When I take over Penguin Classics…
…the first things to go are the introductions. Here’s why.
I was looking forward to reading the Penguin collection of Heinrich von Kleist’s short stories. I’d seen the first sentences from two of his stories quoted and I both grabbed me.
From “The Marquise of O–”:
“In M–, an important town in northern Italy, the widowed Marquise of O–, a lady of unblemished reputation and the mother of several well-brought-up children, inserted the following announcement in the newspapers: that she had, without knowledge of the cause, come to find herself in a certain situation; that she would like the father of the child she was expecting to disclose his identity to her; and that she was resolved, out of consideration for her family, to marry him.”
And from “The Earthquake in Chile”:
“In Santiago, the capital of the kingdom of Chile, at the moment of the great earthquake of 1647 in which many thousands lost their lives, a young Spaniard called Jeronimo Rugera was standing beside one of the pillars in the prison to which he had been committed on a criminal charge, and was about to hang himself.”
Each of them practically beg to let you know what comes next. I wanted to know, so I bought Penguin’s colection of von Kleist’s stories and read the introduction. That ruined the book for me. The introduction is brisk and informative — but it GIVES AWAY THE ENTIRE PLOT OF EVERY STORY IN THE COLLECTION. It’s like a spoiler site for classical literature. The introduction is like a Cliff’s Notes for the story collection. It summarizes the plots and then sends you away. Who, when reading a book for pleasure, wants to know how it ends before it even starts?
Two quick caveats:
1. Some introductions are great. Bernard Knox’s notes prior to Robert Fagles’ translations of Homer and Virgil were essential to my having even a rudimentary understanding of what I was about to read.
2. Sometimes it’s OK to give it all away in advance. Here’s how Vladimir Nabokov’s Laughter in the Dark opens: “Once upon a time there lived in Berlin a man called Albinus. He was rich, respectable, happy; one day he abandoned his wife for the sake of a beautiful mistress; he loved; was not loved; and his life ended in disaster.” The mean and funny novel that follows offered heightened meanness and humor because we know what’s coming.
But those are the rarest of exceptions. Introductions are for context, not for giving it all away. In a few weeks, after this passes, I’ll try again to read these stories. From now on, I’m reading the introductions last.