“Little men are covering my street with political ‘literature’,” Liz Arden complained this morning.
I’m maybe the wrong writer to tackle this. After all, my high school English teacher made us memorize John Donne’s birth date and Stevens Institute of Technology didn’t even know how to spell the word in the 70s.
Miss Spocketpump, the high school English teacher whose name I have changed to protect myself, taught a “Survey Course in English Literature” for us kids in college prep. I don’t remember much from that course other than a dense textbook with reams of writings by the greats of history. When she told me I would fail the final exam, I did something unparalleled in my academic history before or since. I anticipated how she could structure a test that would trip me. Then I memorized exactly what I needed to beat the test. It was half the grade.
I spent all day on the Sunday before the exam at the Quarry, our “swimming hole,” reading and rereading the quarter-page biographies of more than 100 writers included in that tome. I knew Donne’s birthday (sometime between January 24 and June 19, 1572). I could tell you who Robert Browning married and when Tennyson died. I knew how much Dickens earned per word. But I had no Great Expectations stored about Morte D’Arthur or any words of metaphysical poetry.
Not a great introduction to literature or literary pursuits, I’m thinking.
“Little men are covering my street with political ‘literature’,” Ms. Arden had said. “Why can’t they just call it spam?”
Literature has a much broader definition than I remembered:
Literature (from Latin litterae (plural); letter) is the art of written work, and is not confined to published sources (although, under some circumstances, unpublished sources can also be exempt). The word literature literally means “acquaintance with letters” and the pars pro toto term “letters” is sometimes used to signify “literature,” as in the figures of speech “arts and letters” and “man of letters.” The four major classifications of literature are poetry, prose, fiction, and non-fiction.
The art of written work. Art. That’s more what we mechanics think of as literature. The O.E.D. points us to written works with “superior or lasting artistic merit.” Expression and form, topics of universal interest, and some degree of permanence are essential to my definition and to Ms. Arden’s.
But there is more. We allow the writings of a country or on a particular subject in the broad category of literature. It can be English or scientific or music or it can concern a group of items such as automobiles.
When my mom earned her B.A.-English, she read literature from Shakespear to Saroyan. She used the word properly.
When your doctor says he’ll “consult the literature” to determine if your symptoms show you have sarcoidosis (They do. Trust me on that.), he uses the word properly.
When I need to know the allowable deflection in a frimjamb or how to hardwire a network conniption, I “consult the literature.” OK, I Google but the results are the same. And I used the word properly.
The four major classifications of literature are poetry, prose, fiction, and non-fiction. Both Homer and Herodotus explicitly excluded spam, the fifth element in the written classes, from the list. After all, there may be considerable art in selling a sexual aid by email or a candidate by door hanger, but literature it ain’t.