Sunday, August 8, 2010

The End is Near

We expect things to be wrapping-up as we near the end of a novel.  Usually we can tell when we're approaching the end of a book by a check of how many pages are left.  Even if you don't want to know, you can't help but receive messages from your eyes and hands about the relative thickness of pages already read on the left hand side, and pages remaining to be read on the right.  On e-readers you're given a running count or a progress bar to tell you where you are in the book.  You can't help but know that the end is approaching, and about how far off it is at any given time.

Except for the case of collected works, or more specifically, multiple novels presented in a single binding.  I'm currently reading "The House of Myrth" by Edith Wharton in a collection of four of her novels.  This is the first in the set, and while I can feel the acceleration of the (at least social) death-spiral of the main character, I don't know how many pages are left.  I don't know if the final resolution is just around the corner or if there are five more chapters of reduction in her circumstances to go before the end.

It's like reading half-blind in a way.  We still experience the normal course of the novel form:  beginning, middle, and end.  We can still sense the end approaching by the increasing pace and power of events.  But in a normal reading situation we also have a subliminal (if not conscious) feeling for how close the end is because we know how many pages are left.  The two measures reinforce each other, and they affect how we read.  I know that for myself, if I'm enjoying a book because of what's happening in it, I find myself reading faster, trying to reach the end.  If, on the other hand, I'm enjoying a book because I enjoy spending time with the characters, then I slow down my reading, trying to make it last.

Multiple novels bound together shut off one half of the information streams we have that signal how close to the end we are.  It affects how we read.  It can affect the perceived importance of story events, much like the feeling we experience cresting a false summit on a hike to the top of a mountain.

"Oh.  There's more," we say with some degree of disappointment.

I looked to see where the next novel starts, so I'd know approximately how much further I had to go in the current novel.  I didn't want to.  I like to be surprised.  But I couldn't resist.  I had started to guess the ending in earnest, and part of me scolded the other part for, perhaps, jumping the gun.  If I was only halfway through, then it was much too early to start thinking I knew how it was going to end.  Then again, there might have been only ten pages left -- I didn't know.  So before I knew what I was doing I was eyeing a relatively thin set of pages between thumb and forefinger.  I didn't count.  I didn't look at page numbers and do the math.  I let it be at "the end is not right around the corner, not is it too far." 

Then I said "shame on me" for looking ahead.

How do you handle reading the approaches to endings?

4 comments:

  1. I never thought about this before, but you're right. When I am involved in a heavily plotted thriller type of book, I find myself flipping pages furiously, skimming the pages instead of carefully reading the words because I need to get to the end. But if it's a character book, I can take it slow and feel less in a rush. Great insight!

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  2. Hi Jen...and John!
    I never read the end first, but I have been known to read the final pages very quickly in order to get there.

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  3. Hi Jen -- I hadn't thought of it as thriller type, but you're exactly right. I've been reading a lot of novels from the fairly distant past (I'm finally coming into the 1910s now) and things were different then: not so much in the way of thrillers, but still writing that could pull you through the book toward the end. Nowadays that's often thrillers. It's interesting to see the evolution of the novel and the reading markets.

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  4. Wendy -- I'm always shocked and appalled when I come across someone who reads the ending ahead of time. That would ruin the book for me, and I can't help but feel it must for them too. I know I'm wrong, but it's hard for me to understand the "read the end first" behavior. Different strokes, I guess.

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