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The teaching of literature, if it is to have virility, must be above all the teaching of ideas. ~ Irving Babbitt
Many psychologists have treated literature as a whole as a mere vehicle of withdrawal from the harsh realities of existence: forgetful of the fact that literature of the first order, so far from being a mere pleasure device, is a supreme attempt to face and encompass reality. ~ Lewis Mumford
You see all these white heroes, everybody is white, all the literature classes—your Shakespeare, your poetry — everybody’s white, and you start to feel less than. ~ John Leguizamo
I remember some artists who said this world isn't worth anything, that it is a pigsty, that we are going nowhere, that God is dead, and all those things. Bad literature is this. To expose your navel, to tell how you drank your morning coffee amid general disgust, with everything around you rotting. While the world is dying, I drink my coffee. Or I perform my little sex acts. This is old-fashioned. One must cross this neurotic curtain. ~ Alejandro Jodorowsky

Literature is any collection of written work, but it is also used more narrowly for writings specifically considered to be an art form, especially prose, fiction, drama, poetry, and including both print and digital writing. In recent centuries, the definition has expanded to include oral literature, also known as orature much of which has been transcribed. Literature is a method of recording, preserving, and transmitting knowledge and entertainment, and can also have a social, psychological, spiritual, or political role.


  • I got a glimpse into the uses of a certain kind of criticism this past summer at a writers' conference – into how the avocation of assessing the failures of better men can be turned into a comfortable livelihood, providing you back it up with a Ph.D. I saw how it was possible to gain a chair of literature on no qualification other than persistence in nipping the heels of Hemingway, Faulkner, and Steinbeck.
  • Literature is one facet of a culture. The significance of a literature can be best understood in terms of the culture from which it springs, and the purpose of literature is clear only when the reader understands and accepts the assumptions on which the literature is based. A person who was raised in a given culture has no problem seeing the relevance, the level of complexity, or the symbolic significance of that culture’s literature. We are all from early childhood familiar with the assumptions that underlie our own culture and its literature and art. Intelligent analysis becomes a matter of identifying smaller assumptions peculiar to the locale, idiom, and psyche of the writer.
  • Literature must, of necessity, express and articulate the deepest perceptions, relationships, and attitudes of a culture, whether it does so deliberately or accidentally.
  • The question I propose to consider is in what way one may justify the study of English on cultural and disciplinary, and not merely on sentimental or utilitarian grounds. My own conviction is that if English is to be thus justified it must be primarily by what I am terming the discipline of ideas.
As a matter of fact one hears it commonly said nowadays that literature may be rescued from the philologist on the one hand and the mere dilettante on the other by an increase of emphasis on its intellectual content, that the teaching of literature, if it is to have virility, must be above all the teaching of ideas.
  • Irving Babbitt, "English and the Discipline of Ideas " (1920), Irving Babbitt: Representative Writings (1981), p. 63
  • Literature is the question minus the answer.
  • While the guardians of “literary” fiction still give each other prizes and writers can still achieve stardom and create good work, the fact remains that it is a movement that has lost all its creative force as a movement.
  • The aim of science is to discover and illuminate truth. And that, I take it, is the aim of literature, whether biography or history or fiction. It seems to me, then, that there can be no separate literature of science.
    • Rachel Carson Acceptance speech of the National Book Award for Nonfiction (1952) for The Sea Around Us; also in Lost Woods: The Discovered Writing of Rachel Carson (1999) edited by Linda Lear, p. 91
  • A beautiful literature springs from the depth and fulness of intellectual and moral life, from an energy of thought and feeling, to which nothing, as we believe, ministers so largely as enlightened religion.
  • A trial and a literary text do not aim at the same kind of conclusion, nor do they strive toward the same kind of effect. A trial is presumed to be a search for truth, but, technically, is a search for a decision, and thus, in essence, it seeks not simply truth but in a finality: a force of resolution. A literary text is, on the other hand, a search for meaning, for expression, for heightened significance, and for symbolic understanding. I propose to make use of this difference in literary and legal goals, by reading them “across” each other and against each other.
    • Shoshana Felman, “Forms of Judicial Blindness: Traumatic Narratives and Legal Repetitions”, in Thomas R. Kearns (August 2002). History, Memory, and the Law. University of Michigan Press. p.26
  • Literature is prophetic-life often lives up to fiction
    • Rosario Ferré "Preface: Memoir of Diamond Dust" in Sweet Diamond Dust: And Other Stories (1988)
  • Republic of letters.
    • Henry Fielding, The History of Tom Jones (1749), Book XIV, Chapter I.
    • Quoting a translation of Molière's 1664 "La république des lettres" (The republic of letters), see below.
  • I don't think literature will be purged until its philosophic pretentiousness is extruded, and I shant live to see that purge, nor perhaps when it has happened will anything survive.
  • It is now only in letters I write what I feel: not in literature any more, and I seldom say it, because I keep trying to be amusing.
  • Don't you give up on this [library] card. Because books can be solid gold. Yeah, the great ones have gotten us through the nights for centuries. Just give a writer an hour to hook you and if he can't wish him the best of luck and find someone else.
  • It is to Rome and Roman literature that we must turn to find the earliest examples of affectionate and confidential letters passing between members of the same family, and between friends of the same tastes and sympathies.
  • I remember some artists who said this world isn't worth anything, that it is a pigsty, that we are going nowhere, that God is dead, and all those things. Bad literature is this. To expose your navel, to tell how you drank your morning coffee amid general disgust, with everything around you rotting. While the world is dying, I drink my coffee. Or I perform my little sex acts. This is old-fashioned. One must cross this neurotic curtain.
  • The second essay, by Dominick LaCapra, also takes up the theme of repetition as it asks what makes a legal trial worth remembering. Focusing on the nineteenth-century trials of Flaubert and Baudelaire for “outrage to public and religious morality and to good morals,” LaCapra demonstrates that the aesthetic standard used to judge these writers demanded that a work of art provide “purely symbolic and ‘spiritual’ resolution of the problems it explored.” Flaubert and Baudelaire were, in essence, subject to criminal prosecution for their commitment to literary realism that led them to flour some of the representational taboos of their time.
    Yet in LaCapra’s view their trials were not, in a strict sense, show trials whose purpose was to instill a broad, collective memory. They were not designed to recall from the past events that “insistently made demands on collective and individual remembrance and thus necessitated entry into the public sphere.” They were instead intended to create a memory of the consequences that would attach to writers who transgressed public norms and whose “deviant” work might have a broad public impact. LaCapra worries about the use of law for such memorial purposes, and he notes the continuing controversy over whether histiography has the function of transmitting memory. In his own view history has two related objectives, namely the adjudication of truth claims about the past and the transmission of memory.
    It is, however, the memory of the criminal trial, especially those in which literature is put on trial, to which LaCapra calls out attention. Such trials raise questions about how literary texts can be read in particular contexts, and they call on us to remember the situatedness and contingency of all readings. When faced with literary texts that are in some sense transgressive, law, LaCapra suggests, will read through the lens of its own reconstructions of the past-through precedent-and, as a result, will read in a regulative, normalizing way. Law will seek to protect the literary canon and repress the more disconcerting features of literature in order to make it a vehicle for the promotion of conventional social values. Yet this kind of reading, a reading that serves to commemorate convention, defeats literature. LaCapra calls for a kind of literary privilege in which what the law may justifiably prohibit in social life should not be prohibited in art or literature. Art could thus serve society as a safe haven for exploration and experimentation.
  • LaCapra notes that in the trials of Flaubert and Baudelaire, while both the prosecution and the defense insisted on a view of the role of literature in society that was “conventionalizing, normalizing, and domesticating,” this was especially true of the defense. In each trial the defense of literature denied its experimental or transgressive character and insisted on its role in commemorating conventional values. Although Flaubert and Baudelaire put into practice immanent critique of the social and literary conditions of their time, this critique could find no voice in a court of law.
    This essay calls on us to remember the trials of these two great writers for what they reveal about the “variable historical manner in which literary’ experimentation . . . is bound up with broader political, legal, and sociocultural issues in the production, reception, and critical reading of texts.” With respect to the place of memory, LaCapra suggests that law, at least the law of crime, resists the transmission of particular understandings of literature, for example, of its transgressive, experimental value. Those seeking to use law to memorialize such understandings are regularly defeated. Unlike Felman, who sees law insatiating memory in uncanny ways, LaCaptra finds no such subversive potential in the trials of literature. He insists that law constrains memory and remembrance in a relatively predictable manner and points to the limits to which law as archive can be put.
  • La république des lettres.
    • The republic of letters.
    • Molière, Le Mariage forcé, scene 6 (1664).
  • Many psychologists have treated literature as a whole as a mere vehicle of withdrawal from the harsh realities of existence: forgetful of the fact that literature of the first order, so far from being a mere pleasure device, is a supreme attempt to face and encompass reality-an attempt beside which a busy working life involves a shrinkage and represents a partial retreat.
    • Lewis Mumford, Technics and Civilization (1934), Chapter 6, § 9, p. 314-315
  • that, I think, is really where lots of literature comes from. It really comes, not from knowing so much, but from not knowing. It comes from what you're curious about. It comes from what obsesses you. It comes from what you want to know.
  • I think that’s what literature is about; it’s the struggle for truth. It’s the struggle for what you don’t understand
  • It is right for you, young men, to enrich yourselves with the spoils of all pure literature; but he who would make a favorite of a bad book, simply because it contained a few beautiful passages, might as well caress the hand of an assassin because of the jewelry which sparkles on its fingers.
    • Joseph Parker, Ad Clerum: Advices to a Young Preacher (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1870), p. 240
  • Literature is news that stays news.
  • In all the good Greek of Plato
    I lack my roastbeef and potato.
    A better man was Aristotle,
    Pulling steady on the bottle.
    I dip my hat to Chaucer,
    Swilling soup from his saucer,
    And to Master Shakespeare
    Who wrote big on small beer.
    The abstemious Wordsworth
    Subsisted on a curd’s-worth,
    But a slick one was Tennyson,
    Putting gravy on his venison.
    What these men had to eat and drink
    Is what we say and what we think.
    The influence of Milton
    Came wry out of Stilton.
    Sing a song for Percy Shelley,
    Drowned in pale lemon jelly,
    And for precious John Keats,
    Dripping blood of pickled beets.
    Then there was poor Willie Blake,
    He foundered on sweet cake.
    God have mercy on the sinner
    Who must write with no dinner,
    No gravy and no grub,
    No pewter and no pub,
    No belly and no bowels,
    Only consonants and vowels.
    • John Crowe Ransom, "Survey of Literature"
  • The quest to discover a definition for "literature" is a road that is much traveled, though the point of arrival, if ever reached, is seldom satisfactory. Most attempted definitions are broad and vague, and they inevitably change over time. In fact, the only thing that is certain about defining literature is that the definition will change. Concepts of what is literature change over time as well.
    • Simon Ryan; Delyse Ryan. "What is Literature?". Foundation: Fundamentals of Literature and Drama. Australian Catholic University. Archived from the original on 20 February 2014. Retrieved 9 February 2014.
  • When people cannot write good literature it is perhaps natural that they should lay down rules how good literature should be written.
  • During the last quarter of a century all the authority associated with the function of spiritual guidance ... has seeped down into the lowest publications. ... Between a poem by Valéry and an advertisement for a beauty cream promising a rich marriage to anyone who used it there was at no point a breach of continuity. So as a result of literature’s spiritual usurpation a beauty cream advertisement possessed, in the eyes of little village girls, the authority that was formerly attached to the words of priests.
    • Simone Weil, “Morality and literature,” On Science, Necessity, and the Love of God, R. Rees, trans. (1968), p. 164.
  • The invention of printing added a new element of power to the race. From that hour, in a most especial sense, the brain and not the arm, the thinker and not the soldier, books and not kings, were to rule the world; and Weapons forged in the mind, keen-edged, and brighter than the sunbeam, were to supplant the sword and battle-axe. […] Books,—lighthouses erected in the great sea of time,—books, the precious depositories of the thoughts and creations of genius,—books, by whose sorcery times past become time present, and the whole pageantry of the world's history moves in solemn procession before our eyes;—these were to visit the firesides of the humble, and lavish the treasures of the intellect upon the poor. Could we have Plato, and Shakespeare, and Milton, in our dwellings, in the full vigor of their imaginations, in the full freshness of their hearts, few scholars would be affluent enough to afford them physical support; but the living images of their minds are within the eyes of all. From their pages their mighty souls look out upon us in all their grandeur and beauty, undimmed by the faults and follies of earthly existence, consecrated by time.
    • Edwin Percy Whipple, Literature and Life (Boston: Ticknor, Reed and Fields, 1850), pp. 36–38..

Hoyt's New Cyclopedia Of Practical Quotations

Quotes reported in Hoyt's New Cyclopedia Of Practical Quotations (1922), p. 461.
  • Literature is the thought of thinking Souls.
  • Literary Men are * * * a perpetual priesthood.
  • I made a compact with myself that in my person literature should stand by itself, of itself, and for itself.
  • But, indeed, we prefer books to pounds; and we love manuscripts better than florins; and we prefer small pamphlets to war horses.
  • Time the great destroyer of other men's happiness, only enlarges the patrimony of literature to its possessor.
    • Isaac D'Israeli, [The Literary Character, Illustrated by the History of Men of Genius (1795-1822), Chapter XXII.
  • Literature is an avenue to glory, ever open for those ingenious men who are deprived of honours or of wealth.
    • Isaac D'Israeli, [The Literary Character, Illustrated by the History of Men of Genius (1795-1822), Chapter XXIV.
  • Our poetry in the eighteenth century was prose; our prose in the seventeenth, poetry.
    • J. C. and A. W. Hare, Guesses at Truth.
  • The death of Dr. Hudson is a loss to the republick of letters.
    • William King, letter (Jan. 7, 1719). Same phrase occurs in the Spectator. Commonwealth of letters is used by Addison, Spectator, No. 529. Nov. 6, 1712.
  • There is first the literature of knowledge, and secondly, the literature of power. The function of the first is—to teach; the function of the second is—to move, the first is a rudder, the second an oar or a sail. The first speaks to the mere discursive understanding; the second speaks ultimately, it may happen, to the higher understanding or reason, but always through affections of pleasure and sympathy.
  • La mode d'aimer Racine passera comme la mode du café.
    • The fashion of liking Racine will pass away like that of coffee.
    • Marie de Rabutin-Chantal, marquise de Sévigné, according to Voltaire, Letters (Jan. 29, 1690), who connected two remarks of hers to make the phrase; one from a letter March 16, 1679, the other, March 10, 1672. La Harpe reduced the mot to "Racine passera comme le café?"
  • We cultivate literature on a little oat-meal.
    • Sydney Smith, Lady Holland's Memoir (1855), Volume I, p. 23.
  • The great Cham of literature. [Samuel Johnson.]

Dictionary of Burning Words of Brilliant Writers (1895)


Quotes reported in Josiah Hotchkiss Gilbert, Dictionary of Burning Words of Brilliant Writers (1895).

  • The great standard of literature as to purity and exactness of style is the Bible.


  • Your manuscript is both good and original; but the part that is good is not original, and the part that is original is not good.
    • Commonly attributed to Samuel Johnson, not found in his writings or contemporary writings about him; see details

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