Konrad Kachelofen’s printing of Eclogue of Theodulus, 1492. Public domain.
“I never read introductions,” says Rose, the younger of my two daughters. She thinks it over for a second, frowns; the statement doesn’t quite ring true. She amends it: “Well, I’ve read two,” she says. One turns out to be Jack Kerouac’s introduction to Robert Frank’s The Americans, required reading for a photography class: “But it was fine because I like his style.” The other is Sherman Alexie’s introduction to his own The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (a favorite book, and author, of Rose’s), because “it felt like it would be rude not to.”
I suspect that my daughter’s antipathy toward introductions (we did not discuss postscripts) is fairly common among avid readers. People who never bother to read what is more properly styled as a foreword (in which one writer presents the work of another) or a preface (in which the writer herself, often retrospectively, reflects on her own work) are likely as numerous as people who don’t bother with user manuals before launching the software application or powering up the widget.
You will not find me among either group; in the second instance out of hard experience but in the first out of love, pure love, from the time of my first encounter, circa 1979, with John Cheever’s all-too-brief preface to his Stories, which contains the following passage, in which I now detect a premonitory stirring, two decades ahead of schedule, of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay: “These stories seem at times to be stories of a long-lost world when the city of New York was still filled with a river light, when you heard the Benny Goodman quartets from a radio in the corner stationery store, and when almost everybody wore a hat.”
Certain forewords—Susan Sontag’s to A Barthes Reader, Walter Benjamin’s to Fables of Leskov—and prefaces—Raymond Chandler’s to The Simple Art of Murder, Robert Towne’s to the published script of Chinatown, Elmore Leonard’s to his Complete Western Stories—have become beloved, even crucial texts for me, to be regularly reread, as are Nabokov’s afterword to Lolita and Leigh Brackett’s to her Best of collection.
Some forewords are transitive: acts of seduction that are at the same time documents of earlier seductions. I already had a serious literary crush on Susan Sontag when I saw her name on the cover of A Barthes Reader and plunged into her foreword, at which point I discovered that Sontag, in turn, had a serious literary crush on this droll-looking Frenchman in his ubiquitous cardigan; I emerged from her foreword with a crush of my own on the late M. Barthes. Other forewords are parasitical; like cuckoos’ eggs laid in crows’ nests they hatch and flourish at the expense of their hosts. The fables of Nikolai Leskov are fine, if you like that sort of thing, but I can’t imagine life without “The Storyteller,” Benjamin’s preface to a German translation of that Russian classic. Benjamin’s diamantine, epigrammatic style is on dazzling display throughout the piece but in no other writing of his does it do the work of heartbreak so powerfully as toward the end of the first section of “The Storyteller,” where Benjamin collapses all the industrialized brutality and disruption of World War I into some fifty words: “A generation that had gone to school on a horse-drawn streetcar now stood under the open sky in a countryside in which nothing remained unchanged but the clouds, and beneath these clouds, in a field of force of destructive torrents and explosions, was the tiny, fragile human body.”
But Benjamin’s cuckoo’s egg also had a lasting personal effect on me, far more acute than anything I got from the Fables it nominally served to introduce. I used to worry, sometimes—in particular after I read Frank O’Connor’s seminal meditation on the short story, The Lonely Voice—that unlike James Joyce, Anton Chekhov, A. E. Coppard, and the other writers Frank O’Connor lionized in The Lonely Voice, I was not really from anywhere. My family had been on the move for three generations or more, on both sides, and by the age of twenty-five I had lived in more than a dozen different places. The distinction Benjamin draws, in his foreword to Leskov, between storytellers who stay put and accumulate stockpiles of local lore and those who travel the world collecting the material of the tales they bring home, went a long way in reassuring me that my rootlessness was not only a legitimate condition for writing but, potentially, a theme worth exploring in my work.
As for prefaces (and afterwords), these may be explanatory, apologetic, triumphal, tendentious, rueful, score-settling, spiteful, bibliographic, theoretical (as is the case with Chandler’s), or gently embarrassed (as is the case with Cheever’s) but the best of them—like Cheever’s—are also what I would call restorative. They unstopper the vial that contains, like some volatile oil, the fragrance of the time in which the prefaced work was engendered, conceived, or written, summoning for writer and reader alike a sensuous jolt of things past: Cheever’s Goodman-haunted stationery stores; the motels and dusty mountainsides of Nabokov’s midcentury transcontinental butterfly hunt; Towne’s ache for the smell of orange groves and all the lost Los Angeles that it encodes; and the Malibu, desolate and wild as Barsoom, of Leigh Brackett’s girlhood.
There are many reasons a writer might agree to provide an introduction to her own or another writer’s book: affection, gratitude, regret, revenge, enthusiasm, a desire to evangelize or set the record straight. I’ve done it for some of those reasons, and more. But the primary motivation for writing introductions has been the same as for everything I write: a hope of bringing pleasure to the reader—to some reader, somewhere. In this hope my sole assurance has been the pleasure I’ve taken as a reader, over the years, in the prefaces, forewords, and afterwords—the intros and outros—written by others. I’m aware that this assurance may be far from sufficient for many readers, however, and I would encourage skippers of introductions to put this book down and seek pleasure elsewhere—but what would be the point?
Michael Chabon is the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of fifteen books. This piece is excerpted from his latest collection, Bookends, a special release benefiting the MacDowell Colony. The book comes out on January 22.
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