In the past two days, I’ve read two challenging novels in translation. I say challenging because, first, their style made it hard to get into a reading groove and, second, they come from very different places and times from my own. Because of the second challenge, the publishers and translators included an afterword (Swallowing Mercury) and a foreword (Judgment). These two approaches to helping a reader understand the contexts of these books got me to thinking about what an ideal supplement would look like—at least for me.
Most of the time, I prefer to go into a book knowing just a few specifics about the plot and nothing more. Occasionally, I might seek out a longer review or look a classic up on Wikipedia if I can’t figure the book out on my own. I like going in mostly blind because I want to be able to make my own impressions. Once I read a convincing argument for how a book should be read, I have a hard time shaking it.
With an afterword, I learn about the author’s context, inspiration, etc. when I’ve finished the book. I don’t even have to worry about accidentally learning things by skimming through the foreword. This worked beautifully when I read Swallowing Mercury, I suppose because I knew just enough about 1980s Poland to catch references. The afterword did deepen my understanding of the stories but in an “Oh, that’s interesting” kind of way rather than a “You completely read this wrong” way.
Judgment comes with a foreword that discussed the author’s biography, his experiments with Yiddish writing, and some explicated scenes from the novel. I skipped it and read the book…And I got lost. The book was dense with subtext that I mostly missed the first time around. The experimental style threw me off repeatedly. After I read the foreword, a lot more made sense.
All of this leads me to the gamble a reader has to make when they run into a book with additional material. Do you take the risk of not knowing what’s really going on in an attempt to make your own reading of a novel? Or do you read the supplemental material and have things spelled out for you? Even with my general bewilderment in reading Judgment, I think I still prefer to keep the blinders on until I finish. The few times I read the additions, I remember waiting for scenes like I wait for the twist in novels. It really did feel like someone told me the whole story in advance and I got bored. All the tension was gone. I would rather be a bit lost than bored.