The main body of text in many books is often preceded by an introduction. For most of my life, I have pretty much ignored introductions, for a number of reasons:

  • The types of books that have introductions are generally somewhat old literature. As such, the tone of these introductions is somewhat stuffy, academic, and, quite frankly, boring.
  • I tend to read mostly fiction, and the introduction is often written as if the reader has already read the main text. This sometimes has the effect of ruining some of the story and making me wonder why it’s at the beginning of the book (on the other hand, it can also be useful to start reading a book while having a basic understanding of the story or, in more pretentious terms, it aids in the Hermeneutic Circle).
  • The grand majority of these types of books were read in school, which tells you how much motivation I had to read the introduction. They weren’t required reading and I generally got the necessary context and analysis in class from my professor.

The most important of these, I think, is the latter. In school, I learned the benefits of placing a historical work in its cultural and historical context, most notably with respect to the Bible (a book that reads much differently when you know it’s cultural and histoical context), but this was almost always done as an exercise in class and not by reading some dull introduction.

Since I graduated, I have read some introductions, but usually after I have read the novel. I sometimes found this rewarding, as with Thomas Pynchon’s introduction to 1984 and China Mi�ville’s introduction to H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness, but I don’t know that I would have appreciated them much had I read them before the main text. This always confused me about introductions.

In any case, about a month ago, I picked up The Narrative of Cabeza de Vaca, which recounts a 1527 expedition to America. As you might expect from what amounts to a translated 16th century history book, it was somewhat slow going. Of course, I had skipped the introduction entirely, for reasons I’ve already belabored. I immediately lost interest and moved on to something else (plus, I had to travel, and such material doesn’t make good airplane reading even if I did find it interesting). So a few days ago, I picked it up again and started reading the introduction (which I just finished now). It has that stuffy academic feel to it, but once I got into it, it started to shed some real light on the text.

There were a lot of things that initially mystified me about the main text, but which now made sense because of certain contextual clues in the Introduction. For instance, there are two versions of the book, one written explicitely for the Holy Roman Emporer Charles V in 1542, the other an edited version split into chapters with titles and a new preface targeting a broader readership in 1555 (the text had not changed much, but the preface did). This explains some of the “formality and decorum” of the account, and it’s noteworthy that Cabeza de Vaca used his book as a sort of resume; he was trying to garner support for another expedition to the Indies (which would place his story under a bit of suspicion, though it apparently has been corroborated by multiple accounts.)

All of which is to say that the Intoduction for this book, unlike most books I’ve read, was actually useful before reading the book. It’s still got that stuffy academic tone, and it is perhaps a bit too long (38 pages as compared to the ~140 pages of the main story), but it still did a decent job. I wonder if my observations make any sense, in that they are borne almost entirely out of ignorance, but in any case, all that remains for me is to actually read Cabeza de Vaca’s account (this time secure in the knowledge that I actually understand what’s going on from a cultural and historical context). I can already see that it will be less mystifying and more interesting this time around.

2 thoughts on “Introductions”

  1. I’ve found the introductions for most non-fiction books to be quite useful. They often lay out the main themes of the book quickly and engagingly — I’m often tempted to just read the intro and skip the rest.

  2. I’m with Kevin – the introduction in non-fiction books can really be quite useful. It mirrors your experience with this book, by laying out the cultural and historical context, and making note of the difficulties that may be encountered in reading the text.

    I’ve been reading the Qu’ran, and found that the introduction/foreword written by the translator was very useful for me. He laid out the shortcomings of translating from Arabic to English, described the methods he was going to used, and even discussed the pro’s and con’s of using his method. That background knowledge has been useful as I’ve been reading, because it means I know which parts are dodgy just because of the translation, and which parts may actually be genuinely dodgy. Heh.

    I can think of a time when I enjoyed reading the introduction to a fiction book, too, though. It was one of the books in Asimov’s Foundation series. It didn’t give away too much about the plot of the book, but helped to give insight into the man who wrote it. And honestly, it made the fiction all the more impressive. 🙂

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