Prefaces, Introductions and Notices: The art of C.S. Lewis, David Quammen and Mark Twain.

Yes, quite a trio on both ends of that curious title.

I have a fondness of introductions of all stripes because they are, in practice, written long after the work they precede has been finished. It is a summing up, a confessional and in some cases acts as an apologia.

Some prefaces remain steadfast in my  memory when the rest of the book has inexorably faded.

ImageOne example is C.S. Lewis’s preface to The Problem of Pain.  Lewis, the novelist, was by training and inclination, an academician.  As an undergraduate student at Oxford, he won a triple first, the highest honors in three areas of study.  He was elected a fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford where we worked for nearly thirty years.

He was well aware of how an academic or theologian would approach the subject of pain and Christianity and I think he was impelled to dispel any notion that his book was not a academic book, but an inquiring layman’s opinion.

In his preface, Lewis writes:

“I must add, too, that the only purpose of the book is to solve the intellectual problem raised by suffering; for the far higher task of teaching fortitude and patience I was never fool enough to suppose myself qualified, nor have I anything to offer my readers except my conviction that when pain is to be borne, a little courage helps more than much knowledge, a little human sympathy more than much courage, and the least tincture of the love of God more than all.

If any real theologian reads these pages he will very easily see that they are the work of a layman and an amateur. Except in the last two chapters, parts of which are admittedly speculative, I have believed myself to be restating ancient and orthodox doctrines. If any parts of the book are ‘original’, in the sense of being novel or unorthodox, they are so against my will and as a result of my ignorance. I write, of course, as a layman of the Church of England: but I have tried to assume nothing

that is not professed by all baptized and communicating Christians. As this is not a work of erudition I have taken little pains to trace ideas or quotations to their sources when they were not easily recoverable. Any theologian will see easily enough what, and how little, I have read.

It is not easy to forestall the expected criticism of those academics who feel that such a weighty subject needed more intellectual rigor.  And I think, Lewis’s natural humility was the driving force behind this and his similar introduction to Mere Christianity.

ImageDavid Quammen is one of my favorite writers who may not be on most people’s radars.  He writes eloquently and compellingly about nature. In his “Old, Ingenious Introduction” to Natural Acts: A Sidelong View of Science and Nature he writes:

“Loren Eiseley continued that tradition, and today it is rich with the work of Stephen Jay Gould, Lewis Thomas, Freeman Dyson, Alan Lightman, Robert S. Desowitz, and others.

I would love to be able to claim a modest toehold in the same tradition. But I can’t and I don’t. Because I’m not a scientist. What I am is a dilettante and a haunter of libraries and a snoop, the sort of person who has his nose in the way constantly during other people’s field trips, asking too many foolish questions and occasionally scribbling notes. My own formal scientific training has been minuscule (and confined largely to the ecology of rivers). Gould and Thomas and Lightman actually do science, in addition to writing about it. I merely follow science.

In my other set of pajamas I’m not a biologist but a novelist. This autobiographical information is offered not because I imagine it has any inherent interest but in a spirit of disclaimer, an effort at truth in packaging. The following is not a diet book nor a detective novel nor a collection of essays by a reputable scientist. Nor is it, for that matter, a string of straightforward dispatches from a “science reporter.” It is the work of an outsider who is broadly curious but who can never remember the difference between meiosis and mitosis, who has nevertheless been invited to write on scientific subjects by a small number of charming but gullible magazine editors, who tries hard to keep the facts straight, who is not shy about offering opinions, and whose purpose in these pieces has been divided about equally between edification and vaudeville.”

A few years later, he wrote a newer edition of the book: “NEW, RETROSPECTIVE INTRODUCTION Learning Curve.”

I was unencumbered by experience, professional qualifications, broad knowledge, or a sense of decorum. I had no training in science, but then again I had no training in journalism either.”

ImageAnd finally to my mentor and life long friend, Mark Twain.  In his “Notice” in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Tom Sawyer’s Comrade) he writes:

“Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.”

Robert Bridges, in his review of the novel in Life (February 26, 1885), characterized this “Notice” as “a nice little artifice to scare off the critics – a kind of ‘trespassers on these grounds will be dealt with according to law.”

There is, I think, a natural tendency of a writer to protect his or her progeny from critics and to put the work in context. After that, it is in the reader’s capable hands.

P.S.

I did my due diligence and found this as good an introduction to prefaces and introductions as any.

“A preface or foreword deals with the genesis, purpose, limitations, and scope of the book and may include acknowledgments of indebtedness; an introduction deals with the subject of the book, supplementing and introducing the text and indicating a point of view to be adopted by the reader. The introduction usually forms a part of the text [and the text numbering system]; the preface does not.”  Pat McNees

My thanks to David Quammen, Harper Collins, Michael Patrick Hearn and Samuel Clemens for their valuable assistance.

Advertisements