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Let’s Start From The Back: Reading Last Lines First

Martin Cahill

Staff Writer

Martin lives in New York, just outside that sprawling metropolis everyone’s always talking about. Bookseller by day, bartender by night, freelancer at all other times, he writes whenever he can. Every so often he remembers that sleep is important. He has fiction appearing in Nightmare Magazine and Fireside Fiction. He can be found writing about books and craft beer at his blog. Tweet him about craft beer, books, Community or Locke & Key and you’ll most likely become fast friends. Blog: Craft Books Twitter: @Mcflycahill90

I have a terrible book habit. We all do. I don’t know what your poison is; it could be as simple as dog-tagging book pages you love, or underlining favorite quotes, or alphanumericizing first editions by primary colors only on even days of the calendar.

But mine? Whenever I’m reading a new book, without fail, despite effort, I always go to the end of the book first and read the last line.

I can hear you gasp from here, and I will wait for the rain of rotten tomatoes to cease before I go on. But, look, I used to be a lot worse!

Sometimes, I would read the whole last chapter. Then, I shortened it to the last page. With much training, I got it down to a paragraph. And these days, now with almost superhuman concentration, I only read the last line of the book before I begin. But why? How did this even start? And why the heck do I still do it?

I was an eager reader when I was a kid, and like most kids, every book I read I gave my heart to. Every character, every place, sat in my little heart and with every page they grew more and more real. And so, as some books ended, as some characters were not made to make it to the end, my little heart would break. And knowing that sometimes my favorites, my dearest, wouldn’t make it, I got in the habit of checking the last chapter to see who would make it through. And it worked for a time! Though, as I grew up, I realized I was perhaps spoiling myself ahead of time, taking the wind out of the narrative sails. (I managed to somehow never do this with the Harry Potter books growing up, but that’s only because I read them far too quickly to be tempted).

So, I started cutting back, and back, and back. Yet, I could never stop myself, even from the last line which is my current vice And over time, the more I thought about it, the more I realized a few things: that reading the last line was a secret promise I made with the book that I would finish it. That reading the last line felt like a secret I shared with the author. That reading the last line didn’t impact how I felt about the story, that glimpsing the ending only made the journey that much more interesting to me.

Reading the last line was a brief look into the future, a momentary flash of potential, that not only assuaged my little heart when I was young, but as an adult reader, intrigues me and lights a candle in the distant dark.

And y’know, on those rare occasions that the last line spoils something huge? I just remind myself that the destination is interesting, but it’s the journey to get there that’s truly beautiful.