I love a good epigraph.

Some readers page right past them, ignore them completely, think they’re a waste of space.  Not me.  While reading a book, a book I love, I’ll often flip back to the epigraph and think about how perfect — or imperfect — it is for the story.  I’ll wonder how it was chosen.  Years before?  So late it barely made it to print?  Was it the writer’s idea?  The editor’s?

I have many favorites.  Here are two:

But what a shining animal is man,

Who knows, when pain subsides, that is not that,

For worse than that must follow — yet can write

Music, can laugh, play tennis, even plan.

– Edna St. Vincent Millay “Sonnet CLXXI”



. . . I seek that essential region of the soul where absolute evil confronts brotherhood.

– Andre Malraux, “Lazare” 1974




When I started writing this post, I intended to share a few I’m considering for my own book.  Now that feels like tempting the fates — the book’s not finished and who knows how this will all end — so I’m tucking them back inside my vest and zipping up.


Do you bother with the epigraphs?  Give me one of your favorites.


42 thoughts on “Epigraph

  1. Jennifer

    I just finished my favorite book in years. It is so beautifully written AND it has a wonderful epigraph! The book is Plainsong by Kent Haruf and I know you, Teri Carter, would love it.

    “Plainsong–the unisonous vocal music used in the Christian church from the earliest times; any simple and unadorned melody or air”

      1. Jennifer

        I am finally getting to “The Brief Wondrous LIfe of Oscar Wao” as my next book. Yay! (Maybe Eventide after that!)

        Tonight my book club discusses one of the worst books I’ve read in a long time…”Malachi.” EVERYONE seems to have loved it….5 stars everywhere! Seriously!? I thought the characters were flat, he wrote on a historical timeline with no depth and little accuracy. It was mediocre writing at best. I have my doubts that he even HAD an editor. Horrible! (Oops…I said it here because I won’t be able to say it tonight. Thank you for letting me rant on your blog.)

      2. Teri

        Malachi, or Moloka’i? I see 5 stars for both. It’ll be interesting to hear what your bookclubbers say about it. You know there’ll be someone there who thinks it’s the best book ever written. Better have lots of wine!

      3. Jennifer

        Yes, yes…that 2nd one. I hated it so much it wasn’t worth getting up to find out the real name. I will keep you posted on discussion tonight. Furthermore, I’m not allowed to drink wine when I hate the book – I get in fights with “that someone” who thinks it’s the best book ever written. In fact, I put all bad reviews on a sheet of paper to hand out – then I will remain silent(ly drinking).

      4. Teri

        Dear lord. The Moloka’i books is, literally, everywhere. I hope you can speak up. And if you can’t, have more wine and tell me about it tomorrow. Now I can’t wait to hear what happened!

    1. lauramaylene

      I read PLAINSONG years ago and frankly don’t remember the epigraph — but now that Jennifer has shared it with us, I can agree and I say that I liked it (both then and now). 🙂

  2. Averil Dean

    I adore them. I’m not at home so I can’t peruse my favorites for you, but here’s the one I’ve chosen for my book:

    “Every spirit builds itself a house.”
    —Ralph Waldo Emerson

    I think it fits the themes of the book, and the fact that the male MC is an architect.

    The one from Sophie’s Choice is haunting.

  3. lesbrady

    “Only those who do not fear death can love.”

    Franco Ferrucci, “The Life of God (As Told By Himself).”

    If my novel ever gets published, that’s mine =).

  4. CJ

    Perhaps everything terrible is in its deepest being something terrible that wants help from us. Rilke

    That’s in front of my novel RAMBLER along with

    So when I couldn’t stand it no more I lit out. Twain

    1. Teri

      Oh my CJ, I love them both. But you know the Missouri girl in me wants to latch onto that Twain quote. I swear I could pluck out Twain quotes all day long and never run out.

      1. CJ

        I re read the Duino Elegies often.

        “Look, I am living. On what? Neither childhood nor future are growing less…super numerous existence wells up in my heart.” The Ninth Elegy

  5. lisahgolden

    I read them and wonder how they apply to the story. Do they matter to the story or did they mean something to the author at the point at which they were writing the story, etc.

    1. Teri

      Sometimes I’ll hear an interview long after I’ve read a book and the author will say they picked the epigraph at the last second. Or their editor found it for them. This always disappoints me. I start to feel manipulated. The purist in me wants it all to be organic, even as much as I know this is Pollyanna of me.

  6. Sarah W

    I love epigraphs! I also like quotes as chapter headings.

    I’ve always wanted to use the lyrics to Pat Donohue’s “Road to Kingdom Come” for an epigraph, but I don’t write those kinds of books . . .

    1. Teri

      Ha! Sarah, why do I imagine you reading epigraphs ALL DAY LONG, and being constantly intrigued by them. Come on, I know you’ve got a few faves.

      And by the by, I didn’t have a chance to get back to your blog yet, but I am a fellow Canterbury Tales fan.

  7. macdougalstreetbaby

    At some point I will put together a book of my photography and when I do, this will be mine:

    “If it were easy to talk about, I’d be a writer. Since I’m inarticulate, I express myself with images.”
    – Helen Levitt

    1. Teri

      Maybe I should just stick with iPhone photos of my dogs. Honest to Betsy, this writing gig is not for the thin-skinned. It’s been a weird January. Maybe too much introspection, if there is such a thing.

  8. Lyra

    LOVE epigraphs.
    Pick one…okay, so in Lyra-speak here’s my version of one..hehehe…

    Straight Man- Richard Russo, “They’re nice to have. A dog.”-F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

    White Teeth- Zadie Smith, “What is past is prologue”-Inscription in Washington, D.C. museum

    Welcome to the Monkey House-Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., “Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes.”-Thoreau

    Jigsaw-Sybille Bedford, “The way things looked before later events made them look different. And this is as much a part of history as the way things actually were.”- Robert Kee
    “In the end most things in life-perhaps all things-turn out to be appropriate.”-Anthony Powell

    and for you Teri, these five are from Sybille Bedford’s memoir, Quicksands.

    “Nothing happens without consequences; nothing ever did happen without antecedents.” -Anon

    “Perspective- la prospettiva- aims at delineating sold objects on plane surfaces so as to give the same impressions of relative positions as the actual objects do. This technique may achieve images as ‘real’ as Uccello’s pattern of lances, horses, men in battle, or as real as trompe-l’oeil.” -Anon

    “Writing of the past, I have come to think it is memory that clarifies…The rest – diaries, letters, notes, are sediment…” -Anon

    “We think we know who we are and what we ought to do about it, and yet our thought is conditioned but the nature of our immediate experience…Life is Time’s fool inasmuch as it is changing from instant to instant, changing the outside and the inner world so that we never remain the same two instants together.”-from Aldous Huxley’s last essay, ‘Shakespeare and Religion’

    “…Oh pauvre, oh heureux voyageur sur la terre…”- Anon

    1. Teri

      Okay, I want to comment on every one of these but I fear I’ll bore you to tears.

      But how about that “past is prologue” concept?

      Or that concrete memories like letters and journals are “sediment,” that what’s in the mind is real?

      I could live on that last one all year.

  9. Downith

    Most of my books are still in boxes. But here’s one from a book that has been unpacked. Particularly appropriate this week:

    “Writing is easy:all you do is sit staring at the blank sheet of paper until the drops of blood form on your forehead”

    – Gene Fowler

    from Art & Fear – Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of ARTMAKING by David Bayles and Ted Orland

  10. lauramaylene

    Feeling a little bashful over here because I’m not specifically an epigraph fan. It’s it a strong/vivid one that I connect with, it can be a wonderful way to set the tone and I appreciate that. Maybe I’m too quick to flip past the ones that don’t speak to me — because if they don’t, I just want to get into the book and hope the book speaks to me instead.

    1. Teri

      I read epitaphs at the beginning — to pause and ponder, in anticipation — in the same way I’ll close a great book a few pages before the end and wait to read the closing words.

    1. Teri

      I’m ready to go, rhinestone red flowers and all. 😉 And I’ve also already felt a little nauseous this morning.

      I was practicing yesterday, getting the timing down for my 7 minutes, and it occurred to me I’ll be saying “fuck” a lot. Might need to cut a few of those….

  11. Teri

    And here’s another, from Dorothy Allison’s BASTARD OUT OF CAROLINA:

    “People pay for what they do, and still more, for what they have allowed themselves to become. And they pay for it simply: by the lives they lead.” – James Baldwin

    1. CJ

      Allison and Baldwin, two terrific writers. I think a book’s epigraph says something about the voice and prose the author aspires too, as well as the storyline. It’s easy to sigh away from them for fear of being a smartypants. Alas writing a book pretty much outs your ambitions so you might as well sing it sister.

      1. Teri

        That’s it exactly. When I read a book’s epigraph, I feel the honor and respect the writer is bestowing, the striving to do well for them, the desire to make them proud.

        I’m not sure I can express my adoration for Dorothy Allison, Mary Karr, William Styron, James Baldwin, Margaret Atwood well enough. Unless, of course, I use their words in my epigraph.

  12. CJ

    The only thing better is a dedication. Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye” (a novel I adore) –To the one who gave me life and the one who made me free

    1. Teri

      “The Bluest Eye” remains my favorite of hers. It was the first Morrison book I ever read. I was about 25 and I remember being stunned. Just plain stunned. I’d never read a book with words strung together like that.

  13. Bobbi

    I love epigraphs. I didn’t out one in my book as I felt it a little light and odd in genre to do so but if I had put one in it would have been this:

    “And these children that you spit on as they try and change their worlds are immune to your consultations, they’re quite aware of what they’re going through.”

    David Bowie (obviously)

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