If you're looking for a "first book" to read and don't already have a working knowledge of Hebrew and Aramaic (never mind Greek and Latin), don't start here. Rather, start with Jacob Neusner's Introduction to Rabbinic Literature
I mean no disrespect to this marvelous reference book. If you are going to do serious, academic study of rabbinic literature, you must consult this book. But the book assumes a general knowledge of the Bible, the ancient and medieval worlds, and a familiarity with literary-critical methods of study. Otherwise, you're going to be lost. It's an "Introduction" in same genre as "Introductions" to the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament: questions of origin, history, authorship, manuscript witnesses to the text, literary genre and more. You should also have a general knowledge of the history of Judaism in its historical context.
A great value of the book is the detailed bibliography. In one sense, the book is an extended bibliographic essay on the Talmud and Midrash.
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