Some books are difficult to write. Others are impossible. My Ph.D. dissertation, for example, is perfectly doable; I’m just not doing it. Rather, I’m distracted in the bookstore by rows and rows of the successful Oxford University Press series Very Short Introductions to what, at this moment, seem more-vibrant subjects than my own (a familiar experience to many grad students). But browsing more closely, I miss one volume, one that I would have thought fundamental to the colorful series: A Very Short Introduction to Introductions. It does not exist because, surely, it could not.

Introductions are often presented as explanatory aids, offering us the salient facts and giving potted summaries of important theories. They help students and the uninitiated out. But if we defer judgment on a hypothetical reader’s potential intelligence—and we should do so, otherwise we’d be subordinating people without real evidence (not that I think that’s even a legitimate proposition)—we must conclude that the person might not really need an introduction to a topic on intellectual grounds. Hegel writes in his essay “Who Thinks Abstractly?” that explaining isn’t necessary, because when push comes to shove, one can grasp a subject by oneself.

Rather, what introductions do is save us time and effort. We are constrained by the semester’s schedule for our module on poststructuralism, or perhaps we’re just curious, and do not want to bother learning about Derrida from the primary sources. We’d prefer to read a Very Short Introduction, and receive him in a nutshell. So introductions as summaries are not required reading for understanding something. They are useful.

Their utility, however, raises our first problem: In conserving our resources and saving our critical energy, we must expend a certain acceptance of the author’s sketch of a subject. This, in turn, highlights another issue. We tend to acknowledge authority when someone has a track record, so introductions are generally written by mature professionals in the field. These introductions are thereby expressions of power, of someone having reached the summit of the academic profession. If they are not, and are genuinely a testament to a subjective, well-informed “take” on an area, then they become less of an introduction and more a part of the primary source materials belonging to the academic subject being discussed. In this way, we change the genre—introductions are no longer just informative, they’re original research, and so must be assessed differently. If introductions do command control of a topic’s received wisdom, though, then as much as they assist us, they also delimit the questions presented as legitimate within a discipline and validated as lines of inquiry.

According to that logic, a grad student or Joe Public like myself cannot write an introduction, because he or she does not know enough yet. He or she may well be critical, frustrated, or both, and skirmish with some of the introduction’s premises. Indeed, the aspiring writer of a solid introduction might end up making his project so narrow, or framing it in so many whimsical caveats, that the book eventually comprises subjective thoughts on a big question. The introduction writer thus introduces himself out of an introduction, and composes—again—primary intellectual material.


I can imagine two solutions to this problem. The first is to write on everything. A comprehensive introduction would, by definition, encompass all that exists. No one would complain that such a book misses significant contributions to the topic at hand; and all subjects are ultimately interconnected anyway. If you actually manage to write on everything, you deserve respect. But I grant that such an ideal is unrealistic. No one can assimilate, comprehend, and clarify for us the concept of all-ness.

So, my second option: Introduce nothing. In The History of Pompey the Little; or, The Life and Adventures of a Lap-Dog (1751), Francis Coventry begs leave “to detain the Reader with an introductory Chapter upon Nothing; being the most proper Subject I can recollect at present for such an initial Section.” If we started with a blank slate, we could establish the principles of introducing, in order to correctly apply them to the writing of an introduction on the subject X, say.

Writing out of nothing is something I know everything about. But to suggest that an introduction be on nothingness entails making that nonobject an entity, and so we would have a substantive discourse without a logical foundation. The discussion would become paradoxical, or what we call, in less formal terms, bunkum.

In truth, an introduction on nothing would not exist. Neither will, at this rate, my dissertation. However, if an introduction to introductions—a guide to our knowledge of knowledge, a discourse on academic activity itself—is a nonstarter, why even modestly contribute to the broader enterprise of the academy? A dissertation might be possible, but it suddenly appears intellectually pointless.

Seán Williams is a doctoral student in German studies at the University of Oxford.