February 6, 2010

The Preface: appetizer or entrée?

I hesitate to suggest this, but have you ever considered reading the preface in lieu of the whole book? Once upon a time, I viewed a preface as nothing more than a dull obstacle that kept me from diving into a book right away. I knew in my heart that they were supposed to be like an appetizer to a great meal, whetting the appetite for more. But with limited time to read, who had time for it? Just take me straight to the meat and potatoes.

Today, I think just the opposite. With limited time to read and a very broad appetite for books, a well-written preface or foreword may serve as a gourmet meal unto itself. As proof, this week I polished off three prefaces for books I have no intention of reading—at least not entirely.

The first is Otto Penzler’s witty set-up for The Lineup: The World’s Greatest Crime Writers Tell the Inside Story of Their Greatest Detectives. In it, Penzler offers the complete story on the concept for this book, originally conceived as a tourniquet for his hemorrhaging New York City bookstore, The Mysterious Bookshop. As the title implies, each novelist gives readers an account of what makes a character tick. It should come as no surprise that the world’s greatest crime novelists approach this task in their own distinct ways.

I have absolutely no interest in crime novels, but this book was a fascination to my husband, who thrives on the likes of Robert Parker and Michael Connelly. To his credit, my darling spouse has a keen eye on the sort of writing that does interest me. If it weren’t for his recommendation, I might have missed this treat. What makes Penzler’s preface main-course reading is his apt and humorous analysis of the current condition of reading and the publishing industry in the United States. Read it and weep. Read it and laugh. Pathetic and funny all at the same time.

The second and third (yes, a book that required not one, but TWO forewords) were written for Elena Kostioukovitch’s tomb, Why Italians Love to Talk About Food. Foreword writers Carol Field and Umberto Eco each explain how Italian food, culture, and history intersect in ways that are esoteric to most Americans. They introduce the author as our ideal guide to Italian culture—one who is up to the task of explaining the unusual connection between Italians and their food due to her rare blend of objectivity and immersion.

I’m not sure I will be up for fully digesting Kostioukovitch’s complete journey, but the ruminations of these two writers have given me more appreciation than I had. While it’s not as much as I’d get from the whole book, it’s probably more than I would have had if I’d never picked up the book and snacked on it. So, read those forewords and prefaces. Let them serve as whatever course you most enjoy, appetizer, entrée or dessert.

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