Quite a few exceptional books begin with great epigraphs — an inspiring quote, a beautiful poem, a moving lyric, an iconic phrase — that'll ease you into the novel. Some books skip the epigraph while others include more than one... and then there are books that go over the top. Moby Dick, for example, has exactly 80 epigraphs. While there are many definitions for an epigraph, Shmoop sums it up best:
"Epigraphs are like little appetizers to the great entrée of a story. They illuminate important aspects of the story, and they get us headed in the right direction."
Opening up a brand new book is an experience than never grows old. The lovely aroma of paper and ink, the weight of the new pages, and the jittery feeling every book nerd gets when they're just about to start a new adventure. The epigraph (if the book has one) is one of the first things a reader is introduced to, which makes it vitally important. And in many ways, it's one of my favorite ways to get a feel for the book, rather than judging by the synopsis or reviews. It's quick. It's simple. And it's tells us a lot about the book without giving away any spoilers.
Here are 19 of some of the best, most intriguing, and thought-provoking epigraphs in literature:
1. "You are all a lost generation."
— Gertrude Stein, epigraph for The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
2. "Behind every great fortune there is a crime."
— Balzac, epigraph for The Godfather by Mario Puzo
3. "An oak is a tree. A rose is a flower. A deer is an animal. A sparrow is a bird. Russia is our fatherland. Death is inevitable."
— P. Smirnovski, A Textbook of Russian Grammar, epigraph for The Gift by Vladimir Nabokov
4. "There is another world, but it is in this one."
— W.B. Yeats, epigraph for The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
5. "Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten."
—C.K. Chesterton, epigraph for Coraline by Neil Gaiman
6."We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.I should be glad of another death."
7. "Lawyers, I suppose, were children once."
— Charles Lamb, epigraph for To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee)
8. "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!'"
9. "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, epigraph for Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
10. "If they give you ruled paper, write the other way."
— Juan Ramón Jiménez, epigraph for Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
11. "The reader should realize himself that it could not have happened otherwise, and that to give him any other name was quite out of the question."
12. "What star falls unseen?"
— William Faulkner, epigraph for Distant Star by Roberto Bolano
13. "No one knows how to love anybody’s trouble."
— Frank Stanford, epigraph for Look! Look! Feathers by Mike Young
14. "Come then, and let us pass a leisure hour in storytelling, and our story shall be the education of our heroes."
15. "I believe in nothing but the holiness of the heart's affections and the truth of the imagination."
— John Keats, epigraph for I'll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson
16. "I have tried so hard to do right."
— President Grover Cleveland, epigraph for Looking for Alaska by John Green
17. "Poets claim that we recapture for a moment the self that we were long ago when we enter some house or garden in which we used to live in our youth. But these are most hazardous pilgrimages, which end as often as not in disappointment as in success. It is in ourselves that we should rather seek to find those fixed places, contemporaneous with different years.
That unknown element in the lives of other people is like that of nature, which each fresh scientific discovery merely reduces but does not abolish."
18. "All the lives we could live, all the people we will never know, never will be, they are everywhere. That is what the world is."
19. "Death is but crossing the world, as friends do the seas; they live in one another still. For they must needs be present, that love and live in that which is omnipresent. In this divine glass, they see face to face; and their converse is free, as well as pure. This is the comfort of friends, that though they may be said to die, yet their friendship and society are, in the best sense, ever present, because immortal."