Why You Shouldn’t Read the Introduction of a Book
Many of us have grown far too comfortable with our prescribed role as “learner.” In a school setting, our concept of learning becomes dependent on what “teacher” says. Teacher becomes a crunch, a reference point. Teacher is the responsible one. Transitioning to a more self-determining model of learning is tough but necessary as we start reading for reasons beyond the coveted letter A.
As we begin to read for, say, our own enlightenment, think back on these words from Emerson’s “Self-Reliance”:
“There is a time in every man’s education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better, for worse, as his portion; that though the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to him to till. The power which resides in him is new in nature, and none but he knows what that is which he can do, nor does he know until he has tried.”
Your first impressions might be the best impression you have of the thing. Let your divine spark shine! That means, what the author wrote, he wrote for you, and only you, to absorb. He didn’t intent for you to read a commentary on his book and feel ashamed that your thoughts didn’t align with some alleged expert. Emerson continues:
“Else tomorrow a stranger will say with masterly good sense precisely what we have thought and felt all the time, and we shall be forced to take with shame our own opinion from another.”
Contrary to popular opinion, commentaries and summaries aren’t the bare bones, just the fat trimmings. When you pick up a book, what do you immediately start reading? Is it the Forward (why you should read the book), the Preface (how the book came about), the Introduction (skimmed content of the book), or do you skip all the nonsense and start Chapter 1?
As great thinkers ourselves, we want to give ourselves an opportunity to trust our thoughts to stand on our own. What we don’t need, although we might think we do, is a guided tour of the highlights of a book. This includes introductions, commentaries, cliff notes, and other secondary sources. Here at Online Great Books, we believe you should think your OWN thoughts about the Iliad and not go read what Knox (the author of the introduction to the Robert Fagles edition) thinks about it.
Walker Percy touches on this in his profound essay “The Loss of the Creature.” Percy uses the Grand Canyon as an example of a symbolic complex. He starts by discussing the expectations and hopes one might have as they plan a visit to the Grand Canyon. Before even setting foot on the site, a person limits themself to a tour and “approved circumstances” of the thing, becomes seduced by the symbolic complex, losing their sovereignty almost entirely in the process. Our perspective can be skewed by another’s analysis, leading the first-time reader to have expectations that lessen the overall experience. Instead of relying on an expert’s opinion, think of Percy’s advice:
“The highest role of the educator is in the maieutic role of Socrates: to help the student come to himself not as a consumer of experience but as a sovereign individual.”
It’s a great line. The problem isn’t that Knox is wrong; in fact, he provides a really insightful introduction to Homer. Maybe you genuinely enjoy reading writers discussion of other writers. Many introductions, like Knox’s, fulfill this end. Those who are Pro-Intro would argue that an introduction can educate readers on aspects of the story that you might not otherwise notice. It might be the writer’s style, the way they use language, the unique ways they tweak grammar, what they do with their characters, how the setting they chose relates to the story, the list goes on.
Consider reading these commentaries after you finish a book, stack up your interpretation of the material to theirs. See where you align and where you divulge. Writers of introductions are either expert writers or expert historians on the matter. There’s innate beauty to coming at a work with a completely authentic, untainted experience of it (a la Walker Percy).
Secondary sources, to the core, do one thing. They make you feel smarter. But alas, it’s a cheap high, feeling the pages whiz by as you give yourself a high five for picking up on the author’s subtle use of irony. Before buying yourself a black turtleneck and growing a handlebar mustache, consider the untapped spring of knowledge to be found just by stumbling upon the thing for yourself.