Do You Read Introductions?

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Beginning of the Introduction (p. 7) to the Norman Denny translation (published by Penguin) of Victor Hugo’s  Les Miserables.

Do you read the introductions and prefaces to books? And when do you read them if you do? I’m in a book group where this came up. We are reading Boccaccio’s Decameron. The edition we are using is a modern translation with a long introduction by the translator. Some of us ignored it. Some of us found profitable background. And some of us felt like it would make more sense after we had read the book, or even while we are reading the book.

I’m in the “read it, and read it first” camp, which may reflect a weird, OCD part of me. I’m always afraid I’ll miss something important that will better help me understand a book if I don’t. But I sympathize with those who read the introductions afterward, because sometimes, when it is someone else commenting on a book, the commentary doesn’t really make sense until I’ve read the book.

This is less of a problem when an author comments on their own work, particularly works of non-fiction. Often, they give helpful statements of why they wrote the book, what they are trying to get across (their argument), and how the book is organized. It fleshes out the table of contents and helps me not get lost in the forest of chapters and miss the big idea. Many writers of non-fiction write the Introduction last, perhaps because you don’t always know where a book is going to go until you’ve written it. Or it is a way of trying to bring a semblance of coherence to what they have written.

That’s one reason, when I go back to a book to review it, why I re-read or at least skim the introduction. I want to ask the question, “did they do what they said they were going to do and how well did they do it?” I also look at whether there were parts of the book that weren’t essential to the point that was being made and how well the book hangs together.

When it comes to fiction, most of the time I’m grateful when there is no introduction and we can just get into the story. Usually, an introduction feels like an admission of a writer’s lack of skill in getting his or her message across in the text itself. Most of the introductions to fiction are in classical works. The ones I appreciate the most give me the important contours of the life and times of the author and the setting of the work. I don’t find it as helpful when the introduction goes into literary criticism of the work. I would rather think for myself about it. Those who write these introductions should leave this kind of material to academic journals.

Good introductions are short. The one to my edition of Les Miserables is only seven pages for a 1232 page work. I can see why people embarking on reading a long work don’t want to wade through fifty pages before they even begin reading the actual work. What I do find helpful are footnotes or annotations that unobtrusively anticipate the details of place or culture about which many of us are unaware. To put most of this in the introduction means it will likely be forgotten when I get to page 800.

Those are my thoughts, for what it’s worth. Do you read introductions?

7 thoughts on “Do You Read Introductions?

  1. I do read introductions, and I do it first. I guess like you, I have a bit of OCD. But sometimes I’ll re-read it later, too. I can’t say I’ve ever read an introduction that didn’t contain at least some interesting or useful information.

  2. For me it depends on the book, sometimes I read it, and sometimes I don’t. Often times I skim it. I’m always anxious to get to the meat of the book.

  3. I mostly read introductions before starting books, but there was one time when I had a bad experience in my attempt to do so. I was about to read Jonathan Edwards’ Freedom of the Will, and I tried to read the introduction, and that was so daunting: it was very abstract. I turned the book back in to the library right away. Years later, I just read the text of Freedom of the Will, not the introduction, and that was a profitable experience: it wasn’t that hard to understand, even though the introduction was difficult. I would still say that the introduction was important, in that it provided background information and information about the significance of Edwards’ thought within philosophy and religion. I probably was not ready at the time to read advanced academic discourses on “determinism,” and Edwards did well just to jump in and discuss the topic, in a down to earth way.

  4. Yes. Also “Prefaces,” “Forewords,” “Dedications,” and “Acknowledgments.” I taught my children to do likewise. The historical information about the writing itself, the personal information about and intent of the author(s), translator(s), and/or editor(s), and the overview of the work that may be revealed in these is not just informative. In some cases it is invaluable, and even the minimal value of growing in appreciation for those involved and their expenditure of labor is time well spent. Some are literally unforgettable, such as those in my personal experience by J. Gresham Machen, A. T. Robertson, and B. B. Warfield. With that said, I agree with you and others about the daunting task of wading through extremely lengthy, and often boring introductions.

  5. Hi Bob – I like to read an introduction that contextualizes and prepares me for what’s to come in the main work. I don’t like an introduction that is nearly as long as the first two chapters and goes into a bunch of the literary criticism!

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