It would probably be more accurate to call this post, “Why I Read Chapter One and then Immediately Read the End,” but that doesn’t sound very snappy, does it?
If you’re the sort of person who views the world through a “two types of people” grid (e.g., “There are two types of people in this world: dog people, and cat people”), then you may already know that reading the end is one such polarizing issue. For in my experience, there are two types of people in this world: those who unfailingly read a book from start to finish, and those who read the end long before they read the middle. (In my case, often before reading Chapter Two.)
Over the years I’ve been amazed by the reactions to my admission (confession?) that I often read the end. Some people are astonished (“Why would you do that?”). Others are appalled (“How could you do that?”). Quite a few have absolutely no interest in hearing my reasons; they seem to feel punishment should immediately follow confession of the “crime” without any sort of hearing whatsoever. (But if you’re one of those people, then you probably stopped reading this post after glancing at the title, so I’ll assume that if you’re still with me you are interested in my reasons.)
It’s not as though most stories rely on any genuine element of surprise, anyway. Think about it: genre fiction, by definition, follows particular patterns. Before you even pluck a cozy mystery off the shelf, you know the murderer will be brought to justice. Before you download the latest romance novel, you know the lovers will get together. Before you plunge into a traditional epic fantasy, you know the hero will achieve the quest, even if s/he must pay a price.
“But wait!” (I can hear the protests now; believe me, I’ve heard them before.) Even though the murderer will be caught, you don’t know his/her identity in Chapter One (at least, if the author has any skill at all you don’t). You don’t know the exact nature of the obstacles the lovers will face. You don’t know exactly what the hero will battle before s/he completes the quest; you might not even know the goal of the quest!
And if, for you, these kinds of surprises are the most important features of a story, then of course it makes sense that you read your books from start to finish. And I say: bless you! Have at it! Enjoy!
But the stories I love most didn’t find their way into my heart due to any element of surprise. Which leads us to:
The First Reason I Read the End: Let’s look at a different issue through the polarity grid. There are two types of people in this world: those who read a book once and are done (no matter how much they enjoyed it) because they “already know how it ends,” and those who reread the books they love.
I’m a life-long member of Team Reread. I’ve always reread the stories I love, and I’ve been known to reread the stories I love most on a regular basis. In fact, when I was a child I became used to hearing my mother, on observing the cover of whatever familiar volume I was curled up with on a Saturday afternoon, cry out: “Are you reading that again?”
Well, yeah. And here’s why: if I love a story, it’s probably because I like (or at least respect) one or more of the characters. Often, I love their humor. I appreciate the challenges they face, and what they go through to reach the outcome of the story. And (most importantly) entering the story is like entering a familiar world. In the case of some fantasy fiction in particular, I wish I could visit that world (e.g., Narnia). But the only way I can visit is to read the book, and if that means rereading The Chronicles of Narnia so I can go to Narnia, then I’m going to reread The Chronicles of Narnia! It makes absolutely no difference whatsoever that I already know how all of those stories end.
I know I’m not the lone member of Team Reread. And if you think about it, the existence of Team Reread is proof that many of our most beloved stories don’t stand or fall on the element of surprise. Looking at this from another angle: if a story’s primary appeal is that element of surprise, then it probably won’t become a favorite story, because it won’t be something you’ll want to reread. You won’t enjoy spending more time with those characters; you won’t want to revisit their adventures in those places. Visiting once was okay, but you’ve seen all you cared to see-and you certainly wouldn’t want to live there!
I’ll explain Reasons 2 and 3 in the next installment.