Posted by: Nathan | February 4, 2008

Read Introductions Last

As a student of literature, I often come into contact with that breed of books that has become “important enough” to warrant an introduction. I remember in undergrad and high school, I would often be assigned to “read the work and the introduction.” And, the definition of “introduction” being what it is, I would inevitably read the intro before perusing the text. Quite often this proved to be an annoying mistake.

Introductions (and all editing paraphernalia) are usually written by scholars trying to get a leg-up on the competition, so the person who writes the intro has another feather in squi’s cap, notch on squi’s belt, or whatever cliché you like most. The editor often uses this opportunity to tell you how to read a book; strangely, this is almost always how the editor reads it. Good intros give you a little survey of how others have read said book also. Now as a reader, you find yourself with seven takes on a book you haven’t read a word of yet. It’s a feminist tract. It’s an experiment in fiction. It’s a radically different form. It sucks. It’s world-renowned. It’s exemplary of this-or-that idea/time/movement. It’s so-and-so’s finest work. “Only after you wade through this marsh of others’ opinions,” the editor seems to say, “may you read this work for yourself, you uneducated nincompoop!”

Then there are the plot giveaways. I really wanted to know that Mrs. X dies and Mr. Q is actually a spy. I would never have seen given plot twist coming, but I now shall. I didn’t know event Y was even in this work. But now I know all that before I reach page one. There are usually excerpts from the text in your typical intro, which means you’re reading random tidbits of the work before you start it. Not helpful.

The most heinous of all aspects of the introduction is, of course, the length. They are usually looooooong. Listen, I can see that this book is 400+ pages; I don’t need another 20 tacked on for kicks. If the introduction precedes a chunk of poetry (as is so common in anthologies), I have to read about said writer’s entire life before I read a single poem that usually fits on one page. When you’re a lazy undergrad like I was, or a lazy grad like I am now, reading this lengthy intro is time ill-spent.

It was for these reasons that I ceased reading introductions for their intended purpose. I frequently don’t read them at all (not to mention the footnotes/end-notes!). Instead, I start with the title page and move to the first page, put my two eyes on the beginning word, and read the text for myself. I encounter everything first through my eyes. Plots aren’t given away. I often don’t know what sort of book I’m reading. I meet the characters as the author introduces me to them. I do not compare the introduction’s version of the style with my interpretation. The poem’s themes and images are fresh. It’s me and the words on the page.

Once I’ve read the poems, story, or novel, I turn back to the front and read the intro if I want to. There is a lot of good stuff in introductions when you read them because you want to and can compare your impressions with the editor’s. Frequently, I disagree with scholars on aspects of a work. Because I’ve read the text, I can say, “No, that’s not really true,” or “I found it more like such-and-such author,” or “That is definitely a valuable thought.”

Reading introductions last is the right way to read any work of literature because, if you think about it, most books didn’t come with introductions at their inception. The original readers opened the cover, flipped a couple pages, and began with the beginning. The scholars who write introductions (I hope to join their ranks some day) can only write all that stuff that precedes the book because they’ve already read the book! You should do the same: start with the text, finish it (if you want), and then read the introduction (if you want).

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Responses

  1. What about intro’s written by the author herself (what’s the proper usage of squi there)? I’ve seen this sometimes. As for intro’s to non-fiction, I usually find them quite helpful (I often find myself abandoning non-fiction, especially when it comes to books on spirituality, and intro’s can sometimes help me know whether I should hang in there or not when it gets bad). I have to agree with you for fiction. Skip that intro!

  2. I’ve also been disappointed with key plot elements revealed in introductions (this has only happened to me when reading classic fiction–I suppose the plot was supposed to be already familiar?). I agree with Jason that intros written by the author/editor can be quite useful. In general, I’m a big fan of starting with the intro… sometimes, in fiction, the story will even start in the introduction. I never understood why some books will refer to an initial scene as the introduction rather than a prologue; I think this is a mistake! Anyway, if the author or editor feels the book needs introducing to be properly received, I want to comply. (I also enjoy most introductions written by other authors as well).
    And oh, Nathan, how can you skip the endnotes/footnotes? I would say more about this, but Jason stuck his head in the door and is mocking me for writing such a long comment…

  3. I certainly don’t skip all endnotes and footnotes, especially since I don’t speak all languages yet and I don’t know all of Greek mythology. Notations are always either completely helpful or entirely useless. The worst are when an editor tells you what a certain passage means when, indeed, it is up for grabs. I usually check a couple notes as I begin a book; if they’re helpful, I’ll keep coming back. If not, I’ll find my way.

    It’s not that I don’t find introductions useful; I think they’re great post facto. Non-fiction is a different animal than fiction, and I agree that the intros are fine to read before-hand for that genre. If I don’t know whether to buy and/or read a book, I turn to page one and read a little to see how it goes.

    Thanks for the engaging comments. 🙂


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