(Illustrated book covers by Laura Lorenz)

Famous first words

Match well-known books by UChicago alumni with their opening lines.

It was the best of times; it was the worst of times. April is the cruellest month. 124 was spiteful. Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.

The first line of a work of literature—of a novel, a memoir, a poem, of any literary text—might be the most important. More important than even the last sentence that pulls everything together. (Readers might very well never get to that last line if the first doesn’t pique their interest.)

The best first lines not only hook readers but also tell them what to expect from the rest of the book—its plot, subject, style. A great opening teaches readers how to interpret what follows.

We present to you, in quiz form, five memorable opening lines from alumni authors Susan Sontag, AB’51; Kurt Vonnegut Jr., AM’71; Philip Roth, AM’55; Norman Maclean, PhD’40; and Saul Bellow, EX’39. These sentences, we submit, stand up against any openers in English literature.

Can you match each line with the UChicagoan who penned it and his or her well-known work?


1. “She was so deeply embedded in my consciousness that for the first year of school I seem to have believed that each of my teachers was my mother in disguise.”

2. “I am an American, Chicago born—Chicago, that somber city—and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent.”

3. “In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing.”

4. “Illness is the night-side of life, a more onerous citizenship.”

5. “All this happened, more or less.”


A. Illness as Metaphor, Susan Sontag, AB’51

B. Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut Jr., AM’71

C. Portnoy’s Complaint, Philip Roth, AM’55

D. A River Runs through It, Norman Maclean, PhD’40

E. The Adventures of Augie March, Saul Bellow, EX’39


1-c, 2-e, 3-d, 4-a, 5-b

Let us know how you did and what your own favorite first lines are—Maroon-penned or otherwise.