been peeking into that deserted alley for the last twenty-six years." How could I NOT read on?!?

For me the first paragraph of a novel is the most important paragraph of all. I am often hooked (or not) by those first few phrases; if they capture my attention, for whatever reason, I am sure to continue on and finish the book, devouring it with relish (and ketchup) and having it hold my attention from beginning to end, to the detriment of conversation, sleep and the pursuit of other enjoyment.

In several of my favorite books the first paragraph grabs you by the throat and shakes you. You know, right from that start, that this book is going to be a rollicking adventure of the first order.
As I left the Kenya Beanstalk capsule he was right on my heels. He followed me through the door leading to Customs, Health and Immigration. As the door behind him contracted I killed him.
- Friday, Robert A. Heinlein
Some authors though, seem to have dictated, rather than written, their books - as if they were meant to be read out loud, like an epic poem, for all around to hear. Prose with a lyrical quality can take a book to new heights. I find myself compelled by the elegant, flowing, beauty of his writing to read every book Tom Robbins has authored but that "chore" started when I first read this paragraph (thanks mom):
It was a bright, defrosted, pussy-willow day at the onset of spring, and the newlyweds were driving cross-country in a large roast turkey.
- Skinny Legs and All, Tom Robbins
In other books the opening paragraph paints a picture of the protagonist's character. Their inner monologue, revealed in the opening lines, sheds light on their worldview, creating an immediate impression that bonds you to the hero from the first page.

We slept in what had once been the gymnasium. The floor was of varnished wood, with stripes and circles painted on it, for the games that were formerly played there; the hoops for the basketball nets were still in place, though the nets were gone. A balcony ran around the room, for the spectators, and I thought I could smell, faintly like an afterimage, the pungent smell of sweat, shot through with the sweat taint of chewing gum and perfume from the watching girls, felt-skirted as I knew from pictures, later in miniskirts, then pants, then in one earring, spiky green-streaked hair. Dances would have been held there; the music lingered, a palimpsest of unheard sound, style upon style, an undercurrent of drums, a forlorn wail, garlands made of tissue-paper flowers, cardboard devils, a revolving ball of mirrors, powdering the dancers with a snow of light.
- The Handmaids Tale, Margaret Atwood
Even a single sentence, such as the Robbins quote above or the one below can draw you in.
This is my favorite book in all the world, though I have never read it.
- The Princess Bride (the good parts version), William Goldman
I could go on and on, I am a reader (again, thanks mom). I LURVE the printed word or, rather, I love BOOKS. I can (and do) read electronic books but I like best when I can curl up with my book and shut out the world and everyone in it. I love the dank smell of dusty, used books and the acrid odor of brand new print on fresh paper; I love the feel of the paper itself and the heft of the book in my hand; I love that moment where the story wins, carrying you away into another world at the author's side; I love the sense of hopeless frustration when even though I am still caught up in that world, I simply MUST put the book down and go to sleep; and, I love the sense of weary satisfaction I get when the book wins and I finish the last page and close the back cover just as the sun is rising.

But, most of all, I love the anticipation of cracking the cover and diving in at the first paragraph.

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