A Case for a “Previously” Section in Book Series

As someone who reads and writes about books, I am frequently embarrassed by my terrible memory: “Oh I read that book last year, and I loved it.” “Cool, what’s it about?” “Ah, well … *blinks rapidly* It has nothing to do with the authors’ ability to create dazzling stories; I simply am not great about remembering plots. I often remember how I felt about the characters, how they feel about each other, and what the authors are accomplishing with their stories thematically, but I just don’t always remember what happened. When it comes to plots I can remember who lives, who dies, and who makes out, but beyond that I often come up blank.

This quirk goes from embarrassing to frustrating when it comes to serial books. Suddenly I am faced with references to events that I read about actual years ago and I become completely lost. I doubt I am alone in my poor memory, and even if yours is halfway decent, remembering the plots of multiple books in a series can still be a challenge. My humble request, then, is this: all novels in a series should come with a television-style “Previously, in [series]” summary.

If you watch literally any television at all, you are familiar with the “Previously” feature: a lead character in voiceover saying “Previously, on [name of show] …” followed by a montage of clips from preceding episodes. It exists to remind the viewer of significant plot events that have occurred in episodes past and that will presumably be relevant to the events to come. For the poor-memoried among us, it is a gift.

So why don’t we start doing this for books (and don’t say “Cliff’s Notes”; we both know only “classics” get those)? This summary wouldn’t even have to be intrusive and precede the book proper. It could be tucked away in the back with sample book club questions and/or Q&As, appendices, previews of future works by the same author, previews of existing works by different authors, etc. Heck, at this point I would accept a page at the back of the book printed with a URL that I then have to type into a phone or keyboard with my own fingers that leads to an online summary. Anything.

[Side bar: the lack of this kind of feature feels especially egregious to me in light of the fact that every third book I read includes a freaking map. I can imagine mountains! And if an author tell me one place is west of somewhere else, I will believe them! I promise I have never once read a book without a map and disbelieved a narrator or character when they referred to their world’s fictional topography! I would much prefer to imagine where the The North Woods is in relation to The Capital, but be reminded of what exactly was revealed in the interrogation room in the last book]

I know many authors try to include subtle reminders about events that transpired in previous books into the narration and dialogue of the current one. In my experience as a reader, this can be hit and miss: too much exposition and these lines feels clunky and jarring, but too subtle an allusion and the point of including them in the first place is lost. I don’t know for sure, but I imagine that for authors writing these reminders feel bit like walking an onerous, perfunctory tightrope (my band name, called it). A “Previously” section would do away with the need for this. Or at least, it would separate the staid, perfunctory summary out from the beautiful word-web the author is weaving with their story.

I anticipate that the counter-argument to this is that readers who have poor memories or who want to arrive at the latest instalment of a series perfectly refreshed should just reread all the preceding novels beforehand. And I swear, if I had the time to do so, I would. But when many instalments weigh in at over 300 pages and series run three, five, even seven books long, that is a tremendous time commitment to ask of your readers. Essentially, it’s asking readers to love one particular series as much as (three, five, seven) other authors’ books combined. And some might feel that way! But only about a select few authors and a select few series. For people who have limited time and want to read widely, a full-series reread isn’t always possible.

Right now my method for dealing with my bad memory is to dive right in and try to accept that I’m not going to be able to follow everything perfectly, or link certain plot points and nuances to events of the previous novel(s). I’ll try a quick Google search and maybe pop into a Goodreads thread or two and hope for answers. It doesn’t work particularly well. I try not to get frustrated. That doesn’t work particularly well, either. Right now I will only start new series if I have testimony from multiple trusted sources that they are exceptional. But if I knew there was a reliable, industry-wide practice that would to way to jog my memory and keep me from getting lost in a series? I’d read a lot more of them.

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