Book introductions, and why I hate them


Introduction to Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Novels and Stories. Illuminating, erudite,and ruinous.

I now have a rule which is nearly intractable: I am no longer going to read the introduction to a book.  At the very LEAST, I’m waiting until after the book is read by me, before doing so.  And ‘d like to explain why.

When picking up a book–and especially a classic–there is something to be said for the experiential side being unsullied. Pure. As free from MSG, trans-fats and GMO’s as possible.

Why? If I’m getting ready to undergo an experience–which is exactly what reading is for me–would I want to appeal to the retrospective descriptions of someone I don’t know, and had nothing to do with the writing of the book, and listen to them say “hey, I’ve already read this, so here’s what you should think about this before you’ve read it yourself.”

So in reality, introductions by self-serving academics are really spoilers masquerading in the skirts of the analytical.  Here’s an example: and this involves a spoiler.

Imagine back in the day when The Sixth Sense came out in the theaters, that I set up a booth outside with a sign that said “CINEMATIC ANALYSIS: PASS HERE BEFORE SEEING FILM.”  As people came to me, I would wax eloquent in a long, studied dissertation:

“M Night Shyamalan has really outdone himself in both terms metaphorical as well as cinematic.  The protagonist, Dr. Malcolm Crowe, is initially-presented as a man of disillusionment, both as a husband as well as a child psychologist. This becomes somewhat offset by young client that appears to”see dead people.” Shyamalan’s very clever shell game with the perceptions of the audience are unmatched in this regard, as we are taken along for a ride we will never forget.  But let us not get too wrapped up in the eventual and revelatory discovery that both psychologist, client and others are actually dead themselves, and focus on Shyamalan’s sudden and cathartic revelatory technique–one of retrograde visual analysis; we are treated to a sudden and comparative visual account of every moment in the film where we thought Dr. Crowe had interacted with those in his life, only to discover he was part of an unheard world in the afterlife. We were led to believe that his wife’s contemplative moments of silence we her mourning a failing marriage, when in reality, he was watching her mourn his demise.  In reality, this is about relationships and their value, not just the hallmarks of an existential thriller.”

And that would be it.  I just ruined one of the greatest cinematic grassy-knoll shots ever delivered by a director–all in the name of erudition and illumination.

The lone exceptions might be where an author will write one themselves, or update one that they feel antiquated, such as Elie Weisel did in his book Night, which chronicled his time in the Auschwitz death camp.  But even then, I get a little suspicious.  George Lucas has proven to me that even the originator cannot always be trusted to handle their own material deftly–especially if the temptation to “fix was isn’t broken” is a part of their composite. Tousel-headed George has fooled around with his Star Wars series so much, that, quite frankly, I’m not sure I even like him anymore.

I don’t need some screening academic to warn me that the word “nigger” might show up in Huckleberry Finn. I furthermore don’t need to be headed off at the rhetorical turnpike over it.  I can handle it.  It was academics that banned the book in the first place.  It was perfectly smart people that couldn’t understand that Huck Finn is one of the greatest literary indictments against racism–and instead metastasized into a canal of overeducated nitwits that thought you and I might read the book and start lynching our black friends.

Point being is, I’d rather struggle with concepts presented and work them out, not have them handed to me by someone who’s “already been there.”

C.S. Lewis once said that the primary purpose of education was “not to cut down trees, but to irrigate deserts.”  The obsession with “weighing in” on keys texts, in my opinion, accomplishes the prior.


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5 Responses to Book introductions, and why I hate them

  1. Helene says:

    Introductions most of the time should really be afterwords. The introduction in your image for this post is a perfect example. The only exceptions that I have come across are Chesterton and A A Milne, whose introductions are too hilarious to be ignored.

  2. Queen Aej says:

    Wow, well said. Good advice for “one day authors” to take into account…your “introduction example” cracked me up. That would have been horrible lol!

    By the way, are you on I just joined; would love to see your lists of books – read, about to be read etc.

  3. Levi says:

    Yep, these should almost always be turned into Afterwords. Maybe it’s just a publishing thing–an intro can get your name on the cover, so you also get to have it be at the front of the book.

    Interesting that you bring up Huck Finn. The most recent version I read had some of the classic analyses at the back (T.S. Eliot) with a modern introduction by George Saunders. I waited to re-read the book before checking these out, then went back to the intro finally. And it was excellent. But still, it should have been at the end.

    Check out my Huck Finn review if you’re interested:

    Take care!


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