Why Would You Read The Last Page First?

tumblr_m28hunkihb1rqmm3jo1_1280Some years ago I used to belong to a local library book group.  We didn’t all read the same book but just met every month to talk about what books we had been reading and to pass on recommendations to those we thought might enjoy them. Inevitably, we all had very different tastes and, it transpired, very different reading habits, but we rubbed along and forgave each other what you might call our literary eccentricities. However, there was one member of the group whose approach towards a new book I could simply never understand. She would always turn to the last few pages and read those first. She said that she simply couldn’t read a book unless she knew in advance how it was going to end.   Now, I have written an entire PhD thesis on the final cause in narrative, arguing that the dénouement of a story dictates everything that goes before, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t still want to actually read a story in the order that the writer has chosen to present it and have the pleasure of anticipating (rightly or wrongly) what is to come.  Reading the last pages first seemed to me to be a bizarre idea until, that is, yesterday, when I found myself doing exactly that.

I had just picked up the latest novel by a writer I have been reading for decades. It is part of one of a number of series this author has established and while waiting for publication I had re-read its immediate predecessor. That re-reading had reminded me that the writer, never one for the faint-hearted, has, over the last two or three books, moved the truly shocking events from the climax of the story to the conclusion. Just when you thought the tale was completely wound up a last minute (last page) bombshell would explode, not only in the reader’s face, but usually in that of the main characters as well.  This is something that I think you can get away with once, twice if you are a very good writer, but more than that and it begins to look like a badly played out ploy to bring readers back for the next episode. In the case of this particular series the bombshell is almost always the result of a terrible error of judgment on the part of one particular character and destroys any sense of returning equilibrium the reader might have been anticipating.  Now, I’m sure that the writer would argue that the character concerned is behaving in a psychologically consistent way; my counter argument would be that nobody with her/his particular psychological flaws would still be walking the streets, let alone be holding down an extremely responsible job. In other words what has happened is that I no longer trust the writer to offer me a true picture of the world. And so, as I sat down to begin this latest book I found myself thinking, “has s/he done it again?” And, because I couldn’t face another final pages’ disappointment I read the last chapter first.

The book will go back to the library unread.

Don’t get me wrong, it isn’t that I want all books to end with ‘and they all lived happily ever after’ – I am no Bilbo Baggins. During the summer I read the final novel in Robin Hobb’s Farseer series, Assassin’s Fate.  Now there is a novel that didn’t end the way I wanted it to  if ever there was one.  I read the last forty or so pages through streaming tears. But, while it may not have been the ending I wanted, it was the right ending; it was a true ending and in fact far more of a validation of the characters and the world they inhabit than anything I had been looking for. Hobb’s conclusion didn’t destroy my belief in her fictional world, it vitally enhanced it.

So, when Hobbs next puts pen to paper I will give no thought whatsoever to turning to the last page first because I trust her to create a fictional world that will respect its own truth. The other author, I’m afraid, will join a small list of writers that I have enjoyed but who I no longer read.  The paradox is that fiction only works when we can believe in its internal truth.

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36 thoughts on “Why Would You Read The Last Page First?

  1. I can understand why you did here! It’s not a thing I often do, but I have on very rare occasions checked out the end of the plot of a classic when it’s long and I want to read it all but need to know what happens to a particular character and I’m not getting through the book quickly enough! But that is *very* rare!!

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  2. Not something I’ve ever done but my partner made a habit of it. I’m not sure if he still does or would admit to it given my astonishment that anyone would do such a thing when he mentioned it. Oddly, he’s a crime reader whereas I am not.

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    • Perhaps crime reading promotes a certain type of last page reading. I certainly wouldn’t want to know whodunit, but in a series where I have become attached to the characters I can envisage wanting to know that they have come though safely. It can be a nasty shock to find you’ve suddenly lost someone. I can think of a recently reviewed novel where this was the case and I’m still reeling, but won’t say more for fear of spoiling others enjoyment.

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  3. My grandmother always read that way, the ending first. When I was a child, I wanted to know if it killed the excitement. She said it only made her more curious. 🙂

    I understand how the other author has been using it a USP. Maybe.

    I finished two books in ‘The Farseer Trilogy’ and third one didn’t grow on me. I wasn’t sure what to do, so I abandoned the book. Now I am inspired to give it another chance. The first two books got me out of my reading slump. Perhaps I should revisit the last book. Thank you for this post. 🙂

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    • In fact, Deepika, there are sixteen Farseer novels, seventeen of you count the novella as well. They comprise four trilogies and a quartet. It was the last book in the last trilogy that I read this summer. I am very jealous that you still have fourteen to read and I would definitely get back to them as soon as you can.

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  4. I have sneaked a peep at the end in the past when I’ve been anxious about a particular character – only to regret it. So I resist the temptation these days. You’ve got me wondering which author you’re talking about – but I know you won’t tell …

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  5. Im hoping this isnt the author that I’ve been reading for a few years….
    The only time I have ever read the end first is when I was trying to get ready for a tutorial but running out of time to finish the whole book.

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  6. My sister always reads the end before choosing a book. She was my reading guide when I was a young child, and she would drive me insane in the library by reading the ends of scores of books before choosing the ones she wanted to take. I understand why you did it this time, but in general I can’t understand what would make people do it. It’s always sad to give up on an author once loved, but I agree – books must feel true, at least within their own context, or they just begin to feel like trickery.

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    • Yes, it was the pain of having to say I wasn’t going to read any more by this author that really prompted the post. I’d seen it coming for some time but like any bereavement however much you are prepared it is still terrible when it finally happens.

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  7. I’m glad I’m not alone in taking the occasional peek when things get too unbearably tense. It doesn’t happen very often and in general I’d hate to know the ending before it arrives. Your PhD sounds fascinating!

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  8. I don’t think I have ever read the end first – I’m pretty sure it would ruin the book for me. On the other hand, I’ve never tried it, so… 😉
    I’m glad you did it, though, and saved yourself from another painful ending!
    There’s a book blogger whose blog is called Reading the End. And I think she really does. Here’s a link: http://readingtheend.com/

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      • HI HELLO IT IS ME I read the end before I read the middle, ask me anything. :p

        I don’t, in fact, read the way your friend does — the last pages don’t tend to make much sense if you don’t have a rough notion of who the characters are and what the stakes of the book are. I’ll generally read a chunk of the beginning, then skip to the end, then read the rest of the book. I just enjoy it more that way. I don’t like suspense, and I DO like getting to see how the author put all the parts of the story together. I tried reading the traditional way for an entire month one time, and it was, you know, fine. I enjoyed all my books slightly less, was all.

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      • Actually, Jenny, you raise a point that has always puzzled me. How can the end make sense if you haven’t got at least some understanding of the exposition and the onset of the plot? In the instance I quoted I could make sense of the end because it was a series and I wanted to know what dire situation the author was going to leave their characters in this time. I couldn’t have done it if it had been a one-off. But then if it had been a one-off I wouldn’t have been worried in the first place.

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  9. My friend Jenny blogs at Reading the End because yes, she makes a habit of reading the ends of books. I often do this, but don’t think of it as a terribly big deal–often it’s just a peek, just a paragraph or so. I often pick out a page or two from the middle, also.
    Last week when I got a book I’m so anxious to read that I had to order it from Amazon UK (Nick Harkaway’s Gnomon) my adult son saw me take it out of the box, read the first page, flip to the end and read a paragraph, and then open it in the middle, at which point he said something to the effect of “are you crazy?” I guess he has not watched me get a new book often, because that’s a pretty typical scenario for me with a new book.
    When I was writing my own dissertation, I got interested in how many people read prologues and/or afterwords and appendices, partly because of my own flipping habits and partly because with satire it’s a good way to clue yourself in, looking at the first and last things that are said.
    Come to think of it, I do this with academic writing, too. When I’m working with a student writer I often read the introduction and then flip to the conclusion, to find out how much of the thesis is lurking at the end of the first draft.

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    • I do that with book reviews in the press, Jeanne, especially if they are by a reviewer I don’t know. It gives me an idea as to whether or not I am going to find the book they are discussing worth the time to read the entire review. I don’t do it with reviewers or bloggers I know because in those cases I know whether they are likely to have reviewed books I would like anyway.

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  10. I do this all the time, there comes a point in most books where I want to know what happens at the end (long before I reach the end), and then enjoy finding out how that end is reached even more. I also like spoilers, enjoy plays far more when I’m familiar with the plot, happily re read very familiar books – all of it.

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    • As I said to someone else, it all depends on how you get your pleasure from reading and thank goodness we are not all the same. Interestingly, I do get a lot of pleasure from re-reading when I can give more attention to how a writer has crafted their work and I still go to see every new Shakespeare production at Stratford even though in some cases I can practically quote the play from beginning to end. Of course, in that instance I am also looking for how the director has chosen to interpret the work. I don’t know if you are going to see the current Twelfth Night. I saw it yesterday. Last night I thought it was simply dire, this morning I have decided that it is not only dire, it is also a travesty. Oh well, some you win and some you lose!

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      • I’m not, whilst Anthony and Cleopatra stood up to the A Level treatment, Twelfth Night did not. It’s a play that sums up everything I struggle with in Shakespeare so (twins, low comedy to low, principle characters I can’t warm to…). I’m considering the Merry Wives of Windsor for next year though.

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      • It is one of my favourite plays, perhaps because I first encountered it in very different circumstances to you. I have a post going up about it during the week. I’m looking forward to The Merry Wives, mainly because David Troughton is a long time favourite actor of mine. It’s going to be modern dress, however, and although I have no problem with that on principle, I’m not sure that it works with this play. I’ve seen two modern dress productions, neither of which sat easily.

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  11. I always read the end (not first, but after reading a couple of chapters) when I suspect the reading isn’t going to go well: something is off. Rather than stop right there, I will read the last chapter or two, to see if I can find a reason for making the effort to continue. Maybe 2-5% of books survive this treatment (my radar is getting better), and are then read to the end.

    I can tell with most books from their beginnings, but there is a certain class of writer who starts one thing, and finishes another, and I’ve read too many of these to the disappointing end.

    I like to give the author a longer sampling than just the final page or two. After all, I have been wrong before.

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    • I definitely agree that there are some books that just seem off. I’ve recently abandoned one of those and by a favourite writer as well. I didn’t try reading the end because I was already so disenchanted that nothing could have saved it, but I can see how that might be a useful tactic in some instances.

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      • I figure, if I’ve invested enough time to read several chapters (in some cases, more than that), and already have the book, I am entitled to know how the writer finishes it.

        In the one or two cases where I found myself in the wrong, I was quite pleased to go back and read the middle, and enjoy the end, now motivated properly.

        It is rare – but so is winning the lottery.

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  12. This is such an interesting discussion! It seems the element of surprise is one that a lot of us cherish (including me, I rarely skip to the end unless I am feeling extremely anxious that someone is going to die and the uncertainty is keeping me awake yes I know that they are all fictional characters and don’t really exist…) and privilege above, say, understanding the structure of a novel better (though I think you can understand it by reading linearly too). Yet I also love rereading. I suppose that this is having one’s cake (surprise the first time round) and eating it (rereading to see how it fits together). 🙂

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    • Oh don’t worry, Helen, I can get very worried up about fictional characters especially if they come from a series and I have a long history with them. In fact, that is why I read the end of this particular novel first because I felt that the author had practically abused them.

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