Rating the Openings of My Favorite Nonfiction Books

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Welcome to part 2 of my book opening analysis series! The first post covered 15 introductory paragraphs from my list of 4-5 star rated book, so this post will be the same format but for 8 nonfiction books instead (most are historical biographies or memoirs). Sometimes nonfiction books have the reputation of not being as stylistically compelling as fiction reads—perhaps because we forget just how many genres of nonfiction exist—so I hope this post is not only helpful for writers but also proves that there are quite a few interesting and beautifully-crafted books that aren’t about other worlds.

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The Romanov Sisters by HELEN RAPPAPORT

“The day they sent the Romanovs away from Alexander Palace became forlorn and forgotten – a palace of ghosts. The family had spent the previous three days frantically packing for their departure, having been informed at short notice by Kerensky’s provisional government of their imminent removal. But when it came to the final moments, although the children took their three dogs with them, the cats – Zubrovka, the stray rescued by Alexey at Army HQ, and her two kittens – had to be left behind, with the plaintive request from the tsarevich that someone take care of them.”

Rappaport opens her book with a spoiler opening (even though the fate of the last of the Romanovs is well known by now), transferring the suspense from “what’s going to happen?” to “how is this going to happen?” In cases of tragedies such as this one, a new sort of anticipation develops, akin to watching a horror movie where you can see the horrible beast lying in wait for the character but they don’t notice it yet. This opening style can also shift our attention away from the specifics of the plot and more toward the characters—which in this case works very well, as the focus of this book is on the four Romanov sisters’ lives and personalities. There’s also the additional detail about leaving the cats that tugs a bit on the heart strings and helps set a tone for what is to come. The only flaw in this paragraph is the introduction of many names (places, people, etc.) that are likely unfamiliar to the reader and which, in bulk, can create confusion and cause readers to miss the strengths of the passage. Overall, however, this is a solid introduction, so I give it 7/10.

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NICHOLAS AND ALEXANDRA by ROBERT K. MASSIE

“From the Baltic city of St. Petersburg, built on a river marsh in a far northern corner of the empire, the Tsar ruled Russia. So immense were the Tsar’s dominions that, as night began to fall along their western borders, day already was breaking on their Pacific coast. Between these distant frontiers lay a continent, one sixth of the land surface of the globe. Through the depth of Russia’s winters, millions of tall pine trees stood silent under heavy snows. In the summer, clusters of white-trunked birch trees rustled their silvery leaves in the slanting rays of the afternoon sun. Rivers, wide and flat, flowed peacefully through the grassy plains of European Russia toward a limitless southern horizon. Eastward, toward Siberia, even mightier rivers rolled north to the Arctic, sweeping through forests where no human had ever been, and across desolate marshes of frozen tundra.”

I love this opening. I remember when I first picked up this book, tentative about the style as I often am, and being immediately drawn in by the sweeping picture of the Russian landscape and beautiful word choices—I felt as if I were watching the opening of a movie or nature documentary. Those who are very minimalist with prose might find the language a bit wearisome, but even from a technical perspective, this paragraph works well to a) set the tone for the book and b) introduce the setting with distinct details (as well as the general time period, as the first sentence says the Tsar is ruling Russia). I rate this opening 8/10.

(For a full review of this book, click here.)

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WEST WITH THE NIGHT by BERYL MARKHAM

How is it possible to bring order out of memory? I should like to begin at the beginning, patiently, like a weaver at his loom. I should like to say ‘This is the place to start; there can be no other.’ But there are a hundred places to start for there are a hundred names – Mwanza, Serengetti, Nungwe, Molo, Nakuru. There are easily a hundred names, and I can begin best by choosing one of them – not because it is first nor of any importance in a wildly adventurous sense, but because here is happens to be, turned uppermost in my logbook.”

Here is another example of prose that hooked me from the first page. Markham has command over language in a way that is vivid yet straightforward, conversational yet detached and almost analytical. There is a thoughtfulness and precision in how she utilizes words and grammar, even down to the varying of structure and length to create a flow from sentence to sentence. But beyond the language, this introduction gives us a sense of purpose (why else attempt to bring order out of memory, if not to recount some part of your life?) as well as a sense of location (Mwanza, Serengetti, Nungwe, Molo, and Nakuru are recognizable to most readers as African place names, even if we aren’t certain where those places are specifically). Not to mention that the first line is quite catching and memorable all on its own! For all these reasons, I rate this opening 9/10.

(For a full review of this book, click here.)

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EDUCATED: A MEMOIR by TARA WESTOVER

“My strongest memory is not a memory. It’s something I imagined, then came to remember as if it had happened. The memory was formed when I was five, just before I turned six, from a story my father told in such detail that I and my brothers and sister had each conjured our own cinematic version, with gunfire and shouts. Mine had crickets. That’s the sound I hear as my family huddles in the kitchen, lights off, hiding from the Feds who’ve surrounded the house. A woman reaches for a glass of water and her silhouette is lighted by the moon. A shot echoes like the lash of a whip and she falls. In my memory it’s always Mother who falls, and she has a baby in her arms.”

If you haven’t caught on to why I enjoy memoirs so much, perhaps by now you can guess why. Westover, like Markham, is precise with her language and masterful of it; she builds from an excellent opening line, from what is neutral and, perhaps, something that could be pleasant or amusing, into a rather shocking picture of her “strongest memory” (and for those who know what event this “memory” references, it serves as a great introduction to who her father is). Looking at this paragraph in terms of “hooks,” it’s as if every sentence grabs onto you a little tighter, raising questions each time and drawing you further into the narrative Westover begins to weave. The use of first person (like many memoirs) only heightens the effect. I also give this opening a 9/10.

(For a full review of this book, click here.)

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THE GLASS CASTLE by JEANETTE WALLS

“I was sitting in a taxi, wondering if I had overdressed for the evening, when I looked out the window and saw Mom rooting through a Dumpster. It was just after dark. A blustery March wind whipped the steam coming out of the manholes, and people hurried along the sidewalks with their collars turned up. I was stuck in traffic two blocks from the party where I was heading.”

Would you have guessed this was the opening of a nonfiction book/memoir? There’s a quality to Walls’ style that reads very much like modern fiction—perhaps it’s the shorter sentences and straightforwardness of tone. There’s a lot packed into a little space, as well: general location (a city, likely a large one, and specifically the inside of a taxi looking out onto the street), weather (a blustery March, which also suggests a northern location where winter is still influencing the climate), time of day (early night), a bit about the narrator’s personality (she’s wondering if she’s overdressed for a party—does that mean she has some anxiety? And if so, why?), and a bit about her family (she sees her mother rooting through a dumpster—which implies her mother is likely homeless—which then juxtaposes the narrator’s concerns about being overdressed and being in a taxi on the way to a party). Being able to layer details that then raise questions for readers without having to use a lot of words is a) the makings of a great opening and b) proof of someone who is confident in what they want to say. I also give this opening 9/10.

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A RIVER IN DARKNESS: oNE MAN’S ESCAPE FROM NORTH KOREA by MASAJI ISHIKAWA

“What do I remember of that night? The night I escaped from North Korea? There are so many things that I don’t remember, that I’ve put out of my mind forever…But I’ll tell you what I do recall.”

This opening is another example of using tone and a few attention-catching details to hook readers. First, we’re introduced to the main action of the memoir: Ishikawa’s escape from North Korea (which for modern readers should immediately pique our interest, since the NK government is perhaps the most oppressive regime in modern times). But we’re also introduced to his narrative voice—one that is thoughtful and contemplative, reminiscent of sitting down with someone to hear their life story. Most memoirs have that conversational quality, as well, but the simplicity here seems to amplify it, and it works very well. For these reasons I rate this opening 9/10.

(For a full review of this book, click here.)

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A RUMOR OF WAR by PHILIP CAPUTO

“This book does not pretend to be history. It has nothing to do with politics, power, strategy, influence, national interests, or foreign policy; nor is it an indictment of the great men who led us into Indochina and whose mistakes were paid for with the blood of some quite ordinary men. In a general sense, it is simply a story about war, about the things men do in war and the things war does to them. More strictly, it is a soldier’s account of our longest conflict, the only one we have ever lost, as well as the record of a long and sometimes painful personal experience.”

This straightforward opening (part of the book’s preface) doesn’t raise questions in the way most of the other openings I’ve rated have—but in being so direct, it raises the most important question one could have: what are the “things men do in war,” and the “things does war does to them”? Like the other memoir authors on this list, Caputo has command over language, making these sentences flow together well and making it that much easier to keep reading, and a clear “voice” behind the words. So while this isn’t the flashiest first paragraph, it is very well done, which is why I rate it 8/10.

(For a full review of this book, click here.)

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12 RULES FOR LIFE: AN ANTIDOTE TO CHAOS by JORDAN B. PETERSON

“If you are like most people, you don’t often think about lobsters—unless you’re eating one. However, these interesting and delicious crustaceans are very much worth considering. Their nervous systems are comparatively simple, with large, easily observable neurons, the magic cells of the brain. Because of this, scientists have been able to map the neural circuitry of lobsters very accurately. This has helped us understand the structure and function of the brain and behavior in most complex animals, including human beings. Lobsters have more in common with you than you might think (particularly when you are feeling crabby—ha ha).”

I like this opening (especially for the purpose of this blog post) for several reasons. One, there’s a humorous tone from the first sentence, which is a technique that can work very well for drawing reader’s attention and one that hasn’t shown up in the other books on either of my lists. People like to laugh, or at least have a sensible chuckle, and using a joke or amusing word choices can caught the proverbial ear of most people. Two, this book is a collection of essays intended to give life advice, which is quite different from even memoirs and historical biographies, and so helps us to see that the same sorts of “hooks” that work in fiction and creative nonfiction can and do work for even more technical books. Third, this opening is another example of clear authorial voice, which contributes to reader interest as well as sets a book apart from others of the same genre. Overall I give this opening 8/10.

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While this post doesn’t have quite as many examples as its earlier counterpart, I hope looking at these nonfiction openings has given you more insight into how to create a good first sentence or paragraph (and just maybe helped you find a book or two for your TBR list!). Which one is your favorite? Or, what’s a nonfiction book not on this list that has a stellar opening?

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