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A Thousand Pities That A Book Cannot Write Its Own Preface

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I t is had to argue against a book writing its own preface, telling its on story about how it came into being. Robert Bridges, the obscure British poet who I quote in the title of this post is clear on one issue: if books wrote their own prefaces, they are probably not going to thank or praise the author.

“Few indeed are the books, which like the children of the wise woman, would rise up and bless their parent: they would talk rather like those who with preposterous intelligence grumble at their fate, complaining that their brains are too dependent on their stomachs, or that their knee-joints are clumsily fashioned, and their toes unsightly and useless.”

But books never write their own prefaces. So authors on whom fall the task of telling the story about their books say nice things about themselves, their ideas, the project, how it developed, and end by thanking a few people. Most authors are cavalier in the preface and try to appear cool and witty. They know that the preface is the gateway into the book and want so badly to leave a good impression on the reader.

But not so with authors like Voltaire, an 18th century French thinker. He used the preface to a much different use, to scare unwanted readers in a language that is clearly meant to be at worst insulting and at best condescending. Below is an extensive excerpt of the strangely short and curious preface to the Philosophical Dictionary.

“It is only really by enlightened people that this book can be read; the ordinary man is not made for such knowledge; philosophy will never be his lot. Those who say that there are truths which must be hidden from the people, need not be alarmed; the people do not read; they work six days of the week, and on the seventh go to the inn. In a word, philosophical works are made only for philosophers, and every honest man must try to be a philosopher, without pluming himself on being one.

…and if the author does not always mention the sources of his information, as being well enough known to the learned, he must not be suspected of wishing to take the credit for other people’s work, because he himself preserves anonymity, according to this word of the Gospel: “Let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth.”

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I hold a doctorate in English from Duke University and recently joined the Marquette University English faculty as an Assistant Professor. I love teaching African fiction and contemporary British novels. Brittle Paper is the virtual space/station where I play and experiment with ideas on how to reinvent African fiction and literary culture.

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