Why I Read the End First

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John "caught" me the other day reading the end of a book first. "Does it spoil the fun for you?" he asked. "Isn't it sort of cheating?"

Despite what my middle school English teacher taught me, I usually read the end of a book first. It helps me enjoy the book more. As I explained to John, when I read the end first, I can gladly work my way through the rest of the book knowing that the ending is sound.

Sonlight student Luke C gets to the end of a good read

It turns out I'm not alone. A study by the University of California San Diego suggests that readers actually enjoy a story more when they know the ending right from the beginning.

You can read about the study in an article by Jonah Lehrer called "Spoilers Don't Spoil Anything." (But just a heads up—the article contains a little language that I would not use and some might find offensive.) Lehrer defends his own tendency to read the ending first saying that "I like the story more because the suspense is contained." I agree.

I don't want to spend hours reading a book only to be disappointed by a cheap or unsatisfying ending. If it doesn't have a good ending—if the protagonist doesn't transform and grow in character, if the story doesn't go anywhere—then I have better books to read with my time. But once I know those things do happen, I can watch the story unfold and notice many beautiful nuances I may have missed otherwise.

Take the marvelous 2010 Newbery winner, When You Reach Me as an example. The author masterfully crafts the story; all the bits and pieces throughout the book finally coalesce at the end. Throughout the story, the heroine comes into contact with all sorts of strange people and events. If you don't know how it ends, you could find it kind of scary. If I hadn't read the end first, I would have spent all my energy wondering where it was going and whether the author would suitably tie up the loose ends.

But having read the end first, I saw how all the pieces do in fact come together and resolve. So as I read through the work, I picked up on a hundred nuances and subtleties I may have otherwise missed.

Isn't this why we re-read our favorite works? We know how they end; we know we aren't in for a surprise twist. But we still enjoy the suspense of watching the story unfold and seeing the intricacies of how the author weaves the tale.

As you may know, my favorite books of all time are The Chronicles of Narnia. I've read them about twice a year each year since fourth grade. I'm certainly not surprised anymore by the plots. Yet I still delight in each re-reading because I get to watch these masterpiece stories unfold. I come at each story from a slightly different place in life each time. I can soak in the artfulness of the stories and appreciate the different nuances I notice each time.

I think you can get some of these same benefits on a first reading of a book simply by reading the end first.

Of course, you don't have to read the end first. It works well whichever way you prefer. And that may be one more reason to love books over other media (or at least in addition to other media). I think you need to work through movies and video games in order; books continue to demonstrate their flexibility.

So mom or dad, if you choose to stay up to finish a Read-Aloud and see how it ends, feel more than free to do so. You'll remove tension from your life because you won't worry about whether it ends well. AND you still get to enjoy the book when you finish it with your children. The best of both worlds!


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