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17 Incredible Epigraphs That Prove You Should Always Read The First Page

04/04/2014 09:23 am ET | Updated Apr 07, 2014
Chapman and Hall

It's become common practice to kick off every literary work with a quote, often from another literary work -- an epigraph. These blips of wisdom shed light on a writer's intention or inspiration. At the very least, they're an opportunity to demonstrate cleverness, as in Stephen King's famous, contradictory quotes preceding his On Writing (see below). They're subtle summaries, grooming a reader's expectations and setting the tone for the original work that is to follow.

Epigraphs have existed for a long time. They were popularized during the early 1700s, when the function of reading was in flux. Prior to this time, only the very educated were literate, but reading was slowly becoming more of a hobby than merely a means of educating oneself about the past. Writes The New Republic:

As the middle-class reading public materialized in the middle of the eighteenth century, almost no self-respecting publication could do without an epigraph. Emerging readers knew the English but not necessarily the classical tradition; they needed a path, a map of literary culture.

The earliest epigraphs weren't snappy quotations, but lengthier Author's Prefaces, such as the one found at the beginning of Don Quixote, which reads "Thou mayst believe me, gentle reader, without swearing, that I could willingly desire this book (as a child of my understanding) to be the most beautiful, gallant, and discreet that might possibly be imagined..."

Epigraphs have evolved into much more than a means of tethering a work to its predecessors. Hemingway's lead-in to The Sun Also Rises includes a quote from Gertrude Stein, "said in conversation," describing him and his ilk as "the Lost Generation." Fitzgerald's introduction to The Great Gatsby is a quote said by a fictional character from one of his other novels. And, more and more, authors are employing Top 40 lyrics in the front matter of their books.

A book's title will often be gleaned from its epigraph, as done by both Edith Wharton and Hemingway, who both penned classics apparently inspired by the Old Testament Ecclesiastes (The House of Mirth and The Sun Also Rises, respectively).

If nothing else, epigraphs are a quirky add-on that we're thankful for; they offer a glimpse of an author's taste, humor and personality that their actual stories may not.

Here are 17 of the most memorable epigraphs:

Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward

"We on our backs staring at the stars above,

Talking about what we going to be when we grow up,

I said what you wanna be? She said, 'Alive.'"

-Outkast, "The Art of Storytellin' (Part 1)"

Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion

"I learned courage from Buddha, Jesus, Lincoln, Einstein, and Cary Grant."

-Miss Peggy Lee

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King

"Honesty's the best policy."

-Miguel Cervantes

"Liars prosper."

-Anonymous

The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

"People would never fall in love if they hadn't heard love talked about."

-Francois de La Rochefoucauld

"And you may ask yourself, Well, how did I get here?

And you may tell yourself,

This is not my beautiful house.

And you may tell yourself,

This is not my beautiful wife."

-Talking Heads

The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

"You are all a lost generation."

-Gertrude Stein in conversation

"What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun? One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever. The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose..."

-Ecclesiastes

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

"The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth."

-Ecclesiastes

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

"Then wear the gold hat, if that will move her; If you can bounce high, bounce for her too, Till she cry 'Lover, gold-hatted, high-bouncing lover, I must have you!'"

-Thomas Parke D’Invilliers (a fictional character from Fitzgerald's This Side of Paradise)

White Teeth by Zadie Smith

"What is past is prologue."

-Inscription in Washington, D.C., museum

A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore

"All seats provide equal viewing of the universe."

-Museum Guide, Hayden Planetarium

Howard's End by E.M. Forester

"Only connect..."

1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

"It's a Barnum and Bailey world,

just as phony as it can be,

But it wouldn't be make-believe

if you believed in me"

-Billy Rose and E. Y. "Yip" Harburg, "It's Only a Paper Moon"

A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh

"I will show you something different from either

Your shadow at morning striding behind you

Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;

I will show you fear in a handful of dust."

-T.S. Eliot, "The Waste Land"

Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis

"Oh, lucky Jim,

How I envy him.

Oh, lucky Jim.

How I envy him."

-Old song

The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

"Never again will a single story be told as though it's the only one."

-John Berger

We the Animals by Justin Torres

"Now a boy is of all wild beasts the most difficult to manage. For by how much the more he has the fountain of prudence not fitted up, he becomes crafty and keen, and the most insolent of wild beasts. On this account it is necessary to bind him, as it were, with many chains."

-Plato, The Laws

Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov

"This reminds me of the ludicrous account he gave Mr. Langton, of the despicable state of a young gentleman of good family. 'sir, when I heard of him last, he was running about town shooting cats.' And then in a sort of kindly reverie, he bethought himself of his own favorite cat, and said, 'But Hodge shan't be shot: no, no, Hodge shall not be shot.'"

-James Boswell, the Life of Samuel Johnson

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay

To mould me Man, did I solicit thee

From darkness to promote me?

-Paradise Lost, X, 743-45

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