On a recent episode of Pop Culture Happy Hour the crew discussed first impressions in movies, books, films and TV. Panelist Glen Weldon gave some of his favorite opening lines in books then went on to create this comprehensive list of opening lines.
Coming to the end of the rewrite on my own novel, I find myself contemplating endings rather than beginnings, and I have another writerly confession to make: I judge a book by its last word, which I read first.
Before you lay judgement, things that I know:
A) This is a ludicrous habit.
B) The likelihood that an entire book could be encapsulated by only the last word, when considering the numerous books in existence, is outrageously and implausibly small.
And you might wonder how I can peek at the last word without spoiling the ending. My ability to flip to the last page and peek, only taking in that last word, maybe two, has been fostered by years of looking at scary movies through fingers, ready to close the gap in a nanosecond lest I see a wayward severed head.
But let’s entertain for a moment that the last word does have literary significance and that it could suggest a work’s “goodness.” Consider the following novels and their last words:
Persuasion, Jane Austen: “importance.”
Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte: “Jesus!”
Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte: “earth.”
The Brief Life Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Diaz: “beauty.”
The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse, Louise Erdrich: “earth.”
The Virgin Suicides, Jeffrey Eugenides: “together.”
The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald: “past.”
The End of the Affair, Graham Greene: “ever.”
The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver: “light.”
The Life of Pi, Yann Martel: “tiger.”
Dancer, Colum McCann: “sold.”
The Color Purple, Alice Walker: “Amen”
How apt that an Austen novel should end on stature, and Martel leave us with the elephant in the room, or rather the tiger. Even Fitzgerald’s “past” sums up the entire book in one word. For most (okay all) of these, the context of the story is what gives the word its meaning but each of these words still holds a sense of finality and hints at a Theme: community, nature, faith, time.
To be fair, as I was compiling my list I pulled several books from the shelves that had seemingly irrelevant last words:
A Visit from the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan: “keys.”
Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov: “way.”
The Amateur Marriage, Anne Tyler: “bend.”
For these instances I would give these writers the benefit of the doubt and say that the finality probably comes in the final sentence, which puts the benign word in context but sentences give too much away. And I maintain that I wish not to be spoiled–I’m a word-peeker, not a monster.
One of my writing mentors, Aaron Hamburger, always said that a story is like a body and every sentence, every word, should hold the DNA of the entire work. So, it should follow that the last word would be the most pregnant with the DNA of a story. The last word is the end of the literary helix.
By giving myself the final word, I have the destination, the end point, the goal, a promise of return on my investment, the framework into which all of the rest of the words will fit. The book becomes a living thing whose cells and chemistry work together effortlessly.
Reading the last word first doesn’t seem so ludicrous after all, does it?