When I was in the eighth grade, I had a crush on a certain senior. I can no longer remember why, but at the time, he seemed the epitome of desirability.  So, when at commencement he, as class historian, read aloud the class’s Last Will and Testament, and a packed auditorium heard that the class had left “To Reba White, a love of books, not boys,” I was devastated:  I had been publicly designated a bookworm by the boy I’d most liked to have dated.

My mother, a famously beautiful belle who’d married at 18, was furious.  She disapproved of my bookishness and repeatedly exhorted me with misquotations and aphorisms:  “Be sweet, young maid, and let those who will be clever,” and “You can catch more flies with honey than vinegar.”  She would have preferred to see more boys and fewer books in our house.

I soon left the town where I had felt so humiliated for boarding school, graduated, and went on to Duke. I still thought about that depressing moment.  Was I as boring and unappealing as my mother and that senior boy thought I was?  It was true that I spent more time with books than with boys. Boys were a sometime interest, but books were necessary, like breathing and sleeping, like food and drink.  I read all my textbooks on the first day of classes, and for the next nine months, surreptitiously read novels, while the other students plodded through the often dreary texts.  Each summer, asked to keep a record of the books I read during vacation, my list numbered in the hundreds.

Most damning, I adored libraries:  In the little library in the small North Carolina town where I lived from the fifth grade until I went away to school, I checked out armloads of books every week, working my way through the fiction alphabetically by author.  At boarding school, I volunteered to assist the school librarian, because (although I didn’t say so) I loved the look of books, the orderly rows of them, the feel of them, the smell of them. Working in the space where they were housed was almost a religious experience.

At college, books remained my best friends, but I continued to worry about that “love of books not boys” label: were they really mutually exclusive? Couldn’t a bookworm also be admired by the opposite sex, be sexy and glamorous? I was forced to admit that in the late 1950s in North Carolina there was a great divide between the bookish and those bored by books:  the latter rarely visited the library, while the former were seldom seen with football players and other college heroes at beer joints.

I found few soul-mates at Duke.  Some of my most brilliant classmates—Elizabeth Dole, for example, in those days Liddy Hanford from Salisbury, NC—doubtless fearing to be called a bookworm, presented a façade of helpless stupidity, drawling, “Oh, I just know I flunked my French exam,” while secretly headed for Phi Beta Kappa.  I found the wide-eyed idiot acts of the Southern belles tiresome, but I also disliked the pretentious girl-grinds, who wore their grubby clothes and unkempt hair like uniforms.  Where were the women who admitted they couldn’t live without books, who also enjoyed dressing up and going to parties, and who dreamed of dancing until dawn? Ideally with a man who loved to read?

After I moved to New York I finally began to encounter—at first mostly read about—women who shared my values, feelings, and experiences.  I learned that there were others whose mothers despised their bookish daughters.  Oprah Winfrey told a Life reporter. “I remember being in the back hallway when I was about nine—I’m going to try to say this without crying—and my mother threw the door open and grabbed a book out of my hand and said, “You’re nothing but a something-something bookworm.  Get your butt outside! You think you’re better than the other kids!”[1]  Ms. Winfrey’s mother’s assumption that a bookworm thinks of herself as superior had a familiar ring; I, too, had been told that I “thought I was so smart,” and urged to “go play outside” like “normal” children.

To my astonishment, I learned that others had also fallen in love with libraries.  I wish I’d known eight-year-old Amy Tan, who wrote “that learning seemed “to turn on a light in the little room in my mind,”[2] and that “books seem to open many windows in my little room.”  I was thrilled with Annie Dillard’s description of writing a book in the Hollins College library at night—letting herself into the locked, dark building where she wrote alone till “midnight, one or two.”[3]  Despite the eerie atmosphere she described, Dillard didn’t sound frightened. She wrote about those dark rooms as if she were in a safe haven, protected by walls of books.

Envy almost overcame my delight when I read about Anne Fadiman’s childhood.  As a part of “Fadiman U.,” she and her family “gathered around the television set for…GE College Bowl.”[4]  At Fadiman U., a bookworm was not a girl criticized for her love of books, but the hero of a children’s story: Wally the Wordworm had “lexicographic adventures” and ate only very long words, amusing and enriching the vocabulary of the Fadiman children and those who, like me, only discovered Wally as an adult.[5]

I encountered (on paper) soul mates in Anna Quindlen and Lynne Sharon Schwartz.  We shared both a general passion for books and reading, and some specific likes and dislikes (all three of us disliked Moby Dick, and loved A Little Princess.)

But my feeling of being set apart—different—welled up again when all around me I began to hear the voices of those who would replace my beloved books with computer screens.  How could they?  I agreed with Lynne Sharon Schwartz, who pointed out that “living by the word, by organized series of words, which is narrative, is a handicap when it comes to operating modern electronic devices like telephone answering machines or VCRs (not to mention computers and the phantasmagoric reaches of E-mail).  Such ineptness is not due, as laughing children suppose, to quaintness or premature senility.  It is simply that readers are accustomed to receiving information in the narrative mode.”[6]

Yes, dear reader, and we are also used to responding in writing.  A post-graduate school IQ test I took was oral, because, I was told, so many people today lack reading and writing skills.  I, on the other hand, felt disadvantaged, as I am used not only to reading questions, but answering them in writing. I think better with a pen or pencil in hand.

I say “Hear, hear” to Anna Quindlen, who wrote that, “a computer is no substitute for a book” and “It is not possible that the book is over.  Too many people love it so.”[7]  I am troubled by some frightening steps towards ruining the wonderful world of books by what is described as “advances” in technology.

More and more, access to books and other research material has become computerized.  I was horrified when years ago I arrived at the library of The Museum of Modern Art, and discovered that the card catalog had been removed. The only way to research the files of clippings on art and artists was by computer.  The absence of a card catalog spoiled that library for me. Its soul was gone.  I regretted that I had contributed financially to that library. I shuddered at the possibility that my dollars might have been used to help assassinate the card catalog.

Few people seem to share my interest in card catalogs, so I was fascinated by Nicholson Baker’s essay, “Discards,” in which he points out the problems and difficulties, the shortsightedness, of discarding card catalogs.  He discusses the huge number of errors in computerized card catalogs.  He wrote, “the real reason to protect card catalogs is simply that they hold the irreplaceable intelligence of the librarians who worked on them.”[8]

After reading Baker’s essay, and experiencing vanishing card catalogs, I struck a small blow for readers.  Some years ago, my husband and I moved our thousands of prints and the library to support them—hundreds of books and files—to a building we acquired to house everything, and established The Print Research Foundation (PRF).  At the same time, we bought a card catalogue for the book collection.  Yes, those old-fashioned drawers are still being made, as are the cards, hole-punched to fit on the rods that hold them in place in the drawers.  Our card catalogue was in a prominent location at PRF, and when in 2008, we donated our prints and our art library to The National Gallery in Washington, we kept the card catalogue. I continue to treasure it.

After several graduate school experiences (I loved writing my dissertation), I accepted my role in life.  Anna Quindlen wrote that she’d received a letter from a girl “who had been given one of my books by her mother, and began her letter, ‘I guess I am what some people would call a bookworm.’ “So am I,” Quindlen wrote back. [9]  And I cheerfully declare—so am I!


[1] Lowe, Janet. Oprah Winfrey Speaks, 21-24.

[2] Tan, Amy. “What the Library Means to Me.” Paul Mandelbaum, ed., First Words. 184.

[3] Dillard, Annie. The Writing Life, 27, 29.

[4] Fadiman, Anne. Ex Libris, 14.

[5] Fadiman, Clifton. Wally the Wordworm.

[6] Schwartz, Lynne Sharon. Ruined by Reading, 23.

[7] Quindlen, Anna. How Reading Changed My Life, 64, 68.

[8] Baker, Nicholson, “Discards.” The Size of Thoughts, 125.

[9] Quindlen, 14.

Lisa Atherton’s delightful illustrations can be found in Clifton Fadiman’s Wally the Wordworm (Owings Mills, Maryland: Stemmer House Publishers, 1983)