Wednesday, January 7, 2009

What Is Literature? (4)

10-second Literature Reviews
Compiled By RayS.

I read once that some authors have written books because no one else had written what they wanted to read.

I did not “write” this book, of course. But I compiled it because, as an English major, I always wished that I had had available a brief overview, in chronological order, of the world’s major literary works. Such standard reference works as Benet’s’ Reader’s Encyclopedia and the Oxford Companions are not in chronological order, and even their brief summaries of literary works are not short enough for my purpose of an overview that can be read in a reasonably short time.

These “10-second reviews” are certainly not meant to be comprehensive. They can do no more than give an idea of the subject and flavor of the literary work. But they give the reader an idea of the flow of literature over the centuries, from the ancient past to relatively modern times (the mid-1950s).

The next question is, “What is literature?” Here are some more thoughts on the subject by some pretty respectable literary critics and writers:

Coleridge: “Without that acquaintance with the heart of man…I am deeply convinced that no man, however wide his erudition, however patient his antiquarian researches, can possibly understand, or be worthy of understanding, the writings of Shakespeare.” Bate, Criticism: The Major Texts, p. 391.

Arnold: “…and what actions are the most excellent…those…which most powerfully appeal to the great primary human affections: to those elementary feelings which subsist permanently I the race, and which are independent of time.” “Preface” to Poems. Bate, Criticism: The Major Texts, p. 446.

Dr. James Billington, Librarian of the Library of Congress: “But it was a wonderful bit of advice, ‘Go read War and Peace,’ because it taught me early in life that if you want to really learn about something, it’s better to read yesterday’s novel than today’s newspaper…where you get some wisdom, some perspective on things.” Lamb, ed., Booknotes, p. 131.

RayS. For me, great literature—fiction, nonfiction prose, poetry and drama—provokes thought, deepens my understanding of the nature and possibilities of life, raises questions that require serious reflection, and, even when tragic, enhances appreciation of living. I summarize in this blog works that continue over the years to provoke these responses in readers.

Welcome to an overview of the world’s great literature.

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