I’m not sure when it began, but I can barely remember a time I didn’t read books backwards. The first book I read was a Dick and Jane reader and I’m sure I memorized it the traditional, front-to-back way. The next book I remember is Sal Fisher at Girl Scout Camp. Sal catches her friend passing off a published poem as her own. Sal doesn’t know what to do. I was so anxious for Sal about how she would confront her friend. I skipped to the end and found out they were just fine. I could go back and read the rest of the book, knowing it would all turn out alright. I could watch the events unfold, learn from Sal about how to handle my own second grade friendships, and not have one drop of anxiety in the process.
My method became standard. I was a voracious reader as a child, and I still am today. In high school, whenever we were asked to list our hobbies, I always put reading at the top. I knew it was sort of weird, but I loved to lose myself in someone else’s life. I still do.
I always start at the beginning and read enough so I know the characters and the basic plot. Then I jump to the last page and read backward, paragraph by paragraph, as far as I need to until I know how it will end. Then I jump back to where I left off in the front of the book, and read back to the end again.
Most people are pretty horrified by this, especially my best friend Anne. I think she sees it as a failure to appreciate the book the way the author intended. She thinks it’s just wrong. People seem most disturbed that an English teacher would circumvent the process – the right way to read a book.
People make me laugh.
There’s no right way to read a book. There’s no right way to enjoy dance or music or poetry, or any form of art. Find the method that facilitates your enjoyment and you’ve given yourself the gift of a lifetime.
When I read, I’m doing so for many reasons. I enjoy the language, sinking into the sentences and admiring how the author has put words together. I love figuring out who the characters are, watching how they act and seeing how their choices affect their lives. I love learning about time periods, cultures, history, humans who live lives different from my own. Knowing the end early on lets me let go of my anxiety about what might happen, and instead slow down and enjoy was is happening.
I admit, a few times my plan has backfired. In Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth, Lily takes a bottle of pills and lays down on her bed to die. I thought she was taking a nap. When I got to the end the second time, and realized she was killing herself, I was even more devastated. At the end of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, Rhett tells Scarlett “I don’t give a damn,” and means that he doesn’t love her anymore. Knowing that detail 750 pages prior made me call me friend Molly and ask her if my book had a chapter ripped out of the end.
Except for those backfires and a few others, my method has saved me untold anxiety and allowed me to enjoy the 30-40 books a year I read. In the last few years, I knew Tris dies at the end of the Divergent series; I knew Katniss and Peeta survive the Hunger Games together; I knew Harry Potter saves the world from Voldermort. I could enjoy watching those amazing stories unfold without worrying about the end result. If you've ever read a book twice, you know exactly what I mean.
I’m not telling you how to read. Books are amazing vehicles of delight – enjoy them however works best for you. Maybe pick up a book over winter break and try it my way. See if you like it. Maybe you will and maybe you won’t. No matter, you’ll be reading, and that’s the greatest gift I can give you. Happy holidays.