My name is Abraham Hill Gibson, but you can call me Abe. I plan on using this blog to write about my two main interests, science and history, though I may also write about other topics as well. For example, since this is my first blog post, I thought I’d use the occasion to highlight some of the most famous first lines in history. For me, the two opening phrases that spring immediately to mind are “In the beginning…” from the Bible, and “Once upon a time…” from just about every fairy tale ever told. As you might expect, there are several websites that rank the greatest first lines in literature. According to the American Book Review, the first sentence of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick — “Call me Ishmael.” — is the best opening line in the history of literature. I can hardly disagree, especially since I rather blatantly and somewhat clumsily plagiarized Mr. Melville in the first line of this post (see above). Even so, there are other famous examples that also deserve mention. Some of the best include…
- “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” – Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities (1859)
- “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.” – Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967)
- “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” – George Orwell, 1984 (1949)
- “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” – L.P. Hartley, The Go-Between (1953)
- “‘Where’s Papa going with that axe?’ said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.” – E.B. White, Charlotte’s Web (1952)
- “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” – Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina (1877)
- “Behind every man now alive stand thirty ghosts, for that is the ratio by which the dead outnumber the living.” – Arthur C. Clarke, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Of course, books aren’t the only medium with the potential for a great opening. Film critic Jim Emerson has created an awesome running series on the greatest opening shots in cinematic history (you can see the entire list here). I’m especially happy to report that Mr. Emerson includes some of my personal favorites, including Raiders of the Lost Ark and Dazed and Confused.
With all due respect to the aforementioned books and movies, however, it is an objective fact that the greatest opening of all time is found in neither literature nor cinema, and is instead found in music. The first twelve seconds of Otis Redding’s “Try a Little Tenderness” are perhaps the most beautiful twelve seconds in the history of music, and yet the song somehow improves from there. If you’re not familiar with this track, I encourage you to check out the video directly below (apologies in advance for any commercials that play before/during the video):
- I try to give props whenever they are due, and so I’m more than happy to name-drop Kanye West and Jay-Z, who recently released a very creative (and very good) song entitled “Otis” that samples extensively from Otis Redding’s version of “Try a Little Tenderness.” You can check out their music video at this link. (Special thanks to my friends at McCann Law Firm for introducing me to this song.)
- The illustration of a whale that headlines this essay was first produced by Rockwell Kent for a special edition of Moby Dick in 1930. To learn more about the author and the special-edition book, check out the Rockwell Kent Collection at Plattsburgh State University.