First Line Friday: Guess the book by its first line

We take a break from poetry here at Following Pulitzer for a little game I’ve been playing with friends on Facebook for 5 years now—a game in which I post the first lines of a diverse array of novels and short stories, and people have to guess them (without cheating with Google or any other resource, online or in print, other than their own brains and the brains of the people next to them).  I think it’s fun, or at least fun enough to do once a year, and this year, on November 1st, I thought a “first line contest” sounded like something fun for the blog too.  I’m still posting the usual contest at Facebook—for those of you who are my friends in person and are connected with me there—but I’m posting the same contest here for my friends out here in the blog world, to see if you think this is fun also.  If it works, it’ll be a very occasional feature here, probably once or twice a year, and if it doesn’t, I hope it’ll be fun attempting once, at least.  I’ll emphasize that anybody is welcome to have a guess, and I encourage anybody happening by to give it their best shot!  You have nothing to lose, after all, and the guessing is kind of entertaining, I think, especially when multiple guesses and comments lead somebody to work out the answer to one of these.  In four previous runs, we have never gotten all 11 books “solved”—I’ve always had to reveal the title of the toughest example—so I’m hoping we break that streak this year.

How does this work?  I’m posting the first line of a novel or short story—at times I have a little discretion as to what “counts” as the first line, but I try not to cheat too egregiously.  The books/stories can be from any time period or genre, for children or for adults, and about the only thing tying all of them together in any meaningful sense is that all of them are on my bookshelves (and that they haven’t appeared in any of the previous four contests)—this year’s only new wrinkle is that I’ve decided to allow myself to post a book or two that I haven’t read all of (although I like the book and know it reasonably well).  Your job is to guess the author and title of the work I’ve quoted from.  You are bound by honor and my express request not to Google or use any other reference sources for this contest—otherwise this would be really dull—although discussing it with friends and family (as long as they abide by the no Google/other resource rule) is acceptable and even encouraged.  The point is to see if you can dredge up from your memory enough to figure out the author/title of something I’m betting you’ve read, or even just heard enough about to be able to guess it from the first line.  My only caveat as far as using a non-human source—if you own a copy of the work, it’s fine to check it before you post it as a guess.  Any other reference work or tool, print or online, is strictly forbidden.  If it’s driving you crazy and you end up Googling or something to end your own agony, I understand, but don’t share your findings with the rest of us!

Otherwise, have fun. 🙂  Feel free to offer half-guesses, or lists of titles “it can’t be although it sounds like it”, or comments of any kind: usually we’re able to crowd-source the titles pretty rapidly.  Some are intended to be easy, some harder, and a couple I’d be surprised if anyone can manage to guess right away.  Any that don’t fall in a day or two, I’ll start offering some hints about, to see if I can nudge us to completion.  The only other new wrinkle this year is that I’ve cross-posted this here, and if a blog reader gets one of these right, I’ll do my best to update the note on Facebook (and vice versa). Oh, and one clue, in connection with this blog—one of the first lines below is from a Pulitzer winner I’ve read, which means it has been the title of a blog post of mine…maybe that will jog a memory?  And now, for the 2013 candidates:

1. The intense interest aroused in the public by what was known at the time as “The Styles Case” has now somewhat subsided.

2. I’ll make my report as if I told a story, for I was taught as a child on my homeworld that Truth is a matter of the imagination.  The soundest fact may fail or prevail in the style of its telling: like that singular organic jewel of our seas, which grows brighter as one woman wears it and, worn by another, dulls and goes to dust.

3. I have just returned from a visit to my landlord—the solitary neighbour that I shall be troubled with.  This is certainly a beautiful country!

4. Keith, the boy in the rumpled shorts and shirt, did not know he was being watched as he entered room 215 of the Mountain View Inn.  Neither did his mother and father, who both looked hot and tired.

5. A man with binoculars.  That is how it began: with a man standing by the side of the road, on a crest overlooking a small Arizona town, on a winter night.

6. On a January evening of the early seventies, Christine Nilsson was singing in Faust at the Academy of Music in New York.

7. This inscription could be seen on the glass door of a small shop, but naturally this was only the way it looked if you were inside the dimly lit shop, looking out at the street through the plate-glass door. [The sentence refers to an image of reversed letters that appears at the top of the page.]

8. The first outbreak I saw was in a remote village that officially had no name.  The residents called it “New Dachang,” but this was more out of nostalgia than anything else.

9. A throng of bearded men, in sad-coloured garments, and grey, steeple-crowned hats, intermixed with women, some wearing hoods, and others bareheaded, was assembled in front of a wooden edifice, the door of which was heavily timbered with oak, and studded with iron spikes.

10. In the land of Ingary, where such things as seven-league boots and cloaks of invisibility really exist, it is quite a misfortune to be born the eldest of three.  Everyone knows you are the one who will fail first, and worst, if the three of you set out to seek your fortunes.

11. When I reached ‘C’ Company lines, which were at the top of the hill, I paused and looked back at the camp, just coming into full view below me through the grey mist of early morning.  We were leaving that day.

22 comments on “First Line Friday: Guess the book by its first line

  1. Sly Wit says:

    Number 1 is one of my favorite authors and, even though I have it, I don’t need to check to be sure it’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie. Number 7 sounds like Mr. Penumbra’s… but I’m pretty sure it doesn’t start in the shop. None of the others even seem familiar, although I feel like I should know #5.

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      Nice work on #1! You’re off on #7, which may be this year’s toughest line. And my guess is you’re familiar with several of these (#5 I’ve re-read several times, and was pretty popular), but we’ll see if anything bubbles to the surface. Having time to mull this over can lead to surprising “blots from the blue”, or so people have reported in the past. 🙂 Thanks for playing!

  2. Sly Wit says:

    By the way, I love this idea, and may steal some aspect of it for my end of the year wrap-up!

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      Steal as much as you like! I always enjoy the contest, even though each passing year makes it a little harder to find books that have just the right level of challenge (most identify a familiar character or place right off the bat, and others are hopelessly vague). 🙂

  3. jwrosenzweig says:

    Okay, so, Facebook’s successes were FAR swifter than usual—out of deference to the slower pace here at FP, I’ll defer putting the right answers in from Facebook until later this weekend. I like the challenge of this, and I’m hoping a few more of you will take a crack at it—a list of “right guesses” from Facebook will appear as a reply to this comment in a day or two. Happy reading, all!

  4. I’m thinking 3 might be Wuthering Heights.

  5. christinasr says:

    7 is The Neverending Story by Michael Ende. Wonderful book! And 11 is Brideshead Revisitedby Evelyn Waugh.

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      Thanks for the guesses, Christina, both of which are absolutely correct! 🙂 I thought #11 was particularly tricky, personally, but it was solved pretty quickly by you and by a friend of mine on Facebook, as well—clearly my memory of BR is not as clear as it ought to be!

  6. Camilla P. says:

    N. 7 should be “The neverending story” by Michael Ende 🙂 love that book!

    This is a really nice game, I like it a lot! Even if I can’t guess any other title (for now), I enjoyed these first lines very much. They made me want to discover the title just so I could read them 😀

  7. Sly Wit says:

    I’m feeling embarrassed not to have guessed #3, it seems obvious now (of course)! I would never have guessed Brideshead for #11; I suppose that means it’s time for a re-read.

    I’m still intrigued by #5. It has a very Cormac McCarthy/Jim Harrison vibe, neither of whom I’ve read much. But, given your hint, they are two authors whose books are popular and short enough for re-reads.

    #9 calls to mind both The Handmaids Tale and Name of the Rose although I know it’s neither. I’m now suspecting I haven’t read many of these.

    I look forward to seeing more guesses and the reveal!

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      #5 does have that vibe—we’ll see if you are more familiar with the actual author (neither of the men you mention) when I post the results below. 🙂 And #9 very much does have that vibe—in my opinion, in the case of the Margaret Atwood title you mention, I think there’s a definite influence operating there. Again, all is revealed below. 🙂

  8. jwrosenzweig says:


    Those wishing to play this game without having the answers should skip past this. But I promised the answers from Facebook, and as noted in a comment earlier this weekend, my friends there knocked this one down in about 3 hours! So here are the answers, with some commentary from me along the way.

    #1 is, as Sly Wit wisely notes, the first of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot novels, “The Mysterious Affair at Styles”—my wife and I are reading our way (aloud, per my post on “The Way I Read” earlier this year) through the Poirot short stories this fall as we get ready for the arrival of the baby. #2 is one of the best science fiction novels I’ve ever read—“The Left Hand of Darkness” by the incomparable Ursula K. Le Guin, who really ought to be treated more like the national treasure she is. I feel like she never gets the press that the Vonneguts and Asimovs do, which I fear and suspect has to do with her gender—speaking of gender, Left Hand is maybe the best exploration of gender I’ve read in a novel, as the narrator is humanity’s ambassador to a planet where almost all adults of the native alien species will be both genders over the course of their lifetimes (the same individual may father one child, give birth to another), and gender is crucial to the arc of the tale.

    #3, already ably guessed by Beth, is “Wuthering Heights” by Emily Brontë—my second favorite Brontë sister, truth be told (give me “Jane Eyre” and keep your Wuthering, personally), but a classic I read in college and which I’m glad I did. #4 is a blast from my childhood: the opening lines of “The Mouse and the Motorcycle” by Beverly Cleary, who I loved as a kid and can now be doubly proud of since she is the most famous graduate of the library school at the University of Washington, where I got a degree not too long ago (one of my classes was taught by the Beverly Cleary Professor of Children’s Literature). #5, which Sly has been mulling over, is one of my favorite straight-up thrillers of all time from one of America’s best thriller authors—“The Andromeda Strain” by Michael Crichton is classic Crichton from his best period (the stuff pre 1990, for the most part), believable as a real story but also right out on the fringe of what delights and scares us. I always think he gets short shrift as a craftsman—not as a stylist, really (his prose isn’t anything to write home about), but as someone who can manage just the right level of scientific/technical detail to engage without overwhelming (Tom Clancy needed more of that), keeping me sure through the novel that I can solve it before the characters, given all he’s told me, but I never quite can. The movie’s pretty good, too (and is even more classic 1970s than the novel). Late Crichton is a different story—plain awful by the end, alas.

    Oh, my readers, how did no one get the one Pulitzer in the bunch? 🙂 I tease, I tease. #6 is the opening line of “The Age of Innocence” by Edith Wharton, and if you haven’t read it, you should. I have amply described why elsewhere on the blog, so I won’t belabor the point here. 🙂 And Christina and Camilla have each already picked out #7 with sharp eyes—“The Neverending Story” by Michael Ende, whose last name delights me. That’s one of my wife’s beloved childhood tales that I haven’t read all of, but which I felt like including. It was the last to fall on Facebook, and I thought it was pretty tough, myself. #8 is “World War Z” by Max Brooks, which was recently made into a film (in passing, I note the fun fact that Max is Mel’s son, Mel Brooks of fame as the director of “Young Frankenstein”, etc.). If you’ve never read it, especially if you’ve skipped it because you figure a zombie book ain’t your thing, I really urge you to reconsider. I don’t go in for horror myself, and I don’t care for zombie movies. But Brooks’s “novel” is a gorgeous and emotional piece of work—your unnamed narrator is a journalist working for the UN, going around the world interviewing the survivors of the zombie war after humanity has barely survived. These are gritty interviews with everyone—children who watched their parents be killed, doctors who tried to treat the bitten, lone survivors of desperate battles, men driven so mad by what they’ve seen that they no longer can distinguish fact from fantasy. The whole story comes together in a collage, as each person sees a part of the whole, and the ultimate effect is to draw out a picture of what it means to be human, set against the backdrop of a war against almost an archetype of inhumanity. I make it sound pretty grim, I know, but it’s executed so well that I return to it despite its being so sad.

    #9 sounded like “The Handmaid’s Tale” to Sly, and I don’t think that’s an accident—it’s the opening line of another tale of a repressive society, “The Scarlet Letter” by Nathaniel Hawthorne, a classic American novel that I taught for years to my honors students in high school. I don’t think most of them ever really saw the genius in it—Hawthorne has a few tricks up his sleeve (symbolism and deep psychological profiling is basically it, and maybe a nice hand with that 19th Century style and vocabulary), but he plays them all to the utmost here and it works for me, really well. #10 is the opening line of a modern fairy tale by another unfairly neglected author—Diana Wynne Jones ought to be as famous as the J. K. Rowlings of the world, or nearly so, but she rarely seems to get that recognition. This book is “Howl’s Moving Castle”, which my wife adores, and I can’t disagree—a lovely tale, which made a lovely movie (although the adaptation wasn’t perfectly faithful) in the hands of the talented Hayao Miyazaki a few years ago. And, last but not least, as Christina’s already picked out, #11 is “Brideshead Revisited” by Evelyn Waugh—a book I wrote maybe my best grad school paper on (my best paper from my first trek through grad school, anyway—I’ve had a couple swings of that bat 🙂 ), and which I still remember with fondness.

    That’s it—this year’s contest answers. I had fun with it, and assuming you did too, I’ll give it another go sometime in 2014. Happy Sunday evening to you all!


  9. Sly Wit says:

    I feel somewhat vindicated by the fact that, of all the reveals, I’ve only read The Scarlet Letter, and that way back in high school. Funny I didn’t guess it as I also thought of The Crucible.

    Thank you for the list, it was fun to play along!

  10. […] As a lead-in to this period of annual self-reflection and review, and to get your brain cells moving after all that turkey, I’ve stolen a game from James over at Following Pulitzer. […]

  11. […] If you weren’t around these parts last Thanksgiving, I stole this game from James over at Following Pulitzer. […]

  12. […] As I have done for the past two Thanksgiving weekends, I hereby present the “first lines” challenge, stolen from James over at Following Pulitzer. […]

  13. […] As I have done for the past three Thanksgiving weekends, I hereby present the “first lines” challenge, stolen from James over at Following Pulitzer. […]

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