The trope of the bookworm in movies, tv, and literature is as ubiquitous as the mean girl trope or the misunderstood bully trope. Usually it takes the form of a socially awkward character with glasses, a brainy sidekick, or an annoying know-it-all. Sometimes, however, it is used more positively to denote the “deep thinker” of a set of characters.
When you consider that most writers of movies, tv, and literature are probably avid readers themselves, it’s interesting to consider how the trope reflects back on bookworms in general. If a screenwriter makes her bookworm character the stereotypical “girl with glasses,” is she including herself somehow in that characterization? And what about bookworm characters who appear strictly in literature? Since the readership of the book is comprised largely of bookworms, what does the writer’s characterization of the bookworm imply about his/her readership? Does it show readers in a positive light or a negative one? The following is a compilation of 10 fictional bookworms with an eye toward what each character implies about the book-reading population.
Spoiler warning for the stories linked to each of the below characters!
You can’t have a list of fictional bookworms without starting with Roald Dahl’s Matilda. Matilda read through Dickens at an absurdly young age and was a constant visitor of her library, much to the horror of her Dursley-like parents who preferred that she should remain as idiotic as themselves.
What does Matilda imply about bookworms? That reading books can be a form of rebellion, an escape from jerky adults, and that a well-read young person is easily much smarter than most grown-ups.
In order to fit into the Disney Princess pantheon and live up to her name, Belle had to be gorgeous. But in order to be a loner so she could be capable of being sympathetic to outcasts like the Beast, the creators made her a bookworm.
What does this imply about bookworms? That they are social misfits by choice, and that this ‘outsider’ position serves to make them kinder and accepting of others.
Hermione definitely fits into the “know it all” category of the bookworm trope. She can’t help but be annoying at times; however, the fact that she actually reads her schoolbooks (especially Hogwarts: A History) also makes her one of the most useful sidekicks imaginable.
What does Hermione’s character imply about bookworms? 1) That their annoying qualities should be forgiven. 2) If they think they know best it’s possible that they actually do. 3) The knowledge to be gained from reading is just as vital to success as supernatural powers and raw talent.
Tyrion is a classic bookworm in that he believes knowledge from reading is more important than manly strength or bravado. However, he diverges from most bookworm tropes in that he is not socially awkward or shy. Although he is definitely an outcast, he is confident and brash, has a way with the ladies, and has aspirations of becoming a great leader.
What does Tyrion imply about bookworms? That they can be ballsy motherfuckers.
For Bastian, reading starts off as an escape from his persecution from bullies and his lackluster home life, but by the end, his journey through the book improves his life and helps him learn more about himself.
What does Bastian imply about bookworms? That the process of coming of age can just as easily be accomplished through reading as it can through actual experience.
Lisa’s book-smarts have been central to so many episodes of The Simpsons that it’s hard to pin down a summary of what it all amounts to. Sometimes her bookishness helps her, and sometimes it causes problems. She finds herself misunderstood and isolated often, but at other times her knowledge earns her the respect of other characters.
What does Lisa imply about bookworms? Probably more than any other character on this list Lisa’s character implies that bookworms can’t be reduced to one narrative. Reading isn’t a magical key to life-improvement or perfection or happiness. It’s a hobby.
All this guy ever wanted to do was read. His love of reading made him a crappy husband, a crappy bank teller, and caused him to be so removed from the world that when he’s the sole survivor of an H-bomb all he cares about is finally having a chance to read as much as he wants. He is punished for this selfish and heartless desire when his glasses break, ensuring that books are finally out of his reach for good.
What does Henry Bemis imply about bookworms? We’re selfish misanthropes who should invest in Lasik.
Alonso Quijano is deranged from having read too many books of chivalry. Unable to distinguish between the fictions of the books and real life, he sets off to live as Don Quixote – a chivalrous knight. After numerous failures and humiliations Quijano comes to his senses, realizes he’s been a fool, and dies.
What does Alonso Quijano imply about bookworms? That they lose touch with reality and hurt themselves and others, which is a rather ironic lesson to preach through the medium of a novel.
Oscar is obsessed with science fiction and fantasy books, and as a result, is much too idealistic for his own good. In search of love and an adventure worthy of storytelling, he is killed dramatically, thus achieving the “writable” life story he was seeking, but only in death.
What does Oscar de Leon imply about bookworms? That they develop an itch to become worthy of protagonist status – and that this is unhealthy and unfulfilling.
A tough guy with a criminal past, Sawyer is the unlikely bookworm, but he saves all the books from the wreckage of flight 815 and reads them all voraciously. The show likes to portray Sawyer’s reading habits as unmanly – they have him read Watership Down (when asked what it’s about, he responds in typical Sawyer cowboy toughness: “It’s about bunnies”), and when he needs glasses because reading is giving him headaches, he’s presented with the goofiest most absurdly feminine makeshift specs imaginable.
What does Sawyer imply about bookworms? Even though the show pokes fun at Sawyer for being a bookworm, it also uses his reading habits to make him more endearing. There’s an implication through the development of his character that people who read have a softer side and a hidden depth.
Of the above 10, I see 3 of the characters suggesting negative things about bookworms (Don Quijano, Henry Bemis, and Oscar de Leon); 1 that is fairly neutral (Lisa Simpson) and 6 that are definitely positive. A glance at all ten shows how varied the bookworm trope can be – and the different degrees writers either critique or laud their bookworm audiences through their bookworm characters.