Pick up any classic book from a reputable publishing house, and you’re (almost) guaranteed to find in the front some combination of a foreword, preface, introduction, note on the text, chronological note, a further reading list… hell, Wuthering Heights even had a genealogical table, to help you keep track of all the characters who married their cousins. Ultimately, it’s all just commentary – sometimes written by the author themselves, sometimes written by editors or academics or experts – included to enhance your understanding of the book. (You’ll notice that usually these sections are numbered with numerals; page “1” of the book is the first page of the story itself. For simplicity, we’re going to call all of the Roman numerals stuff the “introduction” here.)
So, this leads me to the $64,000 question: do you read the introduction before you read the book?
The Case For Reading The Introduction
The main purpose of an introduction is to provide context for the story, but it can achieve that in a bunch of different ways. For instance, the introduction to my edition of The Scarlet Letter provides some background information about Hawthorne’s inspiration for the story, drawn from his very own family (check out my full review for the deets). Other introductions might provide context by giving you an idea of the time period in which the author lived, the education he or she received, the political situation where he or she lived, and so on. It might sound boring as all hell, but don’t underestimate how much better the story can be when you understand where it’s coming from.
An introduction can also point out aspects of the story that you might not otherwise notice. It might be the writer’s style, the way they use language, the unique ways they tweak grammar, what they do with their characters, how the setting they chose relates to the story… Sure, sometimes it can sound like a bunch of pretentious guff, but it can bring to light things you wouldn’t know to look for.
The people who write introductions are experts. They’ve probably studied the author – or sometimes even just that book in particular – for years. This can be both a pro and a con, I suppose. Sometimes it means that they talk a lot of smack that goes right over your head, and you end up either Googling or ignoring half of what they say. Still, even if that is the case, you can bet that they’ll provide some interesting tidbits that will come in handy later on. Some introductions (or parts of them) are written by the author themselves (as was the case with my edition of Brave New World, for instance); it can be really interesting to know how they feel about the work in retrospect, and what they want you to think about it. You don’t get that kind of insight anywhere else.
Ultimately, being handed a guide about what to expect makes me feel smarter as I’m reading, and who doesn’t want to feel smart? I know what to look out for, and which parts have special significance. Plus, if I reach a section that’s really confusing or seems out of place, coming armed with some context clues (courtesy of the introduction) helps me navigate my way out of it.
The Case Against Reading The Introduction
I always thought it was pretty self-explanatory that you should read the introduction first. I mean, it introduces the test, right? If you weren’t supposed to read it first, why would they put it there? It’s only recently I’ve learned that there are stacks of people who ignore this basic logic and just skip right ahead to the story. Why?
The most common reason against reading the introduction first is spoilers. If you’re the kind of person that likes being surprised by the twists and turns in a story, or figuring out for yourself how the story is going to end, the introduction is likely going to ruin all of that for you. Most of the introductions assume that the reader is already familiar with the book, or at the very least doesn’t mind knowing what is going to happen before they read it. Comments sections on bookseller websites are filled with complaints about spoiler-ridden introductions. Some publishing houses are nice enough to include a note before the introduction that says “this introduction discusses plot elements in detail”, or something like that – it’s essentially a fancy spoiler warning.
Even when the introduction falls short of outright spoiling the story, it can definitely colour your impressions as you read it. If, for instance, you learn in the introduction that the author has a reputation for being super wordy and long-winded (*cough*Henry James*cough*), you brain is going to be primed to look out for that as you read the book. If you hadn’t read the introduction, you might not have noticed at all, and maybe you would have enjoyed the book more.
Despite my brilliant logical deduction about the introduction coming first, it is really written as an afterthought, so I suppose that should be taken into account. Introductions are penned by people who have already read the book (many, many times over), and they’re well-familiar with the characters and the plot. If it’s the first (or even the second, or the third) time you’re reading it, you’re not on that level yet and the writer didn’t introduce the text with you in mind. In that sense, reading the introduction after you’ve finished the book seems the most logical thing to do.
So, what’s the answer?
Well-written and easy-to-understand introductions can be really valuable, but it’s basically up to you when you read them. Whether it’s before or after the book in question, you’ll hopefully get something out of it and it will help you enjoy the book all the more. Personally, I’m going to continue reading them before, perhaps you might get more value out of reading them after… Maybe you could get the best of both worlds by reading the first few chapters as a “test run” before deciding whether you want to read the introduction before you carry on. You could try skimming the pages of the introduction, just stopping for anything that catches your eye, before you dive in. There isn’t really a “best” way to do it, only what works best for you. Isn’t that nice? 😉
What about you? Do you read the introduction first? Has anything in this article changed your mind or inspired you to try it differently? Let me know in the comments below (or tell us over at KUWTP on Facebook!).