Thirty Days of First Lines: Day 30

As I finish this edition of “30 Days” I should say a bit about my “first line test.” It is a response to the question, “Given the vast riches available to read, how do you decide?” I have, quite arbitrarily, adopted an approach of reading the first line and seeing if–under a very generous conception–it grabs me, and whether the author took some care over it. This, of course, can be quite unfair: some good books have merely serviceable first lines and turn out to be fine reads.

Still, a powerful first line is still one of the great pleasures of literature and writers take them seriously. Small differences matter, sometimes profoundly. As evidence, and also because it’s fun, here’s a sample of English versions of the “ur first line,” that of Genesis. Perhaps the simplest and the most complicated of all.

This compilation is drawn from web sources, including, which I think is meant for religious study. But also nice for comp lit in a nutshell.

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. New International Version (NIV)

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. (21st Century KJV)

In the beginning God (prepared, formed, fashioned, and) created the heavens and the earth. (Amplified Bible)

When God began to create[a] the heavens and the earth— 2 the earth was without shape or form, it was dark over the deep sea, and God’s wind swept over the waters— 3 God said, “Let there be light.” (Common English Bible)

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. (Complete Jewish Bible)

In the beginning God created heaven, and earth. Douay-Rheims 1899 American Edition (DRA)

God created the sky and the earth. At first, the earth was completely empty. Easy-to-Read Version (ERV)

In the beginning [or In the beginning when] God created [this Hebrew verb is used only when God is the one creating] the ·sky [heavens] and the earth. Expanded Bible (EXB)

In the beginning, when God created the universe,[a] 2 the earth was formless and desolate. Good News Translation (GNT)

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. (KJV)

When God began creating[a] the heavens and the earth, 2 the earth was[b] a shapeless, chaotic mass,* with the Spirit of God brooding over the dark vapors.* (Living Bible (TLB)

First this: God created the Heavens and Earth—all you see, all you don’t see. Earth was a soup of nothingness, a bottomless emptiness, an inky blackness. (The Message (MSG))

In the beginning Elohim created heaven and earth. Names of God Bible (NOG)

In the beginning God created the sky and the earth. New Century Version (NCV)

In the beginning God made from nothing the heavens and the earth. New Life Version (NLV)

In the beginning when God created[a] the heavens and the earth, 2 the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God[b] swept over the face of the waters. New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

In the beginning Elohim created hashomayim (the heavens, Himel) and haaretz (the earth). Orthodox Jewish Bible (OJB)

In the beginning, God created everything: the heavens above and the earth below. Here’s what happened: (The Voice)

In the beginning God made of nought heaven and earth. (In the beginning God made out of nothing the heavens and the earth.)

2 Forsooth the earth was idle and void, and darknesses were on the face of (the) depth; and the Spirit of the Lord was borne on the waters [and the Spirit of God was borne upon the waters]. (Wycliffe Bible (WYC))

In the beginning of God’s preparing the heavens and the earth –Young’s Literal Translation (YLT)

בְּרֵאשִׁית בָּרָא אֱ־לֹהִים אֵת הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֵת הָאָרֶץ (The original Hebrew)

The Polyglot Bible
The Polyglot Bible

Thirty Days of First Lines: Day 29

Today, a selection from George Eliot,


“In the days when the spinning-wheels hummed busily in the farmhouses—and even great ladies, clothed in silk and thread-lace, had their toy spinning-wheels of polished oak—there might be seen in districts far away among the lanes, or deep in the bosom of the hills, certain pallid undersized men, who, by the side of the brawny country-folk, looked like the remnants of a disinherited race.” 

The opening of Silas Marner

Thirty Days of First Lines: Day 28

Great first lines from Dickens’ could fill up a list of 30 with ease, but in the spirit of avoiding some of the old warhorses, I offer the low-key delight of the opening of Nicholas Nickleby.


Nicholas_NicklebyThere once lived, in a sequestered part of the county of Devonshire, one Mr Godfrey Nickleby: a worthy gentleman, who, taking it into his head rather late in life that he must get married, and not being young enough or rich enough to aspire to the hand of a lady of fortune, had wedded an old flame out of mere attachment, who in her turn had taken him for the same reason. Thus two people who cannot afford to play cards for money, sometimes sit down to a quiet game for love.

Thirty Days of First Lines: Day 27

As we wind down this  round of “30 days,” here’s something from my favorite literary magician, Steven Millhauser. The opening of his story “The Invention of Robert Herendeen.”

I trace the origin of my perilous gift to an idle morning in the fourth grade.


Millhauser reminds me of Joseph Cornell, or of David Beck, whose enchanting MVSEVM is at the Smithsonian’s Museum of American Art. They are all builders of intricate worlds within worlds.

Thirty Days of First Lines: Day 26

Two openers by Anton Anton_Chekhov_with_bow-tie_sepia_imageChekhov today:

“Why do you always wear black?”

“Because I’m in mourning for my life. I’m not happy.”

The first lines of his play, The Seagull, from the school teacher Medvedenko to Masha, the daughter of the estate manager. He called the play a comedy, but if comedy is there, it’s elusive. There are laughs, but they disappear around the corner fleetly.

And beginning from perhaps the greatest of his stories, or at least the one that floors me every time.

A new person, it was said, had appeared on the esplanade: a lady with a pet dog.

From the story of the same name.

Thirty Days of First Lines: Day 25

Today, keeping to first paragraphs rather than just lines, here’s the curtain-opener to Anne Enright’s luminous The Gathering:

the-gathering“I would like to write down what happened in my grandmother’s house the summer I was eight or nine, but I am not sure if it really did happen. I need to bear witness to an uncertain event. I feel it roaring inside me – this thing that may not have taken place. I don’t even know what name to put on it. I think you might call it a crime of the flesh, but the flesh is long fallen away and I am not sure what hurt may linger in the bones.”

Thirty Days of First Lines: Day 24

Not just the first line, but a wonderful opening to a compellingly readable book about Bollywood by the diplomat and politician Shashi Tharoor.


I can’t believe I’m doing this.
Me, Ashok Banjara, product of the finest public school in independent India, secretary of the Shakespeare Society at St. Francis’s College, no less, not to mention son of the Minister of State for Minor Textiles, chasing an aging actress around a papier-mâché tree in an artificial drizzle, lip-synching to the tinny inanities of an aspiring (and highly aspirating) playback-singer.

Thirty Days of First Lines: Day 23

David Copperfield and a rejoinder today:


“Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.”

David Copperfield, by Charles Dickens


“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.”

The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger.

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