High school was a significant period of my life, almost more significant than college or the two minutes that I sat behind Adam Sandler on a bus. Not only did I learn what it takes to be a good friend (and a bad one) and how unfit I would be as a criminal (I got kicked out of the library once for sneaking in a bag of chips and I’ve never really been the same), but I also mastered one of academia’s most important skills. Namely, the ability to immediately identify a theme or motif and thesaurusize my way to a brilliant 5-paragraph-essay. For those of you who don’t know, thesaurusize is a word I just invented meaning “to expand a one-sentence idea into multiple pages by using a Thesaurus to rephrase the same concept,” and it’s a practice that I’ve perfected throughout my college years. In doing so, I’ve realized that a number of books can easily be defined by single words or short phrases, either because they perfectly describe the work’s theme or because I had to use the word so many times in my essays that I gave up on trying to find synonyms.
The Scarlet Letter – Ignominy
The Scarlet Letter is one such example of the latter problem. Written by Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter tells the story of Hester Prynne, who is forced to wear a red “A” on her chest as punishment for her scandalous affair. Though the word itself was only used a handful of times, the idea has been burned into my mind as a result of countless vocab tests and essays asking us to analyze Hester’s “ignominious scarlet letter.” While I appreciate the word ignominy, meaning “public shame or disgrace,” if only because it will likely show up on Jeopardy! someday, finding alternatives to that definition can be tricky. There are only so many ways to describe “public embarrassment” without outright saying “ignominy” or holding up a picture of someone getting pantsed.
The Catcher in the Rye – Phony
Holden Caulfield is my favorite literary anti-hero. His iconic hunter hat and pessimistic attitude make him a timeless character. More notable, though, was the boy’s vocabulary, which mainly consisted of “crumby,” “moron,” “hotshot,” and my favorite, “phony.” Holden’s skepticism about the world rivals my skepticism about Oreo’s new “cookie dough” flavor, which is impressive, to say the least. For that reason, I nominate “phony” as Catcher’s designated word.
Essays (Ralph Waldo Emerson) – Transcendentalism
As a resident of Massachusetts, I have a special place in my heart for Ralph Waldo Emerson. The Father of all hipsters, Emerson made his mark on the world with his musings on nature, self-reliance, and the elegance of red-and-white turtlenecks. Actually, that last one was from an imagined autobiography of the Where’s Waldo guy, but you get the point. One of Emerson’s most famous subjects was transcendentalism. The movement preaches the notion of self-reliance and its importance in creating well-rounded individuals. If you come out of an American Literature class without having been forced to appreciate nature a little more through this theory, your school has failed you.
1984 – Big Brother
If you ever want to scare your child out of trusting government officials, just hand them a copy of George Orwell’s 1984. This dystopian novel made waves when it first came out for its frightening depiction of the government, an idea which came to be represented by the term “Big Brother,” Oceania’s omnipotent leader. Speak the words “Big Brother” nowadays and someone will either comment on your poor taste in reality shows or your sophisticated taste in literature. (Also, yes, I noticed this is two words. Thank you for pointing it out.)
Harry Potter – Always
Though none of the Harry Potter novels were assigned reading books at my high school, the series has certainly found a place in other institutions for its well-crafted plot and character development. If there’s a word that best defines the franchise (or, at least, the last one) it is Snape’s response to Dumbledore when asked about his love for Lily Potter:
Actually, that’s a lie. Alan Rickman never said this. It was a rumor fabricated by fans who apparently like to watch other people cry. Regardless, the powerful effect this made-up quote has demonstrates how influential the series was, and how that one word can trigger those emotions.
Obviously, there are more to these books than a single word so anyone looking for a SparkNotes version of these works before class should probably not settle for my brief descriptions. That being said, these are the words I immediately think of when I discuss these books, the words that have stuck in my mind from my own personal experiences, but what do you think? How would you describe these books in one word or phrase?
Featured image via TheBooksGuide.com.