Don’t Judge a Book by Its Cover . . . or by Its First Line

Do you judge a book by its cover? By its first line? Until you read the entire novel, you shouldn’t judge a book at all.

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”

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.”

“Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.”

They don’t write opening lines like they used to.

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This past weekend I was browsing my local independent bookstore for some new books to read.  As I’m not made of money, I limited myself to paperbacks.  There’s an age-old adage about not judging a book by its cover, so instead I choose to judge a book by its first sentence.

This is not a method that has served me well with modern literature.

In school, my professors stressed the importance of the first sentence.  “You need a hook to grab the reader!” my English teacher Mr. Moran would lecture us tiny eighth graders as we turned in five-paragraph-essay after essay.  “And by God it better not be a dictionary definition.”  I would look away, shamefaced, as I threw out my opening paragraph, only to begin again.

Lately, however, I’m noticing that the more current authors I read don’t seem to understand the importance of the “hook.”  More and more writers seem to embrace the “slow burn” style of writing, with a minor hook that sucks the reader in slowly . . . if at all.  I have also noticed that sometimes a book can have a great hook and a terrible plot.

In other words, I no longer know how to trust what I’m reading. A great opening line used to promise a great story. Now there’s a fifty-fifty chance it’s blatant false-advertising.

Do I trust literary criticism?  I’ve read some perfectly dreadful books that were highly reviewed. After all, everyone’s taste is different.  Some prefer chocolate, others want vanilla, and some weirdos prefer sherbert.

In the end, I think it comes down to trusting your gut.

I no longer just read the first line of a novel . . . I read the first few pages. Sure, I’m hogging space in the cramped aisles of a bookstore, but usually I’m surrounded by other bibliophiles doing the exact same thing. If I’m still not sold on the book, then I check out the reviews. If something the reviewers say piques my interest, I’ll buy the book.  The worst thing that could happen is I end up hating the book. Even then, I am still supporting an independent bookstore.  Plus, if I don’t like the novel, there’s usually someone I know who will.

I’m not complaining.  The fact that it’s harder to tell ‘good’ literature from ‘bad’ (whatever that means) has introduced me to works I never would have considered reading in the past.

For example, I wasn’t wowed by the opening to Christopher Beha’s What Happened to Sophie Wilder.  I almost set it down back on the “New and Noteworthy” table.  But my friend’s rave review caused me to read more than the opening paragraph. By that evening, I had cancelled dinner plans so I could finish reading it. I now claim that novel is the best book I read in 2012.

You can’t judge a book by its cover.  You can’t judge a book by its first line.  Maybe the important thing is that until you read the entire novel, you shouldn’t judge a book at all.

Do you agree? How do you decide whether or not to read a book? Tell us in a comment!

We’re collecting the best first lines of all time. Share your favorite first line!

About Kira Walton

KIRA WALTON has been stalking books all her life as a college English teacher, bookseller, book club consultant, author, and editor.

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