On Introductions

Book introductionsWhile catching up on back issues of The Paris Review recently, I came across an article which at first glance I thought was advocating a rather strange way of reading books.

Elisa Gabbert, a poet and writer, said that “reading the introductions to great books …” was one of the great pleasures in her life. Nothing remarkable about that; plenty of readers can agree with that sentiment. It was the next phrase in her sentence that got my attention for she went on to say “.. and not the books themselves.”  That seemed a bizarre idea. An introduction is surely not meant to stand alone but to provide a form of gateway to the text itself. So why would you stop at the gate and not want to enter?

For Gabbert however, the fascination with introductions is the way they often contain grand claims of a philosophical nature; theories or big ideas the meaning of which  might, or might not, be clear but which she enjoys just because they exist. It’s a love affair that extends beyond the introduction into all kinds of material found at the front of books; from translator’s notes (she’s thrilled by the linguistic trivia and gossip they contain) and epigraphs. It’s a pleasure that apparently began with a Chinese classic text called Tao Te Ching which she has yet to complete yet she’s read the introduction to a 1989 edition several times and heavily underlined key passages.

I confess that I’ve read only the introduction to many books but they’ve always been  business-related titles. Usually it was on occasions when the book was required reading prior to yet another strategic review (Who Moved my Cheese, The Innovators’ Dilemma spring to mind here). Getting on a transatlantic flight once I was bemused to look across the rows of seats to find a number of my colleagues all desperately trying to read enough of Jim Collins’ Good to Great to be able to look intelligent when the subject came up at the forthcoming leadership pow wow. Every one of us admitted later that we’d got no further than chapter 2 and skimmed the rest…..

But if there was a non fiction book I was really keen to read, I can’t imagine reading only  the introduction. Wouldn’t that feel like going out for dinner but stopping at the appetiser? Even if the introduction didn’t give me the feeling this is a book I would understand, appreciate or even enjoy, I’d still want to read a little of it before making up my mind.

I was relieved however that Gabbert takes a different approach when it comes to fiction. For her, introductions to classic novels are so “notoriously full of spoilers” that she tends to avoid them though admits that sometimes the preface content does provide some gems of information (one novel she mentions began with a story involving Dostoevsky and a last minute reprieve as he stood before a firing squad.)

My own approach is rather haphazard. Before plunging into the meat of any new ‘classic’ I’ll scan some of the front matter. If I know nothing about the author I’ll read the biographical information and any notes which give me an idea of the period and the context in which the novel was written or explain the author’s influence on later writers. If the author has written a foreword I’ll read that also because it gives me an insight into what they were trying to achieve with their book. Some nuggets of gold lie within these sections — my edition of North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell for example explained how the novel’s title was changed under pressure from Charles Dickens, a change that significantly shifted the emphasis of the book away from a story of individual growth and towards social criticism. In my edition of Trollope’s Dr Thorne I found an apology from the author to his readers for the fact the novel begins with “two long dull chapters full of description”.   

The one type of front material I try hard to avoid at this stage is anything which suggests it will delve into the themes of the book or characterisation. because I don’t want to be influenced in how to read the text — I much prefer to make up my own mind.

But when I’ve got to the end of the text, then I’ll go back to the beginning and read the foreword and introductions. Over the years I’ve found Oxford World Classics and Penguin Classics editions the best at providing thoughtful analysis of the novel, particularly when they’re written by a leading academic. Often the emphasis will reflect the academic’s own field of interest. Reading an old copy of Jane Eyre I found an article by David Lodge about the significance of fire and ice in the novel (it was a shortened version of what is considered a landmark interpretation).  In a later copy I found the introduction was more focused on the novel’s underlying theme of colonialism. Neither of these would have made much sense if I’d read them before reading the novel itself, but reading them afterwards enhanced the whole experience.

It seems my interest in this front material isn’t shared universally. I discovered during a tutorial for an Open University course I was pursuing a few years ago, that no-one else had even looked at the content that came before chapter 1. For them it was just a distraction, or of questionable value. I tried hard to persuade them otherwise though not sure if I ever succeeded.

You can find Elisa Gabbert’s article in the Paris Review blog here.




About BookerTalk

What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

Posted on October 16, 2017, in Bookends and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 41 Comments.

  1. Interesting stuff. I’ve learned over the years not to read the introductions first, although if it’s a re-read I might (I just started buying the newer edition of all of Iris Murdoch’s novels because they all have new introductions, and I know these books so well that reading them first won’t ruin anything for me). I will also read the notes on a new edition to see which manuscript or version they’ve used and what has changed, again, for a book I’ve read before. Otherwise, front matter at the end!!

    • Your reading of the notes to see which MS or version is used, is a good expansion to my interest reading about the context of how a book was written. I never really thought about which version but if you’re reading Frankenstein it makes a huge difference to the story that follows

  2. I always save the Intros until the end. And I usually read them, but sometimes I find them over-the-top and will just skim them. Interesting post!

  3. I most always read the book first, then the introduction and/or reissue introduction, and author’s notes. After my own reading, that is when all the rest makes sense. And, while we are at it, I cannot stand reviews that rehash the plot or include spoilers. Perhaps some reviewers have the two forms confused!

  4. I’ve experienced spoilers so many times in the intro. Or, worse, when the intro basically gives all the best moments in the book. Then, I read the book and think, “Gee, I could have just read the intro and saved time.” The book I’m currently reading has an intro that argues the author’s personality comes through in certain themes and passages, and now I’m just looking for places I see him coming through, and I shouldn’t be doing that. It’s more literary theory than simply reading.

  5. I suppose I mix an match a bit. If I don’t feel that I need to read an intro before then I’ll leave it until the end. I dislike the intros by academics that analyse the book that we haven’t yet read especially when they don’t cover info that would be of actual use to the reader. Why don’t publishers have an intro with info for the first time reader and/or an analysis at the end if they feel that will add to the experience.

  6. I’m very wary with introductions, and despite the extra info and help this can add to a reading of a book I tend to go back to them afterwards – the risk of spoilers is just too great!!

  7. There is a certain cast of mind that is interested in such things for their own merit. I have a colleague who is researching the Elizabethan theatre equivalent in respect of stage directions and the on stage/in house behaviour before and after performances. She is fascinating on the subject.

    • I was at a family history fair the other weekend and came away astonished by the topics which people have found so fascinating they have devoted hours of personal (unpaid) time to sharing their knowledge with others. Some were expert in the badges of various regiments, others on electoral registration or the Irish immigrants to Wales.

  8. I always read introductions to novels after I’ve read the actual book too. I find introductions tend not to make much sense if I read them first, and as you mention, they can be spoiler-y!

  9. Like you and others have said, I leave the introduction to last so I don’t encounter any spoilers.

  10. I also tend to read the introduction after I’ve read the book. As Gabbert says, often too much is given away. I also have a thing about acknowledgements which I often find shed light on the book. I ran a post on it a few years ago and was delighted to find that there are quite a few anoraks out there like me.

  11. Before starting a book I will read everything; the introduction, the front and back cover, anything on the author, the publisher and date of publication. I find this gives me an “insider” feel for what I am to hopefully enjoy.
    With the with cinema or theatre, I will read the appraisals before deciding whether or not to attend a performance. Books I will read before, make my own opinion and then check the reviews to see if reviewers and I are on the same wave length.

  12. I love introductions, and often do find excellent information in them. But when I read out-of-print books by Mrs. Oliphant I do fine without an intro. They’re a curiosity–and I do wonder when books began to be published with intros! (So maybe I should read The Paris Review article.)

  13. I also usually read the intros at the end and always wonder why they’re not put there. I’ve particularly enjoyed the Oxford World Classics intros of classic sci-fi recently – they’ve really given me a context for the scientific culture of the time that I wouldn’t have picked up on otherwise. Intros are the major reason that make me sincerely hope things like Project Gutenberg won’t deter publishers from continuing to produce quality copies of classics.

    • That contextual information is so invaluable – it helped me understand Trollope’s Barchester novels far better. I love Project Gutenburg but I do miss the extra material you get in the printed version.

  14. I always read the front matter at the end. But I do usually read it all because you never know what you might find. As you’ve discovered, reading different intros in different editions of the same book can be fascinating. It’s one reason for buying multiple editions of the classics. I love reading acknowledgements and author notes at the end too, because again you never know what might be there.

    Have you noticed, or perhaps you don’t read them, that when you by a Kindle book it will open at the first chapter. If there’s any intro, epigraph etc, you wouldn’t know unless you consciously looked for it. As a “reader” I find that odd but I guess it’s recognising that most people just read for the story – which is perfectly fine – so they make it easy.

    BTW I didn’t know that about North and South. Interesting, eh. I can sense – but I’m generalising wildly here I know so no-one yell at me! – a bit of gender stuff. Men – big picture, society, etc; Women – internal issues, feelings, inner development etc.

    • I do look at the back of the book but oddly only with modern novels where indeed you can find some snippets about the research for the book for example.
      As for North and South, this is a Victorian novel so as you predicted we do get the idea of the separate spheres of men and women although Gaskell challenges this by having her protagonist Margaret assuming a traditionally male role (eg she is the one who organises the family’s departure from the south and move to the north).

      • Oh yes, I agree Karen, Karen, but that’s not what I meant. I was clearly ambiguous. I meant Dickens encouraging Gaskell to change direction a bit into more social criticism from her original inner development interest.

        • Ah I see. Apparently Dickens thought “North South” more broadranging than Gaskell’s preferred title of Margaret Hale (the name of the protagonist)

        • Ah, that’s interesting. She did name a few books after protagonists didn’t she, like Mary Barton and Ruth, and one after a town, Cranford. North and south is a good title and does certainly encourage the idea that the book is about the dichotomy/difference between the two.

  15. I never read intros to fiction until AFTER I’ve finished the book – happy to reflect on themes once I’m finished but don’t want to read and be ‘looking’ for whatever the person writing the intro finds significant or interesting.

  16. I agree with you about the introductions to the OUP Classics, all the ones in the Zola editions have been excellent IMO.
    One shouldn’t generalise, but my experience at universities is that most students try to get by with reading the bare minimum, whatever the topic… I’ve been in tutorials where only the tutor and I have read the book, never mind the intro.

  17. I will always look at the introductions and forwards. Though I will stop reading if I think spoilers will take over and then come back to it if I enjoy the book enough to finish, Interesting post with plenty to think about.

  18. Thanks for the mention on your site 🙂

  1. Pingback: Are Introductions Necessary? – mirabile dictu

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