Classics Club August Meme: Forewords and Notes

The Classics Club

I haven’t taken part in the Classics Club Meme for a while, but August’s topic is one I feel quite strongly about! This month’s question is:

Do you read forewords/notes that precede many classics? Does it help you or hurt you in your enjoyment/understanding of the work?

I do sometimes read the forewords and notes but I’ve learned from experience to read them at the end rather than the beginning! I’ve never understood why so many publishers think it’s acceptable to give away the entire plot of a novel in the introduction just because it’s a classic. It’s true that many classics have become such a big part of popular culture that most of already know what happens, but that’s not always the case and I hate to think of anyone unsuspectingly reading the introduction first and having the story completely spoiled for them. When I read the Penguin English Library edition of Far from the Madding Crowd recently, I was pleased to find that the ‘introduction’ had been placed at the end of the book as an afterword instead of at the front. I think it would be nice if all publishers could either do the same or at least print a spoiler warning at the beginning the way Wordsworth Classics do.

Personally I like to go into a book knowing as little as possible about the plot and whether it’s a classic or a contemporary novel makes no difference. I might go back to read the introduction after I’ve finished the book, though not always as sometimes I either forget or decide that I’m happy with my understanding of the book and am ready to move straight on to another one. I read classics simply because I enjoy them so I’m not necessarily interested in analysing every little detail. I like to read the information on the author and their life, if any is given, or information that places the story into historical context, but apart from that I don’t usually find the introduction particularly helpful and prefer to interpret a book the way I want to interpret it.

What are your opinions on forewords? Do you like to read them or not?

22 thoughts on “Classics Club August Meme: Forewords and Notes

  1. Lisa says:

    I generally read them only after I’ve finished the book, since like you I’ve gotten very frustrated with the spoilers that abound (sometimes even on the back cover, as we’ve both seen – and once for the sequel to the novel I was reading, which was completely unacceptable). I usually like to read the notes as I go along, but I’m finding more and more spoilers in the notes – and major ones at that (“X’s use of his this quotation foreshadows his death and Y’s subsequent suicide”).

    • Helen says:

      I’ve stopped reading the notes as I go along as I’ve found a few big spoilers in them too, similar to the example you’ve given. It’s annoying because reading the notes can be so helpful. And I really don’t see why it’s ever necessary to put spoilers on the back cover!

  2. Alex says:

    I also read them at the end but the reason publishers put them in a prominent position at the beginning is probably because they want their edition to be the recommended university/’A’ level text. Most often it will be the introductions that will influence that choice.

  3. lindylit says:

    I agree with you; I only read them after I have read the novel or if I already know the story as I enjoy how it brings different aspects of the novel to light, but I don’t like ruining the story.

    • Helen says:

      I don’t always bother to read the introduction, but I do like to read them if there was something particularly confusing or controversial in the story that I need help interpreting.

    • Helen says:

      I really hate spoilers and I feel sorry for people who maybe don’t read a lot of classics and start reading the introduction unaware that they’re going to have the story spoiled for them.

  4. Iris says:

    For me it really depends. Sometimes I’d like to know just a little bit more about the book going in and then the introduction might help. Then again, you never know quite what you are going to find out! I definitely appreciate it when they put a warning at the beginning of an intro stating that there are spoilers or that it is best read after reading the book for the first time, though possibly I find afterwords even more convenient that way. I often wonder why they have spoilery introductions when they might as well be afterwords?

    • Helen says:

      I suppose as Alex has commented above, they have forewords instead of afterwords so that they’re in a prominent place at the front of the book where they can’t be ignored or forgotten about. I just wish all publishers would give us a warning at the beginning so at least we would know if there are going to be spoilers or not.

  5. jessicabookworm says:

    As you know from my post on this we are of the same mind Helen! I agree that detailed spoiler notes would be better printed at the back of the book or at least given a warning. I never knew that’s what Wordsworth Classics do.

    • Helen says:

      I usually forget to go back and read the introduction after I’ve finished the story, but I probably should as I’m sure it would help me get more out of the book!

    • Helen says:

      It’s good that you find the forewords useful. I can understand that they would help you put the book into context if you’re reading about a different culture.

  6. Natalie says:

    I pretty much agree with everything you’ve said, and it definitely seems to be a popular opinion. Spoilers are so rampant in these introductions that I cannot fathom why they’re included at the beginning. I always read them after reading the book.

    • Helen says:

      Yes, it seems most of us would prefer to avoid spoilers! If I knew that an introduction was spoiler-free I would be much more likely to read it before starting the book.

  7. kayclifton says:

    I also read the introduction after I finish the book. When I finish the work I want to compare how I felt about it with the content of the introduction. I also compare my evaluation of the quality of the book with that of the introducer.

    • Helen says:

      Yes, it can be interesting to compare your thoughts on a book with what is said in the introduction. I often find I have a completely different opinion!

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