You can tell a lot about a book by its opening passages. I think that the best writers show that they can create an entire world from the opening lines.
Here is the opening passage to chapter one The Garden of the Finzi-Continis by Giorgio Bassani:
The tomb was large, solid, really imposing: a sort of vaguely ancient and vaguely oriental temple, the kind you saw in the productions of Aida and Nabucco fashionable in our opera houses until a few years ago. In any other cemetery, for instance the municipal graveyard next door, a pretentious tomb of the kind would not have least been surprising, and in fact, lost among so many others, might have even gone unnoticed. But in ours it was the only one: and so, although it arose quite some distance from the entrance gates, in fact at the far end of an abandoned stretch of ground where no one had been buried for over half a century, it seemed a thing apart, and hit you in the eye straight away.
What can we learn from this opening passage? We learn that the narrator comes from a minority group. One that is separate enough to have its own cemetery that is right next door to the one used by the community. We learn that this group is distinct enough from the mainstream culture to have their own customs and folkways, graves and tombs are supposed to be modest and plain. But within this minority, there is one family that chooses to stand out by building a family tomb that is noticeable and even gaudy. Who is the family? Why do they choose to stand out and defy the customs of their group but stay within the group’s cemetery?
Or consider the opening of Narcissus and Goldmund by Hermann Hesse:
“Outside the entrance of the Mariabronn cloister, whose rounded arch rested on slim double columns, a chestnut tree stood close to the road. It was a sweet chestnut, with a sturdy trunk and a full round crown that swayed gently in the wind, brought from Italy many years earlier by a monk who had made a pilgrimage to Rome. In the spring it waited until all the surrounding trees were green, and even the hazel and walnut trees were wearing ruddy foliage, before sprouting its own first leaves; then, during the shortest nights of the year, it drove the delicate white-green rays of its exotic blossoms out through tufts of leaves, filling the air with admonishing and pungent fragrance. In October, after the grape and apple harvests, the autumn wind shook the prickly chestnuts out of the tree’s burnished gold crown; the cloister students would scramble and fight for the nuts, and Prior Gregory, who came from the south, roasted them in the fireplace in his room. The beautiful treetop–secret kin to the portal’s slender sandstone columns and he stone ornaments of the window vaults and pillars, loved by the Savoyards and Latins–swayed above the cloister entrance, a cospicuous outsider in the eyes of the natives.”
Here again we have a world created but in slightly more lines. We know we are somewhere in the past because of the monastic nature of the cloister. We also know that the cloister has existed for many generations because of the Chestnut trees journey from a sapling in Italy to a fully grown and nut producing tree. The chestnut tree is the defining feature of the cloister and is both warm and welcoming but alien to the world that it inhabits.
This is creating a world. From a few lines, we learn a lot about the world that the characters inhabit and then proceed to learn more. I wish I could write like this. I can not. There are many great novelists that never manage to do this in opening paragraphs either.
What are your favorite opening passages to books?