First Sentences

“Exactly what befell the President of the United States has never been fully understood.” Jethro K. Lieberman, Everything is Jake.

“New York’s Grand Opera-house was in the midst of a triumphant four-week run of performances by Edwin Booth, the greatest Hamlet of his generation, that Saturday in 1879 when twenty-six-year-old William R. Davis Jr. and his companion approached the huge doors of the heavily marbled theater.” Peter S. Canellos, The Great Dissenter: The Story of John Marshall Harlan, America’s Judicial Hero.

“A fourteen-year-old girl sits cross-legged on the floor of a circular vault” Anthony Doer, Cloud Cuckoo Land.

 “When you reach your fifties, it gets easier to notice the big ways in which the world has or hasn’t changed since you were young, both the look and feel of things and people’s understanding of how society works.” Kurt Andersen, Evil Geniuses: The Unmaking of America, A Recent History.

“Nineteen years before she decided to die, Nora Seed sat in the warmth of the small library at Hazeldene School in the town of Bedford.” Matt Haig, The Midnight Library.

“Insecurity combined with arrogance is good DNA for a comedian.” David Steinberg, Inside Comedy: The Soul, Wit, and Bite of Comedy and Comedians of the Last Five Decades.

“Many times since the Earth was young, the place had lain under the sea.” Edward Rutherford, London.

“Just as the first rays of dawn swept the eastern wall of the small castle, a detachment of soldiers landed on the beach below.” John Prevas, Hannibal’s Oath: The Life and Wars of Rome’s Greatest Enemy.

“Captain Kidd laid out the Boston Morning Journal on the lectern and began to read from the article on the Fifteenth Amendment.” Paulette Jiles, News of the World.

“In October 1846 the poet William Cullen Bryant visited the Delaware Water Gap, the spot where the Delaware River cuts through the Kittatinny (or Blue) Mountains.” Lawrence Squeri, Better in the Poconos: The Story of Pennsylvania’s Vacationland.

“Major Picquart to see the Minister of War. . . .” Robert Harris, An Officer and a Spy.

“My father had a little joke that made light of our legacy as a family that had once owned slaves.” Edward Ball, Slaves in the Family.

First Sentences

“In the corner of the small living room of the small country house at the end of the dirt road beneath the blue Carolina sky, the dark-skinned five-year old boy sat with his knees pulled to his chest and his small, dark arms wrapped around his legs and it took all that he had to contain the laughter inside the thrumming cage of his chest.” Jason Mott, Hell of a Book.

“We all want to know how it was in the beginning.”Nathaniel Philbrick, In the Heart of the Sea.

“Well, the sun was shining.” Rumaan Alam, Leave the World Behind.

“The silence was excruciating, the minutes ticking by thick and heavy, time itself gorging on the tension in the humid air.” Ben Mezrich, Once Upon a Time in Russia: The Rise of the Oligarchs—A True Story of Ambition, Wealth, Betrayal, and Murder.

“Mayya, forever immersed in her Singer sewing machine, seemed lost to the outside world.” Jokha Alharthi, Celestial Bodies.

“English rule of Ireland was achieved by force, maintained by force.” Wayne G. Broehl, Jr., The Molly Maguires.

“I was born to be a wanderer.” Maggie Shipstead, Great Circle.

“On the third day of October 1901, Abram S. Hewitt was a happy man.” Clifton Hood, 722 Miles: The Building of the Subways and How They Transformed New York.

“Still hours of dark to go when I left home that morning.” Emma Donoghue, The Pull of the Stars.

“Senior Lieutenant Alexander Logachev loved radiation the way other men loved their wives.” Adam Higginbothan, Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster.

“Simon the Fiddler had managed to evade the Confederate conscription men because he looked much younger than he was and he did everything he could to further that impression.” Paulette Jiles, Simon the Fiddler.

“Texas, perhaps more than any other state in the Union, lives in the public imagination as a place of extremes.” Annette Gordon-Reed, On Juneteenth.

“On Saint Patrick’s Day, Daniel Coleman, an agent in the New York office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation handling foreign intelligence cases, drove down to Tyson’s Corner, Virginia, to report for a new posting.” Lawrence Wright, The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11.

“The day was flat.” Douglas Stuart, Shuggie Bain.

“On October 5, 1936, thousands of people packed the unpaved roads of Van Meter, Iowa.” Luke Epplin, Our Team: The Epic Story of Four Men and the World Series that Changed Baseball.


I fell off my bike. I did not immediately check for bruises or broken bones. Instead, I did what any sensible person would do: I looked around to see if anyone had witnessed my clumsiness. No one had, so it was not a bad fall. But then I had to do the difficult thing at my age and get to a standing position. Of course, no one came to my assistance since there was no one around. I was happy about that.

As I was paying for a green tomato at the weekly Amish market, I asked Annie, who collects the money, if she had ever eaten a fried green tomato. She hesitated but then replied, “Yes.” I said, “Just one?” She answered, “There are better foods.” “Like what?” I asked. “Just about anything,” she responded.

I chatted with Amos before getting into my car. He asked where I lived, and I said that while I had a summer home in Pennsylvania, I had lived in Brooklyn for a long time. “City slicker,” he said with a smile. I asked if he had ever been to a city. He said only the outskirts and mentioned some New Jersey suburbs of New York. Even so, he was quite sure that he did not like cities: “Too much hustle and bustle. Too much activity. Too much rushing.” He told me that Annie was his sister and that she was eighteen and that he was sixteen. Helping Annie was a younger girl. Amos said that Emma was also a sister. He paused and looked as though he were adding and subtracting but couldn’t be sure of his calculations. Finally he said, “Emma is about twelve.”

Annie is a schoolteacher in her community’s one-room schoolhouse. She teaches in English. “It is required.” “Do you speak German at home?” I asked. “Pennsylvania Dutch.”

On the second half of the two-hour car trip, I scanned for radio stations. I stopped on one that was playing some sort of rock-style ballads. The music stopped, and a recorded voice said that there was good news. The man said that just because bad things happened, it did not mean you were a bad person and being punished by God. “Remember, Jesus was poor and suffered, too.” Although there is an assumption that Jesus did not have wealth, I don’t think anything in the Bible says that he was poor. Certainly nothing indicates that he had the distended belly of the malnourished. The announcer said that listeners should not assume they were bad people if they got a bad diagnosis or prognosis. Jesus, he again reminded us, went through bad things. Ya think? There was that crucifixion thing, but I am not aware that he was told that he had cancer or gall bladder disease.

This inspirational message was followed by five minutes of commercials. Pastor Wiggins in the last one stated that he was crossing the street, when a car turned onto Fourth Avenue without looking and nearly sent the religious man to Kingdom Come. He was put into an induced coma and suffered brain damage. After he got out of the hospital, a parishioner told Wiggins about this wonderful lawyer, who, for Wiggins’s medical expenses and pain and suffering, got him MONEY. The attorney was apparently a Gift from God that others could benefit from.

“Trust in God, her mother said, but never dance in a small boat.” Paulette Jiles, Simon the Fiddler.