The Trouble with Forewords

It’s difficult to say how many readers bother with a foreword: They are infamously misspellable  and skippable:

51gTNAXZzIL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ (1)But when they’re read, forewords have a power — perhaps greater even than dustjackets — to position the reader. After browsing through the foreword, one has an idea of how to approach the text. It is something like having a tiny TED chat before we move into the meat of the book.

Certainly, the most pressing reason to have a foreword is getting a big, eye-catching name that might bring in fresh readers, or an important scholarly name that makes it evident that she (or he) finds the work worthwhile.

There are certain sorts of forewords I very much appreciate, such as the slightly academic: Roger Allen’s foreword to Monarch of the Square: An Anthology of Muhammad Zafzaf’s Short Stories, which gives a thumbnail sketch of Zafzaf’s career. Or Atef Abu Saif’s foreword to The Book of Gaza: A City in Short Fiction, which gives a long-range view of the short story as practiced in the Strip. There are also forewords to re-issues that engage with the book in a very personal way (Diana Athill’s foreword to Beer in the Snooker Club; Porochista Khakpour’s to The Blind Owl).

Afterwords are different story. I find them almost always a joy, especially when they get into geeky translational details, like Michelle Hartman’s on Always Coca Cola.

In any case, I read them. So when I began with Atef Abu Saif’s The Drone Eats with Me: Diaries from a City Under Fire, I first passed through the foreword by Noam Chomsky (there’s a big enough name for you!), and promptly wished I hadn’t. It’s my least favorite sort of foreword: much to do with the “topic” but little to do with the book at hand. It’s a slightly exasperated, slightly too-high-pitched statement, which seems to be coming from a pen that’s sick of explaining what’s wrong about the situation in Gaza and has little patience for anyone who doesn’t already understand. What’s more, the foreword frames Abu Saif’s book into the genre of “political Palestinian war narrative.”

Spoiler: I haven’t finished the book, so I cannot yet render a full, measured opinion. I can say that, at first, I thought, “Hmm, this foreword might alienate people.” Later, I was more annoyed by how it had shaped the way in which I approached the book.

As I read on, I realized this is not a work about the summer 2014 Gaza “operation.” It is not even a book about Palestine and Israel. Well, it is, but more importantly, this is an essential narrative about the nature of current-day war and how it affects the individual.

The foreword ends by saying, “Further explanation seems only to sully what Atef Abu Saif conveys with such simple dignity and eloquence.” (The “simple” is probably reflexive, although you’re free to bristle if you like.)

In short: I hope his name brings this book a million new readers, now and in the centuries to come. And I hope they skip past the foreword, or forward, or foreward — however they choose to spell it.