I don’t mean how do you start reading a book (that’s fairly straightforward, though it can get difficult during semester time) nor how do you start a book project. No, I mean, how do you decide what the first words of your book will be?
I have been writing the introduction for my next book (provisionally entitled Gods, Heroes and Kings Across Hindu, Jain and Buddhist Narrative) and I have everything laid out nicely – sources, questions, aims, outline of chapters, historical and religious context. But I simply cannot work out what those opening sentences or paragraphs should say.
Each of my previous two books began ‘Once upon a time…’, which made me smile, and then proceeded to use a jātaka story to introduce the main themes or questions of the book as a whole. Starting with a story is a common convention of course, and I feel I ought to keep up the tradition, especially given that my object of study is stories.
However, with the two previous books I knew early on in the writing process which story would provide my frame. This time I have half a book already and no sense of an appropriate opening tale. I do not want the link between story and book to be contrived. So maybe I need to consider alternatives.
I reached for my bookshelves, to see how other monographs that I have enjoyed begin…
My all-time favourite ethnography, Kirin Narayan’s Storytellers, Saints and Scoundrels, opens as you would expect a good ethnography to do, by setting the scene and transporting the reader into her world: ‘Swamiji lay in his deck chair. His legs, bare below the knee, were outstretched, but his eyes were alert.’ We could be reading a novel. Dare I start a book about ancient Indian literature like that? How might I transport a reader into the mysterious world of religious encounter and shared narrative?
My favourite book on the jātaka genre, Reiko Ohnuma’s Head, Eyes, Flesh and Blood, begins with the tale of how Chinese pilgrims, on travels to India, encountered numerous pilgrimage sites associated with the bodily sacrifice of the Bodhisattva. That is a neat beginning, highlighting the importance of the genre under examination. It is also a story, of course, a story of a pilgrimage in which one encounters stories.
Books about a single story, of course, can transport the reader straight into that story – thus, for example, John Strong’s The Legend of King Aśoka begins ‘When King Aśoka acceeded to the Mauryan throne circa 270 BC, he inherited an empire…’ Likewise Justin McDaniel’s The Lovelorn Ghost and the Magical Monk, which uses the story of Mae Nak and Somdet To as a thread for an exploration of modern Thai Buddhism, begins ‘In 1928 those Siamese lucky enough to own or live close to a radio heard, through intermittent static and crackly dialogue, a sinister tale of loss, vengeance and murder.’
My book is about many stories, those involving characters that are shared between the narrative traditions of the three major religions of early India. So would it be right to entice the reader into a single story, from a single tradition? Can I find another story that brings the reader to the stories under discussion, as Ohnuma did so cleverly?
The alternative, of course, is the more direct option of beginning: ‘This is a book about x”. Many excellent books begin this way.
A friend helpfully suggested I should begin with the story of a scholar trying to think of a clever beginning to her book, and ironically being unable to think of an appropriate story despite spending all her time reading stories! Hmph. Back to the drawing board.