This past Friday, the Dear Book Lover column in The Wall Street Journal (October 24, 2008) was asked the following question.
“Is it wrong to skip to the end of a book and then go back?”
Cynthia Crossen’s reply began, “It’s very, very wrong, and I do it whenever necessary. Instead of feeling guilty, I blame the author, because he or she has obviously paced the story badly.”
This second sentence brought me up short—and not because I’m an author. You see, I’ve been guilty of committing this “very, very wrong” act but, when I do so, it is a compliment to the author. I only skip to the end when I care enough about one or more of the characters that I want to find out if he or she “makes it.”
When I skip, I have a little ritual. I scan a page, trying hard not to read what’s there, just looking to see if a favored character or characters is/are talking. If they are, I am relieved. If they are not, I may read a bit more to see if they are out of the action for a reason I can accept. (I’m a firm believer in the “good death.”)
Then I either go back to the novel or not.
I decided to get responses from a few other people. My husband, Jim, had little to add. He never skips.
Then I remembered my dear friend, Weber. Back in the day when we both had time, we read each other’s manuscripts. I remembered being horrified to learn he read the endings early on. I thought I’d also check with his wife, Sharon, who is not only an avid reader, but is also a former bookstore manager.
Weber’s response was that he does indeed skip, and tends to do so more and more now that his time is tighter. Sometimes he skips when the plot goes in an odd direction and he wonders if the writer can pull it off. Sometimes it’s just to see if the book will be a waste of energy: no closure or a contrivance that doesn’t suit his taste.
Sharon usually doesn’t skip but, when she does, it’s because she is concerned about some character. She admitted that an experience with a historical novel she enjoyed, where if she’d skipped to the end she never would have finished, made her wary of skipping.
Next, I tried my long-time pen-pal, Paul. He’s a reporter and enthusiastic reader. His wife, Maxine, an ombudsman for nursing homes, is also a dedicated reader.
Paul said he rarely skips. Like Sharon, he was influenced by a bad experience that came from skipping. In his case, this was a final sentence that gave the whole plot away.
Maxine does skip, but only “sometimes.” Her technique is to read “sideways” so as to get a sense of whether the ending is happy or not, without absorbing the details.
Their good friends Kathy and Andy are polar opposites. Andy, a mechanical engineer, never peeks. Kathy, however, does skip “occasionally,” mostly when she has gotten impatient with a book and wants to find out the ending.
Trying to spread my informal survey out, I next asked another pen-pal, Scot, and his wife, Jane. I met Scot and Jane when we all worked on the Chronomaster computer game (he was assistant producer and director; she was art director). They now run their own web development company, so I thought they’d provide a good balance.
Scot “occasionally” skips to the end, often because of concerns about the characters. However, this usually does not influence whether or not he’ll finish the book. He finishes “99%” of what he reads.
Jane, however, joins the ranks of those who never skip to the end, in her case because she wants to experience the story in its entirety, and skipping would ruin that.
Conclusions? Almost everyone skips. However, the reasons for doing so are widely varied. Unlike Ms. Crossen’s conclusion, few of these reasons have anything to do with the pacing. Only one person (Kathy) cited this specifically.
Where do you fit in? Do you think skipping is “wrong” or a valid reading technique? I’m curious!