Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Does it grab me?

It is often said, these days, that a book must grab the reader on the very first page, if not from the very first line. It is necessary to draw the reader in immediately. It’s true, of course, that some of the greatest books or bestselling books (by no means the same thing) have very memorable opening lines. There are web pages where you can find lists of these, if you are keen. Of course, what one person considers a brilliant opening line or page, another will consider boring. These lists also tend to be rather short, suggesting that many very great books do not, in fact, have particularly memorable opening lines.

I suppose what is being claimed here—if we don’t take the assertion too literally—is that it is important to get the readers’ attention quickly, to make them interested from the beginning. But how early is early? I suspect that if we are ready to decide after the opening line, the first page, or even the first five pages (let’s say) then we may be depriving ourselves of the pleasure of reading a great many good books. Some books—I would suggest rightly and appropriately—begin at a slow pace. Some really good books even remain at a slow pace throughout! Yes, dare I say it: fast and exciting is not the (only) definition of a good read! And we all know that, really, don’t we? Jane Austen remains one of the most popular authors, even today.

So I am generally prepared to give a book twenty or thirty pages before I decide it’s not for me. And it could ‘not be for me’ for a variety of reasons. Perhaps it is not well written; perhaps the story doesn’t interest me; perhaps I don’t like the writing style; perhaps it is too difficult! This cannot be determined, I would suggest, from the first page, let alone the opening line!

Then, of course, there is the other side of the equation: a book may begin brilliantly, but offer nothing in what follows. So, again, I will not decide simply on the basis of the opening line or page that ‘this is for me’, any more than I will decide that it isn’t.

I suspect that our need to be ‘grabbed’ immediately is a further symptom of our society’s need for instant gratification, its quest for a quick fix, and its overall ADHD. We are impatient and we have short attention spans. Sometimes a good book requires patience and a little hard work. A society that lives on tweets and ten second news grabs is unlikely to have the patience to give a book a chance, if the first line doesn’t read like a clever tweet; or if the first scene does not involve big screen action.

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