Letters of introduction

Whatever happened to letters of introduction? Charlotte Brontë’s poorly connected heroines travel over England (Jane Eyre) and France (Lucy Snowe) with them, if memory serves, or somebody in some old book does, clutching them as lifelines and depending on them to establish their character to their readers.

Today’s letter of recommendation is nothing like an old-fashioned letter of introduction. Colleges and summer programs direct students to solicit recommendations. As a teacher, I am asked to be candid; I complete a form and write a letter that could, if not make my student’s application, perhaps break it, not because of any reputation I have but because of my position with respect to, and my presumed knowledge of, my student. My letter becomes part of a packet of material my student must generate, and the packet itself is only one of hundreds or thousands generated for tens or hundreds of positions to be filled not by the nameless or faceless, necessarily, not in this day and age, but by the colorless or at least the fleshless. My letter is not read, as it would be in Brontë’s novels, with the heroine sitting across the salon.

Similarly, a good book introduction feels more personal than the best book review. In a book’s introduction, I take in the impressions of an established personage who is also the book’s intimate. As I do, the book’s principal work waits for me across the table holding her contents, hat in hand.

(Strictly speaking, introductions may be written by the principal work’s author or by someone else. I focus here on the latter situation. (Forewords are supposed to be written by others and prefaces by the principal work’s author, but publishers – even big ones – don’t always adhere to these distinctions in labeling their front matter, I find.))

A book review, though, feels less intimate or insightful than a book’s introduction, perhaps because it is less loyal. It befits a more boisterous and democratic and a less stratified society. It clamors for attention from the Sunday paper’s book section or from among the material I ask myself to examine online before I buy a book. The review feels no compunction for establishing its own bona fides by being “evenhanded” or even critical of its object. It’s also a rare review that explores what it’s like to read the book in question. Why? Perhaps because the review is often about the review and the reviewer and not about the book, really, which itself is nowhere in sight of my morning paper and tea.

Not so the object of an introduction! There is no disloyalty; an introduction is bone of a book’s bone and flesh of its flesh. Like David with the Lord his God, an introduction is “bound in the bundle of life” with the work it introduces.

I read a critical review of Madison and Jefferson, the new joint biography, last week in the Post that had its desired effect: I removed the book from my Amazon wish list where I collect titles to buy later, pending funding.

But this week I’m reading a fine introduction that seems to be as enthusiastic and insightful about me as a reader as it is about the book’s principal work. Andrew Motion’s preface to the Vintage Spiritual Classics edition of Devotions upon Emergent Occasions (a volume John Donne wrote during a long and about his experiences and reflections during a life-threatening, three-month illness) and Death’s Duel (his final sermon) starts this way:

John Donne’s genius thrived on contradiction; Devotions upon Emergent Occasions is one of his most paradoxical works. It concentrates on death while celebrating life; it is somber but not sad; it is egotistical but alarmed by isolation. Death’s Duel, its independent pendant, is similarly crosshatched. It finds its energy in exhaustion and its spiritual hope in bodily defeat.

[Devotions book cover]Yes! Motion puts in words what I suddenly like to think I’ve always thought about Donne’s poetry. So Donne’s devotionals and sermons walk the same paths as his poems – the intellectual tightrope of paradox masking the soul’s walk through the valley of the shadow of egotism! Donne feels unapproachable to me for such a fragile being, but I have wondered if four intervening centuries or my own unfamiliarity with Donne’s syntax accounts for the distance I feel. But I am reassured:

We feel, as we often feel reading Donne’s poems, that the emotional weight matters less than the intellectual fireworks. Critics who believe there is something inherently disparaging about this separation often seek to heal it by saying, with T. S. Eliot, that thought was an experience for Donne. His brain waves were in their way as charged and self-defining as the heartbeat of the Romantics. But this argument, while properly characterizing much of what is vital in his work, risks misrepresenting our experience as readers. The Devotions, like all his greatest writing, is a performance, and because they are a performance, we feel at arm’s length. To put it another way, Donne’s sickbed is a stage, and we admire the patient as if we were looking at him across footlights. [Emphasis added.]

New Criticism’s emphasis on Donne’s paradox always left me a bit cold. Motion here gives me a new way of understanding my experience. Donne theologically fights through his isolation (“No man is an island” and “for whom the bell tolls” are from Devotions), but stylistically he still prefers the lonely limelight. It’s not principally Donne’s high church intellectualism or the four intervening centuries standing between him and me, after all.

Motion points out that Donne works out such theology linearly “while at the same time creating the impression of a mind rattling around in a wheel”:

A point in his illness begets a certain idea, this certain idea begets other ideas; these are differently examined in the three approaches [meditations, expostulations, and prayers] that constitute each section; then the process starts all over again.

Motion here inadvertently helps me understand another work I begin to suspect Donne had his eyes on while convalescing in bed two months writing Devotions – The Book of JobJob’s protagonist also works out an issue or two related to suffering in a linear manner through an intense, circular rhetorical structure. (Job, for instance, in occasional references to life after death over the course of his trial, moves from questioning any notion of it to avowing it.)

In spite of, or because of, how good the introduction is, I don’t wait until it ends to have intercourse with the book’s principal work. I dip into a section or two to discover if I experience what the introduction’s writer experiences, I return with my impressions to that writer again, and soon we are all conversing, two writers and two readers, a trinity of four.



It took Bethany only a day into her winter break to walk fifteen minutes through snow to her high school alma mater where I teach. She touched base today with some of her favorite teachers, and, of course, she visited the school library and spoke with two of the librarians who know her reading tastes so well and fed her with books for the past four years. She misses the library.

Bethany complains about her college library’s orientation to research. She has a difficult time there finding new novels like the ones our high school librarians read in the summer and splay in September on the bump-outs of every aisle.

But Bethany puts it more personally. She says that the librarians at college aren’t as friendly. Bethany has come to understand a librarian’s role as that of a friend and aid to the imagination, a kind of intimate or priest. College librarians serve at knowledge’s altar, but grade school librarians – the good ones – primarily serve the imagination.

Literacy is based on relationships. Here’s a quote from the web site of Julie Martin‘s startup “Bread for the Head,” whose volunteers initiate thoughtful, in-the-flesh contacts with Chicago kids to foster literacy:

Books are tossed at agencies and children, like fish to the seals. But as Jim Trelease aptly notes in The Read-Aloud Handbook, “[n]either books nor people have Velcro sides —we don’t naturally attach to each other. In the beginning there must be a bonding agent — parent, relative, neighbor, teacher, or librarian — someone who attaches child to book.”

In her recent interview on Dave Bonta‘s Woodrat Podcast, Julie describes what she discovered about most literacy initiatives, well intentioned as they may be:

There are a lot of folks simply dropping books on kids from 30,000 feet, and they have no idea how few of the kids who are recipients can read or will even try and read the books.. . . . [It’s] like the food rations dropped on the starving populace, only they hit all the people on the head and kill them!

By contrast, Julie and her volunteers fan out in after-school programs over the Chicago metropolitan area giving away food (in conjunction with another nonprofit) and new books to children, providing quiet spaces conducive to helping kids bond with books, and reading to them and enticing them into book discussion groups.

She describes Bread for the Head’s impact not just in statistics but in stories. There’s the girl who told her “rather passionately that she did not like print.” The girl began to connect with books through the bookroom’s quiet space and her friends’ love of books. She’s currently in eighth grade reading The Poisonwood Bible, and one of her friends borrows the books Bread gives her from her backpack for the duration of each lunch period. “She’s becoming her own little lending library,” Dave points out.

Quite fittingly, Dave’s interview ends with a discussion of what books Dave and Julie read growing up. I realized listening to it that those kind of conversations usually include a grateful reference to some bonding agent – a father who regularly read to his family, a relative who knew a child well enough to give just the right book to her, or a family library – even a small one – that became a wardrobe to another world one critical winter.

Julie reaches those who, otherwise, would have no such stories. Her lending library friend’s parents, for instance, were not in a place to inculcate in her any love for books.

Reading is a subversive activity if you’re doing it right. You go at your own pace, you follow your interests, your head is your castle, you put in what you want to have in it. If you don’t understand [something in a book], that’s fine. There’s some piece of it that’s enjoyable.

(Julie again, from Dave’s podcast.) If reading is a crime, it’s necessarily a conspiracy. Thank God for the co-conspirators.