The Many Ways of Reading a Book

I recently learned that some readers start a new book by first reading the end.

Book last page

To clarify, I’d always heard that some people do this.

However, it wasn’t until I read the comments on a recent Twitter post about content/trigger warnings vs. spoilers in books and whether they represent the same thing that I came to realize just how many people do this, and also some of the reasons why.

Reasons I observed included the following:

  • General curiosity and/or impatience to know the ending
  • To ensure the ending is a happy one before proceeding to read the story
  • Finding it stressful to not know upfront if the ending is happy
  • To judge whether the ending is satisfying and skillful enough to make committing to read the whole book worthwhile
  • Enjoying the experience of seeing how the story arrives at an ending that is already known

To every one of these all I can say is that I would never and I’m horrified! The stress, the uncertainty, the curiosity and impatience—that’s what I’m after as a reader.

But at the same time, I get it. There are many different ways of reading a book, and I realize my own habits might be equally horrifying to some.

I’m at the complete opposite end of the spectrum.

I like to go into a story knowing largely nothing about it.

Even in the age of social media, where everything is talked about constantly, this is entirely possible. I spend inordinate amounts of time on Twitter, which, of all the social media platforms, only allows 280 characters per post.

This is room only for the story’s premise, while the attached cover image (I totally judge books by their cover. Everybody does; that’s why it exists) gives hints on the story’s genre and tone.

That’s literally all I go on in deciding to read a book. If it’s a new book by an author I’d read and enjoyed before, I might not even look at the premise, instead going by just the genre and the author’s name.

I never read the blurb on the back of the book (or on its product description page for ebooks). In books that have character lists and/or maps in the opening pages, I skip that part too.

(Correction: I never read the blurb unless I’m already a decent way through the book yet still can’t figure out what the story is supposed to be about. I’ll check the blurb to find out what the author and publisher think it’s about. If I’m actually reading the blurb it means things are NOT going well with the story.)

More than anything when reading, I want to experience the story like the main character does—as it happens, knowing no more about what’s going on and what’s to come at any moment than they do.

For this reason, I almost never reread books. Of course one can gain all sorts of additional insight about a story upon subsequent readings. But the revelation of a story’s unknown ending only happens once.

Once I’ve had that experience, more than anything my perspective on rereading is, “What’s the point?”

Forbearance of forewarning

Needless to say I despise spoilers of any of the key plot points and turning points of a story. And yet I find them surprisingly easy to avoid, despite my inordinate amount of time on Twitter.

When you’re barely looking to know anything about a story I guess it’s that much easier to avoid accidentally seeing the wrong thing (I never finished reading the Harry Potter series and I still don’t know how that ends).

Book pages heartThus my own thoughts on content warnings and whether they constitute spoilers is…they might. I’ve seen some content warning lists that are quite specific; much more so than the vague “contains scenes of violence, nudity, and sexuality” warnings we get for shows on Netflix. For example, warning of a major character’s death.

(Even in not indicating which character, knowing this in advance would change my reading of the story, leaving me braced for this event every time a main character did something dangerous—the purpose of a content warning in the first place.)

But no one would be forced to read content warnings. Avoiding them would be as easy as literally turning a page.

That so many people are asking for content warnings clearly speaks of a need. I barely want to know a book’s title before reading it, yet not everything needs to serve everyone for that thing to still have inherent value.

I support the movement within the bookish community to include content warnings in all books. And if someone with reading habits as unusual and restrictive as mine can do so, all other readers should be able to as well.

~

(Image source #1 and #2)

9 thoughts on “The Many Ways of Reading a Book

  1. I only go to the ending if I’ve already invested in reading the first couple of chapters – and I get that sinking feeling things are not going to get any better plotted or written.

    The investment of the first chapters entitles me, in my estimation, to know the ending – so I go read it. Once in a while that makes me read the middle; usually not.

    Many authors are terrible at ending a story. It doesn’t have to be a happy ending, but it does have to go with the story – and be chosen by the author, and presented properly. If you want ambiguous endings, live life. I know, I know – curmudgeon.

    But I read to find out the ending to the setup, not to take a vague walk through another life. I absolutely hate the endings to most of the true literary fiction I’ve read, including The Grapes of Wrath and Bellow’s Save the Day. The writers, in my estimation, started off on something interesting, and had no clue how to end – so they just stopped.

    Oh, well.

    We’re all different.

    Like

    • That is also a way of doing it! How far from the end do you normally check? I feel like I wouldn’t really know enough of what all came before to truly judge its effectiveness. But then, the linear progression is very important to me in my writing practice as well. The thought of writing or revising non-sequentially is anathema to me.

      I do agree that a lot of endings to stories (both books and shows) are often unsatisfying, though. They often try to tie things up too much, usually happily, and it sometimes just feels stilted.

      Like

      • Maybe 2-5 chapters, sometimes sooner, others I’m fooled longer.

        MANY authors don’t know how to finish a book; they tend to be pantsers, in my experience. Since they haven’t been trying to prove a thesis the whole book, they can ramble or miss the mark.

        Many plotters are not so good at the writing part – their characters do what they’re told. But the stories still sell because people want good stories, and good plotting makes those stories ‘feel’ right, so they’ll put up with cardboard characterization.

        And a happy ending, to my mind, needs to be EARNED by characters going through hell – the way we hope never to be tested. Romances don’t have that, usually, even with their happy endings (but my sample size is small – I neither read nor write them, more’s the pity because they sell well).

        ‘Stilted’ is also a quality of cardboard characters – well-written characters should reach an end which feels motivated and right.

        Just random opinions from a curmudgeon.

        Like

  2. Agreed on so much of this! I prefer going into books knowing as little as possible or else I end up having expectations and am usually 100% disappointed. So the less I know, the better! And I absolutely support adding content warnings. I struggle with identifying what should and shouldn’t be included because so far, I have required none and have been able to handle everything I’ve read. So I always have to try and step away from myself when developing a list of trigger warnings for my own works. This was lovely to read! I fully support going into reading with no prior knowledge!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve developed trigger warning lists for my own writing as well, and while some of it does feel spoilery to me, if people want them they should be able to have them so long as they’re printed somewhere that those who don’t want them won’t stumble upon them my mistake. I’m not an especially “visual” person so I’ve never been triggered by a book myself (I don’t entirely “see” what’s happening in my head while reading) but it did happen once with a movie. I’m glad you enjoyed the post!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m with you Janna. Any preview other than genre and/or knowledge of the author would spoil a book for me. Likewise a list of characters (why?) or a prologue that is actually an epilogue. And book reviews I’ll only read once I’ve done my own.

    Like

    • I think some readers will refer back to the list of characters once they start reading but I’m usually able to keep them all straight. If not, I’m more like to flip back to when they’re first introduced in the story than go to the character list for fear of spoiling myself by seeing some other character listed who hasn’t been introduced yet.

      I’m iffy about prologues in general. I do read them but most of them I do find to be unnecessary.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Great post. I’ve waffled over including content warnings on books in my reviews for the same reason: will it be considered spoilery? (And I’m also one to want minimal info, but it’s more critical to me with films/tv series than with books.) But, yes, formatting can help you avoid seeing them if you don’t want to.
    It also reminds me of a tangential issue that was hinted at in at least one of the comments: That the ending can completely change how you feel about a book. I’ve had several that I enjoyed up until the ending, but the resolution leaves me cold, and then the book moves from something I’d heartily recommend to more “meh.” It makes it very hard to review and avoid spoilers–but I’ve started putting any spoiler-rich discussion below the main part, so that it can be avoided by readers as desired.
    However, I really wish WordPress had an option like Reddit does, where text can be unblocked at the reader’s choice–that would make the discussion far less disjointed.

    Like

    • Thank you! Yes, I wish WordPress had that option as well. I guess another option is the old-school practice of putting the spoilery text in the same colour as the background, which readers than have to highlight to read.

      Unless they are very vague, I do generally find content warnings spoilery, which can be a controversial thing to say. But as I concluded in the post, their being spoilery doesn’t mean they lack value and should not exist.

      Liked by 1 person

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