Sunday, December 7, 2014

Reading Habits: Thoughts On Introductions

Do you read introductions to books, anthologies and/or collections? Editor Steve Berman asks that question in the introduction to his Wilde Stories 2014 anthology. He wonders if readers read introductions at all. This query interested me because somewhere in my vast accumulated list of drafts there is an unfinished post with the title: "Introductions: Hook or Deal Breaker?" Personally, I find that introductions often anchor books, anthologies, and collections.

A good introduction is often the "hook" driving me to read on. If not well written, however, an introduction becomes a detriment. I have encountered quite a few introductions that bored the heck out of me, and others where the editor's theme choice for an anthology or collection turned me off. The result in both cases is unfair to the contributors but always the same: I place the book aside and don't give the stories a chance. Then there are those collections that leave me floundering and wondering what the editor intended when gathering the stories because there is no foreword, introduction, or afterword. In that case curiosity almost always gets the best of me and I read on, but whether I finish the book or not depends on writing, flow, and how well the stories fit together.

Of course I have read introductions that are so memorable they are intrinsically edged in my mind along with the collection's content. Here are some examples:

  • Ann and Jeff VanderMeer's introduction to the mammoth collection The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories with its extensive narrative has an educational style covering the history and evolution of 'the weird' beginning with H.P. Lovecraft, Kafka, Borges and others and ending with today's modern version or 'the new weird.' This introduction is worth reading prior to tackling the fantastic content even if the reader is familiar with the history.
  • A similar educational style can be found in the fabulous anthology edited by Grace L. Dillon, Walking the Clouds: An Anthology of Indigenous Science Fiction in that it also gives the  chronological and evolutionary history of contributions by indigenous writers to science fiction.   However, this introduction is presented in the dry, dense format often found in textbooks. This style is not for everyone, but since I was not well-versed on the subject matter it served as the perfect learning tool. 
  • And, Tom Cardamone's short, well-written introduction to the speculative fiction anthology The Lavender Menace: Tales of Queer Villainy! is a perfect example of an editor who hooks the reader with intent and theme. I not only came to understand what Cardamone wanted to achieve with his collection of stories as a final product, but his introduction kept me focused as I read each story. And isn't that the point?
So yes, I believe introductions are meant to be read, and that a great/fantastic or well-thought out introduction can become key to a successful book, anthology, or single author collection.


Do you read introductions before or after picking up a book? Do you read introductions at all? 

10 comments:

  1. I always do. Even in nonfiction, where the intro can be 50 or 75 pages or more. [laugh/flail] But yeah, I like hearing what the writer/editor was thinking, how they came up with and developed the theme, how the book came together, stuff like that.

    When I was a teenager, I belonged to the Science Fiction Book Club for a while, and I got The Hugo Winners (Vol 1-2, and Vol 3) ed. by Isaac Asimov, and Dangerous Visions and Again Dangerous Visions, ed. Harlan Ellison. The first time through I read all of each book, but there were times when I'd grab one of them and just go through reading all the intros -- the introduction to the book itself, and then the introduction to each story. Asimov and Ellison are both awesome writers, and I loved just listening to them ramble about stuff. I think I read the intros to those books more often than I read the stories in them, like two to three times more, at least.

    Angie

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    1. Yes, exactly! We agree.

      So I'm not the only one who goes back to read introductions? I also return to read introductions on their own. There is this book, Paradiso by Lezama Lima, a Cuban author, and the edition I own has a long introduction detailing a history of his work in progress, as well as how it compares to other writers of the time. I swear I've reread that introduction countless times! As a result, I've researched all the writers mentioned. I read the book itself once, which reminds me I need to reread it on its own.

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  2. I think I usually read them. Sometimes before reading the book, sometimes after. Depends on how I think about the book - do I want a fresh reading before any influence from outside, or do I want some knowledge before reading it. Some books I read have afterwords. I usually read them too.
    I remember there was an insightful (introduction/afterword??) piece of information for Polish edition of Journey to the West. I read it with great pleasure, before the book. But that's probably because I was familiar with the book (and story) earlier.

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    1. I came here from the 2015 Sci-Fi Experience, but I take part in that using my English blog, For Culture's Sake. I didn't notice I was logged with my Polish blog. We don't have many common books (based on GR comparison) but I'll visit again to check out some sf titles. :)

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    2. Kama -- right, Afterwards too. [nod] Judith Tarr's historical fantasies usually have an Afterward or Author's Notes or something at the end, explaining how her setting differed from the realspace historical setting, or what woo-woo theories by some writer who's not terribly respected in the field, but which sounded interesting for fantasy, she used in the story. Those are always fun.

      Angie

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    3. Kama, my reading is eclectic, that includes SFF which I've been reading more of lately. Thanks for coming by.

      Kama and Angie. I also read the Afterwords and/or Author's Notes, if included, for those extra details about the story and/or the author's process.

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  3. Hi Hilcia!

    Honestly, it depends on the stories, if there are any stories I might be dying to read I'll probably read them first and then go back to the introduction.
    But usually I read it, if it's too boring I skip parts.

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    1. Sonia, thanks for sharing how you deal with introductions and choose to read collections/anthologies. I know some readers prefer to read intros after reading the book!

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  4. I love Introductions, and yet I don't always read them before reading the book. I generally try to get a sense of whether or not the writer is going to reveal spoilers. I find this happens more with introductions to classics, where the intro writer is giving some deeper thoughts on the novel itself. That annoys me as I want to experience the story for myself. But if the introduction is talking about the book's context within the author's writing history, or the genre's history, or is just revealing some interesting thoughts, then I'm good with it.

    I think I like Neil Gaiman's self-written intros best, as they give information about why he wrote the story and also generally hides a short story within the introduction.

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    1. Ah, I was waiting for this answer! I agree with this. The "spoiler filled intro" which I neglected to mention in this post because I was focusing in SFF books. But yes, I recently reread "The Great Gatsby" and Faulkner's "The Sound and the Fury" and the intros basically tell readers how to interpret what they're reading. It's annoying.

      I also love self-written intros. Some are just fantastic. I love LeGuinn's intros for the same reason you like Gaiman's, and to a lesser degree Octavia Butler's intro to her short story collection Bloodchild also falls under this same category.

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