First impressions are everything when it comes to the best opening lines in books. The greatest ones of all time have captured the reader’s attention and made him or her utterly eager to continue reading.

Here, we’ll explore some of the most famous first lines of books, from those that have stood the test of time and continue to captivate readers today to the very recent famous opening lines of books that are bound to become classics.

collage of open books

The best first lines of books serve one or more functions that include:

  • setting the scene
  • introducing a character or characters
  • setting the tone
  • piquing curiosity and/or intrigue
  • evoking shock
  • introducing conflict
  • starting in the middle of action (in medias res)
  • provoking thought
  • making a bold declaration
  • foreshadowing events to come
  • describing events that already happened

I was inspired to write this post after recently reading several of the most classic book openings — the kind that made me get my highlighter out; the kind I memorized. I couldn’t help but want to place them (and more) somewhere more permanent to look back on and savor.

First, I’ll share my personal favorites of these best opening lines in books and highlight what makes them so memorable. These are the ones that have stayed with me so much that I have remembered them by heart ever since reading them. To me, that is the true hallmark of an excellent opening line.

Then, I’ll share all the best opening lines in books for you to peruse. I focused on the book quotes by famous authors and the best-selling books of all-time, along with some memorable first sentences from popular newer titles and books referenced on Gilmore Girls (which readers of The Literary Lifestyle love to follow).

Lastly, I will answer frequently asked questions about the most famous opening lines in books.

(Note: I share all the best opening lines in books in alphabetical order of the book title.)

8 Best Opening Lines in Books

When I first read the opening line in Anna Karenina, I had to stop and think. Then, I got my highlighter out. Not only is it deeply thought-provoking, but it also foreshadows that familial conflict lies ahead:

“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

-Leo Tolstoy

A more recent book that made a “bang” right from the start was Beartown. It starts in the middle of a life-or-death action, then tells the reader that the story will lead to this pivotal moment, immediately engrossing you in the action and leaving you wanting more:

“Late one evening toward the end of March, a teenager picked up a double-barrelled shotgun, walked into the forest, put the gun to someone else’s forehead and pulled the trigger. This is the story of how we got there.”

-Fredrik Backman

When I started Demon Copperhead, which has gone on to become a Pulitzer Prize winner, I wholeheartedly KNEW I was in for something remarkable from the first five words. The book perfectly captures the life of the titular character, and the first sentence both gives him a unique voice and hints that his story is different:

“First, I got myself born.”

-Barbara Kingsolver

In an age of banned books, the short declaratory sentence that begins Fahrenheit 451 is one that’s easy to remember and recall. It tells of conflict and how the protagonist feels about it at the beginning of his journey:

“It was a pleasure to burn.”

-Ray Bradbury

Little Women has always felt like a Christmas-themed novel to me, and the memorable opening line is part of the reason for that. It speaks to younger readers and lets them know that this year will be different, before learning why:

“‘Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,’ grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.”

-Louisa May Alcott

Of all the books I’ve read (and that’s a lot), the opening line that has stuck with me the most, over several decades now, is that in the modern thriller, The Lovely Bones. It’s utterly haunting as it sets a very dark scene and set of circumstances:

“My name was Salmon, like the fish; first name, Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973.”

-Alice Sebold

The first sentence of Pride and Prejudice is arguably the most famous opening line of all-time. It makes a bold statement about life and love that readers have recited for generations:

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

-Jane Austen

Lastly, the very famous classic opening line of Rebecca is one that many avid readers know by heart. It introduces a very important setting and is as atmospheric as this moody thriller:

“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”

-Daphne du Maurier

All the Best Opening Lines in Books

“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” – 1984 by George Orwell

“The boy’s name was Santiago.” – The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

“Behind every man now alive stand thirty ghosts, for that is the ratio by which the dead outnumber the living.” – 2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke

“Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the riverbank, and of having nothing to do: once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, ‘and what is the use of a book’, thought Alice, ‘without pictures or conversation?'” – Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Caroll

“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” – Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

“Late one evening toward the end of March, a teenager picked up a double-barrelled shotgun, walked into the forest, put the gun to someone else’s forehead and pulled the trigger. This is the story of how we got there.” – Beartown by Fredrik Backman

“I spent much of my childhood listening to the sound of striving.” – Becoming by Michelle Obama

“It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.” – The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

“124 was spiteful. Full of Baby’s venom. The women in the house knew it and so did the children.” – Beloved by Toni Morrison

“Here is the house.” – The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison

“This is a tale of a meeting of two lonesome, skinny, fairly old white men on a planet which was dying fast.” – Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut

“Dr. Iannis had enjoyed a satisfactory day in which none of his patients had died or got any worse.” – Captain Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis de Bernieres

“It was love at first sight.” – Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.” – The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

“‘Where’s Papa going with that axe?’ said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.” – Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White

“Marley was dead, to begin with.” – A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

“You better not never tell nobody but God.” – The Color Purple by Alice Walker

“It was 7 minutes after midnight. The dog was lying on the grass in the middle of the lawn in front of Mrs. Shears’ house. Its eyes were closed.” – The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon

“Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.” – David Copperfield by Charles Dickens

“First, I got myself born.” – Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver

“Tap-dancing child abuser. That’s what The Sunday New York Times from March 8, 1993, had called Vivi.” – Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood by Rebeca Wells

“Somewhere in la Mancha, in a place whose name I do not care to remember, a gentleman lived not long ago, one of those who has a lance and ancient shield on a shelf and keeps a skinny nag and a greyhound for racing.” – Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes

“Elmer Gantry was drunk.” – Elmer Gantry by Sinclair Lewis

“Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.” – Emma by Jane Austen

“A story has no beginning or end: arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which, to look ahead.” – The End of the Affair by Graham Greene

“I had the story, bit by bit, from various people, as generally happens in such cases, each time it was a different story.” – Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton

“Like the brief doomed flare of exploding suns that registers dimly on blind men’s eyes, the beginning of the horror passed almost unnoticed; in the shriek of what followed, in fact, was forgotten and perhaps not connected to the horror at all.” – The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty

“It was a pleasure to burn.” – Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

“We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.” – Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson 

“You will rejoice to hear that no disaster has accompanied the commencement of an enterprise which you have regarded with such evil forebodings.” – Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

“Amergo Bonasera sat in New York Criminal Court Number 3 and waited for justice; vengeance on the men who had so cruelly hurt his daughter, who had tried to dishonor her.” – The Godfather by Mario Puzo

“Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were.” – Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell

“This is the saddest story I have ever heard.” – The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford

“To the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth.” – The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

“In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. Whenever you feel like criticizing any one, he told me, just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.” – The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

“We slept in what had once been the gymnasium.” – The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

“Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.” – Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling

“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.” – The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

“When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold.” – The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

“I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.” – I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith

“On the afternoon of October 12, 1990, my twin brother Thomas entered the Three Rivers, Connecticut Public Library, retreated to one of the rear study carrels, and prayed to God the sacrifice he was about to commit would be deemed acceptable.” – I Know This Much is True by Wally Lamb

“I am an invisible man.” – Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

“The stranger came early in February, one wintry day, through a biting wind and a driving snow, the last snowfall of the year, over the down, walking as it seemed from Bramblehurst railway station, and carrying a little black portmanteau in his thickly gloved hand.” – The Invisible Man by H. G. Wells

“There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.” – Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

“My suffering left me sad and gloomy.” – Life of Pi by Yann Martel

“‘The King is dead. Long live the Queen.’ The announcer’s voice crackles from the wireless and winds around the rapt patrons of Berlin’s Milk Bar as sinuously as the fog curls around the mournful street lamps, their wan glow barely illuminating the cobblestones. Once there were four children whose names were Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy. This story is about something that happened to them when they were sent away from London during the war because of the air-raids.” – The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis

“‘Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,’ grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.” – Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.” – Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

“When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton.” – The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien

“My name was Salmon, like the fish; first name, Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973.” – The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold

“It was inevitable: the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love.” – Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez

“In an old house in Paris that was covered with vines lived twelve little girls in two straight lines.” – Madeline by Ludwig Bemelmans

“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.” – The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka

“Miss Brooke had that kind of beauty which seems to be thrown into relief by poor dress.” – Middlemarch by George Elliot

“I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.” – Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

“Call me Ishmael.” – Moby Dick by Herman Melville

“Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.” – Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

“The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it, no paper notices on downtown posts and billboards, no mentions or advertisements in local newspapers. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not.” – The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

“If I have learned anything in this long life of mine, it is this: in love we find out who we want to be; in war we find out who we are.” – The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

“I sent one boy to the gas chamber at Huntsville.” – No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy

“No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy, would have supposed her born to be a heroine.” – Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

“Who am I? And how, I wonder, will this story end?” – The Notebook by Nicholas Sparks

“He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.” – The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” – One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez

“I first met Dean not long after my wife and I split up.” – On the Road by Jack Kerouac

“Mother died today. Or maybe, yesterday; I can’t be sure.” – The Stranger by Albert Camus

“When I stepped out into the bright sunlight from the darkness of the movie house, I had only two things on my mind: Paul Newman and a ride home.” – The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton

“History has failed us, but no matter.” – Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

“They shoot the white girl first. With the rest they take their time.” – Paradise by Toni Morrison

“I am writing to you because she said you listen and understand and didn’t try to sleep with that person at that party even though you could have.” – The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

“All children, except one, grow up.” – Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” – Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

“This is my favorite book in all the world, though I have never read it.” – The Princess Bride by William Goldman

“Your house glows at night like everything inside is on fire.” – The Push by Ashley Audrain

“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” – Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

“When he woke in the woods in the dark and cold of the night he’d reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him.” – The Road by Cormac McCarthy

“Two households, both alike in dignity /  (In fair Verona, where we lay our scene), / From ancient grudge break to new mutiny, / Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean. / From forth the fatal loins of these two foes / A pair of star-crossed lovers take their life; / Whose misadventured piteous overthrows / Doth with their death bury their parents’ strife.” – Romeo and Juliet quote by William Shakespeare

“But, you may say, we asked you to speak about women and fiction.” – A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolfe

“When Mary Lennox was sent to Misselthwaite Manor to live with her uncle everybody said she was the most disagreeable-looking child ever seen.” – The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

“The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation.” – The Secret History by Donna Tartt

“At night I would lie in bed and watch the show, how bees squeezed through the cracks of my bedroom wall and flew circles around the room, making that propeller sound, a high-pitched zzzzzz that hummed along my skin.” – The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd

“In the shade of the house, in the sunshine of the riverbank near the boats, in the shade of the Sal-wood forest, in the shade of the fig tree is where Siddhartha grew up, the handsome son of the Brahman, the young falcon, together with his friend Govinda, son of a Brahman.” – Siddhartha by Herman Hesse

“All this happened, more or less.” – Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

“Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting.” – The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner

“For a long time, I went to bed early.” – Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust

“Once upon a time there were four little Rabbits, and their names were-Flopsy, Mopsy, Cotton-tail, and Peter.” – The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter

“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, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.” – A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

“Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board.” – Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

“Clare: It’s hard being left behind. I wait for Henry, not knowing where he is, wondering if he’s okay. It’s hard to be the one who stays.” – The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

“When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow.” – To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee

“Someone must have slandered Josef K., for one morning without having done anything truly wrong, he was arrested.” – The Trial by Franz Kafka

“The last class of my old professor’s life took place once a week in his house, by a window in the study where he could watch a small hibiscus plant shed its pink leaves.” – Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom

“The year 1866 was signalized by a remarkable incident, a mysterious and inexplicable phenomenon, which doubtless no one has yet forgotten.” – Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne

“Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.” – Ulysses by James Joyce

“As the Manager of the Performance sits before the curtain on the boards, and, looks into the Fair, a feeling of profound melancholy comes over him in his survey of the bustling place.” – Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray

“There was once a velveteen rabbit, and in the beginning he was really splendid.” – The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams

“No one would have believed, in the last years of the nineteenth century, that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were being scrutinized and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinize the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water.” – The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells

“Novalee Nation, seventeen, seven months pregnant, thirty-seven pounds overweight – and superstitious about sevens – shifted uncomfortably in the seat of the old Plymouth and ran her hands down the curve of her belly.” – Where the Heart Is by Billie Letts

“It was a dark and stormy night.” – A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle

“1801 – I have just returned from a visit to my landlord – the solitary neighbor that I shall be troubled with.” – Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

“Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.” – The Year of Magical Thinking


Frequently Asked Questions

What is the opening line of David Copperfield?

David Copperfield by Charles Dickens begins as follows: “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.”

What is the first line of Frankenstein?

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley begins as follows: “You will rejoice to hear that no disaster has accompanied the commencement of an enterprise which you have regarded with such evil forebodings.”

What is the opening line of The Hobbit?

The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien begins as follows: “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.”

What is Jane Eyre’s opening line?

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte begins as follows: “There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.”

What is the opening line of Mrs. Dalloway?

Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf begins as follows: “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.”

What is the first line of Rebecca?

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier begins as follows: “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”

Why is the first line of Rebecca so famous?

The first line of Rebecca (“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”) is so famous because it is short and memorable, along with the fact that it introduces a very important setting in a way as atmospheric as this haunting thriller.

What is the opening line of the Wuthering Heights?

Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë begins as follows: “1801 – I have just returned from a visit to my landlord – the solitary neighbor that I shall be troubled with.”

Conclusion

As you have now seen, the power of the best opening lines in books cannot be underestimated. These initial words excelled at grabbing the reader’s attention and painting the first brushstrokes of the book’s world. They have done everything from evoking emotion to provoking thought and even piquing curiosity.

So the next time you pick up a book, take a moment to savor the opening line and consider why the author chose it and whether it’s one of the best opening lines in books.

Read More: Best Final Lines in Books

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4 Comments

  1. “The second cataclysm began in my eleventh life, in 1996. I was
    dying my usual death, slipping away in a warm morphine haze,
    which she interrupted like an ice cube down my spine.”

    The first fifteen lives of Harry August – Claire North.