If you’re involved in the literary world at all, you’ve probably heard the word “bookish” somewhere. You might have even been called it once or twice or dozens of times by teasing friends or eye-rolling family members after you spend yet another holiday curled up in the corner, reading a book you’ve just unwrapped. Or maybe that experience is just mine and mine alone.
Regardless, on the literary niches of the internet, you’re likely to see bookish gift recommendations around the holidays every year or articles about how to find bookish friends/community. Spend 10 minutes on Etsy, and you’re sure to find a treasure trove of trinkets all with the word bookish in their title. Like bookworm or bibliophile, in the literary world, the word “bookish” is everywhere, whether you like it or not. But what does it really mean, and how long has it existed?
What Does Bookish Mean Today?
In the modern world, “bookish” is an adjective that describes something related to, you guessed it, books. There can be a bookish gift, a bookish person, or a bookish place. Some literary-geared places have even adopted the word into their stores’ names, like The Bookish Shop or the independent bookstore Bookish in Washington State. In classic middle school speech style, the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “bookish” as “of or relating to books” and “inclined to rely on book knowledge.”
I find this two-fold meaning to be interesting since the wording of the latter implies a sort of negative take. I see the word bookish as an avid reader, and I immediately assume a positive meaning.
But, if we trace “bookish” back, you’ll see a similar sentiment.
The Earliest Documented Use
The Oxford English Dictionary traces the word bookish back to 1542 when it was used in the sentence, “Sylla was not bookyshe nor half a good clerke.” In this use, its meaning is the same as the modern days’ version of the word, used to convey that someone is (or this sentence isn’t) a reader. Shakespeare also used it this way in The Winter’s Tale when a character says, “though I am not bookish, yet I can reade Waiting-Gentlewoman in the scape.”
However, the Oxford English Dictionary also shows the word is used in a more negative way to mean reading so much an individual doesn’t know anything about the real world. Their definition is “having only knowledge acquired from books; impractical; unworldly.” This use is seen earliest in 1566 in Medicinable Morall in the sentence, “Philosphers, (that bookish broode) may, teache the things by sleighte.” Good ‘ol Shakespeare also uses this version of the word in Henry VI in the sentence, “Whose bookish rule hath puld faire England downe.”
Etymology Online also traces it back to the 1500s with both meanings 1) “given to reading, fond of books” and 2) “overly studious, acquainted with books only.”
A Dictionary of the English Language by Samuel Johnson from 1755 identifies “bookish” as “given to books; acquainted only with books” and then says, “it is generally used contemptuously.”
A little later, in 1903, The Century Dictionary defines it in two ways. First, “of or pertaining to books” and second, “fond of study, hence more acquainted with books than with men; familiar with books, but not with practical life” and third, “learned.”
It seems the definition hasn’t changed much between the 1600s and modern day.
The Negatives of a “Bookish Education”
Quite a few of the instances where the word is used in literature and other publications pertain to the author expressing concern about a so-called “bookish education.” A 1613 translation of essays by Michael Lord of Montaigne, translated into English by John Florio, digs at “schollers” saying, “see but one of these our universitie men or bookish schollers returne from school, after he hath there spent ten or twelve yeares under a Pendants charge: who is so unapt for any matter?, who so unfit for any companie?,” and later “all the advantage you discover in him, is, that his Latine and Greeke” have made him “more stupide” than when he “went from home.”
In 1692, Winter-Evening Conference Between Neighbors by J. Goodman expresses similar sentiments, saying, “amongst the great number of those that have had all the advantages of Bookish Education, how few are those that are really the better for it? With many Men Reading is nothing better than a doxing kind of Idleness and the Book is a mere Opiate that makes them sleep with their eyes open” and then calls bookishness “a Disease: For by over-much Reading they surcharge their minds, and so digest nothing.”
Again in 1843, an article titled “On Classical Studies” by Sears, Edwards, and Felton remarks, “they are of that kind which we should expect to meet with in a body of writers and scholars, living for the most part in small academic communities, conversant only with books and bookish men, seldom taking part in active life or associating with men of the world.”
Less than 100 years later, in 1916, people at the Wisconsin Teachers’ Association referenced bookishness multiple times, with one saying the “stilted bookish worshiper of tradition, who places learning above life…has no place on the faculty of a normal school.” Later, another said, “There is no doubt in my mind that our public school education was entirely too bookish” defining a “bookish education” as putting “children down to study a textbook with little outside work, no actual contact with things.” A third expressed the same saying, “Why should a study like civics be made bookish? The book should be used as a guide and a means of checking up information.”
In the same way modern parents and teachers worry about the impacts of a digital education on children, parents of the past were uncertain about learning through the very books we now spend years and years lugging around and studying by default.
Some Fun Rhymes
Of course, with many things, the word bookish has made its way into a poem or two over the years. Some of the catchiest ones, though, don’t exactly portray the bookish in a positive light.
For example, in1596, the book Miscellaneous Tracts contains a poem called “Epigram” with no author identified that goes as follows:
A scholer, newly entred marriage life,
Following his studdie did offend his wife,
Because when she his company expected,
By bookish business she was still neglected:
Comming unto his studdy, Lord! (quoth she)
Can papers cause you love them more then mee?
I would I were transform’d into a booke,
That your affection might upon me looke;
But in my wish, withall be it decreed,
I would be such a booke you love to reede.
Husband (quoth she), which books forme should I take?
Marry (said he) t’were best an almanacke:
The reason wherefore I doe wish thee so
Is, every yeare wee have a new, you knowe.
In Poetical Works from 1622, George Wither writes, “Although a little learning be not bad, / Those that are bookish are the soonest mad” and an issue of A Gentleman’s Magazine, Volume V from 1735 quotes an essay by “Mr. Pope” with the diddy “A Bookish Blockhead, ignorantly read, / With Loads of learned Lumber in his Head.”
On a Positive Note
Because I, too, am of the bookish disposition, I wanted to end this with a positive spin on the word for us bookworms to take satisfaction in. In A Spiritual Legacy… published by Christopher Ness in 1684, the sister of John Draper wrote of her brother “though some blamed him for being too bookish during his weakness, he answered, should reading impair my health, I am sure it refreshes my Soul.”
For all of you who, like Mr. John Draper, believe reading refreshes your soul too, wear your bookish title with pride. I know I do. I think the world is in books just as much as it is outside your door.
I hope you learned something about the word bookish! If you’re in the market for more dives into bookish history, check out this history of the word bookworm or this history of reading through the ages!