First Sentences of Non-Fiction

After an online debate with Brian Moore over the opening sentence of ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ (best of lines, worst of lines), which I would have rejected for my Top 10 First sentences of novels even if it had not been too long, I thought we should turn to non-fiction.

  1. ‘The traditional disputes of philosophers are, for the most part, as unwarranted as they are unfruitful’ Alfred Ayer, Language, Truth and Logic, 1936. Thoughtfully nominated by Man Ray.
  2. ‘L’homme est né libre, et par-tout il est dans les fers’ (“Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.”) Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Du Contrat Social, 1762. Chris Sladen tied himself to the original French.
  3. ‘A frightful hobgoblin stalks throughout Europe’ Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto, 1848. Issy Flamel put forward Helen McFarlane’s 1850 translation.
  4. ‘We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones’ Richard Dawkins, Unweaving The Rainbow, 1998. Nominated by Emma Hutchings.
  5. ‘No comet blazed when I was born’ Denis Healey, The Time of My Life, 1989. Brought to light by Mark Bassett.
  6. ‘The great English novelists are Jane Austen, George Eliot, Henry James and Joseph Conrad’ FR Leavis, The Great Tradition, 1948. Adam Lent does not say whether he agrees.
  7. ‘There are idiots’ Larry Summers, US Treasury Secretary 1999-2001, unpublished paper on efficient markets. Offered without prejudice by Ian Leslie.
  8. ‘Louvain was a dull place, said a guidebook in 1910, but when the time came it made a spectacular fire’ Margaret MacMillan, The War That Ended Peace, 2013. From Ian Johnston.
  9. ‘We were somewhere around Barstow, on the edge of the desert, when the drugs began to take hold’ Hunter S Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, 1972 (it’s partly autobiographical). Nominated by Twlldunyrpobsais.
  10. ‘We wish to suggest a structure for the salt of deoxyribose nucleic acid (DNA)’ James Watson and Francis Crick, “A Structure for Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid”, 1953. From Damian Counsell.

Originally published in the Independent on 5th October 2014

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