Sunday, August 27, 2006

Old Beginnings 10

Nonfiction Books today. The hook of a nonfiction book is probably in the title and the subject and the back cover, but if you're sending a partial, it doesn't hurt to have a catchy opening. These five books made Modern Library's list of the 100 greatest English-language nonfiction books (1900-1999). Sources posted below.

1. I woke up with a start at 4:00 one morning and realized that I was very, very pregnant. Since I had conceived six months earlier, one might have thought that the news would have sunk in before then, and in many ways it had, but it was on that early morning in May that I first realized how severely pregnant I was. What tipped me off was that, lying on my side and needing to turn over, I found myself unable to move. My first thought was that I had had a stroke. Nowadays I go around being aware that I am pregnant with the same constancy and lack of surprise with which I go around being aware that I have teeth. But a few times a day the information actually causes me to gasp-how on earth did I come to be in this condition? Well, I have a few suspicions. I mean, I am beginning to put two and two together. See, there was this guy. But the guy is no longer around, and my stomach is noticeably bigger every few days.

2. In London, where Southampton Row passes Russell Square, across from the British Museum in Bloomsbury, Leo Szilard waited irritably one gray Depression morning for the stoplight to change. A trace of rain had fallen during the night; Tuesday, September 12, 1933, dawned cool, humid and dull. Drizzling rain would begin again in early afternoon. When Szilard told the story later he never mentioned his destination that morning. He may have had none; he often walked to think. In any case another destination intervened. The stoplight changed to green. Szilard stepped off the curb. As he crossed the street time cracked open before him and he saw a way to the future, death into the world and all our woe, the shape of things to come.

3. I was born a slave on a plantation in Franklin County, Virginia. I am not quite sure of the exact place or exact date of my birth, but at any rate I suspect I must have been born somewhere and at some time. As nearly as I have been able to learn, I was born near a cross-roads post-office called Hale's Ford, and the year was 1858 or 1859. I do not know the month or the day. The earliest impressions I can now recall are of the plantation and the slave quarters--the latter being the part of the plantation where the slaves had their cabins.

My life had its beginning in the midst of the most miserable, desolate, and discouraging surroundings. This was so, however, not because my owners were especially cruel, for they were not, as compared with many others. I was born in a typical log cabin, about fourteen by sixteen feet square. In this cabin I lived with my mother and a brother and sister till after the Civil War, when we were all declared free.

4. I was born the 30th of November, 1835, in the almost invisible village of Florida, Monroe County, Missouri. My parents removed to Missouri in the early 'thirties; I do not remember just when, for I was not born then and cared nothing for such things. It was a long journey in those days and must have been a rough and tiresome one. The village contained a hundred people and I increased the population by 1 per cent. It is more than many of the best men in history could have done for a town. It may not be modest in me to refer to this but it is true. There is no record of a person doing as much-not even Shakespeare. But I did it for Florida and it shows that I could have done it for any place-even London, I suppose.

Recently some one in Missouri has sent me a picture of the house I was born in. Heretofore I have always stated that it was a palace but I shall be more guarded now.

5. So gorgeous was the spectacle on the May morning of 1910 when nine kings rode in the funeral of Edward VII of England that the crowd, waiting in hushed and black-clad awe, could not keep back gasps of admiration. In scarlet and blue and green and purple, three by three the sovereigns rode through the palace gates, with plumed helmets, gold braid, crimson sashes, and jeweled orders flashing in the sun. After them came five heirs apparent, forty more imperial or royal highnesses, seven queens--four dowager and three regnant--and a scattering of special ambassadors from uncrowned countries. Together they represented seventy nations in the greatest assemblage of royalty and rank ever gathered in one place and, of its kind, the last. The muffled tongue of Big Ben tolled nine by the clock as the cortege left the palace, but on history's clock it was sunset, and the sun of the old world was setting in a dying blaze of splendor never to be seen again.

Old Beginnings 10

1. Operating Instructions....Anne LaMott
2. The Making of the Atomic Bomb....Richard Rhodes
3. Up From Slavery....Booker T. Washington
4. The Autobiography of Mark Twain....Mark Twain
5. The Guns of August....Barbara Tuchman


braun said...


Now non-fiction is one area where I pay almost no attention to the opening sentences/paragraphs. It's all about the subject matter and what sort of reviews or articles I've read about the book. Of course I read a lot more fiction than non, so perhaps it makes sense that I approach it more deliberately.

verification: gatwuax

Anonymous said...

What braun said is true for me, too. Where nonfiction is concerned, I’ve usually decided on the topic I want to pursue and I read openings only for the purpose of elimination. For example, if I’m looking for a true crime book, I’ll read the opening just to make sure the writing is not unbearable. The only one of these openings I find unbearable is the first. Those clumsy attempts at humor just try my patience.

Sometimes I can be lured outside my usual interests by a good review, or a sample of writing that hooks me with its quality. #2 is an example of the latter.

HawkOwl said...

1. No. You're pregnant - BFD.

2. No. What is this about? War? Religion? The life and times of Leo Szilard? Do I care? Oh, wait: no I don't.

3. Slavery and/or Abolition. Pass.

4. Slavery and/or Abolition. Pass.

(Not that I don't read about Slavery and/or Abolition, I'm just soured on it ever since The Known World.)

5. I went and added it to my Amazon shopping cart as soon as I was through reading it. It's the only opening so far where not only would I read more if I had it in my hands, but I would actually go out of my way to get my hands on it.

Anonymous said...

I love all these openings. They're all fascinating and knowing they are true makes them even cooler. These old beginnings are a ton of fun.

I actually read The Guns of August as a teenager, and remember that vivid description of the state funeral.

Guess I should have recognized Mark Twain, with his tongue permanently embedded in his cheek.

EE, I think you've swapped Booker T's opening with Twain's in the listing --


Evil Editor said...

#s 3 & 4 now correct.

Stacia said...

I liked them all, and am immensely proud that I recognized Twain right away.

Anonymous said...

Interesting. Like Hawkowl, there was one that interested me enough to look into it further, but it was #1. I found #5 to be OTT and it turned me off.

I do wonder, Hawkowl, why you assumed #4 was about slavery and/or abolition. There was nothing mentioned about either topic in the begining. Yes, it's set in the south in the 1800's, but that doesn't mean it MUST be about slavery. Mark Twain may talk about the topic in his autobiography, but I'm sure there are many other topics in his book as well.

Anonymous said...

I liked all of these a great deal, and would certainly keep reading. The only one that was iffy was number four, but those last two sentences made me forgive the previous four.

And Hawkowl, I have gradually, over the course of several weeks, stopped valuing anything you have to say. Why don't you say something of substance, rather than just rampaging around, glorying in your own personality? We're not as in love with the self-regarding contents of your head as you apparently are.

Anonymous said...

1. -No
2. -Yes
3. -No
4. -Yes
5. -Yes

No because they seem like woe is me stories and those are a turn off to me.

Yes because they read like there is an adventure about to unfold.


Anonymous said...

Wow, hawkowl. You really struck a nerve with anon 2:51. I'll betya a brewski it's a female!

Kathleen said...

#1 reminds me of "Hip Mama", but I would be shocked if that book was on a top 100 list. I would keep reading this. It has a distinctive style that comes across right away.

#2 is not how I like stories to bgein (with a lengthy description of the day, and an epiphany), but it seems interesting and I would keep reading.

#3 - seems like Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. I would keep reading, though I would probably not make it much farther if the author didn't start to vary the sentences, so it isn't so much "I this, I that".

#4 - this opening isn't as interesting as #3, though has a similar style. I wouldn't read on just based on this opening.

#5 - I like this set up of the "day" better than #2. I would keep reading. I assume this is a biography of Edward VII.

Dave Fragments said...

I got Mark Twain and Barbara Tuchman

I knew that Leo Szilard worked on the A-Bomb but it wasn't through this book. I know scientists (I are one).

I thought the slavery one was Haley's Roots (boy was that wrong)

two thumbs up!

Anonymous said...

Would I keep reading, based solely on these intros?

1 - no way - we just met and already I'm tired of you.

2 - Maybe/probably. A bit too hesitant; I'd worry the author might continue playing games instead of getting to the point.

3 - If I was interested in this kind of story, yes. Distinctive voice.

4. You betcha!
I'd read this guy's grocery-shopping lists if they were published. (Haven't peeked to confirm his identity - but if it's not Sam Clemens it's a damn good impersonator.)

5. Oh, HELYA... this is awesome. Tuchman, right?

Anonymous said...

The comments on all the Old Beginnings illustrate a remarkable degree of cognitive dissonance. Many of us seem to read these openings in quite a different way than we read books.

I think (some, many?) agents and editors suffer from the same kind of dissonance. There's a disconnect between what they claim to be looking for, and what they are buying.

none said...

1. No. Every woman who's ever been pregnant and written about it seems to think she's the only one it ever happened to. Boring. The writing is well done and witty, but the subject matter has zero appeal.

2. No. Just nothing there to draw me in, especially with the over-dramatics.

3. Probably. I have a large book of slave narratives on my tbr list.

4. Maybe. It's quite fun. Autobiography/memoir isn't something I read much, though. Most people's lives just aren't that interesting.

5. God no. Haven't we had enough crap stuffed down our throats about the royal family? Take it away!

pacatrue said...

Hey, e.m. #667, can you elaborate more on your thoughts concerning openings versus books? It sounded like you had some intereting thoughts in your head, but you only hinted at them in the comment. I'd love to hear more if you wish to take the time.

Anonymous said...

1. Yes, great voice,
2. Maybe, good opening, would depend on jacket.
3. Read it at school, recognized it
4. Yes, recognized the style, ashamed to admit that I haven't read it, putting it on my list...
5. Yes, a great description, very readable. I've got several more of hers, Practicing History and A Distant Mirror are particularly good.

HawkOwl said...

Anonymous 2:20 PM - I haven't the faintest idea. I read (and wrote) this at work as a break from looking for a stray box of naloxone. My first reaction was actually "why did he pick four books on slavery?" I'm not sure why I kept that impression of #4 on re-reading it.

Anonymous 2:51 PM - Who cares?

Anonymous 3:19 PM - No kidding. LOL

EM #667 - I don't know if I'd call it cognitive dissonance, but yeah, I think we're misjudging a lot of books doing this. But I think EE's point is "this is what the agent is gonna see: make it good." Or something like that.

Anonymous said...

Wow! I enjoy non-fiction, but realize I need to read more of it.

1. Truth emanates from this brief beginning. I'm not sure it's particularly interesting. Not only editors choose by title and subject. Without those, can't know whether I'd read on, but nothing here stops me.

2. Ooh, ...the future, death into the world and all our woe. I'm intrigued (and fear the truth).

3. I read this. Beginning with birth usually is boring, but it's telling when you have no idea when you were born because of your status as slave. I did read on.

4. Sounds like Twain, at least the ending "more guarded" part. A cocky, humorous narrator--haven't read it, but I'd keep going.

5. I absolutely loved this. Both the splendor and the importance have captured me totally. I am enthralled. [Checking EE's list so I can run to the library and check this out.]

Anonymous said...

Second post, now having read the comment thread.

I forgot-I read # 5 already, too. And yes, love Barbara Tuchman (altough A Distant Mirror lost me about half way through). And yay! I recognized Twain.

Buffy Squirrel--if you read the last sentence of the opening on #5, you'll see that this book is much more than about royalty. It's about people, history, war-- so much so, that even though I read the book, this opening (royalty and all) did not recall it for me.

And the idea of a dissonance between what editors say they want and what they actually choose is an interesting idea. People are not predictable. I guess that includes readers, writers, agents, editors...

McKoala said...

I'd read on in the first four. Nicely written and intriguing.

It's a pass on number five - oh, how I hate pomp and splendour. It's such a cliche to start a history (which I assume this is) with a funeral/wedding/paraade etc. Oh, oh, and hang on a minute...yes...there it is...a lament for the passing of an 'old world'. Whacking big cliche. Double no.

Anonymous said...

I wonder if the opening of # 5 was cliche in 1962 when it was written. I suspect not. I'm guessing it was a dramatic departure from the drier-types of history books still popular then, and now it is so much imitated it garners rebukes as cliched.

none said...

But I wouldn't read on, not only because I can't stand the royal family, and the alternating sycophancy and prurience with which they're written about, but also because I hate cliches like "on history's clock it was sunset", which sound deep and meaningful but are actually bollocks.

In any case, Edward VII wasn't king of England; he was King of Great Britain, and Ireland, and of the British Dominions, and the inability even to get such a tiny detail correct gives me no confidence in the author. But it does tell me who they're writing for--Americans.

HawkOwl said...

I have to say, Buffy makes a good point.

Anonymous said...

I'll try to expand my thoughts on "dissonance" (possibly the wrong phrase). That might be difficult, because they are a bit murky right now; it was just something that struck me, and I was curious if anyone else noticed or thought it was interesting. Since it appears some of you did, I'll give it more thought and try to put together some remarks... might take a day or two though.

It's something that has been in the back of my mind for a while, but was brought sharply into the front by Hawkowl, when she first dismissed the opening to Cryptonomicon and then later admitted that she loved the book. I thought that was remarkably honest, but it also made me think about what we are doing here. More on this later.