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Are Classic Book Introductions Misplaced?

I suppose this is obvious given what I’ve said about my preference for starting classics with ignorance, but I only ever read an Introduction of a book I’ve already read. This of course refers only to introductions written as a literary commentary (rather than your regular author-penned story introduction), those that are largely limited to classics, that discuss the plot.

In the general scheme of things I don’t understand their placement. Unless perhaps you are a teenager about to study a text inappropriate for your age that the curriculum doesn’t acknowledge needs more life experience to appreciate, where is the use of such an introduction?

Introductions spoil plots. They tell you all about the themes, the main events. The contextual information in regards to the comparison between book and author can be interesting, but as you can’t separate it from the spoilers it’s somewhat wasted placed where it is.

This is not to say I think they shouldn’t be written, but I do think that in most cases, introductions would work as afterwords. Of course you can choose not to read an introduction, but its placement suggests you read it first. If introductions were conclusions you’d have your own knowledge of the book to help you appreciate what had been written, there would be nothing to spoil, and you could enjoy it in hindsight. Instead of reading the commentary with limited comprehension, you’d be on a level playing field with its writer, and able to decide whether you liked or agreed with the comments. (For the reality being the reverse of this last point, one could almost say that the introduction is an attempt to teach what is the ‘correct’ reading or take-away from the book.)

What is your view of introductions – are they misplaced?



February 15, 2016, 1:32 pm

I’d prefer them afterwards, I never read them before reading the book and then forget to come back to them.


February 16, 2016, 3:44 pm

I think that most academics, like me, assume that if you’re reading the introduction, you are embarking on serious study of the book, probably on re-reading. I’ve had lots of students who try to make a serious study of a book after only one reading, but it hardly ever works well!


February 16, 2016, 3:59 pm

I agree introductions in classics are misplaced. The few I’ve read usually give away major spoilers so I always skip them now. I sometimes got back and read them after I’ve finished the story. I’m still wary of them even then though because I don’t want them to alter my own initial thoughts and feelings about the story.

Tracy Terry

February 16, 2016, 6:47 pm


It isn’t very often that I read the introduction and only on a handful of occasions have I found myself wishing I had done so.


February 16, 2016, 7:10 pm

Great post!

I had to laugh while reading this, because I have had similar thoughts on them. Sometimes, introductions can go on for tens of pages and are like a book unto itself. I sometimes find myself reading an intro far longer than I realize I want to out of memory of university requirement. Then I tell myself I am long out of school, so move on to the actual book!

I however, find them of use, but like you and others here have said, AFTER I finish the book.

April Munday

February 16, 2016, 9:47 pm

I’ve just read my last unread Charlotte Bronte and I didn’t read the introduction, because I didn’t want the plot spoiled. On the other hand I read Plato’s Symposium last year and did read the introduction, because I knew I needed all the help I could get. I think it depends on what you’re reading and why.

Jenny @ Reading the End

February 17, 2016, 1:12 am

I think an afterword would make more sense! Particularly with books that ONLY exist in editions with introductions (which is a lot of the classics). It doesn’t make sense to assume that everyone has read the classic before they start, because — yeah, people read different books at different times, and not everyone is as chill as me about knowing spoilers in advance of reading the thing.

Laurie C

February 22, 2016, 2:40 pm

I’m the same way! I almost never read an introduction if I haven’t read the book before, because I like to form my own opinions from reading before I read other opinions, if I can. I think they can be helpful for some background on the author and his/her life, so I usually try to go back and read it afterwards.


February 26, 2016, 7:00 pm

Alice: That’s a very good point, forgetting them. All too easy.

Jeanne: Good point, introductions are of particular interest. You can do a bit of a study but yes, at university level one read is difficult!

Jessica: Interesting you say that, it’s very true but something I’d not thought of – I expect down the line if you read them it’s easier but reading other opinions of a book straight after you’ve finished it can really change your thoughts and whilst that’s okay if it’s something you’re happy with those initial thoughts are valid.

Tracy: That’s interesting, and kind of relates to Jessica’s point about not wanting them to alter your own thoughts. One’s own feelings are just as important no matter the differences, or indeed lack of, between them and the writer of the introduction.

Laurie: Yes, they can go on! And then there are others that are so short but you become invested in them, the ideas are great, and you wish there was more! Indeed – you can and should read as you want, ‘training’ be damned.

April: Very good point. There’s surely also a direct correlation between the age of the book and the necessity for help – it just makes sense. Certainly the ‘why’ is important.

Jenny: Yes; I know I was so happy to discover Vintage Classics because at the time I just wanted to read the original text, no academic ideas. Hehe, indeed. We are of different minds on that spoiler front, both are fair choices, and both should be considered.

Laurie C: Yes, it’s always useful when there’s background information. If you leave it until afterwards you can have a first uninformed opinion of the book, take it on the surface, and then a second that works with the context.



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