I am a full-fledged bookworm, and I am proud of it. I’m that person who will never leave home without her current read and keeps a notebook that holds an ever-expanding reading list with her at all times. One of my favorite hobbies is collecting old paperbacks from the ‘50s and ‘60s (anything from dime-store pulp to things like The Feminine Mystique thrown in for good measure). The majority of my Friday nights until I moved to New York City for college were spent at Borders bookstore when Borders was still a glorious thing, either hanging out with friends or setting up camp with one of my parents in the café, equipped with a stack of books I wanted to read and a coffee to fuel me (I still have my Borders Rewards card in my wallet and refuse to throw it out. My loyalty runs deep, despite my second home becoming a DSW). Even now, my days off are spent in my favorite bookstores, throwing my money at books faster than I can read them.
I have avid readers for parents, so it was inevitable that I would pick up the habit early. And maybe it’s because I was surrounded by readers my whole life that I never find my habit weird until someone comments on it (and someone ALWAYS comments on it; if I had a dollar for every time I was reading in my favorite coffee shop and another regular asks me how I go through books so quickly…). But seeing bookworms in movies and on TV as a kid definitely did its part to normalize my insatiable appetite for books. In those impressionable years, I met strong female characters who were smart and well read and saw a love of reading as an asset rather than some sort of odd hindrance. I saw girls my age—at the time, anyway—reading far above their grade level, and women who treasured the pages that fell through their fingers. And in environments where an overt love of books is somehow a mark against you, the knowledge that these characters exist goes a long way.
The four bookworms I’ve included here are the ones who had the biggest influence on me as I grew up, the ones that helped me embrace that label and wear it proudly. And why shouldn’t it be worn proudly? “Bookworm” is not a dirty word and should not be treated as such (in fact, my wonderful writing partner Maggie and I use “Bookworm” as a term of endearment with each other. I guess I just like reclaiming things). So here’s to the written word, the stories put on the page, and the ones who devour each tale—in the real world and in fictional places—and are still hungry for more. We’re super cool, I promise.
I can think of no better way to start than with the first bookworm I remember seeing on screen. Like most little girls growing up, I was into the Disney princesses. But Belle was always MY princess, even before I started relating to her bookworm tendencies. In order to make the start of first grade less terrifying, I remember carrying around a puppet (and I use the term loosely; all you could really do with it was let it sit on your hand, because for some reason these people thought rubber was a good thing to make a puppet with) of Belle in her yellow gown. It made my hand ridiculously sweaty, but at least I had my princess with me.
Then I started reading all over the place, and I got her on a different level entirely. Being so enthusiastic to tell anyone about the spectacular story you just read? Check. Spending most of your free time in the local bookstore? Check. (You have no idea how much I’ve wanted to ride one of those shelf-long ladders the way she does, before the crushing reality sets in that I am not, in fact, living in a cartoon.) The straight up bliss over being gifted a book? Check. That scene where she’s walking through town with her nose in a book, zero attention paid to her surroundings? I feel that so hard. Once during my Freshman year of high school, I was so engrossed in Jodi Picoult’s The Pact while I was at the lunch table that I was completely oblivious to the fist fight that broke out directly in front of me. (When the principal called everyone at that table into her office, convinced we had something to do with the fight, that book allowed me to escape the marks on my permanent record that everyone else got because I literally had no idea what was going on until it was basically over. Reading saves the day, you guys.) This holiday season, I ended up watching The Enchanted Christmas special from the late ‘90s because apparently this year was all about childhood nostalgia for me. In it, Belle decides to gift the Beast a homemade storybook for Christmas, because she’s delightful and of course she would. THAT is my princess.
What I really love is that in spite of everyone in her town thinking she’s peculiar because she likes books—WHY IS READING SO PECULIAR THAT YOU HAVE TO SING ABOUT IT, YOU JAGS—she refuses to compromise herself. Honestly though, did I miss something here? Why does this automatically make her a pariah in her community? Also, between literally everyone in town except the bookseller and her dad writing Belle off because she likes to take her imagination on a journey every now and then, and Gaston trying to win her heart by shitting all over what she loves best (by saying, and I quote, “It’s not right for a woman to read. Soon she starts getting ideas, and thinking…” Okay, Maximum Douche Level achieved not even ten minutes into the movie, good job, thank you for playing), I want to know how that bookseller is still in business. Because she doesn’t buy those books; she borrows them. Where is your money coming from, sir?
Regardless, even though Belle questions—for a fleeting moment—whether her love of books is odd, her contentment in her habits is a testament to staying true to yourself. She won’t stop being excited about the stories she reads, she won’t stop reading them like mad, and she won’t stop being transported to wonderful places through the pages. That was a pretty cool thing to see at such a young age, and it’s a pretty cool thing to revisit as an adult. I can’t tell you how excited I am for the live action take on this in March but until then, if you want to read, be like Belle and read your heart out.
Let me refer to my notes to sum up why Matilda’s on my list: “She’s reading Moby Dick and she’s fucking six.” Part of me feels like I could just leave it at that. (I won’t…but I could.) Because make no mistake: Matilda’s reading habits are goals. In her few short years, she’s already tackled Moby Dick multiple times (I’m sure there are people out there, but I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who’s actually read that thing all the way through), and could read Charles Dickens every day for fun. She taught herself more than I think I’ve learned in my lifetime—and I’m working on a second Masters degree—by spending her days in the library and dragging a wagon full of books home with her. Seriously, she can multiply crazy large numbers in her head and casually whip out facts about how fast a mouse’s heart beats, all because of the books she’s read. This kid is amazing.
And no doubt Matilda read in part as an escape; her brother is horrible, her parents neglect her except to scold her for being bookish and smart, and I’m pretty sure the way the Trunchbull runs that school is so many shades of illegal. She deserves to have her stories, and the best stories take you out of your surroundings and drop you into another place. This is a child who got everything you possibly can out of reading before ever hitting double digits. For every math and science book that served as her education, there was a novel and a world for her to get lost in, and a beauty within the lines that comforted her. If there was ever a character to show kids how wonderful reading can be, she was it.
So you’ve got this reading prodigy, which is great, but what makes Matilda truly amazing in that regard is the adult who wholeheartedly appreciates and encourages that love of reading and that quest for knowledge. Enter Miss Honey, who is the kind of adult every book-loving kid should have in their life. In a sea of people who don’t appreciate Matilda for the delightfully intelligent child she is, Miss Honey is the one who will slip a copy of The Wind in the Willows to Matilda when her parents aren’t looking, and the one who wants to hear about everything she learns during her time in the library. Fostering a love of books in children is definitely something to be praised, don’t get me wrong. But to also show at least one other person who appreciates that gift for what it is? That is everything. When you’re faced with environments where voracious reading gets you made fun of, the knowledge that someone values that part of you as much as you do makes a world of difference.
Plus, she had really awesome powers that I wish were an actual thing you could acquire (although, perhaps without the prerequisite of terrible parents). If I could pour cereal with my mind, it would make my life so much easier.
Bart Simpson might have been the marketing goldmine back in the day, but Lisa has always been my girl. The things that were supposed to set her apart as the nerd of the Simpson clan are the things that made me think so highly of her. She just always seemed cultured as hell to me. Her love of jazz, her passion for books. The fact that she just wants to learn everything she possibly can. Yes please. Lisa definitely finds joy in reading material geared towards kids her age; after all, at one point she’s inspired to start babysitting after reading The Babysitters Club series (oh wait, sorry, make that the surely less of a licensing nightmare Babysitter Twins). But I love the fact that she can just as easily tackle the likes of Gore Vidal and Tom Wolfe, and hold her own with college students who are re-reading Gravity’s Rainbow and go to poetry readings by Robert Pinsky, all at eight years old. It meant a lot to have a character like her growing up, and it still means a lot as an adult.
One of my favorite things about her is the way she absolutely treasures her local library, and a few instances come to mind. First is the season two episode “Dead Putting Society,” where Bart is signed up to compete in a mini golf tournament. Lisa takes him to the library to help him prepare for the game, and she has a moment where she’s Norm Peterson and the library is her Cheers; literally everyone knows her name, and it’s just so delightful that this is the place where she found her tribe. Then there’s a season twelve episode entitled “HOMR” where, in a Flowers for Algernon-like storyline, Homer’s IQ rises when a crayon is removed from his brain (gotta love cartoons), making him a wonderful library companion for Lisa. It’s such a great moment to see them talking over a stack of books, to see Lisa getting the kind of father/daughter time she always wanted, and to hear her speak one of the most undeniable truths ever.
And look, I’ve seen countless opinions on when The Simpsons “stopped being good,” but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention a moment from a few seasons back. When trying to lighten the weight of their luggage at the airport by chucking a few of their belongings, Bart grabs a collection of Lisa’s books.
Bart: Lisa, do you really need all of these Kurt Vonnegut novels?
Lisa: They self-reference each other!
I love her reasoning behind it, but also, on a more general “look at all the books in this suitcase” level, I appreciate it so much. I take as much time to consider what reading material to bring with me on trips as I do what clothes to bring. My books take up a decent portion of my suitcase every time I travel somewhere, even if it’s just a weekend trip, even if my time will be jam-packed with stuff to do. I just like options, okay?
There’s even a site dedicated to the books Lisa is seen reading on the show, and a Buzzfeed quiz you can take to see if you are as well read as she is. For the record, the answer is no. No, I am not. But at least it gave me a pretty hearty to-read list.
Ah, yes, Diane Chambers. The one who named her childhood cat Elizabeth Barrett Browning and brought a novel to a bowling alley. If you know me at all, you know we would end up here; we HAD to end up here. The second I saw her walk into Cheers, I was enamored for a bunch of reasons, but if I’m being serious here, her love for the written word was one of the main things that made me feel like she was a kindred spirit. Diane has always been the epitome of well read to me. Because she basically reads everything (being close to a Masters degree in 37 different subjects probably helped her get to that level, but I digress), and reads it constantly. More often than not, when she’s not bringing you your beer, she’s taken a place at the bar and opened up a paperback. And I don’t remember ever seeing the same book in her hands twice—unless someone proves me wrong—which only leads me to assume that she goes through books at lightning speed. Cheers came to Nick at Nite when I was eleven years old and had already established my Friday night Borders ritual, so to see someone like her on TV? It was love at first sight.
Her references are so unapologetically literary, too. They may never land with anyone in the bar, but she stands so firm in them that they make up one of my favorite things about her. When some unruly out-of-towner starts arguing about how the Yankees are better than the Red Sox, she pulls out the “New England poets vs. New York poets” defense (you know…THAT classic argument). When she tries to get Sam to analyze their relationship on a deeper level, she quotes Socrates (“An unexamined life is not worth living”). When she’s taking a customer’s order, she throws out the depressing drinking quips of literary greats, which might be a little misguided, but A for effort for trying to engage with her environment. She knows what she’s about, and she will not budge.
Clearly, she has specific tastes: she reads Dostoevsky before going to sleep, is thankful for Emily Dickinson on Thanksgiving, and is deep in the psychological writings of C.G. Jung. But she also understands the importance of literature that doesn’t necessarily fit in with her style. There’s a whole episode dedicated to the fact that Diane found a signed first edition of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, and asks Sam for a loan of $500 so she can buy it. And it’s not like she’s this huge fan of his work; once the book is in her possession and a collector at the bar offers her twice what she paid for it, she initially accepts, saying, “Even as a child, I found Hemingway to be pretentious and over-mannered.” But she acknowledges the book’s place as a classic, to the point of wanting to own one of the earliest copies regardless of her interest in it. And I’m not even surprised that a child who named her pet after a Victorian poet would have already formed an opinion on Hemingway, but girl. I love you just the way you are.
Diane has had a massive, lasting influence on me as a bookworm, sure, but that doesn’t even begin to cover my love for her. However, that is another story for another time.
I was initially going to end this post with Diane, but there’s an interesting dichotomy here that I didn’t even realize until I was in the thick of it, and I feel like I have to address it. Half of these characters come from media geared towards kids, while the other half’s target demographic consists of adults. Maybe I’m just not looking in the right (wrong?) places, but I have seen nothing but positive things about Belle and Matilda, and why wouldn’t they be praised? These two are strong figures for kids to see. But once you steer yourself towards The Simpsons and Cheers, it’s a completely different story.
Diane Chambers has always gotten criticism from Cheers fans, because she’s seen as the least relatable, a pretentious know-it-all. And let’s face it: she was never fully accepted into the fold the way everyone else on the show was (hell, even Frasier was embraced by the bar to a larger extent than Diane was, and she was the entire reason he ever set foot in Cheers in the first place). Similarly, in preparation for this post, I did a Google search for “The Simpsons best Lisa episodes” to try to get some basic foundation. (Because honestly, how was I going to condense a show that’s been on longer than I’ve been alive without a few stepping stones?) When I scrolled to the bottom of the page, the first related search that appeared was “Lisa episodes are the worst.” WHAT?!?! Before I get sidetracked with the whole “How can you watch something like ‘Lisa’s Substitute’ and feel like that?” argument, I’m just stunned that I get out of Lisa the extreme opposite of what an apparently vocal fanbase does. It’s upsetting, to say the least.
It’s messed up that we encourage children to read as much as they can, but once they become adults, all bets are off. What is so wrong about wanting to educate yourself? About wanting to get lost in a compelling world with just the turn of a page? Why is it automatically assumed that the Dianes and Lisas of the world are stuffy, unrelatable, prissy, insert other negative adjective here? Because if you encourage children to read, and they take to it, it’s not like they’re just going to stop once they reach a certain age (and some of them might, but I’m willing to bet that more often than not, they carry that love with them throughout their lives). So when does it stop being okay? And WHY does it stop being okay?
This is why I am so grateful for Belle, for Matilda, for Lisa, for Diane. This is why I am so grateful for all of the wonderful bookworms out there in film and TV that have an impact on their audience the way these four impacted me. Because they show you that it’s okay. It’s okay to be excited, and it’s okay to be transported. It’s okay to speed through books, and it’s okay to want to talk about them. Whether it’s a town of people, family, peers, or a crowded bar, these four hold on to the written word in spite of the teasing and the criticism. They’re each strong-willed and enthusiastic about the things they love. And no one should ever be able to take that away from you.
As I said before, “Bookworm” is not a dirty word. But if people are going to insist on it, at least I’m in some fabulous company.
Who are your favorite fictional bookworms? I know I only scratched the surface, so let’s talk in the comments!