My inadvertent love affair with book introductions
Plus a dozen introduction recommendations
I have a problem.
A serious, humiliating problem, one that reveals me as a man lacking fortitude, strength, energy, and determination. A man both poseur and dunce.
I don’t finish books.
Oh sure, I finish a lot of books, but if I had to guess, the number of books I have read all the way is fewer than the number of books I’ve abandoned partway through.
I see them on my bookshelves, marked with that hideous symbol of failure: the bookmark.
I use so many bookmarks, one of my young children once asked me if I collect them. What’s even worse, I had to nod.
Father James Schall observed that no one has time in one life to read all the great books. I don’t even have enough time left in one life to finish all the great books I’ve started.
There’s virtually no type of writer that has escaped my inconstancy. I’ve abandoned them all:
The masters: Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Dante, Montaigne, Pascal, Boswell. (And if you don’t think I’ve jilted Shakespeare a couple of times, you’re more naïve than me when I thought I’d get through Dostoyevsky’s two-volume, A Writer’s Diary . . . both volumes host bookmarks as of this writing).
The saints: Augustine and Aquinas, of course, but even those more modern, and therefore more accessible, holy men and women: Day, Doherty, Groeschel.
The twentieth century: Guardini, de Lubac, Gilson, Sheen, Sheed, Merton, O’Connor. Even my beloved Chesterton.
Even fiction. As I go through my bookshelves, I come across Bernanos’ The Diary of a Country Priest . . . with the bookmark on page 201 (of a 298-page book). I thought for sure I finished it (I know how the book ends, so perhaps that’s why).
The fact is, I love books. I just don’t always love finishing them.
I’m not alone. That bookworm and great essayist, Joseph Epstein, once wrote, “I learned not to finish books by the time I was forty. I do not, it is true, set out not to finish books, but neatly accomplish this task all the same.”
That great Catholic historian, John Lukacs, wrote about reading history: “There are no rules about this, no rules about reading, no rules about what should—or will—interest you.” Lukacs doesn’t say that the intellectual rules of engagement allow us to abandon books in the middle, but that’s the spin I (conveniently) put on his words.
I long ago accepted my inconstancy. Indeed, I’ve even come to embrace it. Over the years, it has grown into a guilty pleasure . . . with far more pleasure than guilt.
Because I’ve grown to embrace the beginning of the book: The Introduction.
I love introductions. I think that, more often than not, they are the best part of the book.
They’re short, which is good, but they’re not just short: they’re also pithy.
The book author has tens or hundreds of thousands of words of space. The writer of the introduction: he’s crimped to a small fraction of that, thereby often foisting upon him or her an economy of words that would make Hemingway blush.
The introduction often summarizes the work, which is important to someone like me. If I’m not going to finish the book, it’s at least nice to know what it was about.
And perhaps the best part about introductions: the writer of the introduction normally brings a level of affection or reverence to the subject that you won’t get from the author, unless he or she is a narcissist. Sure, the writer of the introduction might be a pure mercenary who’s doing it for money, but I typically don’t find that’s the case. The introduction is normally written with a deep respect for the work or author.
This deep respect produces additional insight that the book’s author doesn’t even have. I think it’s the “second set of eyes” thing: The author gets so engrossed in the subject, he or she doesn’t make connections that the outsider sees.
I once approached an editor with the idea of publishing an anthology of great Catholic introductions. He liked the idea but said it was nothing he could help me with, but offered to run it by a publisher friend of his.
The publisher wasn’t interested. He further said that nobody else would be interested either, for the simple reason that anthologies don’t sell.
That really surprised me. I like anthologies, but apparently I’m in a minority.
So I don’t think you’re ever going to find an anthology of introductions, but if you care to track down some choice ones, the below were on my “short list” for inclusion before I (perhaps fittingly) abandoned the project.
Marshall McLuhan’s introduction to Huge Kenner’s Paradox in Chesterton
Hans Urs von Balthasar’s forward to Josef Pieper’s An Anthology
Roger Scruton’s introduction to Joseph Pieper’s Leisure, the Basis of Culture
G.K. Chesterton’s introduction to Fulton Sheen’s God and Intelligence in Modern Philosophy
James Schall’s forward to A.G. Sertillanges’ The Intellectual Life
Frederick Wilhelmsen’s introduction to Romano Guardini’s The End of the Modern World
Pretty much any introduction by Anton Pegis to the old Image Books, including his introduction to Chesterton’s The Dumb Ox and to A Gilson Reader
Clare Boothe Luce’s “Saints” introductory chapter to Saints for Now
Sally Fitzgerald’s forward to Flannery O’Connor’s The Habit of Being
Thomas Merton’s introduction to John Wu’s The Golden Age of Zen
Henri de Lubac’s forward to The Letters of Etienne Gilson to Henri de Lubac
Gabriel Marcel’s introduction to Max Picard’s The Flight from God