Posted on January 27, 2009
I’ve been thinking about my vow to get back into reading fiction this year (note “thinking about” rather than actually making a start on it!) and trying to decide how I’m going to go about choosing which novels I’m actually going read out of the hundreds, well okay dozens, that I’ve got piled up around the house. Seriously, I can’t read all of them, not in just one year anyway, so there’s going to have to be some kind of selection process.
I never have a problem choosing which books to buy, in fact book buying is probably my favourite off-line activity, but once I own a book there’s never any guarantee I’m actually going to get round to reading it. I’ve bought far too many books on the strength of the cover alone, the blurb on the back, or somebody else’s glowing recommendation, and then ended up disappointed once I’ve started reading. And I’m not the sort of reader who will persevere with a novel just for the sake of finishing it; if the author hasn’t managed to hook me in the first couple of pages, that’s it, the book’s history.
So what I’ll probably end up doing is sitting down with them all, reading through the opening paragraphs, and making my choices from there.
Is that a harsh way to judge a book? I don’t think so: life’s too short and there are too many good books out there to waste time reading stuff you don’t enjoy.
But here are a few of my favourite book beginnings, so you can see where I’m coming from:
“This is the story of Bella, who woke up one morning and realised she’d had enough.
She’s no-one special. England’s full of wounded people. Quietly choking. Shrieking softly so the neighbours won’t hear. You must have seen them. You’ve probably passed them. You’ve certainly stepped on them. Too many people have had enough. It’s nothing new. It’s what you do about it that really counts.
She could have done the decent thing. She could have done what decent people do. She could have filled her gently rounded belly with barbiturates, or flung herself, with gay abandon, from the top of a tower block. They would have thought it sad, but not unseemly. Alas, poor Bella, they would have said, as they shovelled what remained of her into the waiting earth. She must have had enough, they would have said. At least she had the decency to do the decent thing.
But pain and Bella made poor companions. She ran from pain, and thought it wouldn’t find her. She shut her eyes, and held her breath, and hoped that pain would pass her by. The very thought of slicing into pale, translucent skin, or laying down her nubile form on the London-Brighton line, or hanging from the ceiling, with a flex around her neck (is she not elegant, fragrant, pendant?) was enough to make her sphincter almost lose its cunning.
Pain, in short, was not her cup of tea.”
From Dirty Weekend by Helen Zahavi
Or how about:
“If shitface asks me what I do with the housekeeping money once more, I’ll carve him up with the pissing bread knife. (I happened to be washing up at the time. Had I been hanging clothes on the line I dare say I would have thought of strangling the bleeder.)
“Awful language,” I catch myself saying out loud, and for someone who never swears – well it isn’t ladylike, is it?
I can’t quite believe it, thirty-seven years of age, and sexism has only just reared its ugly head, or should I say the realisation has only just hit me (and square between the eyes). I say ugly, because since the information has begun to filter through my nappy-clad head, there’ve been ugly scenes in my/his house.
Oppressed! Of course I’d heard the word before, but I thought it only applied to black people.”
From Happy as a Dead Cat by Jill Miller
And then there’s:
“Tyler gets me a job as a waiter, after that Tyler’s pushing a gun in my mouth and saying, the first step to eternal life is you have to die. For a long time though, Tyler and I were best friends. People are always asking, did I know about Tyler Durden.
The barrel of the gun pressed against the back of my throat, Tyler says, “We really won’t die.”
With my tongue I can feel the silencer holes we drilled into the barrel of the gun. Most of the noise a gunshot makes is expanding gases, and there’s the tiny sonic boom a bullet makes because it travels so fast. To make a silencer, you just drill holes in the barrel of the gun, a lot of holes. this lets the gas escape and slows the bullet to below the speed of sound.
You drill the holes wrong, and the gun will blow off in your hand.
“This isn’t really death,” Tyler says, “We’ll be legend. We won’t grow old.”
I tongue the barrel into my cheek and say, Tyler, you’re thinking of vampires.”
Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk
And finally, one from my favourite author, the best writer in the history of the world ever:
“London. Michaelmas term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets, as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elaphantine lizard up Holburn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snowflakes — gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun. Dogs, indistinguishable in mire. Horses, scarcely better, splashed to their very blinkers. Foot passengers, jostling one another’s umbrella’s, in a general infliction of ill temper, and losing their foot-hold at street-corners, where tens of thousands of other foot passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke (if this day ever broke), adding new deposits to the crust upon crust of mud, sticking at those points tenaciously to the pavement, and accumulating at compound interest.
Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls deified among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little ‘prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon and hanging in the misty clouds.
Gas looming through the fog in divers places in the streets, much as the sun may, from the spongey fields, be seen to loom by husbandman and ploughboy. Most of the shops lighted two hours before their time — as the gas seems to know, for it has a haggard and unwilling look.
The raw afternoon is rawest, and the dense fog is densest, and the muddy streets are muddiest near that leaden-headed old obstruction, appropriate ornament for the threshold of a leaden-headed old corporation, Temple Bar. And hard by Temple Bar, in Lincoln’s Inn Hall, at the very heart of the fog, sits the Lord High Chancellor in his High Court of Chancery.”
From Bleak House by Charles Dickens.
These are the sorts of beginnings that will get me hooked and keep me wanting to read a book right through to the end.
So what are your favourites? Post them here and who knows, I might end up abandoning my waiting pile and reading your selections instead.