Updated on February 22, 2018
Do you read introductions?
Introductions: you can find them at the beginning of so many books, from novels to poetry to short story collections – but do you read them?
In fiction, an introduction is usually written by someone who is not the author and it provides some context and analysis for the work you’re about to read. An introduction might include a brief history of the author’s life and work, an examination of the plot and themes in the text, or even stories about how the work has impacted the person writing the introduction. Other times (and these are my favourites) the introduction is written by the author and describes the inspiration behind the work; or the author might look back at their work over a gap of years and ponder how differently it might have turned out if they’d written it today. (Aldous Huxley’s introduction in the 1974 Penguin Modern Classics edition of Brave New World is a great example of this because he talks about how he would give his book a different ending.)
That’s all fantastic stuff, but I’ve come across several problems with introductions that probably mean a lot of people don’t read them (myself included – I’ve skipped over many an introduction in my time). I’m curious to know whether you’ve ever encountered any of these problems, and how they have affected whether or not you read introductions.
First up, when I start a new book I usually just want to get stuck into the story, and being confronted with an introduction – especially if it’s particularly long or dry – can be off-putting. Usually I’ll just skip ahead to the start of the story, but (and perhaps this is just my own neuroticism) I feel a little bit guilty for doing this. That’s a lot of information to just gloss over, and what if it provides some vital context that will help me enjoy the book so much more? Even if it doesn’t, I paid for this book so isn’t it a waste of money to miss out a whole section of it? Sometimes when I feel like this I promise myself that I will go back and read the introduction at the end, but I know that won’t happen because by then I’ll be too excited to get onto the next book! Obviously these thoughts are thoroughly unhelpful – reading should be joyful, and the quickest way to kill joy is to slap an ‘ought’ on it – but I imagine that plenty of people who read a lot (and maybe especially those with an academic background in literature) feel certain nonsensical ‘obligations’ when it comes to reading. Mine, it seems, involve introductions: I feel like I’m back at university, not doing the required reading.
My second biggest problem with introductions is that they so often contain spoilers. What’s more, there’s no warning that they contain spoilers. It’s happened too many times that I’ve dutifully started reading an introduction and then come across a sentence that says something like, “Of course, when our protagonist dies in the final third of the book…” I think it’s pretty bad form to write a spoilerific introduction without putting a spoiler warning on it, but in my entire reading life I’ve only seen one spoiler warning on an introduction, in my Everyman’s Library edition of His Dark Materials. Why on earth spoiler warnings aren’t standard practice, I have no idea. One way I’ve gotten around the problem is to skip over paragraphs that even begin to touch on plot, but this is still a dangerous game to play if you’ve never read the book before.
Thirdly, I think introductions run the risk of ‘spoiling’ the text in other ways. It’s sort of like reading a review of a film before you go to see it – the critic’s opinion will likely influence what you think of the film, so maybe you’ll enjoy it less than you would have if you’d gone in without reading the review. Of course, introductions aren’t quite the same because they’re probably not going to criticise what you’re about to read (although they might say things like “Some critics have claimed…” which, even if the introducer then responds to these criticisms, will still put them in your mind). Still, I think introductions can set you up to notice certain things – like you might notice wordplay because the introduction has said the writer uses it a lot, or you might watch out for certain themes mentioned in the introduction – and this could mean that you’re less likely to find your own details and meanings in the text. Sometimes, I think, introductions can even dangerously overhype a book. I recently read Tenth of December by George Saunders (which is what got me thinking about all this in the first place) and the introduction to that praises Saunders in the highest terms. Of course it does – you want your introduction to be written by a superfan – but what if the book doesn’t live up to the hype?
Overall I think introductions are a good thing, but you should only read them if you want to. Some of them are best read before the book and some are best read after (although how we’re meant to tell them apart without spoiler warnings, heaven knows), but I think we must bear in mind that they offer just one person’s viewpoint and interpretation. There’s a danger, I think, in seeing the introduction as the definitive analysis of a book – “Look, they’ve bound this story with this essay, so this is the story and this is how to understand it” – but this is a major oversimplification. We all know there are as many interpretations as there are readers, so it’s important to remember that, while the introduction might add a layer to your experience, it doesn’t define it.
Do you read introductions? If so, have you ever encountered any of these problems? Let me know with a comment down below!