I do not believe it's true that a book has to grab the reader with its first sentence. Readers are generally a little patient, willing to give a book a page or two, maybe even a chapter, before passing judgment.
That said, a good opening can do wonders for a book. The first paragraph of Moby Dick, for example, sets the tone for the novel. Ditto the first paragraph of Proust's Swann's Way, or du Maurier's Rebecca ("Last night I dreamed of Mandalay..."), or LeGuin's The Dispossessed.
Mac's book group selection for this month is Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner. Our group previously read Stegner's Angle of Repose, a book that garnered mixed reviews from us, but that we all admitted showed elements of greatness.
Crossing to Safety, though, is generating good advance buzz. As a group, we tend to feel each other out as we read, to determine how much we're each liking the book. Everyone seems to like this one. The first two paragraphs provide a fine example of what is right with this book:
Floating upward through a confusion of dreams and memory, curving like a trout through the rings of previous risings, I surface. My eyes open. I am awake.
Cataract sufferers must see like this when the bandages are removed after the operation: every detail as sharp as if seen for the first time, yet familiar too, known from before the time of blindness...
One could conduct an entire college lecture on what is right with these two paragraphs: the tone, the structure, the physical form of the words and sentences, the imagery, the evocation of the past (both in the book, and, amazingly, in the reader's own life), the subtle dialogue with other authors.
(The first two chapters of this book contain a couple (several?) of allusions to Proust, one of which is more overt than subtle: "I'll be out on the back porch," one the characters says, "recherching temps perdu." (The original French title of Proust's opus is À la recherché du temps perdu.) I love this kind of thing. It's an intentional device meant to allow certain readers — those that happen to have read the piece of work in question — to bring an additionally layer of meaning and understanding to the current reading. Here, it's as if Stegner is say, "Hey — if you've read Proust, dig out some of what you remember from him, because we'll be referring to it in the pages that follow." Mortimer J. Adler, in his brilliant How to Read a Book, calls close readings of two or more texts side-by-side "synoptic reading". Here it is as if Stegner is practicing synoptic writing.)
Better still is this introspective passage from the second page of the novel:
...if you could forget mortality...you could really believe that time is circular, and not linear and progressive as our culture is bent on proving. Seen in geological perspective, we are fossils in the making, to be buried and eventually exposed again for the puzzlement of creatures of later eras. Seen in either geological or biological terms, we don't warrant attention as individuals. One of us doesn't differ that much from another, each generation repeats its parents, the works we build to outlast us are not much more enduring than anthills, and much less so than coral reefs...Everything returns upon itself, repeats and renews itself, and present can hardly be told from past.
I read this passage several times last night. As I was falling asleep, my mind twisted and contorted, attempting to re-imagine time in different shapes and patterns, not just circular, not just linear, but something altogether more complex.
My favorite pattern was this: imagine the days are circular time, tracing small loops along the inside circumference of larger circles — larger circles that represent each year — so that 365 loops traverse the entire circumference of a larger circle. And imagine that these larger circles, heavy and pendulous with the weight of each year, are clustered together in a roughly linear fashion. But the line is not truly straight; here and there it jogs or bends, and in some places, the line is not a line but is an arc, or sometimes even a circle.
That was my favorite pattern.
I seem to have a penchant for books that delve into time and memory. The Unbearable Lightness of Being was the first of these I loved, with its discussion of "eternal return", or repeating patterns. Einstein's Dreams and Swann's Way followed. I have hopes that Crossing to Safety will build on its strong opening, offer another exploration of time and memory.
On this day at foldedspace.org
2005 — Bookworm I consume about one book a week. It's my goal to return to the one-hundred book per year level, but it's going to require a concentrated effort.
2003 — Shrink Not With Afright In which I listen to Christmas carols in midsummer.