Mark Twain in his Innocents Abroad starts with a very simple sentence describing the book. But he goes on to expound it with characteristic humour.
This book is a record of a pleasure-trip. If it were a record of a solemn scientific expedition, it would have about it that gravity, that profundity, and that impressive incomprehensibility, which are so proper to works of that kind, and withal so attractive. Yet notwithstanding it is only a record of a picnic, it has a purpose, which is, to suggest to the reader how he would be likely to see Europe and the East if he looked at them with his own eyes instead of the eyes of those who traveled in those countries before him. I make small pretence of showing any one how he ought to look at objects of interest beyond the sea—other books do that, and therefore, even if I were competent to do it, there is no need.
R L Stevenson in his Travels With A Donkey In The Cévennes starts with, once again, a simple statement about the book. But what does the whole paragraph look like?
In a little place called Le Monastier in a pleasant highland valley fifteen miles from Le Puy, I spent about a month of fine days. Monastier is notable for the making of lace, for drunkenness, for freedom of language, and for unparalleled political dissension. There are adherents of each of the four French parties—Legitimists, Orleanists, Imperialists, and Republicans;—in this little mountain town. And they all hate, loathe, decry, and calumniate each other.
Into the 20th century and to Patrick Lee Fermor in Mani, whose enumerative style is typical of the period (1950s) and reminiscent of Solzhenitsyn.
I had meant Mani, before I began writing it, to be a single chapter among many, each of them describing the stages and halts, the encounters, the background and the conclusions of a leisurely journey – a kind of recapitulation of many former journeys – through continental Greece and the islands. I accordingly made this journey, setting out from Constantinople, which seemed to be the logical point of departure historically, if not politically, for a study of the modem Greek world and then moved westwards through Thrace and Macedonia, south through the Pindus mountains, branching west into Epirus and east into Thessaly; south to all the rocky provinces that lie along the northern shore of the Gulf of Corinth, then eastwards through Boeotia and Attica to Athens. Next came the Peloponnese, the multiplicity of solitary islands and the archipelagos which are scattered over the Greek seas, the eastern outpost of Cyprus and the southernmost giant of Crete. I undertook this journey in order to pull together the uncoordinated strands of many previous travels and sojourns in all parts of Greece, for I had begun wandering about this country and living in various parts of it a few years before the war. The war did not interrupt these travels though for the time being it altered their scope and their purpose; and since then they have continued intermittently until this very minute of an early morning on a white terrace on the island of Hydra.
Moving on: Bruce Chatwin, In Patagonia, masterfully sets the tone. But the opening sentence by itself would not be enough. (And nor is actually just the first paragraph.)
In my grandmother’s dining-room there was a glass-fronted cabinet and in the cabinet a piece of skin. It was a small piece only, but thick and leathery, with strands of coarse, reddish hair. I t was stuck to a card with a rusty pin. On the card was some writing in faded black ink, but I was too young then to read.
‘A piece of brontosaurus.’
Alan Sillitoe in Gadfly in Russia again needs not just a sentence; his style may reminds you of Chatwin. Because writing about what impressed you as a child is a good opening gambit.
The only essay I remember writing at school was about the German advance into Russia during the Second World War. After mentioning the Napoleonic Campaign of 1812 I said that the aim of the current offensive in the Ukraine was to acquire the oil wells in the Caucasus, to fuel the Nazi economy. I was thirteen, but had probably taken most of it from a newspaper.
Pieter Matthiesen’s The Cloud Forest doesn’t even start with a properly constructed sentence, forcing you to read further in what appears to be a diary.
A pale November sky, like a sky on the moon. The M.S. Verdmos is scheduled to sail at three p.m., but freighters rarely leave anywhere on time, and it is 20:32 in the evening by the ship’s clock when a stevedore on the Brooklyn pier lets the last hawser slap into the water. “All gone aft,” he bawls—incongruously, for he is wearing a fedora—and shoves his hands into his pockets. There is a nine-mile wind out of the northwest, sharp as ice. The man retraces his steps along the darkened pier without glancing at the ship again. She is warped swiftly from her berth by the tug Isabel A. McAllister, which remains fastened alongside until the ship has cleared the Erie Basin. To starboard lies Governor’s Island, and behind it the bright night walls of Manhattan, soaring up out of the black harbor like the Seven Cities of Cibola.
Finally something much more 21st century: my friend Diccon Bewes wrote a highly successful book about Switzerland, Swiss Watching, in 2010. Although his opening sentence is probably the most powerful we’ve seen employed so far, he’s also not content with just a first sentence; you really must read the whole paragraph.
Close your eyes and tell me the first thing you associate with Switzerland. Chances are you’ll say cheese. Or chocolate. Or mountains. Or banking, cuckoo clocks skiing, watches, the Red Cross, snow or Toblerone. Those were the top ten answers when I asked 100 non-Swiss people to do just that, and every single person said something. No don’t knows or passes. What was clear is that everyone has something in mind when they think of Switzerland. This small mountainous country at the centre of Europe has captured a place in the imaginations of millions of people.
As for my own – click onto the next page