Thursday, March 04, 2004

The End is the Beginning

Jim Hole once asked me if I ever skipped to the last page of a book to read the ending.

"I might as well read the whole thing backwards," I said, "you'd spoil the whole book, knowing the ending right at the start."

"Maybe," he said, "But the beginning would sure be a surprise!"

I thought about that conversation tonight as I was doing laundry and watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I came to Buffylate; I started watching it in season five, kept watching through the series' end, while at the same time catching up on the old episodes by watching the earlier seasons on DVD. Tonight, having just finished the final episode of season four, I realized that I have come back to the beginning of my Buffy experience - smack dab in the middle of the series.

Watching the first four seasons while knowing the ultimate fate of the characters adds a certain resonance to the proceedings; every line, every action, every revelation is coloured by my prescient knowledge of what's to come. This is especially rewarding with a show like Buffy, where story arcs were planned so far in advance. Emotions are more poignant, and the story's texture becomes deeper, more rich.

I guess this is why I keep my books and comics; the stories are always new, even if I've read them many times before. Reading A Princess of Mars at twelve is very different than reading it at thirty; you could even argue that the book was read by two entirely different people, two individuals merely perceived as a single entity because we share a few common memories and some physical characteristics. Whether Earl at twelve and Earl at thirty were the same person or not, the experience of absorbing that book was different each time, and each experience had its own rewards. We start out younger than major characters, seeing men and women in their twenties as impossibly wise and ancient; and then we suddenly discover, years later, that we have become a year or two older than those same characters. Our heroes and villains become our contemporaries, even our peers.

Stephen Hawking once theorized that at the end of the universe, time would start running backwards, and it would seem quite normal for us to assemble from ashes, grow younger and more vital, then smaller, smaller, more and more helpless, until at last we retreat into the womb and shrink to nonexistence, finally dividing into sperm and egg. If time really does work this way, if our experience of life is an illusion forced upon us by our physical limitations, then maybe reading books or watching television shows out of sequence isn't such a crazy idea. Perhaps we'll get to see it in the "right" order, eventually...even if we have to wait a few billion years.

I guess when you read a book for the first time, the book informs your life and alters your perception of the world. But when you read it again, your experiences suddenly alter your perception of the book, and the expected suddenly defies all expectations. We see what was once invisible, and perhaps lose sight of what once was clear. The same must be true when we examine any work of art.

I have a pretty large collection of books and movies, and sometimes people ask me if I've read them all, and why I don't just sell them off after I've seen them once. I think I have my answer now. My books, my comics, my movies - they are a part of me. They've helped me grow. They connect me to my past and hint at my future, and I hope that when at last I die, I'll have just finished a wonderful story, perhaps a tale that takes me back to the very beginning of it all.

I'll read The End, and then...

The End.

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