07 February 2010

Hate and Loathing of Introductions

I've been doing a great deal of reading lately. All kinds of famous greats, Jack Kerouac, Ezra Pound, J.D. Salinger, Margaret Atwood names that I've been told most people know, and I have encountered, well a bit of a complaint with the modern publishing world.


I hate them. Straight up, I know that's a strong word and probably a bit harsh but I'm certain I can back them up. The most noteworthy introduction was featured in the book "On the Road, The Original Scroll", the unedited, unpublished version of Kerouac's hit novel published by Penguin. The book is roughly four hundred pages long. (I could tell you exactly but the book shelf is all the way over there, a good step and a half away from me...alright fine, I'll check.)

Ahem. The book is exactly four hundred eight pages long with a one hundred one page introduction. That's absurd. One quarter of the book is ANOTHER book describing the book. I could go on about that, but it's not the point.

What really bugs me about the "introductions" so popular among publishing companies these days is that a bunch of scholars texts are scraggled together and stapled to the front of the work and tell you what exactly to think about it. I must admit I have not read the introduction to "On the Road" (partly out of principle, partly out of lack of time) but I know academics well enough to know how they write.

So the problem is that we can no longer pick up books and just read them for our own edification as defined by our own values and experiences. We have to have a publishing company tell us what to think before we even open the story. And I know what you're gonna "well it's not OUR fault the publishers put that crap in there" and yeah, kinda, but we keep buying them and so they keep including them. I don't know what exactly the right thing to do is here. I'm not advocating of a Dead Poet's Society-esque demolition of all introductions (but wouldn't it make a point if we ripped them out and mailed them back to the publisher?) I think what needs to happen is we simply need to skip them altogether, or save them for AFTER we read the original story. Think about it. Kerouac put his book out about getting up, going, sucking up life, burn burn burning not about academia and study, and while his book is important and worth study, that's not the point of the story.

So there's my advocation. Next time you pick up a novel with an introduction, skip it. Read the story and then come back to the introduction if you really want that added spice of knowledge.

The introductions to both On the Road and Atwood's hit, The Handmaid's Tale sort of ruined both stories for me. I stumbled through the first several pages of the book and found out things about the author and the text that I would have preferred to figure out from the novel itself. In my experience, introductions are more hurtful than helpful and should be avoided at all costs.

The does of Irony that goes with all of this is that Kerouac was about living and moving and just going with no holds barred and his book has been caged in by an intro. Atwood's distopian novel, like all distopian novels, advocates for thinking for oneself and the importance of literature and is cheapened by an un-authored preface. Read the stories, not the intros.



  1. "So the problem is that we can no longer pick up books and just read them for our own edification as defined by our own values and experiences. We have to have a publishing company tell us what to think before we even open the story."

    While I agree with what you're saying (and have never felt the desire to read an introduction before a story), I'd say that pre-established mindset is present in almost any book you pick up, whether it arises from the book's cover or the author's reputation. If I'm a fan of one J.D. Salinger book, for example, aren't I automatically inclined to like his other works? Or if I hated one Nicholas Sparks book, isn't it probable that I'll automatically dislike anything else with his name on it?

    Or consider a book's cover, which the publishers also chose and which was designed to give readers a specific mindset from the beginning, regardless of the author's wishes.

    Between introductions, reputations and bindings, I think we as readers are really in trouble as far as open-mindedness goes.

  2. Well there's a common phrase, don't judge a book by it's cover, and I for one can say that the pictures "representing" a novel don't always say much, or anything at all about the story. Take Bukowski's "Ham on Rye" the cover features a boy in gym shorts in a boxing stance, while there are many instances of Henry, the story's protagonist, getting into fights, there is no direct reference to the exact image on the front. I see book covers as very vaguely representational having very little to do with the story itself.

    I agree that one will tend to at least try the same author again when one has read and liked a previous work. However, to use Salinger as an example, there are variations to how much I like different pieces in "Nine Stories." Would I change my mind about say "Daumier-Smith's Blue Period" if I knew what exactly J.D. was trying to say? Perhaps, but that gives it a false relevance as I would have gleaned that meaning from someone else rather than myself. I'm not saying that's wrong, just unfair.