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Do You Save the Ending or Read It First?

My mother, about whom I write in my new book, was one of those readers who always read the end of a book first. She said she couldn't wait to find out what was going to happen and that knowing the ending actually increased her enjoyment. I was somewhat skeptical of the claim.

But now I see there's a study that indicates, as reported by Alison Flood in the Guardian's "Books Blog," that, indeed, "spoilers actually enhance your enjoyment" of a book. Flood writes, "A study by Nicholas Christenfeld and Jonathan Leavitt of UC San Diego's psychology department, due to be published in the journal Psychological Science, gave subjects 12 short stories, by authors including Agatha Christie, Roald Dahl, and John Updike. Some were presented in their classic form, others with spoiler paragraphs, with each version read by at least 30 people. And you know what? The spoiled readers actually had more fun."

Still, I can't ever bring myself to read the ending of a book first. But after reading this blog and some of the comments that followed, I realized that whenever I read a book for the second or third or fourth time I do already know the ending. And it's a different kind of reading experience. I slow down because I'm not racing ahead to see what will happen. I focus more on the prose and the observations. I suppose in some ways I do enjoy reading the book more.

And yet, nothing will make me give up the heart-pounding experience of reading a great novel for the first timenothing will make me give up the heart-pounding experience of reading a great novel for the first time and being desperate to find out what will happen. One of my favorite books is A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry. I read it when I was sick in bed, covered in chicken pox, which I was unlikely enough never to get as a child and so got as an adult. I lay there in bed, frantic in my efforts to try to keep from scratching. When the pox were at their very worst, I discovered this book; I was so enthralled by Mistry's story and so in love with his characters and so eager to find out what would happen, that for hours at a time I forgot about the pox entirely and didn't itch at all.

Had I known what was going to happen, I think I would have itched.

Even when not covered in pox, I crave the sensation of being addicted to a book. I especially long for the unique combination of pleasure and torture I feel when I am nearing the end of a long book I am loving, when I've spent days or even weeks in an author's world, and I now see the pages dwindling to a precious few, and I'm torn between wanting to know what finally happens and wanting to stay in that world with those characters.

This was also my experience while reading Dickens, Thackeray, Austen, Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison, and At Swim, Two Boys by Jamie O'Neill, to name just a few authors and books.

If you are, like me, a reader who can't and won't read the last pages of a book first, you can't find out what happens without having to finish. Which is always bittersweet. It turns out that with reading, as with life, an annoying old saying may well be correct: you can't have your cake and eat it, too.

÷ ÷ ÷

Will Schwalbe is the author of The End of Your Life Book Club and coauthor of Send: Why People Email So Badly and How to Do It Better. He has worked in publishing (most recently as senior vice president and editor in chief of Hyperion Books); in digital media, as the founder and CEO of Cookstr.com; and as a journalist.


Books mentioned in this post

  1. At Swim, Two Boys
    Used Trade Paper $4.95
  2. A Fine Balance
    Used Trade Paper $1.95
  3. The End of Your Life Book Club
    Used Hardcover $9.95
  4. Song of Solomon (Oprah's Book Club) Used Hardcover $8.50


Will Schwalbe is the author of The End of Your Life Book Club

4 Responses to "Do You Save the Ending or Read It First?"

  1.  
    leap October 5th, 2012 at 1:14 pm

    Oh, I save the ending, but sometimes I like to get there all in one sitting. I remember the first time I managed to stay awake most of the night to get to the ending. It happened at the tail end of a summer vacation that had included a pilgrimage across Canada by train and ferry to PEI with my mother during my L.M. Montgomery phase. And, where I had discovered a new trilogy – the Emily books; I’m guessing it was one (or all) of those I stayed up to read. Maybe, if you’re speeding along to get to the ending of book 2, it’s so you can fully savor book 3, “to stay in that world with those characters.”

    Thanks for a delightful week of book blogging. I look forward to reading your book and a few of your recommendations.

  2.  
    Will Schwalbe October 6th, 2012 at 3:29 pm

    We are so alike -- I love that feeling of staying awake to get to a book's end. I never knew about the Emily books. I looked them up on powells.com and am really excited to get them for some terrific young people I know. Thanks! And thanks for your nice comments. Glad you like the blog and the recommendations. Will

  3.  
    DetroitSusan October 7th, 2012 at 1:36 pm

    I often read the end of a book first. It enables me to slow down and savor the book, without rushing to "find out what happens". However, some books fool you. When I read the last page of On Cold Mountain, I still did not know how it ended, gut I thought I did, so I slowed down.

  4.  
    Deborah HH October 16th, 2012 at 7:15 am

    I can't imagine reading the ending of a book before arriving there naturally. But the better a book is, the more I slow down to read instead of speeding up. Sometimes I can't bear what I am reading, and lay the book aside for a bit, then come back to it later.

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