The other day, I was listening to an interview on National Public Radio with Emma Donoghue, the author of Room. It’s a novel about a five-year-old whose entire life has been spent with his mother in a small room where his mother –a victim of kidnapping — has been kept since before he was conceived. The book sounds horrifying, fascinating, and tremendously well done.
I don’t know how the story ends. The interviewer was very careful not to give away anything about that. The reviews I looked up online after getting home were equally circumspect.
This is all quite admirable for those of you who think a book shouldn’t be ruined by knowing the ending beforehand. But I’m here to tell you that unless and until I know how that book ends, I won’t buy it. And I won’t start reading it.
Most of you will doubtless be horrified by this. To which I respond: Get over it. I’m a longtime reader, with a graduate degree in literature (if that means anything). My reading experience is just as legitimate as yours. I’m not asking you to read this way, but I’m not going to apologize for the way I process texts. Anyone who wants me to read his/her/its story will simply have to deal with that.
The question of just why I read this way has to do, I think, with how strongly I identify with the characters in the fiction I’m reading. I literally feel what they’re feeling — or what they ought to be feeling, in cases such as those of stupid teenagers who ought to feel more embarrassed than they do about their own idiotic actions. (This is one reason, by the way, that I shall never watch a Mister Bean movie.) This makes reading a very intense experience for me. It also means I have to be pretty careful about decisions about just what I’m going to read. Knowing what’s coming in a story helps me do that.
It’s not just a matter of eliminating stories that end badly. Very often when I flip ahead to find out the end of an intense story, even if the news isn’t good for the main character, I’ll keep on going. Knowing what’s coming helps me to get a grip on myself emotionally. It allows me to continue — though there are also times when, knowing where the story is going, I’ll decide it’s not worth my time. That’s my prerogative.
The other thing you have to understand is that for me, knowing the ending in advance doesn’t spoil a story. Pretty much any story that I like, I reread. Usually I like it better the second time around. Knowing what’s going to happen, I don’t have to race through, but can appreciate the journey. It’s like a first-time conversation with the person who’s going to become your best friend. You may click initially, but things get much better over time. First impressions are lasting impressions only if they’re so negative that you don’t bother to collect any later impressions further down the road. A good book is much like a good friend in that respect — for me at least.
The one exception I try to make is when I’m reading something to give revision comments to the writer. In those cases, I try to stick to a strictly linear reading, so that the writer will have the benefit of my impressions and misconceptions, uncontaminated by knowledge of what comes later. I’m not honestly sure that’s the best idea, though. Wouldn’t it be better to accurately reflect the kind of reader I really am, rather than imitate someone I’m not? But I try.
God, we’re told, knows the end from the beginning, whether that’s through a kind of mechanical foreknowledge based on his thorough knowledge of the present, or some way of standing outside of time, or something else.
In wanting to know the ending of stories before I get very far in them, it can be supposed that I’m wanting the power of God — something we limited mortals don’t possess in real life. Each of us, after all, must live life as it comes to us. Isn’t it a form of cheating, of escapism, for me to demand something different in my reading experience?
Except that this isn’t the case. God, if you’re a Mormon, is someone you believe has indeed revealed the ending of the drama, though not all the intermediate acts. He tells us how things will end up so that we may trust him along the way.
Which, it occurs to me, really is what I want in my reading. When I read a story, I enter a world whose god — the author — is largely unknown to me. Before I venture into that world, I want to know whether it’s the work of one of those gods who delights in the pain of his or her creation: a god of vengeance, a god of mercy, a god of suffering, a god of indolence, a god of unjust power and cruel immorality. I want to know what kind of experience awaits me. This, it seems to me, isn’t too much to ask.