Books, reading and literature

What is literature?

Any body of text is really a form of literature. If you collected all your old shopping lists, then you could consider this to be literary to some, small extent, for instance. More commonly, however, the term literature refers to the written word as an art form. As such, certain texts tend to be excluded in this tighter definition. Instruction manuals, phone books and newspapers tend not to be considered to have much literary value. Therefore, novels, poetry anthologies and even biographies are more often thought of as genuine literature. In some cases, notable non-fiction works count as literature, too, such as history books. That said, the main literary works that are best-known around the world are normally works of fiction.

 When was literature first established?

 If we ignore the wider definitions of literature, then written forms of works of art really established themselves to wide readerships in the Romantic period in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Of course, many classical allusions were made in such works, so some argue that literature really dates back to Ancient Greece and Rome, in the western tradition, at least. Poetry is the oldest form in nearly all cultures. However, much ancient poetry is in an oral tradition which is spoken and remembered rather than written down. Essentially, literature's popular establishment coincides with the advent of widespread printing on prose, as well as poetry, in particular, the rise of the novel.

Can literature reform society?

There are many examples of political treatises in a literary form from history. Mary Wollstonecraft's 'A Vindication of the Rights of Woman' of 1792 is just one example of literature which has led to social change. However, artful literary works also play their part in aspects of societal reformation, too. In the nineteenth century, many of Charles Dickens' works, for example, focussed on social issues which led to changes in the politics of the day. Later literary works by writers such as Maya Angelou have also helped to change society, too. Much of her work centred on attitudes toward race in the United States. Literature makes a contribution to reforming society but cannot do it without a broader context of change.

Why is literature important in our lives?

Many people gain great joy from reading true literature, even if it was written centuries ago. Both prose and poetry provide great insights into all of the important things in life, such as social justice, love, spirituality and even darker subjects, like grief, sometimes. By reading about something, we can experience it from a safe distance. It helps people to get through tough times and to teach valuable life lessons.

Will literature die?

Literature may change, but it is likely to be around for as long as people are. Formats and conceits in literary works have always been altered and developed, and this will not change. Modern literature can now be published on the internet without the need for a printing press, and this will encourage more of it to be produced, not less.

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