Posts Tagged ‘Herman Melville’

The First Line of Bob’s Novel
By Perry Bradford-Wilson
Author of Tales of McKinleyville: Big Doin’s at the Chinese Baptist Church, Tales of Placerville: Booksellers to the Savage West, and co-author of Midnight in Never Land

Call me Bob.

I am compelled to start this book with those words. The great American novel, Moby-Dick, begins with the words “Call me Ishmael.” I find that a fascinating opening line. I noted it the first time I read the book, involuntarily and grudgingly, under orders from my eighth grade English teacher. You see, the first-person narrator could just as easily have said “My name is Ishmael” or “I am Ishmael.” He didn’t. He said “Call me Ishmael,” which suggested to my twelve-year-old mind that his name was actually something else. He wanted us to call him Ishmael, but for all I knew his name might be “Fred” or “Susan.” I didn’t really know who he was at all.

Now, this isn’t literary rocket science. The observation certainly isn’t a new one. In fact, it was brought up by my teacher a few days later. But I had noticed it on my own, all by myself. There I was, at the tender age of twelve, and I was excited by the use of language. Perhaps that’s why I have always thought it was one of the finest opening lines in literary history. So much so, in fact, that when I adopted a pseudonym I seriously considered using the first name “Ishmael.”

I didn’t, of course. You can see that on the cover of every one of my books. It says “Bob” in any one of a variety of bright colors (although always in the same font – that part is decided by my publishers, and I suppose they consider it my “logo.”) “Bob” may not be as distinctive or unusual as “Ishmael,” but it is certainly easier to pronounce and spell and much shorter to write when autographing books. And “Bob,” handily enough, is exactly the same backwards and forwards.

I entertained several other first lines for this book. After being awakened by Moby-Dick I became a connoisseur of first lines. When contemplating the importance of first lines it is always helpful to consider those that have stayed with you as a reader and assess why they have achieved this permanence in memory. I have a long list, as you might expect.

Among the few which I reviewed was, of course, J.D. Salinger’s opening sentence to The Catcher in the Rye;

“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”

I found the beginning of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina particularly interesting;

“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

Then there is the classic first line of Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield (the crap alluded to by Mr. Salinger);

“Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.”

One good way to begin, ambiguously yet effectively, is the statement which inaugurates Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five;

“All this happened, more or less.”

In the end, of course, I settled on Melville, and whether or not this was a successful choice you, the reader, will have to be the judge. Now that I have dispensed with the onerous task of producing that crucial first line I will get directly to my story:

For a long time I went to bed early. The alarm broke me from my slumber each morning at four a.m. and, presumably refreshed, I sat down to write.

© 2011 Perry Bradford-Wilson