Classic Books · The Reading Life

Do spoilers really spoil a reading experience?

Do spoilers ruin a reading experience or just change it? Does knowing what’s coming in a story put one off reading it?

Thinking about these questions reminds me of something one of my favorite professors once said. It was during a Jane Austen seminar, and we were discussing Austen’s endings. “Reading a Jane Austen novel is like listening to a Mozart sonata,” he said. “You know where it’s going. The fun is in getting there.” His obvious point was that knowing the outcome doesn’t spoil the experience of reading her.

On that note, let’s begin with…

The case for spoilers

I used to be one of those readers who read the last page of a book first. Unlike Billy Crystal in When Harry Met Sally, I didn’t do this out of fear that I’d die before finishing the book. I figured if death took me, I’d have bigger things to concern myself with than how a book ends. (Or maybe the afterlife would bring me absolute knowledge, in which case I’d know how the book ends. Who knows, really?)

Achilles
You missed a spot!

My point is, I read the last page first because I am impatient. Impatience is my fatal flaw, my Achilles heel, my … well, you get the picture. I wanted to know how a book ends so that I could settle in and enjoy the journey. Rather than ruining a book, spoilers satisfied my curiosity so I could get on with the business of engaging with the story.

Since I said I “used to be” one of those readers, you’ve probably figured out that I stopped reading the last page first. So why did I do that?

The case against spoilers

I didn’t stop because spoilers spoiled the story. I stopped because reading the end first was robbing me of developing patience and learning to trust the journey itself. In life, we really don’t know what the last page will bring. That’s what I wasn’t allowing myself to cultivate: faith in the potential meaning of any experience, regardless of the outcome.

To bring this back around to reading, how does knowing spoilers impact our experience of a book itself?

The Old Curiosity Shop
Two weeks later & I’m not as far away from the cover as I thought I’d be.

Currently, I’m reading Charles Dickens’s The Old Curiosity Shop. As it happens, I know the fate of one of the main characters, and it’s not good. Though I began this book weeks ago, I haven’t gotten very far. I’m beginning to wonder if this is because I’m loathe to become attached to a character whose fate will break my heart. If I didn’t know that character’s fate, I could read blithely on only to get punched in the gut later.

Life, too, has a way of doing this sometimes, doesn’t it? Yet how often would we choose never to have known someone who enriched our lives because they couldn’t be in our lives forever? Would I trade having known my grandmother, for example? She died when I was 12, and I miss her every day of my life. But I’ll still take that over never having known her at all.

Every person that we know, every experience that we have – all have the potential for meaning and value, if we want them to, even when they break our hearts. This makes me suspect maybe spoilers do a spoil a reading experience by valuing outcome over journey and thus over-determining meaning. It’s one thing to anticipate the outcome based on plot formula and another to seek out specific information about how a story ends. Or does it?

What do you think?

2 thoughts on “Do spoilers really spoil a reading experience?

  1. I think you’re right on target, about the tendency to read ahead being linked to larger inward aspects of the self, like developing patience and learning to trust the journey… especially wise to connect to difficult transitions in life, like losing a loved person.
    I’ve noticed that if I’m not feeling my strongest (if I’m stressed by things outside my reading life) I skip to the end of books when I’m scared of the fate of a character… just cause I can’t handle the idea of being rattled by the book I’m reading to escape!

    1. Hi Elizabeth! That’s a really interesting connection to what makes you read ahead, and it resonates with me. I’ve never admitted this before (!), but I looked ahead reading book six of Harry Potter. Not at the beginning, but when I was about halfway through. It didn’t stop me from reading the rest of the book, but I’d heard the rumors and needed to steel myself for what was coming.

      Thank you so much for visiting!

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