Gosh! Not only is it 2014 (and some of us can remember when 1984 was set in the future), but we are already several days in: we have, as it were, turned the page and are fully launched into being January. Resolutions have been made, written down, abandoned and the list lost, shredded or burned. Diaries have been begun and, by now, gently laid aside for ever. But at least you began ……
How to begin a book? If we mean reading one, then the obvious answer is, of course, ‘from the beginning.’ Well, (a) trick question and (b) not necessarily. For a start, what do we mean by ‘the beginning’? You no doubt remember our gripping discussion of Shakespeare editions (oh, do keep up) and the dawning realisation that all that guff before you get to Act I Scene I might actually be trying to tell you something. The advanced (or, I suppose, even more obsessive) version of this is to begin with all that fascinating stuff usually to be found on a left-hand page before action commences. Yes, I really am talking about the list of when and where published, by whom, and which edition I have in my hands right this moment. Trust me (or humour me at least). It is interesting. It lets you wonder about why that particular moment saw people writing about, say, political revolution (The Communist Manifesto), the baby born in the stable (Hymns for Little Children, including ‘Once in Royal David’s City’ and, while we’re about it, ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’, which, with its very clear sense of the proper place for the rich man and the poor man, constitutes one in the eye for Marx), tales of Manchester life (Mary Barton) and how to stand up to ghastly husbands (The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, which I urge you to read if you haven’t yet done so): all published for the first time in 1848. And how fascinating to track the demand for a book as it went through several editions within a few years and then languished before, perhaps, being sparked back into popularity and new critical editions (‘critical’ here usually meaning that someone else has written an introduction as well as edited the text). Cheeriest of all, if only for the gleeful schadenfreude, is the knowledge that when the Third Shakespeare Folio edition came out in 1663, the Bodleian Library ditched their copy of the 1623 First Folio. Actually, being the Bodleian and having their feet firmly on the ground, they seem to have sold it. Only in 1905, by which time a more archaeological reverence for old texts had taken hold, did the Library manage to buy their copy back – for £3,000, or twenty times a teacher’s annual salary (that’s a male teacher: you can guess the depressing division sum to calculate a female teacher’s pittance).
And what about not starting anywhere near the beginning? My mother had the absolutely infuriating – in fact, make that ABSOLUTELY INFURIATING – habit of reading the last few pages of crime novels first so that she wasn’t troubled by any unnecessary sense of suspense. I do not recommend this approach. Anthologies and collections of short stories or poems all cry out to be dipped into at will and in any order. Some non-fiction is also structured to avoid the constraints of a linear narrative – although, if you found A Brief History of Time quite tough going when tackled head-on, I’m not sure that wandering randomly through it is going to shed much extra light. And if you find yourself settling down for the evening with an encyclopaedia of anything, and setting out to read it cover-to-cover, you might want to spend some time re-evaluating your life (the same goes, in the NorthernReader household, for any fleeting thought of reading an instruction manual: at all, let alone cover to cover).
But what makes us carry on reading a book once we have launched ourselves on the first paragraph? It has to persuade us to stick around and spend time with it, to drop what we were doing and find somewhere to sit, to switch off the radio/TV/i-pod – and it has about ten seconds to make its mark. If you’re not gripped by then – or at least mildly intrigued – the chances are that you’ll pop that book back on the shelf and move on. Hence the importance of opening sentences (and the understandable tendency of writers to devote themselves to the crafting of the perfect one, sometimes at the expense of ever moving on to the only-just-less-important second sentence).
Most famous of all, of course, is ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged…’. It’s the deft twist of language that echoes the magnificent American Declaration of Independence that does it: our right, ladies, is to be endowed with inalienable access to wealth and the freedom and happiness it brings. George Orwell manages to capture the tone, theme and style of Nineteen Eighty Four in his stark opener, ‘It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.’ You have to admit that Kafka wins hands-down on the attention-grabbing stakes with ‘As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous vermin’ (we simply must talk about translation soon). I confess that the reason why I have never read Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin (although, not having a heart of stone, I loved the film) is precisely because the opening sentence, ‘I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking’ makes the narrator sound so terribly self-absorbed and tiresome. ‘Oh, dear,’ I catch myself thinking: and that’s never a good way to begin.
My favourite opening line? Well, ‘In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth’ sets out the stall pretty comprehensively, you have to admit. But for fatal allure, for demanding that you read on, right now, regardless of what is going on around you (better not take it with you if someone might shout ‘Fire!’, then), Ford Madox Ford is hard to beat. Ready? Got your copy of The Good Soldier to hand? Comfy chair and sustenance of your choice standing by? Then I’ll begin.
‘This is the saddest story I have ever heard.’
Enjoy. Oh, and I wish you a sparkling New Year, full of joy and laughter and, of course, books.