It has been some time since I stopped reading introductions to works of fiction. My classmates and I were discouraged from doing so in completing our readings for classes using the Socratic method as class discussion depended upon students developing their own ideas of the text.
Introductions are essay-like writings placed at the beginning of a book before the work begins. They usually provide information about the author, his life and works, historical background to the story, or the author’s reasons for writing the story. At best they give context to stories written many years ago, and at worst they are long arduous talks that, if one feels obliged to read them, serve as a deterrent from reading the book itself.
Introductions are not bad in themselves. They can be very helpful. However, I agree with J.R.R. Tolkien that what is wrong with introductions is not their content but their place. “They should come second and not first,” Tolkien writes, “and be called ‘postlections’ or afterreadings.”1 Tolkien says it is not fair to the author or the reader for the writer of the introduction to point out parts of the tale to the reader, telling him “to notice this or that, or to understand that or this before the story had even begun.”2 The author meant his story to be read and taken by itself without any officious commentator in the way.
I should clarify here that prefaces and prologues are different. These are often written by the author himself and usually contain things he wants his reader to know beforehand, such as Oscar Wilde’s preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray, in which he sets forth a series of kerflummoxing statements that give an idea of what his book will prove. In Dracula, by Bram Stoker, a few brief sentences before the first chapter declare the accuracy of the writings contained therein. And the prologue to Agatha Christie’s The Secret Adversary sets the stage and context for the mystery itself (while still concealing a great deal more than it reveals). These are certainly important to read before beginning the book.
Introductions, if they are read at all (and a reader should never feel pressured to do so) should be read after the book. For, as Tolkien writes, “after the reading…there might be questions that you would like to ask…It might be interesting then to hear what some one else has to say, some one who perhaps knew the man, or his books better or for a longer while.”3 If so, then by all means read the introduction. If not, then don’t.
There are times when I do read an introduction before beginning a book. For example, I often read at least part of the introductions to Tolkien’s unfinished works compiled and edited by Christopher Tolkien, as I usually find myself needing a little knowledge of the scope and purpose before I begin. It can be tempting to read introductions before starting a book out of desire to understand everything the author meant in his work beforehand. But I caution against it. The author intended to speak directly to his reader,4 whether 3,000 years lie between him and you, or thirty.
1J.R.R. Tolkien, draft introduction to The Golden Key, by George MacDonald, found in Smith of Wootton Major “Extended Edition,” edited by Verlyn Flieger