How Literature is defined 40 Years later. . . and Today

Do you know the meaning of literature?

Some may think the term literature is reserved for the works of great writers like Dickens, Twin, Dostoyevsky, Austen, Lawrence, Fitzgerald, Hemmingway, Melville, and on and on. Literature, I am sure these folks think, should be set apart from popular fiction, especially genres like westerns, mysteries, science fiction, and those romance books, that women love so much.

I have a college textbook I used while completing my Bachelor degree. It is called A Handbook to Literature and is essentially a dictionary of sorts, in that it defines words, phrases, anything you need to know about literature including distributed stress, four senses of interpretation, Gaelic movement, sublime, plot, and sometimes things that sneak in like five points of Calvinism. It covers everything you need to know about literature, poetry, and in between. But it is missing one thing.

How is it a handbook about literature does not itself have a definition of literature? The closest it gets is litterateur defined as a ‘literary man, one who occupies himself with the writing or criticism, or appreciation of literature,’ but there is no definition of literature.

In college I did not bother looking up the word as I believed it was a broad term for everything written, whether fiction, poetry, or plays. And I assumed the word literature was reserved for creatively written books of depth and substance with great incite into the human condition, not those from Louis Lamour, Mickey Spillane, Jules Verne, or one of those Harlequin romance things. 

Indeed, when I typed in the word in Google Search asking for definition I find ‘written works, especially those considered of superior or lasting artistic merit.’ But I wanted to know the etymology of the word, so I Googled further. The online etymology dictionary says this. ‘ early 15c., “book-learning,” from Latin literatura/litteratura “learning, a writing, grammar,” originally “writing formed with letters,” from litera/littera “alphabetic letter” also “an epistle, writing, document; literature, great books; science, learning” (see letter (n.1)). In English originally “book learning” (in which sense it replaced Old English boccræft); the meaning “activity of a writer, the profession of a literary writer” is first attested 1779 in Johnson’s “Lives of the English Poets;” that of “literary productions as a whole, body of writings from a period or people” is first recorded 1812.  

And there it is. Forty years after college. Did you see it? “Originally” (as in the beginning) “writing formed with letters.” Not epistolary letters, not the Scarlet Letter, but simply using letters to create words, that create sentences and thus writing. That seems to encompass everything, including those Harlequin things.

Of course literature is also used to describe the works of a period in the cultural period of a country. And we can further go into more usages, but I think, in the end I will let Ezra Pound have the last word.

Great literature is simply language charged with meaning to the utmost possible degree. [Ezra Pound, “ABC of Reading”]

The following are my e-book contributions to literature of the 21st century, writing formed with digital platforms.

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