First Lines: On Not Knowing the Answers to Questions Raised by Knowing


Who wrote this?

Human reason has this peculiar fate that in one species of its knowledge it is burdened by questions which, as prescribed by the very nature of reason itself, it is not able to ignore, but which, as transcending all its powers, it is also not able to answer.

ImageImmanuel Kant, of course. Except Kant wrote in German . . . and was no more perspicuous for doing so. He meant, of course, that some of the knowledge we actually have generates additional questions which are both insistent and unanswerable.

Here, for example, is a question for Kant’s claim, a question that is itself insistent: How did Kant know such a thing? As far as I can tell, the question is unanswerable.

Note: The above quotation is the first line in the Preface to the First Edition of Kant’s frequently impenetrable book Critique of Pure Reason, in the translation by Norman Kemp Smith.

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Mysterious Opening Lines: Le Carré, Ludlum, and Others


GIGA Quotes, an online source for quotations, has listed 43 pages of first lines from books, beginning with Merrian-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. This amounts to more than 2300 first-line excerpts from “classical, notable and bestselling books” (here).

First lines interest me. They interest me as an author, and as a reader. Read more of this post

First Lines: The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy


9780141439778Laurence Sterne’s ironical work of fiction, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, was first published in 1759. It baffled and intrigued Sterne’s contemporaries. You may feel the same way after reading the opening sentence:

I wish either my father or my mother, or indeed both of them, as they were in duty both equally bound to it, had duly considered how much depended upon what they were then doing;—that not only the production of a rational Being was concerned in it, but that possibly the happy formation and temperature of his body, perhaps his genius and the very cast of his mind;—and, for aught they knew to the contrary, even the fortunes of his whole house might take their turn from the humours and dispositions that were then uppermost;—Had they duly weighed and considered all this, and proceeded accordingly,—I am verily persuaded that I should have made a quite different figure in the world, from that in which the reader is likely to see me.

Come again? Read more of this post

First Lines: Thinking of the Future When It’s Become the Present


“Not until my ears popped and the plane was coming down over the winking lights of Bogatá—or really it looked like any other city at night—did I raise my eyes from the page I’d been puzzling at and begin to think of the girl, or woman, the friend or acquaintance, Natasha, whom I was flying so far to visit. That’s how it was with me then: I couldn’t think of the future until I arrived there.”

—Dwight B. Wilmerding, lead character in the novel Indecision, by Benjamin Kunkel

“I couldn’t think of the future until I arrived there.” In this case, the character is literally arriving by plane at

Book Cover for Indecision, by Benjamin Kunkel

Book Cover for Indecision, by Benjamin Kunkel

Bogatá, and he’s thinking—really thinking—for the first time about the point of his trip. Whatever he was reading before this moment had occupied his attention and had nothing to do with what was going to happen next.

Wilmerding was there to visit Natasha, and he’d come a long way by plane. Natasha doesn’t have a settled identity for this protagonist. She is, variously, “the girl, or woman, the friend or acquaintance” he’s come to see. These are his thoughts. But if this is so, why has he travelled so far to see her?

That’s what we want to find out, isn’t it?

As for Bogatá, on approach into the airport, it didn’t look different than any other city at night. Has he seen Shanghai, I wonder? But I take his point—in a way, cities do look alike, even the ones we’re seeing for the first time. We approach a new place intent on noticing what’s foreign about it. We’re romantics when it comes to travel. But if we think about it, we really must be more modest. We have projected a difference that doesn’t exist.

Wilmerding hints that his penchant for waiting ’til the future arrives before thinking about it is now past. That’s interesting. What accounts for this idiosyncrasy? And are we any different? Shall we find out?

That’s our question as we stand in the Barnes and Noble fiction isle trying to decide whether to buy and read Kunkel’s novel. We are in the grip of Indecision.

First Lines: What Does Sunday Sound Like?


Sometimes you read the first line of a novel and you just have to take the next step. If you’re lucky, the next sentence is equally galvanizing, and before you know it, you’re deep into another read.

The experience is rare. But it happened for me again the other day. The sentence that did it comes from John Wyndham’s book The Day of the Triffids: “When a day that you happen to know is Wednesday starts off by sounding like Sunday, there is something seriously wrong somewhere.”

First Edition Cover of John Wyndham's Novel, The Day of the Triffids (1951)

First Edition Cover of John Wyndham's Novel, The Day of the Triffids (1951)

The Day of the Triffids is favorably reviewed by its numerous readers. For example, it averages four-and-a-half stars at Amazon for sixty-nine customer reviews. But it’s still not known very well outside the sci-fi community. Paul Thompson, of Devon, England, has dedicated a website to this book. It’s called “The Reader’s Guide to John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids.”

Here is an artist’s rendition of a triffid:

Sketch of a Triffid

Sketch of a Triffid

Best discussions of The Day of the Triffids:

If you’re familiar with Wyndham’s novel, please post your thoughts.

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