Are Introductions Necessary?

Brad Leithauser’s introduction to Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter is a classic.

Do you read introductions to books?  Some are absorbing, some very dull.  Yes, I read them after I finish the book, unless I want specific information about the author’s life or to read a bit about a historic period.

The blogger Karen of Booker Talk recently wrote a fascinating article on introductions, inspired by Elisa Gabbert’s essay in the Paris Review, “On the Pleasures of Front Matter.”  Elisa Gabbert has an interesting take on introductions: she sometimes prefers them to the books.  She writes, “…I’m a promiscuous and impatient reader, so one of my literary guilty pleasures is reading the introductions to great books and not the books themselves.”

lt seems  odd, doesn’t it?  I’m more of a book person than an introduction person.  Gabbert admits she has not finished the Tao Te Ching or An Introduction to Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, but she has read the introductions multiple times.

I understand what she means about introductions to nonfiction, especially biographies.   Quite often an author of a biography will summarize the book in the introduction. And if the lazy reader also peruses the final chapter, another summing up,  he /she can  pretend to have read the book.  I don’t recommend it.

For years I skipped introductions. You don’t always need them, though scholars need the work, and may they always have it. These days I find them very useful for reading poetry, though I do prefer books about the poets: Gilbert Highet’s 1957 classic, Poets in a Landscape, captures the atmosphere and influence of place on the Roman poets better than any fusty introduction.

Politics by osmosis.

As for novels, you don’t always need introductions.   I happily galloped through Susanna Rowson, Henry Fielding, Jane Austen, the Brontes, Hawthorne, Melville, Trollope, Dickens, George Meredith, Elizabeth Gaskell,  Thomas Hardy, E. M. Forster, Virginia Woolf, F. Scott Fitzgerald, etc., etc. without so much as a glance at the introductions.  By osmosis I knew about the Brontes’ seemingly narrow life at Haworth, which they illuminated and showed the importance of by their insightful writing.  I knew that  E. M. Forster was gay, and that Virginia Woolf committed suicide.   As for politics in Trollope’s Palliser series, and the factory conditions described in Bronte’s Shirley and Gaskell’s North and South and Mary Barton, I picked up enough to follow the novel.  It’s like learning a language:  the more you read, the more you pick up.

In recent years, I have read many introductions to Penguins and Oxfords, partly because I  have more leisure.  What do I like in an introduction?  I prefer liveliness, but scholars do not always have that quality.   The novelist Brad Leithauser’s introduction to the Deluxe Penguin edition of Nobel Prize winner Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter is one of the best.  He interweaves personal anecdotes with the traditional historical background and literary criticism.

In the first two paragraphs he writes,

My first foray into the world of Kristin Lavransdatter, the Nobel Laureate’s celebrated trilogy of novels set in fourteenth-century Norway, turned out to be a reading experience like no other. I’m thinking here less of the books themselves (though these were an unexpected delight, a convincing twentieth-century of medieval Norway) than of the personal encounters the books fostered.

The trilogy runs over one thousand pages in the old three-in-one Knopf hardcover I’d picked up secondhand, and I chose to read it slowly, for weeks on end, lugging the hefty, handsome volume everywhere I went.  One of its themes is the stubborn power of magic–the bewitching allure of pagan practices in a society that had officially but not wholeheartedly embraced Christianity–and the trilogy did seem to work magical effects:  it drew elderly women to me.

This is the kind of charming introduction you can read over and over.

One day I found an unusually well-written and engrossing introduction, and when I skipped back to the title page, thought, No wonder.  It was Margaret Drabble.

Do you skip introductions or read them?  And What is your favorite kind of introduction?

12 thoughts on “Are Introductions Necessary?

  1. I like the point you make about the need for lively introductions. One of the reasons that I don’t read them before I read the book is that so many are so deadly dull that they might well put me off reading the book itself. This may also explain why in general I prefer the practice that seems to have been growing recently of having novelists right introductions rather than academics. They do seem to have a better understanding of what will capture the reader’s interest.

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    • Yes, I appreciate what scholars have to say, but I guess it’s not surprising that I liked Leithauser Drabble so much. Most people I know read the intros after the books!

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  2. “Gabbert admits she has not finished …An Introduction to Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, but she has read the introductions multiple times.”
    So, she reads the introduction to an introduction.

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  3. I do usually read introductions but, unlike you, I read them first. I like to know what I’m getting into, but this probably influences — consciously or unconsciously — how I read the text. So not such a good idea?

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  4. I almost never read introductions before I read the books. The author didn’t think his / her work needed explanation or extraneous details of their lives, so why should I read what someone else thinks I should know? I occasionally read introductions after I’ve read the books. Sometimes I just don’t want to know more about the author. I’m sure I miss things in books that are pointed out in introductions, but that’s okay with me. I think I’m reading what the author intended me to read.

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    • I agree. We don’t have to know everything about the author, or his period, etc. Sometimes I’m interested, sometimes not.

      On Thu, Oct 19, 2017 at 7:31 AM, mirabile dictu wrote:

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  5. I read the introductions, but pretty much always at the end except if it’s a book I’ve read before and know well. I like the scholarly ones very much, but I also like the kind where the writer just enthuses and tells you why the book is so good! 🙂

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  6. The “weasel” reply: it depends who’s the writer, what the nature of the book, and like “Silver Season,” often read them first. I may not read past the first third — not because what’s called “spoilers” bother me, but once the writer goes into close reading I have to have read the book first. Someone I know is a insightful good writer who writes an introduction is like reading an essay in NYRB or LRB specifically directed; if I am not sure I want to read the book (buy it, rent it, take it from library) or it looks like I need some introduction, I read it first. Or if I’ve read the book and it’s famous. I also read the apparatus at the back sometimes too first.

    I usually avoid the “acknowledgements” page nowadays: it’s a show-off piece, look who I know, bowing to “all my connections” — sometimes embarrassingly sycophantic. But if it’s an academic book, it might tell something of the author that would tell me not to take what is written in the book as all that genuine all that time …. or not buy or rent or take it from a library.

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    • Perhaps something got edited out of the Paris Review essay that would have made it seem less silly, but I felt as if I’d caught somebody reading Cliff’s Notes instead of books. Yes, I completely agree that I read the criticism included in the intro AFTER the book.

      Acknowledgments have changed: writers do name everyone they’ve ever known and so they no longer mean anything. When did this happen?

      On Thu, Oct 19, 2017 at 3:39 PM, mirabile dictu wrote:

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