I don’t believe in not believing in guilty pleasures. Guilt is good—it’s part of what keeps me, at least part of the time, from watching YouTube videos when I could be reading. That said, I’m a promiscuous and impatient reader, so one of my literary guilty pleasures is reading the introductions to great books and not the books themselves.
My love affair with front matter began in earnest when I read the 1989 Jacob Needleman introduction to the Tao Te Ching, as translated by Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English. At the time, I was compiling a list of hybrid works (part prose, part poetry), and a friend suggested the Tao Te Ching fit the criteria. I admitted to my friend that I’d never read it. I’ve still never finished it, but the introduction I’ve read several times, and heavily underlined—it seems to me a kind of philosophical inquiry into what a book even is: “As with every text that deserves to be called sacred, it is a half-silvered mirror.” I assume Needleman means that we both see through it and see ourselves reflected in it, but I always think, too, of the famous double-slit experiment that used half-silvered mirrors to demonstrate wave-particle duality; perhaps this association with the quantum weirdness of reality is not accidental. Read More