As a reader, I’m a sucker for intruiging epigraphs.

These are the short quotations, usually from another writer, placed at the start of a book or chapter. Since I’m working on a new writing project now, I’ve already started a Word doc with a list of possibilities.

For my last book, the overarching epigraph was a single line from N. T. Wright:

“Sometimes, believing in providence means learning to say perhaps.”

N. T. Wright

Here are a few of my favorites from books other than mine.

EAST OF EDEN

Though it’s more a dedication than an epigraph, I’ve always loved the inscription that precedes my all-time favorite novel, East of Eden. According to legend, when John Steinbeck finished the 250,000-word manuscript, he placed it into a mahogany box that he had carved. Then he sent it to his friend, Pascal “Pat” Covici. When you open East of Eden, these words greet you:

Dear Pat,

You came upon me carving some kind of little figure out of wood and you said, “Why don’t you make something for me?”
I asked you what you wanted, and you said, “A box.”
“What for?”
“To put things in.”
“What things?”
“Whatever you have,” you said.
Well, here’s your box. Nearly everything I have is in it, and it is not full. Pain and excitement are in it, and feeling good or bad and evil thoughts and good thoughts—the pleasure of design and some despair and the indescribable joy of creation.
And on top of these are all the gratitude and love I have for you.

And still, the box is not full.
~John

East of Eden

OF BOLDNESS AND REQUESTED BODIES
Then there is this thought-provoking verse from Mark’s Gospel that James K. A. Smith chose as the epigraph for his book on Christian public witness and political philosophy (Awaiting the King):

“Joseph of Arimathea, a prominent member of the Council, who was himself waiting for the kingdom of God, went boldly to Pilate and asked for Jesus’ body”

Mark 15:43

I love it because it seems so purposeful and yet so unexpected. It made me stop and ask, Now why the heck did he choose that!? Is this a Christian attitude toward cynical leaders and corrupt governments? …to ask not for prayer in public schools or Ten Commandments on a courthouse lawn, but for a corpse to bury in strange anticipation of a kingdom still to come? …and to do so “boldly”?

It’s perfect—precisely because it raises questions more than answers them. You’ve got to keep read on. And in this case, you should.

CUTTING POPPIES
Then there’s this from Søren Kierkegaard’s masterpiece Fear and Trembling—a book that probes the nature of faith in the frightening story of Abraham being willing to sacrifice his son. Kierkegaard chooses this:

“What Tarquinius Superbus said in the garden by means of the poppies, the son understood but the messenger did not.”

Fear and Trembling

Who’s Tarquinius? And why the cryptic message sent by way of flowers? Once again, the quotation is just strange enough to make me care. It plays upon the universal human impulse that drives attention to ancient oracles, true crime podcasts, and ridiculous Q-drops—a mystery to be figured out.

THE PAST AS PROLOGUE
Finally, I’ve long loved the epigraph that opens Zadie Smith’s debut novel, White Teeth:

“What is past is prologue”
–Inscription in Washington, D.C., museum

The phrase is a well-worn line from Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Yet Smith messes with it. Shakespeare’s “What’s” is changed to the rather clunky “What is”; and the origin of the phrase is deliberately mis-cited: “–Inscription in Washington, D.C., museum.”

For careful readers—and it took me auditing a college Brit Lit class to have it pointed out—these small but deliberate changes illustrate the theme of Smith’s sprawling, multi-generational epic on what it’s like to be an immigrant, or the child of one, in modern Britain. Her novel plays upon the complex ways in which the past influences the present, even while the present tweaks and misremembers the received tradition. It’s brilliant. And on the novel’s final page, Smith gives one last nod to the lesson from her epigraph:

“To tell these tall tales and others like them would be to speed the myth, the wicked lie, that the past is always tense and the future, perfect. … It’s never been like that.”

Zadie Smith, White Teeth

LESSONS LEARNED

Over time, I’ve formed opinions on what makes for an arresting epigraph: (1) Short beats long; (2) one beats many; (3) cryptic beats obvious or preachy. But like most writing rules, these may be broken under the right circumstances.

The true constant, and the real magic of a perfect epigraph is that it functions exactly like Steinbeck’s little hand-carved box: As the writer, all you have is there—the whole book–though the words are not your own:

—the pleasure of design and some despair and the indescribable joy of creation.

and still it is not full.

***If you have a favorite epigraph, post it in the comments. I’d love to see it.


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2 thoughts on “and still it is not full: on epigraphs

  1. Sometimes the epigraph is the best part…

    “Only a few hints, a few diffused
    faint clews and indirections
    I seek for my own use to trace
    out here.”
    Walt Whitman Epigraph for “Some Part of Myself” by J. Frank Dobie

    and

    “It was the great north wind that made the Vikings.”
    Old Norwegian saying Epigraph for “Half Broke Horses” by Jeannette Walls

    Liked by 1 person

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