Sunday, July 22, 2007

Peeking and Pottering

This morning, I gave into temptation and searched for a summary of how
the Harry Potter series ends (no spoilers here). I haven't followed
the books, though I have seen the movies. I didn't feel temptation to
read the last book, but I still wanted to know what happened to the
characters. Funnily enough, having read a paragraph-length summary of
the ending, I now feel tempted to get the book and watch how the
characters' unfold to get there.

This is pretty reflective of my overall work style, come to think of
it. I enjoy figuring things out, but mostly when I have a good mental
picture of where that process will get me. When I first starting
learning to use computers, I hated being told "just play with it". I
couldn't feel productive with so little structure. I hugely
appreciate the value and education of exploration in an undefined
space (I loathe asking for directions given how much of a map I figure
out from being a little lost). I need some semblemce of a target
(recognizable, if underspecified) to organize that exploration though.
Programming and engineering work this way, so my career is a good fit.

But back to the end of Harry Potter. I found a Slate article that
associated "read the end [of a book, in this case HP] first" with a
desire for instant gratification, then reported on a study linking
personality traits to instant gratification. The Slate author admits
the parallel between the study and end-of-HP-readers is a little off,
but for me at least, the parallel doesn't work at all. I don't look
at the end for gratification, but for organization. By knowing where
the story is going, I can watch for the hints and signs along the way
and follow how the structure of the story unfolds (without having to
read the book twice). I explore the characters differently once I
know where they will end up, and I enjoy the studying personality
cause-and-effect, as reading this way provides.

That raises a question, then, of whether I read the ends of all books
first. Rarely. I only do this when I know the characters before I
start reading. Reading for me is a search process: looking for the
structure and choices that get from point A to point B. If I know
point A (through advance knowledge of characters), I want to know B so
I can search the characters personalities from both ends. If I know
nothing at point A, I'm happy to let the writing construct the space,
as long as I expect that construction to be interesting. Knowing the
end can convince me that the construction might be worth reading. I
feel no remorse over having e-peeked at how HP ends, especially given
that my interest in the story overall is piqued as a result.

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