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Photograph Courtesy: Wikipedia; Daderot/Academy of Chicago/Wikipedia; Goodreads

For many folks, the word “literature” conjures upwards memories of high school English class reading lists. While the Western literary canon is expanding to include, and elevate, stories outside of what white, Western readers have dubbed “the classics,” there are still some works that crop up in every educatee’s career, from
and the
Epic of Gilgamesh
The Great Gatsby. So, why is literature important — and why do nosotros study it?

Merriam-Webster defines literature as poesy or prose that has “excellence of course or expression and expressing ideas of permanent or universal involvement.” While it may sound trite to say, the world’s greatest works of literature have inverse minds, sparked rebellions, and helped to alter the class of history. While it would be incommunicable to contain all of literature’south contributions and multitudes here, we’re going to take a await at some of the landmark moments in this art form’due south history.

Literature Transports U.s. To the By

Like other recovered art objects, literature has the power to tell usa most aboriginal civilizations. Not only can nosotros understand their community, values and lives, but we tin go a better idea of what their amusement looked like. The first-known examples of literature can be traced dorsum to ancient Mesopotamia. Around 3400 BCE, the Sumerians developed a system of writing called cuneiform, which allowed scribes to record myths, hymns and verse. Some of these earliest-known transcriptions include the “Kesh Temple Hymn” and the “Instructions of Shuruppak,” both of which were written around 2500 BCE.

Photograph Courtesy: Rafael/Wikipedia

Ballsy of Gilgamesh, a long-form Mesopotamian verse form, was originally written effectually 2100 BCE. Fifty-fifty today,
is considered the first great masterpiece of world literature. In fact, much of the Bible parallels this ancient piece of work, furthering emphasizing only how universal and influential
was — and continues to be today.

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In 375 BCE, Plato, the Athenian philosopher, authored
The Republic, a dialogue between Socrates and his fellow Greek thinkers, which explores thought-provoking questions nearly justice, club and the just human being. And, around the 8th century BCE, the landmark epics attributed to the poet Homer,
The Odyssey
The Iliad, helped preserve Greek mythology and history in writing.

Early on, literature was contained inside poetry and dramatic works — later on all, performing plays was another great source of amusement. During the 11th century, or the Heian flow, Japanese noblewoman and lady-in-waiting Murasaki Shikibu penned
The Tale of Genji, which is considered the first modern novel by many scholars.

The four protagonists featured in Journey to the Due west. From left to right: Dominicus Wukong, Tang Sanzang (on the White Dragon Horse), Zhu Bajie and Sha Wujing. Photo Courtesy: Wikipedia

Years later, in Europe, things started to shift in a meaningful way in the wake of Geoffrey Chaucer’s
The Canterbury Tales, a collection of 24 stories written in Centre English betwixt 1387 and 1400. Picking upwards the prose torch around 1485, Thomas Malory published
Le Morte d’Arthur, one of the first novels in the Western canon. During the Renaissance, writers like Molière began satirizing everything from the church and government to society at large, showing that written works had the propensity to shift the balance of power and make people rethink their earth views.

During the 16th century, also known as the Ming dynasty, the Chinese novel
Journey to the West
was published. Attributed to Wu Cheng’en, this satire- and apologue-filled work is considered i of the Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese literature. Around the same time, William Shakespeare was helping to lay the foundations of modern English and craft the literary tropes and story formats we withal enjoy today. And, of course, in 1615 Miguel de Cervantes penned
Don Quixote, a romantic, archetypal novel that’s considered ane of the almost influential works of all time.

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Literature Gives Folks a Phonation and Platform — and Let’s Readers Come across Themselves Reflected

Again, it’s impossible to fully encapsulate the breadth of literary history hither. Moreover, this article focuses on written works, but information technology’south important to notation that many cultures and groups of people record stories through imagery instead — or pass their stories downwards in oral traditions. All of this to say, our view of literature is a narrow 1, and, in many ways, limited by the way educational institutions have shaped our understanding of what works are important.

Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Toni Morrison performs “Jazz” at Lincoln Center in 2005. Photo Courtesy: Brad Barket/Getty Images

James Simpson, caput of Harvard University’s English Department, spoke near these limitations directly in an open letter to the
Wall Street Journal
entitled “Great Literature Magnifies Repressed Voices, E’er.” For Simpson, the ages-old Western literary canon, which highlights the literary contributions of white (and frequently direct) men, “betray[due south] the fundamental function of literature and other fine art forms, which is to hear the voices repressed past official forms of a given culture.”

Of form, the literary canon has been refreshed in past, which proves that it’s of import to reshape and rethink the stories we deem essential. For example, at the time of its writing Nathaniel Hawthorne’due south
The Cherry Letter
was kind of the scandalous (easily consumable) HBO-like story of the twenty-four hours. But, now, it’s largely considered a probing, essential piece of work — not just entertainment. In the wake of World War I, authors like Virginia Woolf and F. Scott Fitzgerald penned novels, similar
Mrs. Dalloway
The Neat Gatsby
respectively, that captured their disillusionment first and foremost. Even so, these continue to be must-read works due to the style they exemplify craft and storytelling elements. (At to the lowest degree in function.)

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More than modern literature also ushered in the more than formal notion of literary sub-genres, ranging from scientific discipline fiction — a genre created past
author Mary Shelley — to romance, fantasy, and realism. By retracing sure tropes, conventions and character types, genre helps us understand the way detail stories are shaped past categorizing them.

Without a doubtfulness, literature helps us
— be information technology an uncovering of the by, a present self, or a possible hereafter. The most distinguished literary greats, like Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Margaret Atwood, James Baldwin, Kazuo Ishiguro, Chinua Achebe, Jhumpa Lahiri, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Zadie Smith, and Maggie Nelson (and many, many more folks nosotros don’t accept the space to name!), capture all of these facets. In short, by climbing into the minds of other characters and worlds — in stepping exterior of ourselves — literature allows us to understand universal truths; change minds; stir empathy; and express our identities and values in lasting, far-reaching ways.

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