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The value of reading introductions

When you pick up a book do you skip the introduction and go straight to the first chapter? If so, you may be missing some wonderful bits of writing and reflection. Some of the best writing on writing can be found within the beginning and ending paragraphs of an introduction. I have a huge collection of books on the subject. Some are strictly on craft; some detail author’s reflections on the craft; and some reveal the lives of authors; but a few have made the collection simply because the introductions have made their mark upon me. If you are interested in composing reflective pieces, writing autobiographically, and appreciate the art of memoir and essay, then The Art of the Personal Essay: An Anthology from the Classical Era to the Present edited by Phillip Lopate is a book that should be read and reread. Lopate’s introduction is all you need to understand the art and form and is worth the price of the book, alone. I’m positive that if a writer simply relied on Lopate’s book for information and reading, really taking the words to heart and studying the selections, and then practiced and practiced, he or she would become a good essayist.

At the end of every year the bookstores are flooded with a slew of “the best of” books. There are “The Best” series, “The Best American” series, and so on. They are anthologies that purport to bring together the best stories, essays, or selected writings of that particular form. There is at least one for every type of reader imaginable. Love science writing, read The Best Science Writing; enjoy reading about religion, then try The Best Christian Writing or The Best Spiritual Writing—there is a difference. Delight in mysteries? Try The Best American Mystery Stories. Maybe The Best American Essays, or The Best American Travel Writing, or even The Best American Short Stories is more to your liking. You are bound to find at least one that covers your favorite subject. For a reader the books are a treasure trove: they bring together the year’s top articles or stories. The contents are varied and interesting. For a writer the series are just as profitable, but they are also instructive: they bring together the best writing by the genre’s top writers. The subject matter is wide-ranging, the writing styles varied. But often I find the crown jewels nestled within the pages of the introduction. In 1999 Sue Grafton edited The Best American Mystery Stories. Authors such as Lawrence Block and Mary Higgins Clark, both considered top in the mystery field, to Joyce Carol Oates, a writer more often associated with literary work, are included. But for a writer, Grafton’s pithy three-page introduction provides a valuable lesson in how one highly successful writer approaches the form: “Crime fiction is the periscope that permits us to peer over the wall without having to deal directly with the horror beyond.” We learn why Grafton chose these particular stories out of the vast array of well-crafted stories published that year: “These stories are exquisite studies in the complexity of human nature.” We appreciate what the writer attempts to accomplish: “. . . the reader is led through a dark and tangled wood to the light of revelation on the other side.” We come to understand a lot about the form and the content. Finally, Grafton gives us a glimpse into the reason why so many readers love the stories produced by these master mystery writers: “. . . we’re plunged into the darkness by their skill and imagination, we’re simultaneously reassured that we are safe . . . from ourselves.”

So the next time you’re tempted to page past the introduction, why not turn back and see what the author or editor has to say? You might find it interesting. You might also be inspired to contribute to the ongoing conversation.


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