A Modern Literary Glossary: Definitions for Our Ever-Changing Reading World

March 24, 2016 | 7 2 min read

With the literary and publishing landscapes in near-constant states of flux, once-familiar terms have come to seem unfamiliar (saying that you’re “reading a book on your phone,” for example, would, not so long ago, have been evidence of madness). With that in mind, we offer these baseline definitions for our ever-changing reading world.

Political Autobiography: An autobiography, often released during a campaign cycle, meant to portray its author as something other than the craven, amoral, failure-prone, friendless, cash-whore shitneck that he or she actually is.

Celebrity Autobiography: A way for a given celebrity to relate fascinating, behind-the-scenes stories in the inimitable voice of his or her disgruntled freelance ghostwriter.

Young Adult (Genre): Narratives that highlight their teenage characters’ struggles with totalitarian societies, supernatural creatures, and sustaining readers’ interest over three or more installments.

Historical Fiction (Genre): A literary genre in which authors may write about historical figures without remaining faithful to historical fact. (See Einstein Gleams the Cube, by E.L. Doctorow (Random House, 1991).)

Horror (Genre): Stephen King.

E.L. James: An inexplicable phenomenon, usually affecting one’s vision, which makes Stephenie Meyer look like Joan Didion.

Knausgård: To brood incessantly over seemingly trivial matters. (“Jim is in the study with the lights off, Knausgårding about the Celtics game.”)

Gladwell: To make a forceful, if tenuously supported, claim. (“Wait, you’re saying that Roe v. Wade led to the rise of independent hip-hop? Don’t Gladwell me, man.”)

Wuthering Heights: A method of killing any nascent interest in reading that a high-school student may have.

Go Set a Watchman: To reap an unscrupulous profit from the elderly and infirm. (“Gary sent his rich aunt a get-well card, but he’s just trying to Go Set a Watchman her.”)

Brick-and-Mortar Bookstore: A type of small business so unique and charming that Amazon.com — online purveyors of dishwashers, tube socks, and lice shampoo — is now attempting to make inroads in the market.

Library: A structure, often found in schools and municipalities, that houses rows of outdated computers, often surrounded by books.

Audiobook: A method for allowing John Lithgow to pay the taxes on his second vacation home.

Library Book: A system of delivering old receipts, ancient ketchup stains, and dry, flattened boogers from one patron to the next.

Hardcover Book: A product that encourages consumers to pay 14 extra dollars for two pieces of heavy cardboard.

Borrowed Book: An item which, when loaned to a friend or family member, will be returned as often as four percent of the time.

Epigraph: A chosen quote that appears before the first chapter of a book, generally written by a more skilled writer than the book’s actual author.

Blurb: Praise, often appearing on a book’s back cover, written in prose so purple as to distract from the fact that the blurb’s writer merely skimmed the book while watching television.

Author Photograph: A promotional image of an author, meant to portray its subject as something other than the sallow, computer-bound shut-in that he or she actually is.

Aspiring Novelist: A person often seen frowning worriedly into his or her sticker-covered laptop at any number of urban coffee shops.

Voracious Reader: A phrase meant to inform you of its speaker’s endless appetite for knowledge, learning, and being perceived as intelligent.

Internet Humorist: A person who overestimates his own propensity for humor, and is grievously enabled by the Internet’s need for cheap, disposable content.

Image Credit: Flickr/greeblie.

is a staff writer for The Millions and an associate editor at MAD magazine. Find links to more of his work and follow him @Jacob_Lambert.


  1. I would argue that the verbs ‘to knausgård’ and ‘to gladwell’ and their tenses should not be capitalised (they are not proper nouns!)

    Loved the library definition.

  2. No self deprecation needed on your final category. Jacob, this started funny and got funnier. Oh man, great to start my day with a laugh, so thank you!

  3. Excellent, but if you look around, you will find many more great horror writers besides Stephen King. Check out Ellen Datlow’s annual Best Horror Stories for examples.

  4. Ambrose Bierce is grasping his bony rib cage and howling soundlessly with laughter. A hearty assent to “Go Set A Watchman.” However, I dissent on “Library Book,” which all know is primarily a carrier system for throw-up crust, cracker crumbs, and chicken soup stains.

    Moe Murph
    Looks In Mirror, “Internet Humorist” Leers Back

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