mr. interpolation’s top five favorite opening sentences of all time

October 3, 2011

I make zero claim to originality. One evening, as I was thumbing through my books, reading only first sentences, I found myself returning to a select few, again and again. A Russian, an Englishman, and three Americans. Cormac McCarthy doesn’t appear among them. Try as I might, I couldn’t shoehorn any of his first sentences into my shortlist. Not even my longlist. But more on that later.

 It’s time for my top five, starting with…


“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” It’s a memorable sentence, isn’t it? Even people who aren’t literary aesthetes drop it at cocktail parties—usually without botching it. I love the line not for its memorability but for its provocative falseness. It’s simply untrue. Whether happiness is the absence of suffering or suffering the absence of pain, or whether happiness is an illusion and pain the ultimate reality, there is more than one way for happy families to be happy, at least in our real, non-fictional world. Why might Tolstoy open with a sentence that’s patently false?

This inquiring mind wants to know.