Examining the Paratexts

How do you go about reading a book? I casually follow some of the
literature about getting kids to read, as well as recurring newspaper
articles about the appalling state of adult reading, but usually
there’s an assumption that either you’ve read a book this year or you
haven’t. But there are degrees of reading. Sometimes you read a book
half-heartedly, skimming this and skipping that, and sometimes you
read a book fully committed. Sometimes you find a word or a reference
you don’t know, and you bulldoze right over it, and sometimes you
pause to look it up. Sometimes you forget the book the second you’ve
set it aside, and sometimes it stays read.This leads me to one of the more controversial aspects of reading:
taking on the paratexts: introductions and afterwords, indices and
tables of illustrations–all of those things put there by the
publisher and not the author (and not to be confuses with author
introductions, prologues, and other parts of the actual text that some
readers skip anyway). Are paratexts part of the book? If you haven’t
looked at them, have you read the book?

I guess it depends on the book and it depends on the paratexts, but
this book is, besides being a glimpse into the mind and private
thoughts of one of our most celebrated authors, it is a massive piece
of scholarship that involved dozens of people and several years of
hard work. The introduction and notes are themselves something, and
part of what makes this a major publishing event. That makes me think
they are well worth my time, though of course if you are disinclined
to pay attention to the paratexts the story of this book itself will
escape your attention. You won’t know that Twain started and abandoned
several autobiographies, that he narrated a stream of conscious
autobiography toward the end of his life, that his commitment to the
project surged and slackened over time, and that the results are a ten
foot stack of scribbles and transcriptions that are completely
non-linear. It has been much vaunted that Twain’s autobiography is
only published 100 years after his death because of his express
wishes, but the intro makes it clear that those wishes have been
ignored over the years, though the full thing has never made its way
into print in its entirety.

Another thing that impressed me about the introduction so far is the
collaboration, which involves scholars and curators but also laypeople
with a passion for Twain, people who run websites or collect Twain
materials without any professional credentials were deeply involved
with the project. This was a massive undertaking, but not a snooty
one. I doubt Twain would have abided by a project that only included
doctorates, even with his own ceremonial one from Oxford under his

Mind you, I’m only a few pages in. And I may take my friend’s advice
and go back to it rather than read it straight through. The first bit is
important to both appreciate the text we’re about to enjoy and know
what to expect, but that gives way to more details about the texts
than I probably need to know. Perhaps one reason people skip paratexts
is because they feel daunted by the task of plowing through them all,
but they don’t have to be used that way at all. I’d stress the
importance of examining them — knowing what’s there, and considering
how you might use it — but that doesn’t mean necessarily reading the
index or footnotes like they’re a linear narrative.

Reposted from Two Fathoms

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