Attention grabbers:ISU-based journal lists top novel opening lines
Attention grabbers:ISU-based journal lists top novel opening lines

NORMAL - It is a truth universally acknowledged that people either love or hate lists. If she were alive today, that might be writer Jane Austen's take on the latest "best-of" list - this one coming out of Illinois State University. Austen's opening line to "Pride and Prejudice," which speaks of a very different universal, took second on "The 100 Best First Lines From Novels." But a line from a whale of a tale took top place.

Published in the January-February issue of American Book Review, the winner was "Call me Ishmael," from Herman Melville's "Moby Dick."

"That's a first line many have heard, whether or not they've read the book," said Charles Harris of Normal, publisher of the nonprofit journal.

"But it was down to the wire," he said. "I really wasn't sure until the end which would win," he said.

Founded in 1977, American Book Review has been published since 1994 at ISU's Unit for Contemporary Literature. The bimonthly specializes in literary reviews, mostly of smaller presses' releases.

In June, when the American Film Institute released its 100 Best Movie Lines, Harris, a retired ISU English professor, got to thinking of his favorite first lines in novels.

He contacted dozens of writers, reviewers and literary scholars across the country, and a few in Europe, to nominate "great first lines."

Some said they didn't believe in lists, others were too busy, he said. But many responded. Of about 300 nominations received, Harris and 19 other experts whittled the list to 100.

Among those 20 voters were Robert McLaughlin and Sally Parry. The ISU English professors, who also are married, are literary scholars and write for the book review.

"I really enjoyed it (voting)," said Parry, associate dean for student and curricular affairs.

Some nominated lines were from her favorite novels, but others Parry had never read. She's considering some now.

"One of the things that make these lines effective is that they grab your attention," said McLaughlin, who leads the English department's undergraduate program.

McLaughlin said he'd have preferred to vote on the best final lines of novels. Harris said, maybe next time.

Besides the 100 first lines from novels, the ABR issue includes 16 voters' reflections on certain winners.

As for those who don't like lists, Harris afforded them a chance to share their views. Eric Miles Williamson, wrote "Top 10 Reasons I Don't Like Top 10 Lists."

"The reasons most often given are that lists are arbitrary, and reflect the tastes of the people putting them together - or that they are elitist with rankings," Harris said.

It's true the list only reflects certain people's tastes. But voters included scholars and professional literary experts, so they are credible, he said.

"But really, it's just good fun. It's not a canonical list - it was thought to be a game," he said.

It might spark some interesting debates. But more than anything, he hopes it ignites interests in the books.

"Besides, isn't that why people read lists, to point out what's left off? If it opens debate, that's good," Parry said.

The New York Times and The Chicago Tribune have paid notice to the list's release. But a sign of the times is what happened when Harris visited the Internet search engine Google.

"Bloggers are responding. And all kinds of links to the list are turning up," he said, describing the different online postings Web users are writing about the list choices.


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