Academic first paragraphs

Crooked Timber challenges us to discover the best first paragraphs of academic texts. They provide this example:

“Affluence breeds impatience and impatience undermines well-being. This is the core of my argument. For detail and evidence, go directly to the chapters; for implications, to the conclusion, which also has chapter summaries.” (Avner Offer, The Challenge of Affluence)

That’s a phenomenal paragraph, but the comments page includes some highly competitive paragraphs for the prize of absurdity, and few lyrical contenders. Mostly the lyrical paragraphs are taken from the canon: Aristotle’s curious opening to the Metaphysics, or Nietzsche’s feminization of truth at the outset of Beyond Good and Evil. That’s obviously cheating, since the goal is to discover some unexpected wit. Then there are gems like these:

“Ludwig Boltzmann, who spent much of his life studying statistical mechanics, died in 1906, by his own hand. Paul Ehrenfest, carrying on the work, died similarly in 1933. Now it is our turn to study statistical mechanics.” (David L. Goodstein, States of Matter)

Pretty good, eh? I picked up my copy of Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition to present the first paragraph containing her paean to Sputnik, but ultimately I think she belongs in the canon and isn’t properly an academician so much as a public intellectual, with all that entails for her style. Her biographer, though… there’s some spunk in Elizabeth Young-Bruehl’s first paragraph to For Love of the World that deserves mention:

“Many of the European refugees who came to America before or during the Second World War had changed countries often and could call none home. When they told their stories of persecution and displacement, personal loss and political disaster, their American hearers glimpsed a world out of joint in novel and nearly incomprehensible ways. Each storyteller was, as Brecht said, ein Bote des Unglucks, a messenger of misfortune.”

It’s a bold line for a storyteller to take. I like it.






Second Opinions