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.
Also see Smart People Play Chess.
- Negima! Magister Negi Magi:
- Evangeline is once seen reading the illustrative A Day, a Dog by Gabrielle Vincent, whose existential complexity was used humorously because, even though she's Really 700 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 Kyo Kara Maoh!, the Daikenja, Shinou's brilliant Strategist and Ken Murata's first incarnation, is shown reading a heavy hardbound 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.
- In Tokyo Ghoul, Kaneki is a Literature Major and it shows in his repeated references to famous Japanese and Western literature. In particular, he compares his situation to the protagonist of Franz Kafka's The Metamorphosis and later discusses the works of Carl Jung. He also has a conversation with the equally well-read and brilliant Tsukiyama, concerning the work of Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin.
- 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 audiotape to which he's listening in the portable tape recorder that he designed in the washroom that morning.
- Beast of X-Men is often seen going through these, though it's 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.
- Wallace & 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 "Fido Dogstoevsky".
- In The Wrong Trousers, he's shown reading The Republic by "Pluto" (as opposed to Plato).
- In Matilda, the eponymous character is reading Charles Dickens on her first day of school (granted, she started a bit late, but still...). When she mentions this to her teacher, she's dumbstruck. Her dumb-as-bricks father tore up Moby-Dick. She's five at the time. He thought it was some kind of dirty book.
- The Art of War is also seen in John Mason's collection in 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 façade 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, 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 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.
- This trope is the reason why in the first Men in Black film J chooses to shoot the cut out of "Little Tiffany", a little girl, in a training simulation rather than the various aliens who, upon closer inspection, are actually doing rather mundane activities. She's carrying books on quantum physics, which he points out are way too advanced for her age, and on a dark street in the middle of the night, and J correctly guesses that means she's up to no good.
- In Man of Steel there is a flashback where Clark is being harassed by bullies whilst reading The Complete Works of Plato.
- Played for Laughs with a sight gag in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, where a wizard in the Leaky Cauldron is reading A Brief History Of Time - and stirring his coffee without touching the spoon.
- In Submarine, Oliver gives Jordana his three favorite books so she can get to know him better. They are "Shakespeare's most adult play, more mature than Hamlet", a book by Friedrich Nietzsche, and The Catcher in the Rye. All mark him as a smart and well-read kid, as well as a pretentious twat.
- The children's literature book Matilda has the title character who has already made significant inroads into the Western Canon by the time she starts school. There is a list of all the books she had read at one point in the story. Most of them are fairly well known.
- The young adult novel Millicent Min, Girl Genius presents the eponymous character (who, for the record, is eleven) as a fan of William 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.
- Not only does much of the third arc of the H.I.V.E. Series have important scenes occur in the library but in the first book Otto, who was essentially raised in a library, mentions having been "told by Machiavelli" what to do in a situation.
- Bella of Twilight rereads Wuthering Heights "for fun" and it's smugly emphasized that is is "something not many people do". Earlier in the series, it's implied that she's a Jane Austen fan, too. This one suffers heavily from Small Reference Pools.
- The perhaps most interesting (and Unintentionally Hilarious) part of her obsession with Wuthering Heights is that she is so caught up in thinking she is like Catherine Earnshaw (and Edward like Heathcliffe) that she completely forgets to even mention her name-sister, Isabella Linton, a character who resembles Bella far more.
- In Ruth Rendell's novel Gallowglass (but not in the TV adaptation), Sandor reads Aleksandr 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.
- Ayn Rand used a similar tactic in The Fountainhead. One legitimately funny scene features villain Ellsworth Toohey and his quasi-intellectual friends deciding which godawful book or play will become part of the literati must-read set next.
- In P. G. 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 inexplicable 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.
- In Flowers for Algernon, Charlie as a genius is fond of Paradise Lost, and one symptom of his regress to his previous state is that he no longer understands it. This occurs pretty late in the story; before that, he's shown mentioning an important research paper and embarrassing one of his doctors, who hasn't read it because he doesn't understand the language it's written in. Charlie later wishes to consult the paper when he's writing up his own case during his regression and discovers he can no longer read it, or in fact any other foreign language.
- Honor Harrington: While there are a number of references to Honor reading for pleasure (whenever she isn't working her way through piles and piles of reports), one early book had a one-off gag of her reading Horatio Hornblower* as a combination Shout-Out and Mythology Gag.
- Lampshaded and discussed in Codex Alera. When Isana enters the office of the First Lord she notes that he has quite an impressive collection of huge leather-bound books on his shelves, and she thinks of it as the intellectual's equivalent of a hunter mounting trophies on the wall; a boast to anyone who enters of his accomplishments in his field. She does at least think that trophies of books are preferable to dead animals and credits Gaius with being the sort of person who actually has read them all rather than put them there purely for show, but she still sees it as yet another symptom of the corrupt, empty facades that make up Alera's politics.
- Jane Austen begins establishing the respective characters of Darcy and Bingley early on in Pride and Prejudice with Bingley's comment that his personal library at Netherfield is neglected and that he rarely reads, while Darcy is a great steward of books and has built up a splendid one at Pemberley.
- Subverted in The Great Gatsby. Gatsby has a stupendous library available to all of his guests, but Owl-Eyes points out to Nick that none of the books' pages are cut - Gatsby has got all these books just for show.
- Discworld example: both Lord Vetinari in Going Postal and Mr Nutt in Unseen Academicals are fond of quoting obscure Uberwaldian philosophers. Vetnari adds that Reacher Gilt, the villain of the book, "has studied his Bouffant, but, I fear, failed to understand him."
- Rama II: Guess who is the genius' favourite bard? In later books, he builds a robot of Joan of Arc, too.
- In military science fiction Victoria, protagonist John Rumford is a Renaissance Man who has studied the treasures of Western culture from Tacitus to Tolkien and Plato to John Boyd. The book goes beyond showing him reading them to having him quoting or alluding to them on numerous occasions, but there are also straight examples. One lull in the battles sees him sitting down for a few minutes to read Xenophon in paperback.
- Subverted by the "All-England Summarise Proust Competition" from Monty Python's Flying Circus. The competitors are unable to summarise it, and some look like they have never even read it.
- Father Ted:
- Subverted when 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?"
- 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 Stephen King's The Shining - 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.note
- Hiroto Suto in Engine Sentai Go-onger doesn't just read philosophy books, he reads English philosophy books.
- Lazy, bone-idle, and work-shy Onslow, 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.
- An episode of Angel has Lilah giving Wesley a copy of Dante's The Inferno in the original Tuscan. He offhandedly remarks that he's read the work several times already.
- 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.
- Whose Line Is It Anyway?:
- John Sessions has read more books than you, and he'll make sure you KNOW IT!!!
- Suggested for a bit on "What George W. Bush does in the Oval Office when nobody's around"; Wayne Brady uses this along with Obfuscating Stupidity:
"I grow weary of this charade. How I long to be me! Dickens...the encyclopedia...the tomes I have loved all my life—"
- On NUMB3RS Charlie Eppes is shown 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. Considering his people call themselves Nietzscheans, that's hardly surprising. In another episode, Tyr keeps urging a runaway prince to read the classics of strategy to understand how to be a proper schemer. At the end, the prince is put on the throne, by a strategy arranged by Dylan. Whereupon Dylan tells Tyr that he read those books too.
Dylan: Didn't Nietzsche once say the secret of reaping the greatest enjoyment from life is to live dangerously?
Tyr: You read the right books.
Dylan: I'm a man of many talents.
- Gilmore Girls:
- Rory Gilmore reads everything, from contemporary literature to criticism to biographies to classics. Nearly every episode has reference to at least one book that she has read, is reading, or is planning on reading. Note the Rory Gilmore Reading Challenge.
- Brilliant, but Lazy bad-boy love interest for Rory, Jess, was also always depicted with a book in his back pocket. His thing for the beat poets played a role in his characterization.
- 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.
- In the Smallville episode "Fanatic" Lex and Lionel are quoting The Art of War, a military philosophy and strategy novel by Sun Tzu. After Lex finishes his father's quote he says:
Lex: You know, you really don't have to quote "The Art of War" to me, Dad. I read it cover to cover three times before I finished high school. Although... I still would have preferred a bike for my 14th birthday.
- Detective William Murdoch of Murdoch Mysteries reads mostly scientific texts, but once he surprises his boss that he knows Shakespeare quite in-depth. Dr. Ogden once pokes fun at him when he mentions that he read about genetics at the beach. Julia calls it "light summer reading", a snark which he doesn't understand immediately.
- Brick from The Middle is often shown reading something incredibly advanced for his age. This leads to the hilarious "I googled Moby-Dick — the hard edition — and guess what I found?" line.
- In the Corner Gas episode "Comedy Night", Lacey tries to start a literal genius book club with the other Dog River women, but their insistence on having a man join causes it to blow up in Lacey's face when the other women prefer Brent's manly novel choices (James Bond, First Blood, etc) to Lacey's more intellectual ones (Life of Pi, One Hundred Years of Solitude, etc). Eventually, the club decides to just abandon books entirely and watch action movies instead, causing Lacey to quit in exasperation.
- Captain Jean-Luc Picard of Star Trek: The Next Generation keeps the works of William Shakespeare in his ready room. No surprise, given that this is Patrick Stewart. However, he finds it difficult to relate to science fiction.
- Criminal Minds: Reid is an avid reader, and while it typically focuses on his ability to speed read rather than what it is he's reading, he has namedropped titles like War and Peace, "This time, in the original Russian." He and Maeve bonded over their interest in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
- Wheatley tries to do this in Portal 2.
GLaDOS: [Chell and GLaDOS 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?
GLaDOS: [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.
- Ash, from Mass Effect, is a fan of Tennyson. In Mass Effect 3 Shepard can buy various works of literature (both human and alien) to decorate their quarters with.
- 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.
- One of the heroes of Narbonic spinoff Lil Mell, child genius Sergio Mendoza, has a severe case of this combined with Little Professor Dialog.
- Conversed in this El Goonish Shive strip.
- An April Fools' Day gag panel in Ozy and Millie has the entire cast acting out-of-character, including Felicia reading and commenting on a book by Proust.
- In The Inexplicable Adventures of Bob!, Molly can routinely be seen cheerfully plowing through stacks of books like Spenser's The Faerie Queene, Robert Boyle's Occasional Reflections, Locke's Two Treatises Of Government, Luo's Romance of the Three Kingdoms, or Hamster Huey and the Gooey Kablooey.
- The Autobiography of Jane Eyre: Jane Eyre is a great reader and is shown to own lots of classical books, though she reads also fantasy and other lighter genres. She says her friend Helen introduced her to reading, and she and Mr Rochester bond when they geek out about their favourite book series. Viewers keep asking her about books in her Fourth-Wall Mail Slot.
- Welcome to Night Vale: Tamika Flynn and her army of Child Soldiers all read and carry around books far beyond their reading levels. One episode has them form a book club - by clubbing enemies with heavy books.
- Brows Held High always opens with Kyle reading from something out loud before noticing the audience and introducing the show. Whether it's actually something intellectual or something silly varies wildly, but it always ties in with the film he's about to cover in some way. The Zardoz episode had him reading from an issue of Guns and Ammo.
- Whateley Universe: many of the students at the eponymous Superhero School, Whateley Academy, are superhumanly intelligent, and some of these are from well-heeled backgrounds, so inevitably some of them fall into this category, while others try to make it seems as if they do. Of these, Phase and She-Beast are notable, as both of them behaved like this well before their powers manifested.note Similarly, the Gadgeteer Genius and Devisor students are often depicted as being engrossed in technical literature.
- Ayla is shown reading Ezra Pound's The Cantosnote for a graduate-level literature class (keeping in mind that while Whateley is an Elaborate University High, the emphasis is usually on the 'high school' part).
- In 'Ayla and the Networks', Thuban secretly records Phase and She-Beast explaining the plot of Titus Andronicus to Dragonrider. This recording is edited to make it sound as if they were discussing a plot to commit murder, which is then auctioned off to Ayla and Jadis's enemies as blackmail material. Hilarity Ensues.
- Royal Brat Evilutionary Biologist Jobe Wilkins being shown talking down at highly-regarded geneticists over the phone while also reading several different research papers at the same time.
- In a moment of intentionally Hypocritical Humor, Jackson Publick and Doc Hammer said on The Venture Bros. 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 Critique of Pure Reason. Skeeter proceeds to make Doug dizzy and fall down with his accurate (if complex) explanation of why Kant is so interesting.
- Family Guy:
- Stewie 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!
- Parodied in "North by North Quahog", in which we find that the bookshelf of Peter Griffin, who is legally retarded, contains "two Garfield books and the novelization of Caddyshack". In the episode "Fore Father", the same character's bookshelf only contains books about Mr. T including For the Last Time, I Am Not Mr. T by Ving Rhames.
- Stewie starts by reading The Prince, but he throws it away in disgust.
- In The Simpsons episode "Mother Simpson", Mona Simpson is reading Abbie Hoffman's Steal This Book, while in the episode "That 90s Show", Marge Simpson is shown reading Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States. Lisa Simpson, meanwhile, has been shown reading a multitude of difficult books such as the Lyndon Johnson biography Master of the Senate by Robert A. Caro, indicating her advanced reading level.
- Gargoyles has a lot of literary influences, 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 a lot of 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.
- 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, as illustrated here).
- The Mighty B!'s Bessie Higgenbottom brings a copy of Atlas Shrugged on field trips.
- Connie from Steven Universe. She's holding a copy of A Wrinkle in Time in the opening and The Catcher in the Rye in "Bubble Buddies".
- In The Fairly OddParents, Timmy pulls out a thick book of Shakespeare to fool his parents into thinking he's been enjoying a quiet night alone.