There are few things I love more than coming across a book whose protagonists is a reader. First of all, it gives me an immediate jolt of recognition. I know it’s naïve to assume that just because a character is fond of books I’ll have a lot in common with them, but I just can’t help it; I still feel close to them right away. In addition to that instant sense of connection, I love the fact that bookish heroes and heroines defy the idea that there’s an insurmountable divide between reading and life; that bookish people are dull and don’t have things happen to them. With this in mind, I thought I’d share some of my favourite bookish protagonists with you today.
Charmain Baker from Diana Wynne Jones’ House of Many Ways: As you might remember, I met Charmain very recently: this was actually what gave me the idea for this post. Charmain is certainly an example of someone whose love of reading goes hand in hand with an ongoing attempt to keep the real world at bay, but this attitude of hers changes over the course the novel. Charmain becomes involved in an adventure of her own, and yet her love of books remains.
I particularly loved the scenes where she and the King of High Norland sit companionably side by side in the Royal Library, cataloguing old books and documents. These scenes reminded me of my own work back when I was an archivist, and I can’t say I’d ever come across a novel that did that.
Mosca Meyers from Fly By Night by Frances Hardinge: Mosca Meyer is such an interesting character. She’s a smart young girl who particularly values reading because she’s been starved for words for most of her life. In Mosca’s world – as in ours – literacy is deeply connected to power and opportunities; her desperate and fierce desire to have access to more words, more thoughts, more ways to perceive and organise and discuss the world around her remind readers not to take this connection for granted.
Meggie Folchart from Inkheart by Cornelia Funke: Unfortunately I wasn’t a big fan of this novel overall, but it still wouldn’t feel right to leave Meggie out of a list like this. I did love Cornelia Funke’s premise and her celebration of the pleasures of getting lost in a good book. Meggie’s love of story despite the very real dangers books pose in her world was an absolute pleasure to witness. Her father, Mo, deserves a mention as well, of course. Here's one of my favourite quotes from the book:
If you take a book with you on a journey, an odd thing happens: The book begins collecting your memories. And forever after you have only to open that book to be back where you first read it. It will all come into your mind with the very first words: the sights you saw in that place, what it smelled like, the ice cream you ate while you were reading it... yes, books are like flypaper—memories cling to the printed page better than anything else.Bastian from The Neverending Story by Michael Ende: The shy, geeky, isolated Bastian is the first bookish hero I ever remember coming across. Like many other children of the 80’s, I watched the movie version of The Neverending Story countless times, and some years later I was able to get my hands on the book. When I was in middle school I could really relate to Bastian’s school experiences; to the way he took refuge in books and saw them as a lifeline. It was such a comfort to see that someone like that could be at the centre of a story. (On a side note, I think Atreyu was my first ever literary crush.)
Lirael from Lirael, the second book in Garth Nix’s Abhorsen trilogy: I’ve been actually thinking of rereading this trilogy lately – I only hope it lives up to my memories of it. When I started Lirael, the second book in the series, I was actually very disappointed that it wasn’t going to focus on the characters from Sabriel; but within 20 pages I was already irrevocably attached to Lirael, the series’ new protagonist. She’s a librarian at the amazing Clayr’s Library and likes nothing better than to get lost in its dark, cobwebby, mysterious corners. What’s not to love?
Catherine Morland from Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey: Catherine is a reader of novels at a time when they were yet to gain respectability. She’s a little apologetic about the fact and sometimes buys into all the negative associations between novels and her gender, but as the story progresses she really comes into her own. I love her interaction with Henry Tilney here:
“I never look at it,” said Catherine, as they walked along the side of the river, “without thinking of the south of France.”Now that I think of it, Henry Tilney also very much belongs on this list.
“You have been abroad then?” said Henry, a little surprised.
“Oh! No, I only mean what I have read about. It always puts me in mind of the country that Emily and her father travelled through, in The Mysteries of Udolpho. But you never read novels, I dare say?”
“Because they are not clever enough for you – gentlemen read better books.”
“The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid. I have read all Mrs. Radcliffe’s works, and most of them with great pleasure. The Mysteries of Udolpho, when I had once begun it, I could not lay down again; I remember finishing it in two days – my hair standing on end the whole time.”
Jo March from Little Women by Louisa May Alcott — Jo is a writer as well as a reader. I have my qualms about the ending of her storyline (who doesn’t?), but I still love the way her presence in the story illuminates the extent to which reading and writing could be acts of subversion for girls and women in her position. Regardless of how things turn out for her, the fact that the indomitable Jo was allowed to exist for a large part of the story is very significant.
Frankie Landau-Banks from The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart — Oh, how can I even begin to explain why I love Frankie? She’s smart, passionate, unwilling to compromise when it comes to being treated as a human being, and a reader of Dorothy Parker and P.G. Wodehouse. She certainly belongs in any list of favourite protagonists I make, bookish or not.
(If TV series were included here, this is where I’d mention Rory Gilmore. I’m up to season six of Gilmore Girls [yep, this is my first time watching it; I never said I didn’t live under a rock] and more I more I daydream about locking Rory and Frankie in a room so they could have a nice long talk. I have a feeling they’d have plenty to say to each other.)
Madeleine Hanna from The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides: I probably don’t need to tell you again how much I loved this novel, do I? Unlike some readers, I felt much closer to Madeleine than to any of the other point of view characters. She felt completely real to me, and her love of books, particularly of Victorian literature, was certainly a part of what drew me to her right away.
Last but not least, there’s Roald Dahl’s Matilda Wormwood: It’s been many years since I last read Matilda, but how could I forget its heroine’s voraciousness when it comes to books? I’ve heard that the Dennis Kelly and Tim Minchin musical does some very interesting things with this theme. I so hope I’ll have the opportunity to see it someday.
What about you? Are you also a fan of bookish protagonists? What are some of your favourites?