*Warning: Spoilers possible for the books I discuss*
I’ve come to believe that there are two kinds of readers: those who read the introduction (if there is one) before the book and those who wait until after. I read it before. My logic is that if it were intended to be read after the text, it would be included as an afterward, not an introduction. Also, I find it can be helpful in getting my mind ready for what I’m about to read.
But there’s an inherent danger in reading the introduction first: will the writer give away spoilers? If so, will they be major. Years ago, I read Anya Seton’s novel Avalon. I enjoyed it, which surprised me, because Philippa Gregory’s introduction gave me the impression that it wasn’t a very good book. She warned that Seton stuck too closely to the facts in this historical novel, and didn’t provide a resolution where she should have, because there’s no historical evidence of such a resolution taking place. As a result, I didn’t expect a resolution when reading, and I wasn’t disappointed by its absence. I was able to take the text as it was, and not judge it based on what wasn’t there. Should Seton have taken some artistic licence and resolved the story line even if it wasn’t historically accurate? That’s open for debate. But because I wasn’t expecting it, I wasn’t disappointed in that element. In that sense, even though the introduction included spoilers, it helped me to enjoy my reading experience more.
More recently I read Gwen Bristow’s Celia Garth, which had an introduction by Sara Donati. In her introduction Donati says that the novel, which was published in 1959, and is set during the American Revolution, has a problematic depiction of slavery. All the slave characters in the novel are depicted as happy, well treated, and loyal to their master’s side in the conflict. The title character never questions the morality of the institution, nor does she ever wonder how the slave characters might be feeling. Since I’m sure there were people like the title character, I can’t fault the author’s depiction of her. After reading that introduction, I mentally prepared myself to read a book with some significant flaws and blind spots, with a character who I may not like. Again I’m OK with that. I don’t have to like a character to find him/her interesting. Unfortunately, when reading the book, I felt like Donati downplayed the character’s unlikeability in the introduction, and that the book expected me to like her and depended on that. For me, the problem was that Celia wasn’t just blind to the evils of slavery, she was complicit. I don’t hold Donati responsible for that. Her introduction warned that this aspect of the plot and character was problematic. How problematic it is might vary from one reader to the next. That’s why we read the book and not just the introduction!
I just recently finished Angel by Elizabeth Taylor, with an introduction by Hilary Mantel. In her introduction, Mantel tells us about the character of Angelica “Angel” Deverell, writer of trashy, turn of the century, romance novels. Mantel tells us that the character comes from humble beginnings and fantasizes about Paradise House, where her aunt works as a maid. She also tells us that Angel will later purchase this house once she’s made her fortune, and remodel it. But, Mantel warns us, in doing so, Angel is building her own prison. World events, changing literary tastes, and her own ego mean that Angel’s books don’t sell as well as they once did. Angel and her few companions eventually become recluses, financially trapped in a rotting Paradise House. In this case I felt like Mantel gave away too much in her introduction. She should certainly introduce the character and explain that the book is a rags to riches character study. She might also hint at the fact that Angel will ultimately be the architect of her own destruction. But to tell use how it happens, and how it ties into Angel’s childhood fantasies robs the reader of a sense of pleasure (albeit a somewhat sadistic pleasure) in discovery.
So where do you stand on introductions? Do you read them first? Do you think that an introduction has the responsibility of warning the reader of potentially troubling plot points? If so, are spoilers a concern?