Front Matter

Front Matter – The front matter is the text before the main text. You open a book, but it doesn’t start right off. It starts with some weird crap about how happy the author is you picked it up, what edition it is, why he wrote it, and blah blah blah. That’s front matter. Front matter, back matter, cover, and illustrations comprise a text’s paratext (”side text”), meaning frame or way-into the text pur sang. The text isn’t just, say, a novel; it’s an experience: A sexy cover catches your eye; a screaming title and subtle subtitle play with your naughty lizard brain; a table of contents or epigraph or short foreword make you want to learn more.

Paratext helps you ease into the text. Even the dullest novel benefits from a title which refracts its principal themes. And, yes, texts benefit from illustrations, and they always have. (Remember the weird spermazoid line in Tristram Shandy?) Each piece of front matter has a specific paratextual purpose, often simply to delay you as you flip towards Chapter One (”Eating Better: Weeping Best” or “The Cowboy Who Was An Indian!! Part One,” perhaps).

Often comprised of a poem or a few lines therefrom, an epigraph is a quotation at the beginning of another piece of writing that serves as an introduction, a summary, an ironic or admonishing counterexample, and/or a link to a wider literary-historical continuum.

The epigraph frames the rest of what follows. If it’s doing its job, you should forget it, in the moment, but continue to munch on it, in your back-brain, as you read the rest of the story or book. When I hear the word “epigraph,” I always think of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas:

He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man.

—Dr. Johnson.

Preamble is primarily a legal term. A premable introduces a document, explaining its purpose and the philosophy underlying its writing. You hear this word used often in conjunction with the constitutions and other important, top-level legal coda of sovereign states. Just remember “We the people:”

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

A foreword is short, comes before the author’s introduction, and is written by someone other than the author. This is as opposed to the preface, which is written by the author. The writer of a foreword may describe how he came to know the author of the book, or why he was asked to write the foreword. The foreword may explain why the current incarnation of the book has been printed. (”Errors was made. But we fixed em,” e.g.)

In the foreword to Umbrella Academy: Dallas, Neil Gaiman merges his praise of the soon-to-follow graphic tale with a warning of the conflict that is already happening, in medias res, in that tale—thus collapsing the narrative distance between the reader and the text unexpectedly. Postmodern forewords by fictional critics accomplish the same trick, usually with less Abraham Lincoln. See: Pale Fire.

A preface is an introduction written by the author, in which he typically outlines the Grace-guided genesis and pothole-challenged actual-writing of the text, sometimes (but not necessarily) acknowledging his immense debts to the people who’ve supported his broke ass for the last five years as he’s scribbled page after page about telepathic monkeys, or whathaveyou. A book’s preface follows its foreword and precedes its introduction and its prologue.

An introduction or prolegomenon is, broadly, any initial piece that explains the purpose of what follows. All introductions should be engaging. In literary works, an introduction follows a preface and may speak to the work’s goals, when a preface sticks to its origins.

“Prolegomenon” sounds more formal, as them big-ass Greek words are wont. A prolegomenon may ask you to interpret what follows in a certain way.

One strong “prolegomenon” is the Greek title of Ibn Khaldun’s Muqaddimah, which sets forth many of the logical, methodological, and philosophical errors historians can make when writing history; suggests history can be viewed through the lens of various class and economic conflicts; and in other ways predicts, from across a gulf of seven hundred years, modern historiography.

In a sense, Khaldun, in his Prolegomenon, asks us to interpret not only what happened up until 1377, but all of history afterward through the lens of the book: His book is a prolegomenon to the greater Book of time.

A prologue precedes the main story but is told in the voice of a character or omniscient narrator, as opposed to that of the author. (In some books the distinction is meaningless.) A prologue is, in some way, part of the “the plot” of the book. Often, events in the prologue take place years before those of the chapters that follow.

My favorite prologue is the title of Harry Mathews’s The Sinking Of The Odradek Stadium. The title forms an important plot element—one whose importance only comes into focus, however, on the last page of the book, making it recursive. To end a reading of the epistolary madness that is The Sinking is to begin again, at the end of the plot, with the title…

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