Skipadeee-do-dah: Do You Peek?

While I was in D.C. for the American Library Association’s conference I found myself caught up in one of those perennial debates that arise among readers. That is, do you skip to the end of a book?

I’ve written about this topic before, when I was a featured writer for Tor.com. I here present my discussion and welcome your thoughts.

In October of 2008, the”Dear Book Lover” column in The Wall Street Journal 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, David 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.

Fascinating!

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 provided polar opposites. Andy, a mechanical engineer, never peeks. Kathy, however, did 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!

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18 Responses to “Skipadeee-do-dah: Do You Peek?”

  1. heteromeles Says:

    Yep, I skip all the time, and it’s great to find out I’m not alone. Generally, I’m somewhere between David Weber and you on why: mostly it’s about time and energy investment, sometimes it’s about emotional investment in a particular character.

    And sometimes I blame the author, but only when the question I’m settling is, “is it worth finishing this damn thing?”

    What I DO blame authors for is the attitude that we need to appreciate their work linearly, from beginning to end, in its entirety. That’s an ego stroke, certainly, but it’s also asking for a lot. My shelves are crammed with books that I bought and saved because they have some passage of great value, embedded in the middle of mush. Isn’t it enough that I bought it new?

  2. Debbie Says:

    I’m in the never skip category. Even if I care about a character, I savor not knowing if that character will make it or not. Anticipation. I love it.

    However, I broke this cardinal rule on Dan Simmon’s, “Drood”. This book has a wonderfully unreliable narrator — and I love unreliable narrators. I felt very safe in this character’s POV though I knew it was very warped and that he wasn’t the nicest of people. But then Simmons did something that I couldn’t forgive. I felt incredibly betrayed as a reader and couldn’t continue reading the book. This happens about 3/4 way through the book.

    I had a conversation about the book at Wiscon, and another writer who had read “Drood” was interesting in hearing my opinion. So I skipped to the end to see how it ended so I could talk about it. If I hadn’t had that conversation, I wouldn’t have even done that.

    I never had this kind of strong reaction to a book before. I have to TV shows and movies, but not books. Anyway, it’s the only time I skipped to the end of a book.

  3. Eric Says:

    I never skip in a book that I am enjoying. The suspense of not knowing how it is going to end always increases my enjoyment of the reading.

    I have broken this rule on a few occasions, however, when I became mired down in a plot that wasn’t holding my interest. I needed to know that the book was going to go somewhere that would recapture my attention, else I wouldn’t even be able to bring myself to continue reading.

  4. Ann M Nalley Says:

    I rarely skip, and I almost always finish every book I read.

    There is only one book I can recollect in the last 20 + years which I did not finish. I found is depressing and demoralizing ~ and was assured by a good friend who had already finished the book that nothing redemptive would happen as it progressed.

    Heteromeles wrote something which struck a strong chord with me. There are many, many books I have kept because there was a pure piece of Truth in the midst of something “middling.” That’s one reason I always finish the whole book; Truth shows up in many differing guises.

  5. Nicholas Says:

    I don’t skip anymore. I used to, but only to get some idea where the story might be ending, both location and events. I don’t remember completely why, though it was never about pacing.

    Now a days I join the ranks of those who prefer the uninterrupted journey. I used to not mind spoiler in books or movies. Now I do. And skipping can lead to a big spoiler if I’m not careful.

  6. Alan Robson Says:

    I rarely skip because it too often leads to disappointment. If I find that a favourite character really *does* die, I am likely to leave the rest of the book unread because, by not reading the events leading up to the death, I can convince myself that they never happened and therefore the character is still alive.

    There’s also the whole plot-spoiler aspect of skipping to consider. For example I have recently finished reading the new Janet Evanovich novel “Sizzling Sixteen” which has an absolutely wonderful, laugh out loud funny joke right at the end which completely changes the interpretation of large amounts of the plot. If I’d known this punch line earlier on it would, of course, have changed my understanding of the events. But not knowing put me on the same basis as the characters (who also were unaware of the “explanation”). We could wonder about it together as we travelled through the book. However now that I know the joke, I can re-read the novel with a whole new perception and get a whole new view of things. Those two utterly different ways of reading the book would not have been possible if I’d skipped, and therefore I’d have missed such a lot of enjoyment.

    So no — I almost never skip. It takes away all the fun.

  7. Jackie Says:

    There are probably more reasons for skipping than there are skippers – because there are a variety of reasons to skip. I rarely skip. I finish almost everything I start. Reasons I skip are – I HAVE to know now just cause the suspense got to me – or because I know It will be weeks before I can get back to the book. Because I am not liking the book – but I am looking for a reason to stick with it. Or my mood changed and I’m hoping the end of the book will suit me better. Remember that the reader brings herself and her life to the reading experience and that will dramatically change how we look at a book from time to time as well as reader to reader.

  8. Chad Cloman Says:

    I almost never skip. In the very few occasions where I do, it’s because the book is bad and I’m going to quit reading it — but I want to see how the plot resolves.

  9. janelindskold Says:

    Wow! Great comments.

    Oddly enough, just this past week I had an experience that is going to make me resist skipping. It’s similar to what Alan mentioned.

    I was reading Margery Allingham’s novel “Dancers in Mourning.” (Marvelous, expect to hear more about Allingham when I finish an on-going experiment).

    The ending literally twists around in the last two paragraphs. I would have missed so much of the impact if I’d skipped…

  10. Gail Mumma Says:

    I’ve never skipped in a book that I’ve liked. but I’ve often quit reading a book even when only part way into it. I read mostly mysteries and because I’m always trying new authors I’ve found many whose books were not worth finishing and not even interesting enough to look at the ending.. Mostly it’s because I don’t like the style of writing, other times it’s because the plot is too convoluted to bother with.

  11. Hilary Says:

    I sometimes look at the endings of books. But since I am almost entirely unconcerned with spoilers of any type, it really doesn’t usually effect my enjoyment or whether or not I finish a book. Sometimes I do it because I’m not sure it’s a story I want to read. Sometimes I do it to check up on a character I adore. Sometimes I do it out of curiosity.

    I look up plot elements to anime, tv shows, games, and movies on a regular basis. I wouldn’t say it effects how I watch/play these things. I still end up watching them/playing them, and I still enjoy them. You might say “the journey is more important than the destination” applies. I might know that a character does such and such, but actually seeing it unfold is much better. I think I do it mainly to figure out if investing my time in whatever it is will be worth it.

    There was one time I remember purposefully avoiding any and all spoilers/plot elements to something, and it was for one of the recent Zelda games. I didn’t have a Wii for a long time, so I couldn’t play it for two or three years after it came out, and I was so excited about it that I wanted to experience it without any idea of what was going to happen. 🙂

  12. Paul Says:

    Mickey Spillane used to say he tried to keep the solution to his mystery novels as close to the end as possible — the last paragraph, the last sentence, even the very last word. He only managed the last word in his third novel, “Vengeance is Mine!”, but it would sure spoil the book for anyone who peeked.

  13. Dominique Says:

    I usually skip. I just want to make sure no one is dead at the end of the book. I hate investing a bunch of emotional attachment into characters, and then finding out that they are dead at the end of the book. It takes me a week to recover from the grief. So, I just check and make sure everyone comes out alright in the end.

  14. Jim Zimmerman Says:

    I rarely skip. I like to slowly walk the walk with the author…My wife “scans,” a sort of speed reading. I sometimes question her about the book or article she’s reading and she has missed some parts. I wonder about the ability to speed read, or scan. Do people do it well enough to take in a complete story, or do they really miss out? I am far too visual a person to read and find pleasure in it if i am skipping around like that…

  15. Julie Hagan Bloch Says:

    I only skip when one of two conditions occurs:
    either I care very much about a character, and *must* know if he/she makes it, in which case I try to only find that character’s name and anything that indicates her/his survival, whether it’s that character saying something, or a reference that clearly indicates lack of deceasedness. (deceasedness??)
    The other circumstance is one in which I don’t much care for the book, and want to finish it without having to go through the tedium/irritation of reading the whole book. Sometimes it’s so bad that I don’t even read the ending, but that’s a different story.

  16. janelindskold Says:

    Jim Z.

    I read by shape. I think I always have. I understand this is one method of speed reading. I certainly grasp/ understand content, but the problem this has generated for me is that although I have an excellent vocabulary, I often don’t know how to pronounce or spell a word!

  17. NinjaMisha Says:

    I am the occasional skipper. But I do it for the exact same reason you mentioned you do it and the same way. I did it a bit while reading your Firekeeper series actually ^_~. Thankfully, Derian was in the book often enough so I didn’t have to skip too often, but I am guilty of skimming ahead a few just to see if his name pops up and then going back to where I originally was only to read more excitedly because my favorite character was soon coming up again.
    Ah sweet Derian….how I fangirl thee. ❤

  18. janelindskold Says:

    How nice to hear Derian has fans, too!

    I usually hear from Firekeeper and/or Blind Seer fans.

    Thanks for sharing this here!

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