Bookish Literary Characters: A Baker’s Dozen

We have quite a snowstorm underway here in New England. Outside my window, it’s all blankets of white draped across the landscape, swirling winds and snow. It makes me think of gingerbread houses encased in a snow globe.

In other words, it’s the perfect day to curl up under a cozy blanket with a good book and a steaming mug of hot chocolate. And if that book were to feature a bookish literary character, the kind that feels like spending time with a like-minded friend, well, so much the better.

Snowmageddon 2016

Here are some of my favorites. Share yours in the comments? 🙂

Ursula (and Teddy) in Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

Atkinson’s immensely creative and absorbing novel follows the many lives of Ursula Todd, who is born and reborn in 1910, with each rebirth leading to radically different outcomes. Ursula and other characters, including her brother Teddy, frequently cite literature. They do it so often, in fact, that collecting all the literary references would make a fun reading challenge.

In one of many memorable scenes, Teddy recites a line of poetry in a way that is meant to be comforting but that Ursula interprets differently, which serves to highlight the role of experience in literary interpretation:

“’You do all right on your own, Teddy said to Ursula. ‘Contracted to thine own bright eyes, and so on.’ Teddy had faith in poetry, as if merely to quote from Shakespeare would mollify a situation. Ursula thought the sonnet he was quoting from was about being selfish but didn’t say so as Teddy meant it kindly.”

Emma Bovary in Madame Bovary by Gustav Flaubert

Emma loves reading and often reflects on it in a way that resonates. But a cautionary aspect also lies in how Emma abandons herself to books: Her uncritical stance leads to dissatisfaction with “real” life. Reading becomes a way to escape her mundane life, and she constantly searches for the excitement she finds in the literature she adores.

“She was the amoureuse of all the novels, the heroine of all the plays, the vague ‘she’ of all the poetry books.”

Tatyana in Eugene Onegin by Alexander Pushkin

Pushkin’s novel in verse features characters who are poets, their reflections on the role of the poet and his craft, and references to critics and readers. Which is to say: This book holds many readers in its pages. But my favorite reader in the novel is Tatyana, who falls in love with and is initially spurned by Onegin. Like Emma, Tatyana was drawn to romance through literature, but unlike Emma, Tatyana grows more noble through her experience of life’s disappointments. I rather enjoyed this description of Tatyana’s reading life:

“From early youth she read romances,/And novels set her heart aglow;/She loved the fictions and the fancies/Of Richardson and of Rousseau.”

Jo March (and Laurie) in Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

In addition to being an aspiring writer, Jo is a great lover of books, and though the world has changed dramatically since Little Women was first published in 1868, readers continue to connect with Jo over a shared passion for reading. Jo isn’t the only book lover in Little Women, though. Her friendship with next-door neighbor Laurie also develops over books, something bookish types may relate to:

“Then they got to talking about books, and to Jo’s delight, she found that Laurie loved them as well as she did, and had read even more than herself.”

Guy Montag in Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

Guy’s job in Bradbury’s chilling dystopian novel is not to read books but to burn them. But Guy learns to respect their power and their mysteries, and devotes himself to saving their ideas, after watching a woman chose to burn with her books rather than leave them behind:

“There must be something in books, things we can’t imagine, to make a woman stay in a burning house; there must be something there. You don’t stay for nothing.”

Haida in Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami

Murakami’s novels often include voluminous literary references and characters who find pleasure in books. The trend continues with Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, in which Haida and the eponymous Tsukuru spend their time bonding over books, among other pastimes:

“They’d sit on the sofa, listening to the classical CDs Haida borrowed from the library, discussing music, and books they’d read.”

Obinze in Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Literary references abound in Adichie’s novel that follows the diverse paths of Obinze and Ifemelu, who fall in love as teenagers in Nigeria. I was constantly pausing to add titles to my to-be-read list. Obinze is a passionate reader who book lovers will identify with during many bookish moments. But one of my favorites is in one of his early exchanges with Ifemelu, when he describes one of the reasons he is drawn to her:

“’I saw you holding a James Hadley Chase, near the lab. And I said, Ah, correct, there is hope. She reads.’”

Iris in Lucky Us by Amy Bloom

Bloom’s brilliantly crafted novel follows two sisters from Ohio to California to New York during the 1940s. Iris, the younger of the two sisters, is a devoted reader. During her stay in Los Angeles, where she has gone with her sister who is pursuing an acting career, Iris reads to escape her loneliness, and she also engages in another bookish activity readers may relate to—imagining how characters’ lives turn out after the final page:

“I made up sequels to the books I’d read: David Copperfield and his wife and three kids, living at the seaside; Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester an their progressive boarding school for the blind.”

Big Lou in 44 Scotland Street by Alexander McCall Smith

When Lou moves to Edinburgh, she buys an old bookstore that she turns into a coffee shop. But rather than getting rid of the books, she takes them home and reads them. Patrons to her shop are treated not only to coffee but to the wisdom she has gained through her wide and deep reading, and she is often found quoting as she pours and using literature to help her customers understand their experiences. But they don’t always understand either her references or her intentions, which causes her mild frustration other readers may find familiar:

“Big Lou sighed. It was difficult dealing with people who read nothing.”

Cather in Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

Cather is such a huge fan of the Simon Snow books, a Harry Potter-like young adult fantasy series, that she pens popular fan fiction based on them. Towards the end of the novel, she arrives at a definition of what a “nerd” is that makes an interesting subject for debate among readers:

“To be a nerd, she’d decided, you had to prefer fictional worlds to real ones.”

And speaking of Harry Potter…

Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling

No list of bookish literary characters would be complete without Hermione. She has many excellent bookish moments. One that especially resonates with me comes in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, when Hermione packs a library as she, Harry, and Ron set off to find and destroy Voldemort’s horcruxes. I can relate: Whether it’s an overnight adventure or a longer journey, I must have my books! Unlike me, though, Hermione has a magical beaded bag.

“She gave the fragile-looking bag a little shake and it echoed like a cargo hold as a number of heavy objects rolled around inside it. ‘Oh damn, that’ll be the books,’ she said, peering into it, ‘and I had them all stacked by subject. … Oh well.'”

If only I had a magical beaded bag … oh, wait, but I sort of do. Only mine is called Nook GlowLight Plus. 😉

Catherine in Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

The heroine of Austen’s hilarious spoof of gothic novels is Catherine Morland, who loves to read—you guessed it—gothic novels. In an aside to readers, Austen detours into an extended defense of novels themselves that reads, in part, as follows:

“‘What are you reading, Miss–?’ ‘Oh! It is only a novel!’ replies the young lady, while she lays down her book with affected indifference or momentary shame. ‘It is only Cecilia, or Camilla, or Belinda,’ or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humor, are conveyed to the world in the best chosen language.”

Well. They certainly are in Austen’s novels!

Matilda in Matilda by Roald Dahl

Matilda finds comfort from her dreary life in books, which she devours by the wagon-full. The following description captures perfectly how I felt about books as a child, and still do.

“It was pleasant to take a hot drink up to her room and have it beside her as she sat in her silent room reading in the empty house in the afternoons. The books transported her into new worlds and introduced her to amazing people who lived exciting lives. She went on olden-day sailing ships with Joseph Conrad. She went to Africa with Ernest Hemingway and to India with Rudyard Kipling. She travelled all over the world while sitting in her little room in an English village.”

So, who am I missing? Other literary readers you love?

I’ve always love this particular painting of a girl reading by Fragonard

3 Replies to “Bookish Literary Characters: A Baker’s Dozen”

  1. I hope you enjoyed some good reading moments during the blizzard and that you and your family were able to stay safe and warm! This is a very interesting list – and thanks for including someone from “Lucky Us,” a book I’ve been wanting to read for a while and that I gave to my stepmom as a gift last Christmas…to disappointing results. Usually, I’m really good at finding books people will like, but this time, no dice….

    1. The storm didn’t really hit us that hard, actually. It looked dramatic coming down, but we only got about nine inches. Still, I took advantage of the opportunity to curl up and read. 🙂

      Lucky Us is kind of a tough book in that the narrative style is very abrupt. She doesn’t use a lot of transitions, just plops you in a new place. I really loved it, actually, though I know other people struggled with it. For me, it felt like life, where all of a sudden, you get hit with something totally unexpected and have to figure out how to cope. I also loved the mood of the story and the way I perceived it advocating for perseverance and the possibility for beauty even through very dark times.

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