She may be loudly reviled by some for her views on transgender issues and women’s rights, but that hasn’t stopped thousands hailing the opening line of JK Rowling’s first Harry Potter novel as one of the greatest ever.
The opening words to Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone have been voted among the most memorable and captivating opening lines from the world of literature by Amazon readers.
Setting the scene for the story of the orphan wizard, Rowling writes: “Mr and Mrs Dursley of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.”
The line came fifth in a poll of British readers by the online books retail giant, with 22 per cent of those taking part choosing it as their favourite.
Topping the poll was Charles Dickens’ opening to his 1840 French Revolution-era novel A Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”, with 29 per cent of the vote, while George Orwell’s chilling first line from his dystopian fantasy Nineteen Eighty-Four: “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen” came second, with 24 per cent of the vote.
Fourth and fifth were the first lines of JM Barrie’s 1904 children’s classic, Peter Pan: “All children, except one, grow up” and JRR Tolkien’s deceptively simple opening to The Hobbit: “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit”.
Rowling’s views on trans issues and her campaign in support of female-only spaces and the rights of biological women have led to calls for her books to be boycotted, with activists branding her a “terf” – the slur used to describe those who, like the Harry Potter author, believe people cannot change sex.
The Amazon poll will be interpreted as a sign that readers have stuck by her in the face of bitter opposition.
Helen Joyce, director of advocacy, Sex Matters, a human-rights organisation that campaigns for clarity on sex in law and everyday life, said: “No matter how hard extreme trans activists try to ruin JK Rowling’s life and career, they fail.
“She remains one of the world’s most popular and beloved authors, and it’s a delight to see the book-buying public ignore their attempts to destroy her for the heresy of saying that women’s rights matter, and can’t be protected if men can claim to be women.”
The study of readers’ views was commissioned by Amazon Books UK, ahead of the Amazon Literary Partnership, which offers support to aspiring and emerging underrepresented writers.
Amazon’s polling also revealed that four in ten (43 per cent) British readers say that the first few lines of a book can make or break a novel.
Indeed, according to the poll, 64 per cent have stopped reading a book if the initial wording failed to grab their attention, while 69 per cent feel a good first chapter sets the tone for the whole novel.
Almost two in five (38 per cent) claimed the first few lines of their favourite books made such an impact, that they know them off by heart, with a further 63 per cent believing they could identify a book they’d read and loved, just by reading the first line.
Darren Hardy, manager for UK Author and Editorial Programmes at Amazon UK, which commissioned the survey of 2,000 people, said: “We know how hard it can be to put pen to a blank piece of paper when fashioning a novel, yet we also know how important these first few words can be to entice the reader further.
“The captivating and iconic first lines highlighted in the research demonstrate the power and impact words can have not only on popular culture but also our lives. We hope that through the Amazon Literary Partnership, we can bring more voices to the fore and inspire readers with their words.”