Sunday, April 22, 2007

Library Surfing

Do you have a favorite way of finding books to read?

I love browsing through a library's collection, surfing the shelves, drawn to a book by an interesting title, perhaps, or an unusual cover design...and then pausing to read the first few lines.

In a matter of seconds, I'll have soaked in the words and gotten a feel for the tone and voice, the pacing, the problem. In the time it takes to read a sentence or two, I'll know if the author has pulled me into the story.

That's all it takes. Literally, seconds.

I'm aware that the author may have spent years getting those words down, and I sympathize with his or her struggle.

But if I don't feel anything special in those seconds...something to compel me to stay in the story, something that convinces me to trust the author...I'll put the book back on the shelf and go on.

What's missing?

Perhaps I don't hear a compelling voice.

Or I don't find the main character's problem convincing.

Or I'm simply too tired at the time to appreciate this particular passage of an author's work. (On another day, I might find myself with a different reaction,)

But some sentences, miraculously, do pull me into a story. They draw me into another person's world the instant my eyes focus on the words.

One moment I'm standing in the library, the air conditioner whirring, children giggling over silly pictures, a librarian showing an older man how to use the new scanner that will let him check-out books using his library card.

The next? I'm pulled into the story, floating inside another person's consciousness, seeing what they're seeing, feeling what they're feeling, thinking what they're thinking.

As a library surfer, that's the best feeling of all...catching that wave of excitement about a story, not wanting to lose the feeling, riding that wave all the way home.

Here's an example of opening lines that pulled me into the story the moment that I started reading:
When Jamie saw him throw the baby, saw Van throw the little baby, saw Van throw his little sister Nin, when Jamie saw Van throw his baby sister Nin, then they moved.
That's how Carolyn Coman begins What Jamie Saw.

And then there's this:
At school they say I'm wired bad, or wired mad, or wired sad, or wired glad, depending on my mood and what teacher has ended up with me. But there is no doubt about it. I'm wired.
That's how Jack Gantos grabs the reader's attention at the start of Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key.

And this:
They murdered him.

As he turned to take the ball, a dam burst against the side of his head and a hand grenade shattered his stomach.
Recognize these lines? They're from Robert Cormier's The Chocolate War.

And this:
Liyana Abboud had just tasted her first kiss when her parents announced they were leaving the country.
The opening lines from Habibi by Naomi Shihab Nye.

And one last example:
In the end, it was her grandfather, William Hyde, who gave the unborn child her name. He was serious about names; he'd had several himself.
That's the opening from Tamar by Mal Peet, another author who knows how to keep a reader turning pages.

Once I brought these books home, I couldn't stop reading.

What about you?

How do you find books?

Do you surf in the library... or bookstore?

What books have made you fall in love with reading (and writing) all over again?

When you get a chance, why not share your favorite books (and opening lines) with Wordswimmer? We'd love to hear what draws you into a story... and keeps you reading.

For more about the importance of opening lines, visit:,,1857506,00.html

And for a spoof on a famous author laboring over a first line, visit:


Anne L. said...

I don't have any great opening lines to share right now, but I agree 100% with you. What a beautiful essay.

Bruce said...

Thanks, Anne. Glad you enjoyed it.

Jack said...

I depend on a fortnightly bookmobile on my area of no. calif. coast, so there's not a big selection to browse through. I pre-order my selections through the county's website--thank goodness for the internet.

However, it's fun to see the colorful characters that troop into the bookmobile for the 45 minutes it's here; the local artist with his shopping bag full of returns and the quick way he browses the shelves and garners another dozen. Another old timer who takes his tips on books from the driver. The local elementary school that blasts in for a hectic twenty minutes--encouraging to see their love of books, though.

Favorite first liner? "Call me Ishmael." My hair still stands up with the recollection of perilous adventure on the wide ocean, the bravery and endurance of the seamen, and the awesome Moby Dick.

Here's another great first liner, that I'll have to have the bookmobile bring me:

"When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon." —James Crumley, The Last Good Kiss (1978)

Enjoy a good book.

Bruce said...


Enjoyed your description of the book mobile's arrival... and its patrons.

Browsing through the library's website for books sounds much different from a typical search through the stacks. I wonder if you find it easier (or harder) to find a good book that way, and if you miss the chance to browse the shelves?

For me... part of the process involves taking in the sight of a lot of books, feeling a book in my hands... and I would miss the chance to do that.

So I can imagine it must be a thrill when the book mobile pulls up, and you find your book waiting for you on the shelf inside.

Thanks for taking a moment to share your thoughts.