Call me Ishmael.
American literature connoisseurs, whale aficionados, and those unable to disremember random factoids they picked up in high school or on Jeopardy!, will recognize the above request to be addressed in a certain manner as the opening line of a famous work of fiction.
That’s how the novel begins, and that’s how any book that says “Moby Dick” and “Herman Melville” on its front cover ought to begin.
Immediately following the obligatory front matter (publisher’s name and logo, copyright notice, if-you-purchased-this-book-without-a-cover disclaimer, etc.) the reader should encounter, without further ado, the first line of the material advertised on the cover, be it of the first chapter, or of some preface or prologue the author composed for the express purpose of it being read prior to the part he or she chose to designate as chapter #1 (or scene #1 in the case of a play, or verse #1 in the case of poetry).
I’ve lost count of all the works of literature, classics primarily, whose opening sentence I never even reached because I had jumped book while bushwhacking my way through prolix and excruciatingly erudite forewords that publishers had elected to spatchcock in between front matter and main content.
In other words, I put those books down for good not because I disliked the books per se—I never got to the point of finding out—but because I had gotten tired of slogging through seemingly never-ending semi-autobiographical treatises penned by individuals I’d never heard of, extolling the literary, cultural, or sociopolitical merits of the masterpieces scheduled to start at the conclusions of these treatises (which would be God knows when) or elaborating in fulsome detail on how the works in question had impacted upon them personally during various stages in their lives.
If a foreword bores, annoys, or overwhelms me with unsolicited information, you may ask, why don’t I simply abandon it and skip to the main content?
See, I can’t do that. I just can’t. (Granted, this be may be an issue I’ll have to take up with a therapist some day.)
Whatever the reason, the presence of a foreword, printed in the front of a book, signals to my brain that I must not, under any circumstances, as if per some unwritten edict handed down by the gods of literature, dive into the main content until I’ve perused the foreword in full. Just as I am conditioned to read a sentence from left to right, I am conditioned to read a book the same way, starting with the first page and working my way toward the back.
So when I open a book and my eyes alight upon a foreword, on a subconscious level I apparently believe that the main content cannot be properly processed and enjoyed in stand-alone mode without its foreword—otherwise, why is the foreword there in the first place?—just as one would have difficulty processing and enjoying a given chapter without having read the previous one(s) leading up to it.
Moreover, most forewords make me feel stupid. Often written by highly educated individuals with academia dripping out of their ears and onto the page, I expect to never be able to duplicate their nuanced PhD-y grasp of the material anyway—so why should I even bother?
Take certain editions of Shakespeare’s plays, for instance: first there’s an editor’s introduction, then a foreword; followed by another foreword by someone else, an essay on Shakespeare’s theater, a dissertation on Shakespeare’s life and the Elizabethan era as a whole, a discussion about the publication of Shakespeare’s works (quartos, folios, and whatnot); then comes a crash course in Shakespearean linguistics … in short, I feel I’d have to plow through all of that before I’ve finally earned the right to tackle the play itself (which, based on the depth and scope of the introductory 411, I probably wouldn’t really understand anyway, having now been made painfully aware of how much I don’t know), i.e., chances are I’ll pack it in quite a ways before having gotten anywhere near Hence! Home you idle creatures get you home!
I do not mean to suggest that all introductory foreplay is necessarily tedious. It may well be beautifully composed in its own right and jammed with complementary information, all of which may prove eminently helpful in getting the most out of the material at hand.
I just wish that publishers would stick it in the back of the book. That way, I (and others like me, should such people, God forbid, exist in nontrivial numbers) wouldn’t feel I had to read it all before I could begin reading the main content, and this would eliminate the odds of my dropping out of the race prior to crossing the starting line.
Then, if I took a fancy to the main content but felt that expanding my frame of reference might aid me in relishing it even more, I could always flip ahead to the foreword—located in the back of the book, where it belongs, IMHO—for some additional perspective.
So if I had no qualms about interrupting my perusal of the main content by flipping ahead to the foreword located in the back of the book (even though doing so would clearly violate my conditioning as far as proceeding sequentially), why do I encounter such inner resistance to interrupting my perusal of a foreword located in the front of the book and skipping ahead to the main content? What’s the difference? Why does skipping ahead not equal skipping ahead?
Fact is, any preliminaries inserted into a book before its main content kicks off reduce the likelihood of my ever making it to the main content.
Therefore, dear publishers: please put the forewords in the back!