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One common way to show that a character is exceptionally smart is to portray them reading classical literature or something heavily technical and science-y. Additionally, characters are always reading the heavy bound versions of the book so we can easily see what, exactly, it is that they're reading- otherwise, why even bother putting the book there in the first place?
Expect the titles referenced to be from Small Reference Pools, since again, it's only possible to impress upon the viewer how smart the character is provided they're reading something anyone has ever actually heard of.
Of course, it's not like all such writing is completely beyond the understanding of us mere mortals, and this trope can be well done provided that the character is, in fact, reading a specific book- and not just a classic that we can all identify as such. It can be quite informative when the book's subject matter becomes something of a plot point. Rather than simply observing the character reading the book, for example, we can watch another character ask what it is they're reading- and why.
For bonus points, an Omniglot can read it in the original language. The more obscure the original, the more points; Sanskrit is ideal.
Related to TV Genius, specifically the tendency of average-to-dumb characters to spout off a whole bunch of knowledge they never actually learned if they suddenly become one.
A case of Truth in Television - people do, in fact, read books like this for the sole purpose of trying to appear intelligent. And an even smaller number of people really do read them for the sake of reading them.
Also see Smart People Play Chess.
- Evangeline from Mahou Sensei Negima was once seen reading the illustrative A Day, a Dog by Gabrielle Vincent, whose existential complexity was used humorously because, even though she's Really Seven Hundred Years Old, she appears 10.
- Later on, Tosaka, of all people, is seen reading the Walter Benjamin translation of Charles Baudelaire.
- Evangeline is also shown citing Russian classics on occasion, such as when she quotes Tolstoy's Anna Karenina to Setsuna during their tournament match.
- In Kyou Kara Maou, the Daikenja, Shinou's brilliant Strategist and Ken Murata's first incarnation, is shown reading a heavy, hard bound book in the middle of a forest of sorts when first introduced. Where he managed to get the said book from is another question altogether...
- A minor running gag in Haré+Guu -- the schoolkids read Heidegger and similar works. They don't otherwise seem unusually bright for their ages.
- In the first episode of Yu-Gi-Oh!, Kaiba is seen reading Nietzsche's Also Sprach Zarathustra (at least in the original Japanese).
- Subverted in Naruto with Kakashi, who is often referred to as a genius but whose literature of choice is erotic fiction. Written by another 'genius' ninja, no less.
- Evelyn Cream from Miracleman. Among other things, he's read the untranslated works of various French authors and owns an original painting from a famous modern artist.
- Lex Luthor is introduced in the Alternate Continuity Superman: Red Son playing chess against 12 people at the same time, while reading Machiavelli's Il Principe and learning Urdu through an audio tape to which he's listening in the portable tape recorder that he designed in the washroom that morning.
- The Beast of X-Men is often seen going through these, though its a case of Depending on the Writer how deep the reference pool goes. Usually Chris Claremont was good at showing him reading obscure, if appropriately deep, works.
- In an issue of Exiles when a library exploded the only two books visible happened to be Atlas Shrugged and the far more obscure Ubik. The Genius Bonus is that Atlas Shrugged is about how things are truly objective and Ubik is a quintessential subjective world.
- In Bone, Fone Bone is a great fan of Moby Dick - the author's own favorite book. It's a running gag that every other character finds it extremely boring and dry. Truth in Television, since it spends several chapters talking about whaling and numerous pages describing the color white.
- YMMV. The whaling chapters are full of descriptions of violent accidents and left-field philosophical asides, and "The Whiteness of the Whale" is about a lot more than color.
- In the Matilda movie, the eponymous character was reading Charles Dickens in her first day of school (granted, she started a bit late, but still...). When she mentions this to her teacher, she's dumbstruck.
- And the book her dumb-as-bricks father tore up was Moby Dick. She's five at the time.
- He thought it was some kind of dirty book.
- And the book her dumb-as-bricks father tore up was Moby Dick. She's five at the time.
- The Art of War is also seen in John Mason's collection in the movie The Rock.
- The chapter on observing enemy behaviour would be pretty useful for a British intelligence agent.
- Subverted by White Goodman in DodgeBall: A True Underdog Story, who pretends to read a book to seem smart. The book in question? The dictionary.
- Lorelei, villain Ross Webster's assistant and girlfriend in Superman III, appears to be a standard Dumb Blonde. However, while alone she reads Immanuel Kant's Critique of Pure Reason and disputes one of its arguments, thus showing her stupidity is a facade she puts on to manipulate others.
- The live action Death Note film has a scene with Light reading Thus Spake Zarathustra.
- Star Trek II the Wrath of Khan draws from Moby Dick (which Khan quotes extensively), Paradise Lost, The Inferno, and King Lear. When we see Khan's bookshelf, there they all are.
- Near the beginning of Wrath of Khan, Spock gives Kirk a copy of A Tale of Two Cities as a birthday present. Kirk is shown reading it, or quoting it a few times during the film.
- Played with in the film Dr. Who and the Daleks: We are introduced to the title character and his family through a panning shot showing them sitting and reading. Granddaughter Susan (age 12) is reading Physics for the Enquiring Mind, granddaughter Barbara is reading The Science of Science, and the Doctor is reading a comic book.
- Referenced by Ron Burgundy (Will Ferrell) in Anchorman. In this case, he is not shown reading a large book (perhaps not surprisingly), but merely refers to the fact that he owns such books in a rather pathetic attempt to invoke this trope.
- At the beginning of Finding Forrester, the pile of well-worn books Jamal has been reading includes works by noteworthy authors like Anton Chekhov, Ken Kesey, Yukio Mishima, Søren Kierkegaard, Marquis de Sade, and Ray Bradbury. Of course, even an intellect like Jamal's hasn't cracked the spine of James Joyce's Finnegans Wake.
- The young adult novel Millicent Min, Girl Genius presents the eponymous character (who, for the record, is eleven) as a fan of Shakespeare.
- While most of the books Klaus has read in A Series of Unfortunate Events are made-up nonfiction with titles like What Happens to Wet Metal, he's also a fan of Herman Melville and Leo Tolstoy. The villains invert this trope (and massively subvert Dumb Is Good) by being cultural philistines.
- Bella of Twilight rereads Wuthering Heights "for fun", something not many people do.
- In Ruth Rendell's novel Gallowglass (but not in the TV adaptation), Sandor reads Solzhenitsyn's Cancer Ward, which shows how educated and smart he is, unlike the uneducated and below-average-intelligence Joe. (Maybe it's also to give him complexity, since Sandor seems to be borderline sociopathic.)
- In a humorous story by Woody Allen, "A Little Louder, Please" the narrator shows off how sophisticated he is by bragging that he read Finnegans Wake on a roller coaster at Coney Island.
- Philip Roth's Goodbye Columbus has the protagonist's cousin reading War and Peace every summer and it grows increasingly obvious that she only brings the book along so she can display how intelligent she supposedly is. Given that the book is about a Jewish boy from Newark, visiting with his Aunt in Livingston and chasing after a girl who lives in (and goes to a country club in) Short Hills (local NJ geography is semi-necessary for reading), class differences are huge and he's probably making some sort of point.
- Played oddly in Atlas Shrugged. A few Fictional Documents are cited to describe how normal culture is failing, and reading them is used to demonstrate who is a fool. Several good characters, like Dan Conway, are portrayed as smart but neither own books nor read at all. Played straight with the pirate, Ragnar Danneskjöld, who reads his last line in the book from Aristotle's Metaphysics.
- In PG Wodehouse's Jeeves and Wooster novels, Bertie Wooster likes to read mystery novels, while Jeeves prefers the works of the philosopher Spinoza.
- For some utterly inexpliable reason, Door from Neverwhere is repeatedly seen reading a copy of Mansfield Park that she's apparently pulled from Hammerspace. Whether it's supposed to tell us something about Door's personality or simply remind us that London Below is just weird like that is not made clear.
- Subverted the "All-England Summarise Proust Competition" from Monty Python's Flying Circus.
- Subverted in Father Ted: Ted leaves several novels - War and Peace, Crime and Punishment, etc. - on the table to impress a writer who has come to stay. Dougal says to him, "Ah, you're throwing out the ones you couldn't get through?"
- Also subverted when Father Ted goes to pick up a book he had lent to another priest. As the priest goes through his library, he mentions various heavy-weight works of philosophy and theology, until he reaches a book called "Tech Wars" - which is, of course, the book Ted lent to him.
- Shakespeare, Poe, Washington Irving et al. frequently have guest spots in CSI's Quip to Black. Clearly, Grissom is a fan of the more popular, accessible classics, which he presumably read when he was 12 and had spare time.
- Tony Stonem in Skins is a bit of a literature and philosophy fan, seen reading Nietzsche and Rand on separate occasions, the latter when he's still recovering from a brain injury.
- Hiroto Suto in Engine Sentai Go-onger doesn't just read philosophy books, he reads English philosophy books.
- Lazy, bone-idle and work shy Onslo, the slovenly, perpetually unemployed brother-in-law of the main character in Keeping Up Appearances is seen reading several books on highly technical subjects such as quantum mechanics over the course of the series.
- Used in a more specific way in the Buffyverse. To emphasize Angel's guilty brooding he is seen reading Sartre and other bleak existentialists.
- Used often enough on Lost; Sawyer is shown to be reading a lot in early seasons, though he reads basically anything he can find. A straighter example is Ben, who has been seen reading The Brothers Karamazov, VALIS by Philip K. Dick , and of course, James Joyce's Ulysses.
- John Sessions has read more books than you, and he'll make sure you KNOW IT, GODDAMNIT.
- In a recent Numb3rs Charlie Eppes is show packing a copy of Seven Pillars Of Wisdom to read while teaching at Cambridge.
- In one episode of Andromeda, Tyr is reading Friedrich Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil.
- Well, considering his people call themselves Nietzscheans, that's hardly surprising.
- Rory Gilmore.
- Played for Laughs on The War at Home:
Vicky: This book sucks!
Dave: You know what I do with books that suck? I wait for them to come out as movies that suck.
Vicky: Unfortunately, I have to read this. It's for my stupid book club.
Dave: If it's stupid, why do you go?
Vicky: I like to tell people I'm in a book club.
- Wheatley tries to do this in Portal 2
G La DOS: [Chell and G La DOS exit the elevator to find a harpsichord piece by Bach playing on the speakers] Ohh... no, he's playing classical music. [they enter the testing room to hear the sound of pages being turned]
Wheatley: Oh sorry sorry sorry; Hope that didn't disturb you too much there. It was the sound of books... pages being turned. So, that's just what I was doing, just reading, uh... books. So not a moron. Anyway, just finished the last one, just now, the hardest one. Machiavelli. Do not know what all the fuss was about - understood it perfectly. Have you read that one?
G La DOS: [disdainfully] Yes.
Wheatley: Yeah, decked it. Well, on with the test! Wished there was more books! But there's not.
- Grunt from Mass Effect 2 enjoys reading Hemingway. For Whom the Bell Tolls and The Old Man and the Sea seem to be his favorite, but he doesn't like A Farewell to Arms.
- One of the heroes of Narbonic spinoff Lil Mell, child genius Sergio Mendoza, has a severe case of this combined with Little Professor Dialog.
- In The Dreamer, Nathan is often seen reading the play Cato which also acts as a Genius Bonus for those who know that his historical counterpart's famous quote is sometimes attributed as based on a part of the play.
- In a moment of intentionally Hypocritical Humor, Jackson Publick and Doc Hammer said on The Venture Brothers season one DVD Commentary that the network thought a lot of their work was too smart for the average viewer, then started talking about a script for an episode they had written that was all about Proust.
- Given a Double Subversion in Doug. In "Doug's Brainy Buddy", it is revealed that Skeeter managed to get a perfect score on an intelligence test. Doug, skeptical that his ditzy friend could really be a genius, goes to Skeeter's house and says that geniuses, among other things, "read lots of books!" Skeeter objects, pointing out his library. Doug counters that these aren't real books (they're elementary and middle school humor fiction), until running into Immanuel Kant's A Critique of Pure Reason. Skeeter proceeds to make Doug dizzy and fall down with his complex (if accurate) explanation of why Kant is so interesting.
- Stewie in Family Guy starts by reading The Prince, but he throws it away in disgust.
Stewie: Oh, Machiavelli, you've taught me nothing I don't already know! Ah, Sun Tzu's The Art of War!
- In The Simpsons episode "Homer's Mother", Mona Simpson is reading Abbie Hoffman's Steal This Book.
- Gargoyles has a lot of literary influence, so it's not surprising it invokes this. Goliath is seen reading Dostoyevsky (leading Elisa to joke "Really? Who's it by?"). Also, Fox spent time in prison reading Sartre, leading to this exchange:
Hyena: (While shooting paperclips at cockroaches) Why do you read that stuff?
Fox: Because Nietzsche's too butch, and Kafka reminds me of your little friends over there.
- Wallace and Gromit tended to use this not just to show how smart Gromit is, but also as a vehicle for Incredibly Lame Puns. For example, in A Close Shave, when Gromit gets framed for sheep rustling and imprisoned, he's shown reading Crime and Punishment in his cell--and the author's name is misspelled on the cover as Fyodor Dogstoevsky.
- Daria often begins a scene with the title character reading, and if you look closely it's usually something along these lines (but with a fairly deep reference pool).