A few years ago, I met someone who said that he would be able to know the title of a popular book by only reading the first line or two of the book to him. I decided to test his claim by reading these lines to him:
- It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.
- Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
- I am a sick man… I am a spiteful man.
- In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.
- Somewhere in la Mancha, in a place whose name I do not care to remember, a gentleman lived not long ago, one of those who has a lance and ancient shield on a shelf and keeps a skinny nag and a greyhound for racing.
He was able to answer them all (1. Pride and Prejudice by Jean Austen, 2. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy, 3. Notes from Underground by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, 4. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, and 5. Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes). While I know that any avid reader who possesses a good memory could have also answered them, I have to admit that it was still an impressive feat.
To increase the level of difficulty, he told me to find books with first lines that contain proper names. Then when I read the lines to him, I would read the proper names as “blank”. So, I gave him the following:
- There was a boy called Blank, and he almost deserved it.
- Blank had that kind of beauty which seems to be thrown into relief by poor dress.
- Blank said she would buy the flowers herself.
To my amazement, he identified the names of those books as well (1. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C. S. Lewis, 2. Middlemarch by George Eliot, and 3. Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf). Then I read a few more first lines to him and he never failed to give the correct names of the books.
Suddenly, I remembered something that I was rather sure would baffle him. “You are very good indeed, but I think that you may not be able to identify this book,” I challenged. I then read these lines to him:
Blank. No answer. Blank. No answer.
Just as I thought, he was unable to name the book. Can you name it?
The book is The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain. It occurred to me that the first lines from Tom Sawyer would be difficult for him. If the proper name was allowed to be mentioned, that is:
It would have been a child’s play for him to figure it out.
Despite knowing that he’s a fan of Mark Twain (he told me when I asked about his favorite authors), I still took the gamble.