First Sentences

“Whenever I think of my mother, I picture a queen-sized bed with her lying on it, a practiced stillness filling the room.” Yaa Gyasi, Transcendent Kingdom.

“I underwent, during that summer that I became fourteen, a prolonged religious crisis.” James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time.

“Darkness came on that town like a candle being snuffed.” Jess Walter, The Cold Millions.

“I’m eight years old.” Vivian Gornick, Fierce Attachments.

“The first time they drove by the house Eddie was so scared he ducked his head down.” Delores Hitchens, Fools’ Gold.

“There is a hidden world of design all around you if you look closely enough, but the cacophony of visual noise in our cities can make it hard to notice the key details.” Roman Mars and Kurt Kohlstedt, The 99% Invisible City: A Field Guide to the Hidden World of Everyday Design.

“Su Alteza Isabel II, Reina de España, carried ten relics on her person during her last few weeks of pregnancy.” Chantel Acevedo, The Living Infinite.

“The classical world was far closer to the makers of the American Revolution and the founders of the United States than it is to us today.” Thomas E. Ricks, First Principles: What America’s Founders Learned from the Greeks and Romans and How That Shaped our Country (2020).

“This is the saddest story I have ever heard.” Ford Madox Ford, The Good Soldier.

“I am writing a book about war . . .” Svetlana Alexievich, The Unwomanly Face of War: An Oral History of Women in World War II.

“My name, in those days, was Susan Trinder.” Sarah Waters, Fingersmith.

“The cocktails were typically strong, and tonight they felt like fortification.” Jeff Shesol, Supreme Power: Franklin Roosevelt vs. the Supreme Court.

“Ever since you were a boy, you’ve dreamt of being Kung Fu Guy.” Charles Yu, Interior Chinatown.

“Had she grown up in any other part of America, Jennifer Doudna might have felt like a regular kid.” Walter Isaacson, Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race.

“It was the happiest moment of my life, though I didn’t know it.” Orhan Pamuk, The Museum of Innocence.

First Sentences

“Pa used to say that any piece of history might be made into a tale: it was only a question of deciding where the tale began, and where it ended.” Sarah Waters, Affinity.

“If you visit the lovely Alpine town of Bolsano you will often see long queues outside the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology.” Margaret MacMillan, War: How Conflict Shaped Us.

“The morning one of the lost twins returned to Mallard, Lou LeBon ran to the diner to break the news, and even now, many years later, everyone remembers the shock of sweaty Lou pushing through the glass doors, chest heaving, neckline darkened with his own effort.” Britt Bennett, The Vanishing Half.

“On the morning of Good Friday, April 15, 1927, Seguine Allen, the chief engineer of the Mississippi Levee Board in Greenville, Mississippi woke up to the sound of running water.” John M. Barry, Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How it Changed America.

“Behold the man.” Ian McGuire, The North Sea.

“Once you start to see them, you’ll never understand how you hadn’t noticed them before.” Roman Mars and Kurt Kohlstedt, The 99% Invisible City: A Field Guide to the Hidden World of Everyday Design.

“The small boys came early to the hanging.” Ken Follett, Pillars of the Earth.

“Once on a Wednesday excursion when I was a little girl, my father bought me a beaded wire ball that I loved.” Dava Sobel, Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time.

“Virginia court records for September 18, 1800, mention a certain Mr. Moseley Sheppard who came quietly to the witness stand in Richmond and produced testimony that caused half the States to shudder.” Arna Bontemps, Black Thunder.

“No one had any doubt that the bombers would come.” Erik Larson, The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz.

“A boy is coming down a flight of stairs.” Margaret O’Farrell, Hamnet: A Novel of the Plague.

“When I think about my time in the Senate, I see a broken man.” Adam Jentleson, Kill Switch: The Rise of the Modern Senate and the Crippling of American Democracy.

“My town sat on top of a small hill by the side of a river whose banks held only sand.” Phil Klay, Missionaries.


          For some, “cancel culture” means that someone who says or does something that is not deemed politically correct can suffer negative social or economic consequences. But for the last 150 years workers who spoke in favor of unionization or against unsafe working conditions have suffered, including losing their jobs. Blacks speaking out on a host of topics throughout our history suffered many, many social, economic, and physical consequences. Weren’t these situations the original cancel culture?

          The book I am reading “was set in Monotype face called Bell,” named for John Bell who died in 1831.

          A small warning card in English and five other languages I could not read was attached to a newly-purchased pair of beach shoes. It told me how to avoid “severe personal injury” on escalators and moving walkways. I looked again at the Crocs searching for their dangers, but I saw nothing that seemed likely to get caught in the moving stairs. Is this warning just now standard for footwear? Whose behavior changes because new shoes come with the advice about moving walkways, “Step carefully when getting on and off”?

          Does anyone like the carrot slime that develops on the “baby” ones after the package is opened?

          Brooklynites redistribute wealth not by throwing unwanted items into the trash but by placing them at the bottom of the front steps in hopes that neighbors will have a use for them. This is how I came to possess a book of excerpts from Elizabeth David’s writings, which was compiled in 1997. The first sentences of the Introduction made me wonder if the Brits today still had the same class definitions of a generation ago: “Elizabeth David was born in 1913, one of four daughters of Rupert Gwynne, Conservative MP for Eastbourne. Her mother was the daughter of the first Viscount Ridley. She had a middle-class upbringing, with a nanny and governess, and later went to a girls’ school where the food was decidedly inferior. . . .” 

          Writing on a T shirt worn by a female jogger that I don’t believe I would have seen a decade ago: “Eat pussy. Its organic.”

Elizabeth Barrett, meeting Wordsworth for the first time, supposedly said, “He was very kind to me and let me hear his conversation.”

“Why do gentlemen’s voices carry so clearly, when women’s are so easily stifled?” Sarah Waters, Affinity.

“He is a prince.” That doesn’t sound derogatory; it is, in fact, a compliment. But compare: “She is a princess.”

There was such a difference between a woman’s magazine and a girlie magazine.

I jokingly told my thrice-married friend that I would teach him all about women. He responded, “I’ve learned a lot about women. . . . I just don’t believe it.”