Some famous novels have famous opening sentences. There’s Anna Karenina, for example:
All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
Or A Tale of Two Cities:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…
though to be strictly accurate, that one keeps going for quite a bit longer.
There’s Moby Dick:
Call me Ishmael.
There’s Rebecca, which I’ve never read, though I did see the Hitchcock film. The opening sentence is:
Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.
And there are famous sentences that feel instinctively like opening lines, but aren’t. My go-to example for this is from To Kill a Mockingbird:
Maycomb was an old town, but it was a tired old town when I first knew it.
That one actually comes a couple of pages in. The real opening sentence is the rather mundane: “When he was nearly thirteen my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow.”
All these are examples from fiction. Non-fiction is rather more restricted in being limited to the facts and so there are no classic opening sentences that I know of.
But there are some great opening paragraphs. The Man on Your Conscience is a mostly forgotten book by a man named Michael Eddowes. It’s about the notorious Rillington Place case in Britain in the 1950s. Timothy Evans was arrested, tried, convicted and hanged for the murders of his wife and daughter. A few years later it was discovered that his landlord was a serial killer and that Evans was probably innocent.
Eddowes’ book isn’t nearly as famous as Ludovic Kennedy’s work about the same case, 10 Rillington Place. People who’ve read both agree that Kennedy was the better writer and he was certainly a prominent journalist and decades-long campaigner against miscarriages of justice. But I suspect that even Kennedy was impressed by Eddowes’ superb and factually accurate opening paragraph:
The leading players were soon to die. The judge was dead within a few weeks, the accused man was hanged within a few weeks, within three years the Crown’s second witness was strangled by the Crown’s chief witness, and the Crown’s chief witness was hanged.
For a few years I thought that that was the best opening paragraph in all of non-fiction. But then a friend recommended I read Edward Gibbons’ The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.
Gibbons’ work is a masterpiece, still famous centuries after he finished writing it. It’s also a great read and the opening paragraph is this:
In the second century of the Christian era, the empire of Rome comprehended the fairest part of the earth, and the most civilised portion of mankind. The frontiers of that extensive monarchy were guarded by ancient renown and disciplined valour. The gentle, but powerful, influence of laws and manners had gradually cemented the union of the provinces. Their peaceful inhabitants enjoyed and abused the advantages of wealth and luxury. The image of a free constitution was preserved with decent reverence. The Roman senate appeared to possess the sovereign authority, and devolved on the emperors all the executive powers of government. During a happy period of more than fourscore years, the public administration was conducted by the virtue and abilities of Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, and the two Antonines. It is the design of this and of the two succeeding chapters, to describe the prosperous condition of their empire; and afterwards, from the death of Marcus Antoninus, to deduce the most important circumstances of its decline and fall: a revolution which will ever be remembered, and is still felt by the nations of the earth.
Now that’s what I call an opening paragraph!