Introductions and prefaces

This is a follow-up to Danielle’s post on Introductions and Prefaces, on whether to read them or not. I began George Sand’s novel Indiana last night and went through an experience similar to Danielle’s; I had to decide whether to read the intro and the several prefaces or just go straight to the story. As I was tired and had a longing to read an absorbing story, I skipped all the opening stuff and began with the novel’s first sentence.

But I often do something a little more complicated, something more like skimming the intro hoping to find some good information on the book’s background and themes without picking up any major plot points that will give the story away. Sometimes I’ll look at an intro when I’ve gotten a little ways into the novel if I’m feeling confused or disoriented by the story; the intro will sometimes help clarify things. As for author prefaces, I usually feel like I should read those — if the author thought something preface-like should be said, then perhaps I should read it. Last night, however, I was too tired for prefaces. I’ll return to those later.

Danielle talks about the fear of not “getting it,” and it’s in this respect that reading or not reading introductions becomes complicated. I’ve felt that fear myself. I’d like to just read the novel and form my own opinion, notice what I notice, draw my own conclusions, and then test them against what the introducer says. When I’m tempted to read an introduction before the text, it’s usually because I’m nervous about not getting it — not a very good reason, is it? But I also don’t want the experience of missing something important in the novel and reading the whole thing without that key piece of information or that key idea or theme. When that happens, I will read the introduction and get frustrated because I wish I’d known that information to help me make sense of the book. While some books are very accessible on their own, others really do benefit from a little background and extra information.

Thinking about all this, I start to think that the best way to read is to read things twice. Now excluding poems and short stories, I realize that’s not feasible. But isn’t it the ideal approach? I could read something once with absolutely no outside help, no introduction and no notes. And after finishing it the first time, I could read the introduction, get some information on the author, maybe read a little criticism, and then read the text again, in the light of everything I just read. And then I could read it having gotten most of the initial comprehension issues out of the way — I’d know the plot and characters and some of the themes — and I could begin to consider more complicated interpretive questions.

But I don’t have the patience to read everything twice and don’t plan on trying. I do think, however, that it’s on a re-reading that I really begin to read.

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