Some of my favorite first lines:
There once was a tall, skinny, straggly-bearded old wizard named Prospero, and not the one you are thinking of, either.
– John Bellairs, The Face in the Frost
There was a man named Mord whose surname was Fiddle; he was the son of Sigvat the Red, and he dwelt at the “Vale” in the Rangrivervales.
– Njal’s Saga
I love this saga. It’s a long way from Mord Fiddle to Njal Thorgeirsson and all his sons getting burned alive in their house, and it’s all interesting. Some people speak dismissively of the Icelandic sagas as being about nothing but “fighting and flytings”, to which all I can reply is, “Yes. And your point is?” I have low tastes, I suppose.
Listen! We have heard of the glory of the kings of the Spear-Danes in days gone by….
Beowulf is one of those furniture-of-the-mind books, for me – along with Njal, it was part of my introduction to the Northern Thing, and had I never read it, I would probably be somebody else entirely than I am today.
In summer all right-minded boys built huts in the furze-hill behind the College–little lairs whittled out of the heart of the prickly bushes, full of stumps, odd root-ends, and spikes, but, since they were strictly forbidden, palaces of delight.
– Rudyard Kipling, Stalky & Co.
Although my very favorite Stalky line comes later on: “You’ve been here six years and you expect things to be fair? My hat, Beetle, you are a blooming idiot!” For some reason, it gave me great comfort during my own high school years.
Stalky in general did; there’s nothing like the confirmation that somebody else’s school days were even worse.
Mr. C(lavius) F(rederick) Earbrass is, of course, the well-known novelist.
Edward Gorey, The Unstrung Harp; or, Mr. Earbrass Writes a Novel
This is the single most truthful book about writing that there is. Period. Favorite line, at least this week (concerning the conversation at a literary reception): “The talk deals with disappointing sales, inadequate publicity, worse than inadequate royalties, idiotic or criminal reviews, others’ declining talent, and the unspeakable horror of the literary life.” As they say in some quarters: Word.
Call me Ishmael.
Herman Melville, Moby-Dick
Moby-Dick is one of the major exceptions to my general lack of fondness for modern novels – but then, considered as a modern novel Moby-Dick is a weird and atypical specimen, and I suspect that the things I like about it are the things that make it atypical. I like the long digressions about whales and whalefishing, for example; in a science fiction novel, that would be the point where the author takes a break to spend a couple of pages talking about the hyperdrive equations.
Sing, O goddess, the anger of Achilles son of Peleus, that brought countless ills upon the Achaeans.
Homer, The Iliad
I know it looks pretentious, but I honestly did read the Iliad – in a prose translation, to be sure, but the whole thing and not some wimpy version expurgated or redacted for the kiddies – when I was twelve, and it blew the top of my head off for weeks.
This is the story of the different ways we looked for treasure, and I think when you have read it you will see that we were not lazy about the looking.
E. Nesbit, The Story of the Treasure Seekers
I like all of E. Nesbit’s stuff, both the fantastical – especially The Enchanted Castle – and the non-fantastical, like this one. Never mind that this is a children’s book; Oswald Bastable is one of the great narrative voices in English prose fiction.
I suppose that the high-water mark of my youth in Columbus, Ohio, was the night the bed fell on my father.
James Thurber, My Life and Hard Times
James Thurber is one of my Style Gods – Thurber, and the Icelandic Sagas, which has to be one of the more warped pairs in the history of literary influences, but there you are.