What is literature? That was the very first question that every Professor threw my way during my first week of Masters in English. I was fed up (really!), going through the same answer again and again. ‘Literature is the expression of ideas, thoughts and feelings’, I would say. It eventually dawned upon me: the significance of doing that simple drill in the initial days opened my eyes to the universality and versatility of this very term. I began to see literature in a whole new perspective that I never had before.
Merriam-Webster dictionary defines literature as “written works (such as poems, plays, and novels) that are considered to be very good and to have lasting importance”; it can also be “books, articles, etc., about a particular subject” or “printed materials (such as booklets, leaflets, and brochures) that provide information about something”. Literature, in its broadest sense, consists of any written productions. There have been various attempts to define “literature”. Simon and Delyse Ryan begin their attempt to answer the question “What is Literature?” with the observation: “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.”
The Encyclopedia Britannica Eleventh Edition (1910–11) classifies literature as “the best expression of the best thought reduced to writing”. Coming to my own definition (which was not totally incorrect!), literature is indeed a reflection of ideologies, philosophies and dogmas. It shines light on various beliefs and views regarding economic, political, social, traditional, moral and religious settings. A plus point to this quality is timelessness; even decades and centuries after a literary masterpiece has been written, it does not lose its worth and charisma. Thus, literature is a queerly interesting encyclopedia that allows one to sneak a peek at the history of time and mankind. It is indeed a huge advantage for the kind of people (myself among them) who are terribly bored by the very notion of history. Literature narrates the tales of a certain time and peoples in history in the form of a novel, poem or even a fairytale, hence, keeping the reader spellbound and interested till the very last page.
Another aspect of literature is the expression of feelings, emotions and sentiments that, in my view, are the prime characteristics of any literary work. It allows one to explore the wildest fantasies and the deepest corners of his mind and soul. It is a hope for those who are terrified by the bitterness of harsh realities and helps them take refuge in the valleys of peace, tranquility and serenity. Literature is the voice of one’s heart and mind that provides him with the freedom of expression. It is a thrill; it challenges and dares him to step beyond the stereotypes and traditional labels of a society. It is a device that helps him to think outside the box and color outside the defined boundaries and lines. It is a dream that urges him to move on fearlessly and courageously. It is a light; it guides many in the dark and assists countless in paving their ways through life. Literature is life, for it beats in every masterpiece ever written by any person at any time.
Literature is every bit and fragment of the thoughts that human mind can imagine, but most of all, it is a delight, an immense pleasure and relaxing pastime. It is what soothes one with a hot cup of coffee in bed during the night. It is a companion that travels with him during a long journey. It is the fountain that quenches his thirst for adventure by taking him to places far off. It is the wand that fulfills his desires for fantasy, magic and mystery. Thanks to literature, we have this all-in-one package! Salman Rushdie shares his opinion about literature as,
“It is literature which for me opened the mysterious and decisive doors of imagination and understanding. To see the way others see. To think the way others think. And above all, to feel.”