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Wednesday, April 8, 2009


During the Olympics, particularly when they are being held in a non-network friendly time zone, sportscasters warn viewers before they announce the day's results. This gives the audience the opportunity to look away or stick their fingers in their ears and go "LA LA LA" if they plan to watch the games later and wish to remain oblivious. In print media the warning takes a more textual form--perhaps large block letters screaming, "SPOILER ALERT!!!!"--a sort of verbal skull-and-crossbones cautioning unwary readers that they are about to stumble across information they may not want to read.

This is necessary because, when it comes to words, you can't NOT read them once you see them. Go ahead. Try it. Try LOOKING AT but NOT READING the next line.

I told you you couldn't do it.

It's because we're reading animals. Reading is instinctual. We see words, we decode them. So when a writer refers to things of which readers may want to remain unaware, it behooves him to tell them this well in advance of the revelation; otherwise, sheer momentum will carry the reader along to the unwelcome knowledge that in "Citizen Kane," for example, Rosebud, the object of the movie's quest, is in fact Kane's childhood sled. Or that in "Psycho" Tony Perkins is his own mother. Or that when Haley Joel Osment tells Bruce Willis that he "sees dead people," he's actually seeing a dead person RIGHT THEN AND THERE. The Solipsist has stuck to classic examples in the assumption that his readers are all familiar with the films under consideration. If not, well . . . it's the price you pay for functional cultural illiteracy!

As an English major, the Solipsist became somewhat inured to spoilers. After all, most professors will assume that you know the endings to everything. Everybody dies at the end of Hamlet; Elizabeth Bennett marries Mr. Darcy; Moby-Dick wins. In fact, literary scholars find something positively de classe about reading a book for the plot! If you're worrying about plot, how can you appreciate the homoeroticism in the relationship of Huck and Jim?

If you're wondering why the Solipsist is going on and on about spoilers, it's because he himself was victimized the other day. (Need he say "Spoiler Alert"?) See, YNSHC watches "House." Like so many people, however, in this day of DVR's and DVD's and "self-programming," he rarely if ever watches "House" on the night it's broadcast. It's so much more pleasant to save it for a time when he has nothing else to do and can just zip through the commercials. Anyway, yesterday, when the Solipsist went to Yahoo! to check his mail, he saw a picture of the actor Kal Penn, who plays one of House's assistants. Penn, it seems, has been hired by the Obama administration as a liaison to the South Asian community. Well, good for him. But as YNSHC read the article, he was helpless to stop himself from decoding the information as it scrolled along under his eyes, telling him that Penn's character had, on the previous evening's episode (stop now if you don't want to find out what happened) committed suicide.


Now, THAT's disappointing. Not that the character dies--the Solipsist has nothing invested in the character one way or another. But surprising moments are so few and far between in mainstream fiction, that missing an opportunity to experience one is upsetting. Sure, you're probably thinking it's Solipsist's karmic comeuppance for attempting to cheat the networks out of their advertising revenue (you can be so petty like that!). Maybe you're right. But would it have killed Yahoo! to slap a spoiler alert across their front page?!?

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