Matt Houlbrook: mobile historian; beard growing, head shaving; occasional cycling.
Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin…
Where do you begin though?
Newspapers, magazines, and websites often put together lists of the best opening lines from novels. It is just as common to see lists ranking the best song intros or opening lyrics. I can’t find a similar list ranking the opening sentences from history books or journal articles.
Here is a question: what is your favorite first line from a piece of history writing?
This is an important question. The opening line of an introduction is the first chance you have to catch the attention of readers. Get it right, and they might read the rest of the introduction (let’s not get too optimistic at this stage). Get it wrong, and your book is back on the shelf or dropped on the floor. The stakes are high.
It is a tricky question. Aaron Sachs talks about different approaches to that difficult first sentence in his wonderful essay on history as creative nonfiction: it’s worth reading if you can get access to it. You could go for something flash: turn those frustrated literary aspirations into a sentence that surprises or startles; get the best story from your sources up front and central to draw them in. You could play it safe and simple: here is my thesis or subject summed up in a sentence. Entertain or engage? Aesthetics or argument? Literary effect or learning? Whimsical or wise?
Chose your tone and take your chances.
In Queer London I went left-field and opened with: “This is Cyril’s story.” Some people would probably say that was deliberately obtuse rather than left-field; they might have a point. I can’t remember the process that brought me to that line, but I think I liked the name, and how it was quite an unlikely beginning, and the way the four words somehow caught how the book was driven by its focus on ordinary men and their extraordinary stories. What am going for in The Prince of Tricksters? For now, you’ll have to wait and see.
The best opening sentences from a novel often tend to stay with us. So do song intros or lyrics. The jangling guitar riff that opens This Charming Man can fire me up enough to have survived fifteen months as my morning alarm call. The opening to Strawberry Switchblade’s Since Yesterday makes me smile straightaway thirty years since I first heard it at a school disco in South Humberside in the mid-1980s. Right now I’m struggling to remember any opening sentences to a history book. Help me out?
We can leave the question of the worst opening lines from history books for another time.