The ten most famous opening lines from English books

Famous opening lines of books

Reading English books is an excellent way to help your learning and get a cultural kick at the same time. Looking back at all that has been written by accomplished authors throughout history, it’s extremely difficult to pick just ten books to mention, but to narrow the search we’ve opted for books with, in our opinion, the most famous opening lines. Pick any one of these novels and we guarantee you’ll find it virtually impossible to put down!

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1. Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen (1813)

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

Long before Colin Firth donned the role of Mr Darcy in the BBC TV adaptation, Pride and Prejudice was a firm favourite amongst readers for the way Jane Austen dealt with issues of manners, upbringing, morality, education and marriage in the society of the landed gentry (the British social class of land owners) of early 19th Century England.  Some two hundred years after first publication it continues to top polls of the most loved books.

2. Moby-Dick, Herman Melville (1851)

Call me Ishmael.

This epic sea story of Captain Ahab’s voyage in pursuit of Moby Dick, a great white whale, has delighted children and adults alike for over one and a half century’s.  Widely considered one of the Great American Novels, its opening line really is one of the most recognisable in the whole of Western literature.  With realistic descriptions of whale hunting and detailed accounts of life at sea, the novel touches on subjects that are timeless; religion, good and evil and social status.

3. A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens (1859)

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.

With well over 200 million copies sold, the opening lines of A Tale of Two Cities really do rank as amongst the most famous in the history of English literature.  Set in London and Paris before and during the French Revolution, the novel depicts the plight of the French peasantry in the years leading up to revolution and draws many parallels with life in London during the same time.  Originally printed in serialised form in Dickens’ weekly periodical All the Year Round, it cemented the author as a vital social commentator of the times he was living through.

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4. Treasure Island, Robert Louis Stevenson (1883)

Squire Trelawney, Dr Livesey, and the rest of these gentlemen having asked me to write down the whole particulars about Treasure Island, from the beginning to the end, keeping nothing back but the bearings of the island, and that only because there is still treasure not yet lifted, I take up my pen in the year of grace 17-, and go back to the time when my father kept the Admiral Benbow inn, and the brown old seaman, with the sabre cut, first took up his lodging under our roof.

Probably one of the most famous (and definitely one of the longest!) opening lines in children’s literature, Treasure Island is a story that can’t fail to capture children’s imaginations with its tale of buccaneers and buried gold.  First published as a complete novel in 1883, it had been serialised in children’s magazine Young Folks some two years earlier.

5. Ulysses, James Joyce (1922)

Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.

Written by Irish author James Joyce, Ulysses chronicles the passage of Leopold Bloom through Dublin during an ordinary day, 16 June 1904, and draws many parallels with Homer’s poem The Odyssey (Ulysses is the Latinised name of Odysseus) through its characters and events.  It is widely regarded as one of the most important works of modernist literature.

6. The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925)

In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.

This novel got the full Hollywood treatment in 2013 courtesy of Baz Luhrmann and Leonardo di Caprio, but to really experience the story as F. Scott Fitzgerald intended one should look to the original text.  Those opening words uttered by the novel’s protagonist, Jay Gatsby, are the first of a tale of decadence, idealism, social upheaval and excess that characterised the Roaring Twenties.  Widely considered as Fitzgerald’s magnum opus (defining work) it is an achievement indeed.

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7. Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell (1949)

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.

This ominous and unsettling opening was written by George Orwell in 1948 (he flipped the last two digits for the title) and is a very effective precursor for what is to come; a tale of a not too distant dystopia set in the fictitious state of Oceania, a world of continuous war, government surveillance, mind control and dictated by a privileged Inner Party.  It’s dark, it’s disturbing and, at times, feels all too accurate.

8. The Catcher in the Rye, J. D. Salinger (1951)

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.

Popular on school syllabuses across the land for its themes of teenage angst and alienation, The Catcher in the Rye has been translated into almost all of the world’s major languages and its protagonist, Holden Caulfield, has become something of an icon for teenage rebellion.  The novel was included in Time’s 2005 list of the 100 best English-language novels written since 1923 and American author J. D. Salinger’s dealings of issues surrounding identity, belonging, connection and alienation is masterful.  Famously, it was also the book found on Mark David Chapman following his shooting of John Lennon in 1980.

9. The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway (1952)

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.

As an example of the English language at its very finest, The Old Man and the Sea is well worth a read.  Ernest Hemingway expertly crafts a beautiful allegorical tale of an aging fisherman struggling with a giant fish far out in the Gulf Stream.  Awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1953 and cited as contributing to Hemingway being awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1954, it really doesn’t get much better than this.

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10. Catch 22, Joseph Heller (1961)

It was love at first sight.

Another American author to make the list. This opening line plunges you straight into the action of Catch 22, and doesn’t spit you out until some six hundred pages later.  A tale of deep satire and anti-war propaganda, the book also coined the phrase ‘Catch 22 situation’, meaning a problematic situation for which the only solution is denied by some essential aspect of the problem itself.  A masterful portrayal of the bureaucratic institutions blighting our lives, it also offers plenty of genuinely hilarious ‘laugh out loud’ moments!

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