The Right to Read the End First

With each new Harry Potter book release it would begin again—angry complaints that someone had “spoiled” the book for someone else. Not by leaving it out in the rain (as did one of my students in 1998 with my copy of the first book), but by making mention of something in the book in a public forum that was seen by others as spoiling their reading. Along with this came less than complimentary comments about those who read the end of the book first.

This came to mind upon reading Alison Morris’s post, “Are You Prone to Peeking?” and the associated comments. I appreciated Alison’s gentle query; a none-peeker she was curious about those who did. As an occasional peeker (more below), I was relieved that she only asked and did not place judgement on those who did. Unfortunately, too many others do.

So first of all, when and why do I peek? I do so when I am worried, when I’m racing through the book barely paying attention to any of the writing, only the plot, to find out if the characters are okay. I admit that I did page ahead just to see that Harry was okay at the end of that final book. I didn’t want to know how or why, just that he was okay and that Hermoine and Ron were too. I cared about them, a lot, and the idea that they wouldn’t survive their grand adventure troubled me greatly. I very quickly knew as I began reading that I needed that worry set at rest so I could get into the book to enjoy the adventure, to find out how they made it safely to the end.

I hadn’t thought about it, but I suppose there have been occasions where I’ve looked ahead, as some commenters on Alison’s blog described, to see if the book was one I wanted to finish. That is, I might find it slow going and rather than immediately quitting, I might check further along to see if something there made it worth continuing.

Now, what bothers me so much about this issue is that some make it a moral issue. They write about it being a bad thing to do. Some get furious. Authors who feel they have carefully created a particular reading experience have expressed their discontent when readers do not take the route they had in mind.

“I [J.K. Rowling] loathe people who say, ‘I always read the ending of the book first.’ That really irritates me,” she said. It’s like someone coming to dinner, just opening the fridge and eating pudding, while you’re standing there still working on the starter. It’s not on. “Harry ‘s fate known to millions, yet still secret.” MSNBC July 24, 2007

Just as I think it is perfectly fine not to finish a book, so I think it is okay to read ahead if you need to. After all, once the book is in the hand of the reader, it becomes theirs. It is no longer the author’s, the publisher’s, the bookseller’s, or the librarian’s (temporarily as it will be back in the library again, of course). I really like Philip Pullman’s concept of the democracy of reading. That reading is a private act that we readers are in charge of.

Nor do we have to read it [the book] in a way determined by someone else. We can skim, or we can read it slowly; we can read every word, or we can skip long passages; we can read it in the order in which it presents itself, or we can read it in any order we please; we can look at the last page first, or decide to wait for it; we can put the book down and reflect, or we can go to the library and check what it claims to be fact against another authority; we can assent, or we can disagree. “The War on Words”, Guardian, November 4 2004

And there is Daniel Pennac’s Rights of the Reader with #2 being the right to skip. I’d go further and say readers have the right to skip about…to the end and back to the middle… wherever they want to go. Every book does not have to be read in a linear way.

So, please, don’t think I’m being bad, rude, unethical, or something else when I chose in my private act of reading to not read a book the way you did. Authors, please do not be offended if I read the end…it really just means you’ve done something right…made me care enough about your characters to want to know they end the story okay! The democracy of reading rules!

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8 Comments

Filed under Reading

8 responses to “The Right to Read the End First

  1. I hear you. I very often read the end first, to enable me to relax into the story and not fear. Or, if a character I love comes to a bad end, I am somehow comforted by the knowing.

    It is part of the same mindset, I think, as not minding spoilers. I love knowing whodunit. I like knowing what the last scene is. It does not spoil my enjoyment, nay, sometimes it enhances it.

    Of course, I loathe surprises of all kinds, and like to know what my Christmas gifts are ahead of time. So maybe this is all of a piece. But a piece of what, I am not sure.

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  2. Sometimes, I skip ahead to the end. It may be because I want to know the main character survives to the end; other times, I’m having trouble getting into the book and reading the end lets me know whether or not I want to finish the book.

    I’m a bit annoyed at those who get annoyed at how I enjoy the book. If someone reads mainly for plot, I guess they imagine the only reason to read is “what happens next.” And while that is sometimes my motivation, just as often it is “why does this happen,” and reading the end allows me to enjoy the writing, the style, the characters.

    That said, it’s my choice; for the Potter books, I don’t read the endings because the reveals and plotting is part of what I enjoy about the books.

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  3. I used to be a habitual peeker. I abandoned books because I read the last few pages first and didn’t like they way they ended. Now I’m a more selective peeker, for exactly the reasons you’ve mentioned. Sometimes I need to know what’s coming so I can enjoy what’s in front of me.

    I have a similar relationship with spoilers for TV shows and movies. I’ve tried to wean away from them, but sometimes I’m just a lot happier if I know where things are going.

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  4. Kristin

    I read the last couple of chapters of the last Harry Potter book before I read the beginning. I knew that I wouldn’t have time to get it read before most of my patrons had read it, and I needed to know how it ended. I even looked on Wikipedia to find all of the spoilers.

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  5. This is very refreshing to read. I am someone who often seeks out plot spoilers. I am perfectly fine with knowing the ending and watched the final episodes of “Six Feet Under,” in fact, after reading the plot synopsis for each one. I do that with books often, too. In some ways, if you know the ending, you can — arguably, I suppose — appreciate more how the author gets you there.

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  6. You’re absolutely right – I resent those people that pass negative judgement on “peekers”. Let’s all read the way we like to and enjoy our community of readers as a whole. Life is too short for people to be upset about the order in which I read a book!

    And what is it about these “peeker” blog posts (yours and Alison’s) that make people strike a very confessional tone? I find it incredibly odd.

    That said, I’m an occasional peeker. 8-)

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  7. Christine

    Hi!

    Thanks for your blog, I’ve been lurking aned reading it for a few months and really enjoy it.

    I’d like to add another idea to this discussion about peeking. I definitely agree on the fact that everyone is entitled to read in whatever way they please and that no-one has the right to criticize peeking on moral grounds. I tend not to peek myself, because the first time you read a book is the only one ever in which you can read it without knowing the end, unless you put it away for years and re-discover it anew, and even so, you might still have vague memories of it. So the more I suspect I’ll like a book, the less I’ll peek and skip during the first reading, to preserve that experience. Then, I do re-read a lot, and the rereading is almost never linear.

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  8. I never understood people passing judgment on how other people read. Everyone makes choices about how they read for their own reasons and none are more “right” than others.

    I work in a bookstore and one of my co-workers read the end of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows right away, as soon as she got hers after working the release party. A lot of people were horrified and got really upset with her, but she explained why she did it really reasonably. She had to work all weekend – eight hours Saturday, eight hours Sunday and then again eight hours on Monday. We’re the biggest bookstore in town and everyone not only comes to buy books from us, they come to hang out in our store. There was absolutely no possible way she was going to get through all three of those days without having the ending of the book spoiled for her by a customer who didn’t mean to do so, but mentioned what happened in range of her hearing. Instead of waiting and letting that happen and being really disappointed, she decided to read it for herself so that she could experience it as it was written (even if she had to wait for all the lead-up to it). That way she wouldn’t have to walk around for three days trying really hard not to hear any incidental conversations just *in case* they might be spoiler-filled. I thought that made sense and she stuck to her guns on defending her choice to do so, even though a lot of people got really mad at her, saying she was ruining the experience and everything. But she never told anyone the ending, so it wasn’t like she was ruining it for them and I think she made a perfectly rational choice for herself. She could read the book any way she wanted or needed to.

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