- Squashing the Bookworm: Manly Attention and Male Reading in Silent Film
The classic cinematic bookworm appears in James Williamson’s Kinematograph film An Interesting Story (1905).1 The film opens on this literate fellow as he sits at the breakfast table, reading his ubiquitous novel. Dressed in fussy bowtie and moustache, the man is totally absorbed in his reading, which the film quickly identifies as a mode of distraction when the reader pours coffee and cream into his hat. Breakfast over, the bookworm ventures out onto the street, book firmly in place before him. Thus blinkered, the bookworm trips over a scullery maid, resulting in his first of many tumbles. His next misadventure occurs as he walks through a little girls’ game of jump rope, spoiling the fun and sending him sprawling once again. While the first encounters are with women, who perhaps can be ignored, the second half of the film shifts to run-ins with men, whose public circulation the bookworm hinders. In response to the bookworm, whose readerly perambulations disrupt their work, these men react aggressively. The first, a junkman with his mule, gives the bookworm a whack to the back of the head with his peddler’s sack; the second, a pedestrian whose way the bookworm blocks, challenges him to a fistfight.
Although the offense the junkman and the pedestrian take is perhaps excessive, even bullying, these are manly reactions, and not just because they are violent. The peddler’s and pedestrian’s routes appear purposive, and by overcoming an environmental obstacle (the bookworm), they show themselves to be in control of their surroundings. While the other characters both literally and figuratively have direction—they are either working or moving [End Page 627] with purposeful directionality—the bookworm’s walk appears aimless. Moreover, in the context of the film, he is rude, getting in the way of other men’s labors. When it comes, the punishment for the bookworm’s lack of direction and engagement is explicitly modern. As he continues his walk up the street, reading all the while, an instrument of modern labor, a steam roller, comes his way. Importantly, the film frames this encounter differently than the earlier scenes. While the breakfast table, maid, jump rope, and junkman incidents involve the bookworm facing the camera and walking toward the audience, the final scene takes place in a long shot, into which the bookworm enters from the bottom of the frame. His back faces the camera as he walks directly into the path of the steamroller, which quite literally lays him flat. But because this is a trick film and not an early version of the Saw franchise, the bookworm’s tragedy quickly transforms into an opportunity for a gag. Two bicyclists emerge on the scene, apply their bike pumps, and inflate the flattened reader. Once again three-dimensional, the bookworm attempts to communicate something about his book (although with his attention fixed on the page, he fails to make eye-contact) and then continues his walk to the back of the frame.
I emphasize the directionality of the bookworm’s walk in the final scene because as he makes his exit, the two bicyclists remain in the foreground, one on either side of the frame, laughing and pointing at the bookworm while he walks into the distance. The final image of An Interesting Story is instructive: it frames the bookworm as an object of fun and positions the comparatively active and modern bicyclists as spectators entertained by his pratfalls. In this way, the bicyclists and the film’s audience are aligned, sharing a laugh together at the foolish man who cannot learn a lesson, perhaps because he wasn’t paying close attention. Although An Interesting Story takes its place generically among other trick films from the period, including such titles as How It Feels to be Run Over (1900), The Mad Motorist (1906), and The Automatic Motorist (1911), it also usefully establishes the bookworm as a type, one that would appear in later comedies and trade magazines. Bookworm films simultaneously associate reading with old-fashioned ideals such as absorption and suggest that this type of absorption counts as a way...