One of the best things about graduating with my BA in English was that I no longer had to read the introductions in books. In high school I hadn’t done so, and it took me an embarrassingly long time to figure out that the context other students were getting that I had missed out on was from reading the introduction and not some inherent knowledge they had about the period during which the book was published. With syllabi aplenty in college, our reading calendars were filled out specifically to include the Roman numeral–bearing sections of the texts we read. I started slogging through the introductions before reading whatever book we studied: Middlemarch, Villette, Frankenstein, and others (and, frankly, any other number of books by white women). So goes academia.
The drawback of reading introductions—besides frequently being bored by them—was that the plots were often spoiled. Naturally, much of the literary analysis or criticism that happens in an introduction relies on the central events of the novel. So it was revealed to me that so-and-so was actually so-and-so all along, that what’s-her-face dies in a later chapter, and the love interest for the heroine was actually this other guy all along. Oh.
I realize we don’t read fiction in academic settings for entertainment, and so the spoilers shouldn’t matter. Still, I protest—I went into studying English because I am entertained by and enjoy reading because of their surprises. Reading, for me, is sort of like a game some of the time—does the author have the skill to throw me off their trail and surprise me?
And yes, much what I read had been around for a hundred-odd years. Surely I couldn’t expect not to be spoiled. Yet I did. And I do. I’d gone a couple of decades without knowing the particulars of Northanger Abbey and The Merchant of Venice—why should I let a handful of pages of preamble ruin such a beautiful streak? (In pursuit of knowledge, of course.) There are enough “classic” works out there that I could reasonably read a number of them without even knowing what they are about, let alone detailed spoilers.
When I graduated but continued reading, I went back to ignoring the introductions and any other forewords. I find now that I’m still suffering from a lack of background on a lot of the older material I read. That’s a natural consequence, but there’s nothing saying I can’t go back and read the introduction after I finish the novel. I often don’t, but that’s not the point. Some books include afterwords as well as introductions or forewords. This is especially great because it seems obvious to me that an explanation or analysis of the book—which introductions, in my experience, often end up being—should come after the main text. Spoilers aside, it’s difficult to get much out of an analysis if you don’t have the context.
Sure, it’s also challenging to get some things out of a book without historical and other context. But these are things that can usually make sense after the fact. After you understand the context, it’s easy enough to go back to the text in your head and reframe it as an allegory for whatever major war was happening at the time.
I don’t worry too much about misunderstanding particular uses of words of the time or references to items or people that I never knew existed. Sometimes, footnotes explain these bits. Other times, you might go for an annotated edition (especially useful for things like Shakespeare, where the language is unusual, to an extent, even for its own time in the pursuit of things like meter and rhyme). And if I run into things that don’t make sense, this marvelous thing called “the internet” helps me out.
Despite otherwise being a completionist, I give myself leeway with introductions. They aren’t, typically, a part of the original text. Sometimes, the content is debatable. And too often, I run into spoilers. Those alone are reason enough for me to skip them. If I’m intrigued enough to revisit the introduction after finishing the book, all the better.
Do you read the introduction?