Perfect Hooks

“Never forget that if you don’t hit a newspaper reader between the eyes with your first sentence, there is no need of writing a second one,” said Arthur Brisbane to his reporters at Hearst’s New York Journal. Brisbane’s own column had 30 million readers daily, so he had the creds to make such pronouncements.

A couple years ago, when I decided I needed to work on my hooks, I collected great opening lines from nonfiction books that have retained their place my shelves over the years. (I’d love to hear yours in the Comments.)

  1. “This book tells the stories of engineers who have dreamed and engineers who have toiled, of bridges of celebrity and bridges of burden, and it is about the nature of technology in a human context.” – Henry Petroski, Engineers of Dreams: Great Bridge Builders and the Spanning of America, Preface
  2.  “Shortly after midnight on December 19, 1793, there began in the port and along the waterfront of Toulon a magnificent fireworks that lasted several hours. Ten ships of the line were going up in flames …” –  J. Christopher Herold, The Age of NapoleonCh. 1, “Hero for an Age,”
  3.  “The rise of a consciously romantic style and its long struggle with orthodox classicism is one of the most dramatic episodes in the history of art. It is exceptionally well-documented, it touches life at many points, and it continued from generation to generation with the relentless ferocity of a saga.” – Kenneth Clark, The Romantic Rebellion, Preface
  4.  “Piecing together the life story of a man like Augustus Saint Gaudens, famous sculptor in his own time, half forgotten today – is like gathering flotsam from the drowned hull of a ship. The hull – the life itself – lies some fathoms down. Every now and then a fragment comes twisting to the surface – a deed, a memory, an insight. It has been my task as biographer to collect the fragments, coordinate them with what is known, and come up with some kind of coherent reconstruction.” – Burke Wilkinson, Uncommon Clay, The Life and Works of Augustus Saint GaudensPreface
  5.  “Caravaggio is the most arresting European painter of the years around 1600.” – Howard Hibbard, CaravaggioPreface
  6. “Not another book on Rembrandt! How can I excuse myself? It is simply the overflow of an admiration for his art, and a love for his characters, which is revealed in all his graphic art, that first occupied my mind when I was a child, and is still growing and expanding.” – Kenneth Clark, Introduction to Rembrandt, Introduction
  7. “O beautiful, for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain, has there ever been another place on earth where so many people of wealth and power have paid for and put up with so much architecture they detested as within thy blessed borders today?” – Tom Wolfe, From Bauhaus to Our House
  8. “This book is a study of the development of ideas from the Renaissance to the opening of the nineteenth century. It differs in several ways, in content and in presentation, from other books on this history of ideas. We ought to draw attention at the outset to three differences which are fundamental, and which amount to differences of principle.” – J. Bronowski & Bruce Mazlish, The Western Intellectual Tradition from Leonardo to HegelIntroduction
  9. ” ‘How can you stand it?’ This is the first thing the transient visitor to Florence, in summer, wants to know, and the last thing too – the eschatological question he leaves echoing in the air as he speeds on to Venice. He means the noise, the traffic, and the heat, and something else besides, something he hesitates to mention, in view of former raptures: the fact that Florence seems to him dull, drab, provincial. Those who know Florence a little often compare it to Boston.” – Mary McCarthy, The Stones of FlorenceChapter 1
  10. “Every schoolboy knows that the Elizabethan age was history’s finest hour, a rare moment when the magic of a Virgin Queen conjured up a generation of heroes who dared all and claimed England and the world as their rightful stage. It is unnecessary to prove twenty million schoolchildren wrong.” – Lacey Baldwin Smith, The Elizabethan World, Introduction
  11. “I approach the reader like St. Denis, with my head in my hands. I know that no specialist would write a book that ranges from Moses and Homer to Erasmus and Machiavelli.” – Frederick B. Artz, The Mind of the Middle Ages, Preface to the first edition
  12. “Sociologists usually begin with the Flood and the Fijis; writers of history, with the Greeks.” – Frederick B. Artz, The Mind of the Middle Ages, Chapter 1
  13. “Why learn about the ancient Greeks? That is the obvious question for anyone living today and dreaming about tomorrow, for the Greeks have been dead a long time.” – Chester G. Starr, The Ancient Greeks, Part I (introduction)
  14. “The idea of human freedom – the historic discovery that man is an autonomous being whose actions are determined not by powers outside himself but by an immanent will – is the highest achievement of Greek thought, distinguishing it from that of all the other peoples of the ancient world and laying the foundation of our modern Western civilization.” – Denys Haynes, Greek Art and the Idea of Freedom, Preface
  15. “Story is about principles, not rules. A rule says, ‘You must do it this way.’ A principle says, ‘This works … and has through all remembered time.’ The difference is crucial.” – McKee, Story
  16. “Time is life. It is irreversible and irreplaceable. To waste your time is to waste your life, but to master your time is to master your life and make the most of it.” – Alan Lakein, How to Get Control of Your Time and Your Life, Ch. 1
  17. “Welcome to a gold mine of insights into strategies for how to have more energy, be more relaxed, and get a lot more accomplished with much less effort.” – David Allen, Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, Introduction (Welcome)
  18. “At a sales conference at Random House, preceding the publication of Atlas Shrugged, one of the book salesmen asked me whether I could present the essence of my philosophy while standing non one foot. I did, as follows …” – Ayn Rand, The Ayn Rand Column“Introducing Objectivism”
  19. “For the next few weeks there will be no political discussions in America: we have entered the Season of Platitudes – an election campaign.” –  Ayn Rand, The Ayn Rand Column“Season of Platitudes”


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About Dianne L. Durante

I constantly seek out art that's inspiring, thought-provoking, skillfully executed, and/or beautiful so I can share it (in jargon-free language) with others who need and enjoy such art, but don't have time to search for it themselves. As an independent scholar, writer, and lecturer, I focus on art history and history, with forays into food, history, politics, and publishing. My most recent projects are three volumes on Alexander Hamilton, From Portraits to Puddles, Central Park: The Early Years, Innovators in Sculpture (a survey of 5,000 years of art in 2 hours), and videoguide apps by Guides Who Know. Click on the Books & Essays tab for a list of all books. For upcoming projects, see my Patreon page.


Perfect Hooks — 1 Comment

  1. These are great, and how about: “Philosophy is not a bauble of the intellect, but a power from which no man can abstain” (OPAR)? I thought that was a really powerful beginning, and worthy of quoting to skeptics.