Skimming Ahead

I used to be very adamantly “no spoilers.” At suspenseful moments, I would read with a straight edge to keep my eyes from jumping ahead. And as for reading the last page of a book first…

Past Me

In the past few years, though, something has changed. It started innocently enough, with quick skims ahead to find out when I would next see a favorite character. But it didn’t stop there. Now I’ll often be reading along more or less in order when suddenly…


Something horrible happens. My favorite character dies or is grievously hurt. A fundamental relationship is poisoned, maimed, or (perhaps only seemingly) shattered. And I can’t cope.

No no noToo traumatized to read, I put the book down and try to focus on other things. But I can’t. I’m too jittery. My thoughts keep spiraling around the awful thing that just happened.

DistractedBook Call

Finally I cave and return to the book. But I’m almost as much of a mess as the characters. I can’t concentrate on the words in front of me.Distracted ReadingSo I skim ahead. Just a little. Just to make sure things are going to be okay.

Unfortunately for my anxiety, that’s not the way plot usually works.

Not Better compare

That’s right. Sometimes things get worse.

Before I know it, I’m skimming ahead another chapter, and another, searching for that “things will be okay” moment, until…

What, you’ve never had a book laugh at you?

I used to feel guilty (well, guiltier) about skimming ahead. Then I blamed the books. Some stories, I noted, would put me straight into “no spoilers” mode; I wanted to experience things in real (reading) time. That seemed like a mark of authorial competency. And maybe it is. But you could also argue that a really good book will hold your attention even if you know how it’s going to end. After all, we do enjoy rereads and retellings.

Maybe it’s less about the quality of the book than what I want out of the reading experience. There seem to be two main ways that I enjoy the plots of books. One is suspense-based: what will happen next? The other is method-based: how will it happen?

Skimming doesn’t answer the second question, at least not in all its details, so there are still things to discover as I keep reading. What skimming does provide is some measure of comfort–either reassurance, or a chance to process and recover and maybe mourn (some books… man). And sometimes that’s what I need. Sometimes suspense doesn’t help me enjoy reading; it’s just stressful.

I’m not writing off the exhilaration of an unspoiled first read. In fact, it’s possible that one of the reasons I like skimming is that it doesn’t make me choose; it gives me that adrenaline rush in a more condensed, manageable form, followed by a slightly steadier reread.

While there is evidence that spoilers help people enjoy stories more, personally, I think it’s like tea. Sometimes I want my tea piping hot and comforting; I want to wrap my fingers around the mug and breathe in the fragrance before each sip. Other times, I want something bracing, that wreaks havoc with my pulse and makes me so dizzy I can hardly turn a page…

Maybe it isn’t like tea. But you get the point. Both approaches have advantages; it just depends on what you’re after. It does help if you know what you want, though. For example, if all I care about is finding out what happens, I shouldn’t skim; it will turn the full read into a trudge. (And I hate leaving books unfinished, so I will feel obligated to trudge.) If I’m equally interested in filling in the spaces between events, skimming is comparatively safe.

Bottom line: however you read, you’re reading. And you’re enjoying it. So don’t beat yourself up if it isn’t the way you’re “supposed” to read.

Especially because if you really engage with books, they’ll do the beating up for you.