113 Introduction to Literature

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An Introduction to the Study of Literature:

An Introduction to the Study of Literature Steve Wood TCCC

What is Literature?:

What is Literature? One of the standard definitions offered by scholars is that literature is writing that “stands the test of time.” The problem with this definition is that “standing the test of time” is often more a matter of luck than anything else.

The Luck of Aeschylus:

The Luck of Aeschylus For example, the Greek playwright A eschylus (525-456 BC) wrote close to 1 00 plays, yet only seven of those plays survive. Does this mean that those seven were his best?

The Good Stuff – The Canon:

The Good Stuff – The Canon Another commonly offered definition is that literature is the “good stuff,” which is to be distinguished from the other “not-so-good” stuff. The list of the good stuff is called a canon (originally a religious term used to refer to the accepted books of the Bible). St. Jerome, known for his translation of the Bible into Latin (The Vulgate Bible)

Whose Canon?:

Whose Canon? The problem with this definition is the subjective nature of the list. Who gets to make out the list? What are the standards used by that person? Are the works of an enormously popular author like Stephen King on the list?

Simply Writing:

Simply Writing Perhaps, a workable definition is that literature is just writing – stories, poems, plays, novels, etc. Instead of diminishing the importance of literature, it’s useful to remember how rare the written word actually is in the history of mankind. It’s difficult for us to fathom this, surrounded by the printed word as we are, but writing is a rare human activity.

Walter Ong:

Walter Ong In his classic study, Orality and Literacy , Ong pointed out that: “Indeed, language is so overwhelmingly oral that all of the many thousands of languages – possibly tens of thousands – spoken in the course of human history only 106 have ever been committed to writing to a degree sufficient to have produced literature, and most have never been written at all. Of the some 3000 languages spoken that exist today only some 78 have a literature.”

The Uniqueness of Reading:

The Uniqueness of Reading Even though we are surrounded by texts (books, magazines, newspapers, web logs, web pages, etc.), it is important to remember that our modern American situation is unique compared to most other ages in human history. It’s also important to remember just how miraculous the process of reading is.

Noam Chomsky:

Noam Chomsky “My own studies of language and human cognition demonstrate to me what remarkable creativity ordinary people have. The very fact that people talk to one another reflects deep-seated features of human creativity which separate human beings from any other biological system we know. When you begin to study the normal capacity of human beings, you get tremendous respect for them.” From Bill Moyers, A World of Ideas

The Act of Reading:

The Act of Reading


Creation A writer creates the text, building into it levels of meaning and potential understanding.

The Death of the Author:

The Death of the Author According to Roland Barthes, once the text is created, the author dies. The text takes on an existence of its own that is no longer dependent on the author. At least, this is what he thought before he was run over by a truck in Paris.


Potentiality The text then exists as potential meaning. It waits upon a reader to turn that potentiality into actuality.


Interpretation Each reader then takes that potential meaning of the text and creates his/her own version of the text, based on individual knowledge and experience. Thus, it is the reader who ultimately makes the meaning in a text.

Reading as an Activity:

Reading as an Activity Reading is an activity, meaning that it is an active process. Readers do no passively wait for the meaning of the text to present itself to them; they must actively make meaning from the text.

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