©The Two Crafts
The other day I posted on my Instagram account a picture of a book of mine soaked by a typical English heavy rain. So far, so good. However, some friends came to me to make an interesting observation: Why was I reading “an introductory” book on History? I mean, next to the completion of a Ph.D., why should one bother on reading introductions?
I couldn’t recommend the introductions more. If you don’t know anything on the topic, they are a nice and soft path to bolder readings. If you know a fair amount about the topic, they operate as a quick and enjoyable recapitulation of the main points and themes.
Students of all sorts use to dislike the introductions since they give away their supposed beginner status on some topic or skill. Nonetheless, the introductory books were also reinvented in the form of “1.000 [insert substantive] you need to [insert adjective] before you [insert here a catastrophic event]”.
The introductory books may also be historicised, which means to be transformed in the centre of a historical narrative. From the 19th century onwards, with the expansion of press, there was, consequently, the expansion of things to be learned. The manuals were a sensation in every branch of knowledge, trade, and even life. The marriage manuals, for husbands, wives, brides, mothers-in-law, are just an example of that; and to not leave Freemasonry aside, let’s not forget Carlile’s Manual of Freemasonry.
Another part of this history is the series “Que sais-je?” (What do I know?) published since 1941 by the PUF (Prèsses Universitaires de France), which inaugurated sundry series of the same kind, and similar name, worldwide. Fast-forwarding to the nineties, more precisely 1991, comes the series “For Dummies”, also translated in several languages. Among my favourites are the series “For Beginners” and “A graphic guide”, since they mix cartoon (in an Al Jaffee meets Robert Crumb style) with snippets of condensed information. To introduce, accessibly, Sartre, Foucault, Logic, or Chaos Theory, is pure art and mastery of didactics.
The question that every introductory book sparkle is “where do I begin?”. The mandatory savvy quote from Alice in Wonderland “Begin at the beginning…”, make us chuckle, but brings more confusion for someone trying to find something, as Alice. To write an introduction is an effort of concision, it is to make hard choices, to create a common ground for newcomers Also, is to promote a safe harbour for the ones already familiar with the topic but wishing to revise, reinforce or remember the basics. Yes, because to forget what is fundamental in a topic is almost inescapable after you are in it for a long time.
Regarding the two topics of this blog, History and Freemasonry, I recommend two introductions that are from the same collection: the “Very Short Introduction” series from the Oxford University Press. No, this is not a paid post. The History one, is written by Professor John H. Arnold (Cambridge), it brings a well-flown discussion on the topic and addresses the questions that every historian must answer from the rest of his life, inside the classroom and elsewhere, like family dinners: Is history an opinion matter? History is the past, right? Are the historians judges of the truth? And so on, and so forth.
The one about Freemasonry (and I would stress, mainly History of Freemasonry) is in the capable hands of Professor Andreas Önnerfors (Gothenburg), a well-known name for the regulars of this blog. I strongly advise this book to researchers (professionals and amateurs) thirstily going through documents from the 18th, 17th, and even 15th century (!), to find “hardcore” evidence on some “mind-blowing” fact that will produce a “ground-breaking” article on Freemasonry. And why? Because of one thing that my Ph.D. made me realise is that research on Freemasonry needs common ground.
Introductory books have the power to put together such grounds, or the discussion about what is fundamental. The manuals end up giving an accessible starting point, preventing a random out-of-ones’-depth book followed by a dilettante understanding of what was read. The latter is probably one of the ingredients for conspiracy theories.