Peeking at Potter

Is it wrong to skip to the end of a book?

When a few media outlets published early reviews of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallowsthis week, author J.K. Rowling protested that the articles contained spoilers. She declared herself “staggered that American newspapers have decided to … [ignore] the wishes of literally millions of readers, particularly children, who wanted to reach Harry’s final destination by themselves, in their own time.” Presumably, Rowling assumes that half the pleasure of reading a fat, event-filled tome lies in our uncertainty about how it will end. But not every fan thrives on guesswork and anticipation. According to a poll of 500 children taken for the British bookstore chain Waterstone’s, nearly one-fifth of Harry Potter devotees will skip straight to the end of the final book in the series.

Readers are, of course, free to experience books in any way they see fit. It’s customary to read page by page, but there are no set rules. And as any Ian Fleming enthusiast can attest, knowing that 007 will eventually escape doesn’t mean you feel cool and collected when he’s fighting against a giant squid. Yet peeking seems unfair and, ultimately, counterproductive. Authors spend years crafting a story, agonizing over when and how to reveal that Pip’s benefactor is really a criminal, for instance. If you skip, you thwart the author’s intentions and cheat yourself of maximal enjoyment. Surely it’s more fun to speculate about the outcome along the way, and then feel humbled, or exhilarated, or despondent when you realize you got it all wrong.

A professor of psychology at Smith College, Phil Peake, says page-skipping may also relate to broader issues of impulse control. And according to at least one “delay of gratification” study, bad things come to those who can’t wait. In the early 1970s, Harvard professor David Funder and UC Berkeley professors Jeanne Block and Jack Block conducted an experiment in which 116 4-year-old children were shown a wrapped present and told they could open it as soon as they completed a puzzle. The researchers helped the children with their task and then spent 90 seconds shuffling papers before telling the kids to open their present. After each round, the researchers calculated a “delay score”—a composite of how many times the child mentioned the gift while toiling away, how long it took the child to grab the gift after completing the puzzle, and whether or not the child unwrapped the gift immediately.

When independent examiners interviewed the kids seven years later, they found significant personality differences between the patient test subjects and the impatient ones. Using a “California Q-set,” which consists of 100 character descriptions, the examiners reported that boys who had delayed gratification were “deliberative, attentive, and able to concentrate.” Conversely, boys who had not delayed were “irritable, restless and fidgety, aggressive, and generally not self-controlled.” Likewise, girls who had displayed restraint under laboratory conditions seemed “intelligent, resourceful, and competent,” while those who had not “tended to go to pieces under stress, to be victimized by other children, and to be easily offended, sulky, and whiny.”

The parallel between the “gift delay task” and Harry Potter reading habits isn’t exact. For one thing, the test subjects knew they were waiting for something good, but J.K. Rowling fans worry that the seventh Harry Potter book will end with something bad—the death of Harry, or some other beloved character. Still, both cases reveal how children regulate their impulses in the face of behavior-constraining norms.

So it’s not crazy to posit that peekers and page-by-pagers may represent two opposing personality types. Maybe those children who read Harry Potter all the way through will show great self-restraint, competence, and resourcefulness later in life. And maybe when the peekers come of age they’ll whine, sulk, fidget, and try to get ahead by taking shortcuts. To date, I’ve only heard one convincing reason to flip to the back, from another famous Harry. In When Harry Met Sally…, Harry says “I always read the last page first. That way in case I die before I finish, I know how it ends.”