What Ray Bradbury teaches about book beginnings

How to start a book?

How to start a book? A question which I think is just as difficult as the eternal “what is the meaning of life?” Unfortunately the answer of 42 (courtesy of The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy) will not suffice. It is one of the hardest feats an author must overcome to engage readers and set the tone for the rest of their masterpiece.

Whilst Austen’s “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife” is a classic, in my mind nothing can quite beat Bradbury’s opening to Fahrenheit 451.

Austen’s opening has survived through time and remains one of the most famous literary opening of all time. The ironic and sarcastic tone sets the scene for the satire to follow as she criticises the expectations of a society whereby it is necessary for a woman to marry. The opening says so much about the time in which the novel is set and the assumptions about the way women and men were supposed to act.

The somewhat condescending tone, implied through “a truth universally acknowledged” hints that whilst it may be acknowledged as a truth, it may simply be an assumption by unmarried women and their mothers on the reasons that men want to marry.

Whilst Austen’s opening is certainly skilful, Bradbury’s introduction in Fahrenheit 451, is equally clever and compelling. The simplicity and brevity of “It was a pleasure to burn” is enough to cause intrigue into the dystopian world that Bradbury has imagined.

Brevity is powerful

Despite the brief statement, the opening remains impactful and almost shocking in the questions it raises. The juxtaposition of “pleasure” and “burn” is particularly interesting, almost creating an oxymoron which draws in readers to try and understand exactly what is going on in this dystopia.

The novel tells of a future where firemen are required to burn books to maintain a society which does not think so government oppression can continue without being questioned. So much of this is conveyed in the first line of the novel, it suggests the very different society that has been formed, how principles have been subverted and the narrator’s (Guy Montag’s) cavalier and casual attitude towards the norm of burning books and the strange feeling of pleasure it brings.

So much can be gauged from these six words which is quite an achievement for any writer. 

It is also a brilliant way to start the book because the theme of fire and burning runs throughout the story and is so central in conveying the foundations of the society being depicted. Linking immediately to the title (which is the temperature at which paper burns), it introduces the character’s casual attitude indicating the norms of this society whilst also telling the reader about Guy Montag’s nonchalance and what appears to be submission towards the government’s regime, thus suggesting the rest of society shares this outlook.

It thematically introduces the novel and shocks to reader and is all done in six words—if I was Ray Bradbury I would simply quote the first line on my CV and stop there. I imagine anyone reading it would look no further and know they had found a masterful writer.

Bradbury’s brief yet intriguing first liner is bold, punchy and the epitome of a perfect opening. It sets the scene perfectly for the rest of the compelling and somewhat intuitive novel, expressed beautifully and concisely I imagine it will not be done with the same style and panache for quite some time by another.

What follows the first six words is just as clever and will force you to question the reality we live in, the importance of literature and the power we give to the state.

What do you think? What is the best way for authors to open a book? Have your say in the comments section below.

Image: Alan Light / Wikimedia Commons