This is usually a more effective strategy than stressing the importance of the subject. You may play upon curiosity by opening with a short factual statement that raises more questions than it answers. Astronomer Sir Arthur Eddington begins a chapter in his book The Philosophy of Science with this statement:
I believe there are 15,747,724,136,275,002,577,605,653,691, 181,555,468,044,717,914,52 7,116,709,366,231,425,076,185,631, 031,296 protons in the universe and the same number of electrons.
It would be a curiously incurious reader who would not boggle at this and read on to learn how the writer arrived at so precise a
A short step from such interest-arousing factual openings is the cryptic beginning, that is, a mysterious or not quite clear statement. Charles Lamb opens an essay with
I have no ear.
We soon learn that he means "no ear for music," but for a moment we are startled.
To be effective a cryptic opening must not simply be murky. It must combine clarity of statement with mystery of intent. We know what it says, but we are puzzled about why. The mystery has to be cleared up rather quickly if the reader's interest is to be retained. For most of us curiosity does not linger; without satisfaction it goes elsewhere.
Carrying mystification a little further, you may open with a rhetorical statement that appears to contradict reality as we know it. Hilaire Belloc begins his essay "The Barbarians" this way:
It is a pity true history is not taught in the schools.
Readers who suppose true history is taught may be annoyed, but they are likely to go on.
Sometimes mystification takes the form of a that is, an apparently nonlogical sequence of ideas. An enterprising student began a theme:
I hate botany, which is why I went to New York.
The essay revealed a legitimate connection, but the seeming illogic fulfilled its purpose of drawing in the reader.
Aside from arousing their curiosity, you may attract readers by amusing them. One strategy is to open with a witty remark, often involving an allusion to a historical or literary figure. Francis Bacon opens his essay "Of Truth" with this famous sentence:
What is truth? said jesting Pilate and would not stay for an answer.
A contemporary writer alludes both to Pontius Pilate and to Bacon by adapting that beginning for the essay "What, Then, Is Culture?":
"What is truth?" said jesting Pilate, and would not stay for an answer.
"What is culture?" saidan enlightened man to me not long since, and though he stayed for an answer, he did not get one.
Another variety of the entertaining opening is the anecdote. Anecdotes have a double value, attracting us once by their intrinsic wittiness and then by the skill with which writers apply them to the subject. In the following opening Nancy Mitford describes the history of the French salon, a social gathering of well-known people who discuss politics, art, and so on:
"What became of that man I used to see sitting at the end of your table?" someone asked the famous eighteenth-century Paris hostess, Mme. Geoffrin.
"He was my husband. He is dead." It is the epitaph of all such husbands. The hostess of a salon (the useful word salonniere, unfortunately, is an Anglo-Saxon invention) must not be encumbered by family life, and her husband, if he exists, must know his place.
The salon was invented by the Marquise de Rambouillet at the beginning of the seventeenth century.
Mitford's story is amusing, in a cynical fashion. More important, it leads naturally into her subject. is important, for an opening anecdote fails if forced upon the subject from the outside.
Still another entertaining opening strategy is the clever and apt comparison. It may be an analogy, as in the following passage by Virginia Woolf, the first part of the opening paragraph of her essay "Reviewing":
In London there are certain shop windows that always attract a crowd. The attraction is not in the finished article but in the worn-out garments that are having patches inserted in them. The crowd is watching the women at work. There they sit in the shop window putting invisible stitches into moth-eaten trousers. And this familiar sight may serve as an illustration to the following paper. So our poets, playwrights, and novelists sit in the shop window, doing their work under the eyes of reviewers.
Notice, incidentally, the skill with which Woolf down upon the subject.
A comparison calculated to arouse interest may be a simile or metaphor. G. K. Chesterton wittily begins an essay "On Monsters" with this metaphorical comparison:
saw in an illustrated sparkles with scientific that a green-blooded fish had been found in the sea; indeed a creature that was completely green, down to this uncanny ichor in its veins, and very big and venomous at that. Somehow could not get it out of my head, because the caption suggested a perfect refrain for a Ballade: A green-blooded fish has been found in the sea. ¡t has so wide a critical and philosophical application. I have known so many green-blooded fish on the land, walking about the streets and sitting in the clubs, and especially the committees. So many green-blooded fish have written books and criticism of books, have taught in academies of learning and founded schools of philosophy that they have almost made themselves the typical biological product of the present age of evolution.
Chesterton uses "green-blooded fish" as a metaphor for all self-centered, dehumanized people, and the metaphor attracts us by its originality.
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