Monday, January 7, 2013

In the Beginning

At this season of new beginnings, it’s appropriate to ponder this profound question: How often do you read a book’s preface?  Or its foreword?  Or even its introduction, or its acknowledgments, not to mention the occasional prologue?  And why do we have all these different names for something that precedes the actual book?

Known dismissively in the book trade as “front matter,” along with dedications, tables of contents, and the like, these preliminary pieces of writing serve slightly different purposes, most of them unnecessary.

A preface, from the Latin praefatio (“something said beforehand”), is a statement, usually by the author, describing the book’s purpose, pointing out difficulties encountered in its writing (as if we cared), and also sometimes thanking (or blaming) people for their help.

Often the helpers are mentioned in a separate section known as acknowledgments, or, if you’re British, acknowledgements (with an extra “e”).

An introduction (Latin intro “inside” + ducere “to lead”) is similar to a preface, but usually has more substance to it with respect to the book’s subject.  It might even be written by someone other than the author. Induction is an archaic form of the word introduction and is sometimes used to mean a specific framing device for the main work, as exemplified by the opening scene of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew, which sets up the premise for the action that follows.

A foreword, whose etymology seems self-evident but may be a translation of the Dutch voorwoord, is an introductory statement almost always written by someone other than the author—presumably, someone who will say nice things about the book.  A foreword is not to be confused with the word forward, although it very often is by ignorant doofuses.

Some books have several preliminary pieces, and when they do, the usual order is foreword, preface, acknowledgments, introduction.

If you wish to be fancy-schmancy with your vocabulary, you can call any of these pieces a prolegomenon, from the Greek pro (“before”) and legein (“to say”). This word is often shortened to prologue or even prolog, which means the same thing, and is usually applied to an opening section of a dramatic work that precedes the first act.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou always has trouble getting started when he writes, but once he begins it is very hard to stop him, or sometimes even to understand him.

            I read an astute prolegomenon
            That I thought was quite a phenomenon
            By a writer most gifted— 
            Till I learned it was lifted
            Word for word from the Paralipomenon.

Note: Just in case you’ve forgotten, the B. of B. B. wishes to remind you that Paralipomenon (from the Greek for “things omitted”) is the name given by the Roman Catholic Vulgate to the two Old Testament books known as Chronicles in the KJV.  (That rascal is such a font of obscure information!)

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