As the title states: if you have a guide book to reading an author or a specific work, should you read it before, after, or alongside the work itself?

I've wondered this for a while in a general sense but I'm asking it specifically now because I've just purchased a copy of Dante's Divine Comedy (Steve Ellis's translation) and Prue Shaw's Reading Dante: From Here to Eternity and I'm unsure which to read first.

I've never bought a companion guide for a book before and my gut feeling is that I should read the Divine Comedy first and then the guide, and then perhaps the Comedy again.

Is there an accepted rule for reading order when it comes to guide books or is it largely a mix of personal preference, purpose for reading (study/pleasure), or dependent on the work in question?

2 Answers 2


Steve Ellis is a poet and a literary scholar who published about Dante before producing a translation of the Divine Comedy. His translation for Vintage / PenguinRandomHouse contains a considerable amount of footnotes to help the reader understand many of the allusions and references. In this case, I would definitely read Ellis's translation before Prue Shaw's book.

I think this advice can be generalised to annotated editions versus guidebooks: read the (annotated) text before the guidebook. What you may wish to read before a translation is a good biography. A detailed biography (as opposed to a short one) will often give you a lot of background information about contemporary history and culture rather than the purely biographical facts. (In Dante's case, there are many references to contemporaries in the Divine Comedy. This does not apply to all authors. For example, reading a Shakespeare biography before reading the plays will not bring the same benefits to the understanding of allusions and references in his plays.)

  • Recommending not to read the guide ("Read the book, not the guide.") is rather strange advice, especially for a serious reader.
    – Tsundoku
    Commented Oct 11, 2021 at 12:46

Read the book, not the guide.

If you read a guide first, you will as likely as not approach the book with preconceptions based upon the guide author's opinions. Your opinion and interpretation of the book is more valid than theirs, because it is your own. Approach the book with an open mind.

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