Bookworms’ colourful exploits, in and out of books (Column: Bookends)

Bookworm is a common, mildly pejorative, term for avid readers with tacit implication that they are unlikely to do well in practical, physical situations (contemporary, more colourful, vocabulary would say geeks, nerds or wimps). But as there are no organisms like bookworms (the various insects attacking books are actually two species of beetles – a louse and a moth), people so labelled, whether real or fictional, are scarcely inert or passive figures they are usually depicted or perceived as.

The reason may be unfathomable, but giving lie to the perception is a wide spectrum of active and courageous ‘bookworms’. From popular culture across various media, there is a studious student witch, a globe-trotting archaeologist, a wizard sent to Middle-Earth to help defeat a tyrant, a historian who foils assassination of the Prince and Princess of Wales, arranges a Soviet nuclear submarine’s defection, and eventually becomes US president , an academician-cum-‘vampire hunter’, a small-town bespectacled lawyer who exhibits great moral strength among others.

But if Hermione Granger from the “Harry Potter” series, Dr. Henry Walton “Indiana” Jones Jr., Gandalf from the “Lord of Rings”, Jack Ryan in Tom Clancy’s techo-thrillers, Abraham Van Helsing in Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” and Atticus Finch from Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” – disregard the older draft published this year – can be dismissed as imaginary, then what about real life cases?

How about a US president who read at least a book a day (usually before breakfast) and wrote many himself, hunted, boxed; a septuagenarian philosopher who stood up to Mike Tyson to save a woman from rape; the children’s author who at a day’s notice managed to round up all enemy nationals in an African town when World War-II began, became a flying ace and helped invent a medical device that helped countless children; the archaeologist who sparked off a successful revolt; the college professor who may have changed a key American Civil War battle’s outcome, and a Marxist theorist who also proved to be a skilled military organiser and commander.

Any of them familiar?

The US president was Theodore Roosevelt of whom it will suffice to say he managed to combine six adventurous lifetimes in his six decades, the philosopher was Sir Alfred Jules (or A.J.) Ayer, the author was Roald Dahl, known among others for “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” (1964), the archaeologist was T.E. Lawrence who detailed his adventures in “Seven Pillars of Wisdom” (1922), the professor was Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, hero of Little Round Top during the Battle of Gettysburg (1863) and the Communist Lev Davidovich Bronstein or Leo Trotsky (one oblique representation was Snowball in George Orwell’s “Animal Farm”). Marxist poster icon Che Guevara was also quite a prolific literary and philosophical commentator.

It is the case of Ayer that warrants sharing as it may not be that well-known.

“At a party that same year (1987) held by fashion designer Fernando Sanchez, Ayer, then 77, confronted Mike Tyson who was forcing himself upon the (then) little-known model Naomi Campbell. When Ayer demanded that Tyson stop, the boxer said: ‘Do you know who the f*** I am? I’m the heavyweight champion of the world,’ to which Ayer replied: ‘And I am the former Wykeham Professor of Logic. We are both pre-eminent in our field. I suggest that we talk about this like rational men.’ Ayer and Tyson then began to talk, while Naomi Campbell slipped out.” (in “A.J. Ayer: A Life”, 1999, by Ben Rogers). Ayer had also served as a secret agent in the Second World War.

Men of science were no less active. Leading theoretical physicist and Nobel winner Niels Bohr was a keen footballer and known for always taking two stairs at once even in old age. Though he appears in science fiction writer Poul Anderson’s “Three Hearts and Three Lions”, he is actually the model for the real hero – a big burly football-playing Danish university graduate, who is thrown across dimensions into the medieval age in a parallel Earth, and uses his scientific skills to know how to kill dragons.

Elsewhere in fiction, several iconic characters are bookworms – detectives like Sherlock Holmes and Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey, who seems an effete aristocrat but is extremely knowledgeable, a decorated war veteran, and judo expert, C.S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower, who becomes a great sailor by his maths and research skills, Aramis from “The Three Musketeers”, who hankers to be a priest and begins a thesis on the hand positions used for ritual church blessings – despite being a womaniser and elite soldier.

Then CIA researcher Ronald Malcolm beats trained agents at their game in James Grady’s “Six Days of the Condor” (Joe Turner in film adaptation “Three Days of the Condor”), and Rafale Sabatini’s “Scaramouche” is French Revolution-era lawyer Andre-Louis Moreau who becomes an expert swordsman from studying fencing theory in books.

So next time you see someone buried in a book, resist making a snide remark!

(13.12.2015 – Vikas Datta is an Associate Editor at IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at vikas.d@ians.in )

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