First impressions


Here’s a little quiz.  See how many book titles you can identify from their first sentences.

1)  “Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charms as the Tarleton twins were.”  2)  “When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow.”  3) “You don’t know me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, but that ain’t no matter.”  4) “He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days without taking a fish.”  5)  “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” 6) “Marley was dead: to begin with.”

Award yourself a nice prize if you got at least 5 of them correct (answers at the bottom) and an even nicer one if you get either of these:  7) “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”  8) “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”

We’re on the honor system, so no cheating.  Stay off the internet.

First sentences have only one job: to make the reader read the second sentence. It’s the hook that will either snag readers and reel them in or lose them at the outset; sometimes it’s the single litmus test that will either make them head for the checkout counter at Barnes & Noble or slap the book back on the shelf and move on to more interesting stuff.  In short, the opening batch of words is pay dirt or failure. So, believe me, smart writers choose those words mighty carefully.

First sentences are first impressions.  And like other first impressions they can sometimes be misleading. Here’s the very first sentence of the very first novel written by John Steinbeck (Cup of Gold, published in 1929):  “All afternoon the wind sifted out of the black Welsh glens, crying notice that winter was come sliding down over the world from the pole; and riverward there was a faint moaning of new ice.”

It’s a winner, filled with sensory imagery that drops the reader right into a setting that can be seen, heard, smelled and felt.  Unfortunately the thousands of sentences that come after it make for something of a train wreck of a novel, so bad that Steinbeck – who would go on to win the Nobel Prize for Literature for some of the finest books in world literature – probably wished he had skipped that one altogether and moved on to his second effort, The Pastures of Heaven.

Of course, there are lots of good books that don’t start with wonderful, inviting first lines.  One of my favorite novels, Les Miserables by Victor Hugo,  doesn’t offer much in the way of an opener:An hour before sunset, on the evening of a day in the beginning of October, 1815, a man traveling afoot entered the little town of D______.”  Come on, Victor, at least give us the name of the town.  I’ve always wondered how a fellow who wrote hundreds of thousands of perfect sentences in his novels couldn’t come up with a better one to launch his masterpiece.

Years ago I wrote a first-class first sentence for a novel or a short story.  The problem is I can’t seem to come up with a plotline to follow it.  Here it is:  “He was a big man, and he would be hard to kill.”  It’s no “Call me Ishmael”, but you have to admit it’s more intriguing than the first line of Les Miserables.

So, if you’re a writer pay particular attention to your first sentences.  They can either be an invitation to your readers to come along for the ride or sufficiently lackluster to make them keep looking.

Here are the answers to the quiz.  1) Gone with the Wind  2) To Kill a Mockingbird” 3) Huckleberry Finn  4) The Old Man and the Sea  5) Rebecca  6) A Christmas Carol  7)  Anna Karenina  8) 1984.

If you got them all correct, buy yourself a good book.  One with a good first sentence.

I didn’t put what is possibly the most famous opening line on the quiz, from Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”

That, my friend, will almost certainly describe 2017, just as it has all the years preceding it.

[Parts of this were first appeared as a newspaper column in 2013]





A little orb in the big scheme of things


Here’s a quiz.  Fill in the missing word in these common phrases or titles:

  1. Don’t sit under the __________ tree with anyone else but me.
  2. An ___________ a day keeps the doctor away.
  3. One bad ________ spoils the whole barrel.

If you didn’t put the same word in all of the blanks please get in touch with NASA; they’ll want to know which planet you just came from.

Consider please, the apple, most common and ancient of fruits. It’s so common, in fact, that it seems essential to life, like water or air.  The shiny orbs pop up as reliable metaphors and examples in almost every aspect of our existence and our thinking, much more often than any other food I can imagine.

Think about it. To be patriotic is to be as American as apple pie, to be a favorite is to be the apple of someone’s eye, and when somebody causes confusion we say they’ve upset the apple cart.  Our largest metropolis, New York, is called the Big Apple, and the juxtaposition of things totally dissimilar is called comparing apples and oranges.

The apple has probably been the model of more still-life paintings than any other subject in the history of art.  We use them to describe everything from anatomical structures – the Adam’s apple – to seasons, as in apple blossom time and apple picking time.

They’ve long been utilized as a currency for bribes, as in the proverbial apple for the teacher.  And in Greek mythology it was a golden apple that was thrown down in front of three narcissistic goddesses.  “Tia kallistei” (To the fairest) was inscribed on the fruit.  And since each of the three thought she alone fit that description all Hades broke loose, resulting in the Trojan War.

The Irish poet William Butler Yeats describes a beautiful girl as having apple blossoms in her hair and – in the same poem, “The Song of Wandering Aengus” – he defines pure perfection as “the silver apples of the moon … the golden apples of the sun.”

It was, remember, a single apple that fell on one man’s head that changed physics forever.  As one historian put it: “millions saw the apple fall, but Newton was the first to ask why”.  And when we’re not surprised when a child behaves like one of his parents we say an apple never falls far from the tree.

This most unassuming of fruits – nutritious, delicious, and bountiful – has worked its way into both history and folklore; ancient Roman armies planted seeds as they marched along their newly constructed roads to conquer the world; that way there would be something to eat on their return journey years later.  Johnny Appleseed performed the early American equivalent. And let’s not forget the brave (or perhaps stupid) young Swiss lad who let his father, William Tell, shoot an arrow into an apple perched on his head.

Last, but most certainly not least, you might recall that it was an apple that that darned snake offered in the Garden of Eden that got mankind off on the wrong foot.

You are probably thinking, about now, that I’ve rambled on for too long about a seemingly unimportant subject.  But I respectfully beg to differ.  Anything that has played a part in things as lofty as the law of gravity, the conquering of Europe, the definition of perfection, and the fall of mankind is worth a perusal.  Don’t you think?

History tells us that President Lincoln ate just an apple for lunch every day, washed down with a glass of water, which he called Adam’s ale.  And former Supreme Court justice David Souter, a quiet New Englander, had the same simple taste as Honest Abe, making do with just an apple, which he consumed in what he called the “Yankee style”, core and all.

I have one with my lunch pretty often myself, but I stop munching at the core.  And I have a sandwich or a bowl of soup with it. Because, as surely as God made little green apples, I seem to require a larger lunch than certain presidents and judges.

Bite into a big, juicy apple today.  And think of all the history, philosophy, religion, literature, and countless other things you’re partaking of.

In addition, you might just be keeping the doctor away.  It’s flu season, remember.

[This particular apple first fell from the tree in a Sunday newspaper column in 2011]

A lesson from Mr. Dickens


The finest moment in Charles Dickens’ novels and stories for me – thus far that is, I’m currently reading my way through him, like Ahab in quest of the white whale – is in Chapter 11 of Bleak House. Here we find a coroner’s court in session focused on the death of an unknown man, a “law writer” who made his living copying out legal documents,  who died from an overdose of opium, either accidently or not. One potential witness, a young boy who sweeps streets whose testimony is not admitted because he can neither read nor write and can’t grasp the ramifications of his swearing falsely, is so moved by the demise or the unknown man who showed him kindness and gave him warm lodging on frigid winter nights that he sheds a tear and says simply “he wos wery good to me, he wos.”  The chapter ends with the boy going late at night as the only mourner to the unmarked grave to sweep with his old broom, his only possession, the resting place clean.

If you intend to be a writer, know this.  Your finest moments will emerge without your striving for them.  Any such intention will only diminish them.  Just let them come.



Do any of the following things sound familiar?

An article buried deep in the newspaper about some new archeological discovery on some old battlefield not only catches your attention and keeps you reading for the next few minutes but sends you immediately to the computer to find out more about the battle and the people who fought it.  The sections of the book store you aim for first are history or biography.  A new Ken Burns documentary means your television viewing time is booked up for several nights. The History Channel is a preset favorite on your remote control. You consider a vacation that offers only a beach and shopping, with no old buildings or historical sites to wander through, a complete waste of time and money.

If you saw yourself in there, you’re probably suffering from historybuffitis.  And there doesn’t seem to be a cure for it.

One of the symptoms is that you live as much in the past as in the present; another is that you’re nervous about the future because you’ve seen how history often repeats itself.  But on the bright side, you know more things than lots of people.  You know that the Titanic was an actual ship and not just the subject of a movie, that 44 men have been our president but there have been 45 presidential administrations (Grover Cleveland’s two terms were separated by Benjamin Harrison’s), that Thomas Jefferson and John Adams each died on the 50th anniversary of the day they signed the Declaration of Independence, and maybe even that C. S. Lewis died on the same day President Kennedy was assassinated.

Not knowing such stuff won’t likely be detrimental to people not afflicted with historybuffitis, unless they find themselves in a hot game of Trivial Pursuit or as a contestant on Jeopardy.  But the fact that you know them, that the bits and pieces of the past flutter constantly around you like leaves on a breezy autumn day, is comforting to you.  It gives you a more solid footing in a society that is increasingly losing interest in things intellectual.

But you should know that if you do indeed have this disease you’re in the minority.  In fact you might even be an endangered species.

Historian David McCullough was interviewed on “60 Minutes” a few years ago. (By the way, you watch programs like “60 Minutes” also, in case a smidgen of history pops up there or, more likely, in case there’s a report about the past being reinvented yet again, perhaps a new brand of genocide or prejudice, or maybe that old devil Tyranny rearing its ugly head and grinding the masses beneath its mighty feet.  You, having historybuffitis, probably saw these things coming.)

And the reason most folks didn’t is why David McCullough was on “60 Minutes”.  The Pulitzer Prize winning author of John Adams and several other masterpieces is quite vocal these days about what he sees as a national problem: that with each passing generation we’re becoming more and more historically illiterate.

When looking for the root cause of the predicament there’s several likely candidates:  Not enough dedicated history teachers who actually love their subject and want to share it, and far too many who spew out only the dusty facts that will be on a standardized test; Too many parents who don’t read or encourage their children to; Too many people who don’t give a flip about how we got here but are obstinately unhappy with where we are.

In that interview, McCullough said he was saddened, but not surprised, that a college student recently told him that she’d never known until hearing his speech that the thirteen original colonies were on the east coast.

What better proof is there that we need an epidemic, better yet a plague, of historybuffitis to run rampant?

So, where to start?  Here are a few modest proposals.  Read with your kids; take them to a museum; watch a documentary with them.  You may even enjoy such doings, and you might just kindle a spark in your children that will burn brightly the rest of their lives.

A college student not knowing that the thirteen original colonies weren’t on the east coast bodes ill for the future.  And it’s a good thing that the alarm is being sounded by people like David McCullough, like a modern day Paul Revere.

Oh, I forgot to mention that if you have historybuffitis you tend to slip historical allusions into your metaphors and similes.

[This  originally appeared as a newspaper column in some former historical era or another]



What are you reading?


One of  my goals when I launched this blog was to provide a place for readers to share what they’re reading.

So let’s have it.  What are you currently reading or what have you recently read that you can recommend for the rest of us (or warn us to avoid like the plague).

Of late I’ve spent most of my time away from work doing the final edits on a book that will be published in the fall.  The very last chore, which proved to be Herculean, was moving 401 parenthetical citations into 401 end notes, a daunting task that took a good many hours.  The manuscript is finally done and in the hands of copy editors, so I have more time for reading. Hallelujah!

I’m currently well into my annual midwinter read, a nice fat tome that I can stay with for a while.  This year it is Bleak House, a Dickens novel that I missed, and I’m loving it.  I started a blog entry with one of its opening lines a few weeks ago – “Fog up the river, fog down the river…” – so I slipped into that fine fog myself and am making an enjoyable trek through its nearly thousand pages.  I also recommend Jeffrey Archer’s Clifton Chronicles, which Karen and I both liked very much.  The seventh, and final, installment was recently published. Each novel is a page-turner, and you’ll likely be hooked from the start.  Read them, of course, in order.

So, come on.  What are you reading?  The temperature will tumble today and the next few days will be perfect for sitting by the fire with a good book.    Make a suggestion or two for folks in need of a fetching read.

By the way, I share this business on facebook, but more people will see your suggestion(s) if you respond on the blog itself, like my follower in Quebec who emails me on occasion.  Now he probably really needs a good book by a roaring fire to survive the winter up there.

Responses, please.