Read The Introduction

I always read the introduction of a book, especially if it’s a technical text. Why? Because introductions are often written by people who are familiar with the work. They’ve studied it, mastered the terms, and have been asked by the author or publisher to help you get a “lay of the land.”

Note that I used the term often. Some introductions are written by marketing departments or disinterested parties. Those introductions should be skipped. Read the first few pages, and if it’s educational, grab your highlighters and take notes. If it sounds like a sales pitch, move on.

I learned this lesson the hard way last week. In my Yale Philosophy Challenge, we’ve been asked to read David Hume, the Scottish 18th-century philosopher. I’ve been looking forward to this for quite some time, and when I turned to the assigned pages, I felt like I was reading something in a different language. I usually feel that way when reading a philosopher’s work for the first time, and that’s because they each have their own style, terminology, and theory.

After 30 minutes of frustrated reading, I turned to the introduction and took my advice. After the first page, I felt relief in my literary and cognitive muscles. The writer took her time to explain (in plain English) the important Hume terms and his key ideas. I now had a map.

I devoured that introduction, filled it with notes, and took the time to read it slowly. That’s what we’re supposed to do here, right? (Read Slowly – Take Notes – Apply the Ideas).

Now Hume is more accessible to me, which is funny because he’s touted as one of the most accessible philosophers. All I know is this: I’m enjoying his work now because I took the time to study the introduction.

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